Rome’s legionnaires quarried its sandstone cliffs
and Ptolemy put the Dee on the map.
William the Conqueror, in winter,
force-marched his army over the Pennines
to reach the river and waste the town – the last
to submit. For eighteen years, Prince Gryfyd
ap Cynan, shut in the keep, heard only
the river’s voice, dyfrdwy, dyfrdwy.
Parliament’s forces sent fire rafts downstream
to purge besieged citizens. On its banks,
King Billy’s infantry was camped
while, in the silting estuary, his fleet
provisioned for Ireland.
The winter I had scarlet fever
my mother read me Coral Island.
While I was deliriously admirable –
with Ralph, Jack, Peterkin – Mao’s Red Army
crossed the Yalu. One person’s commonplace
is another’s Road to Damascus.
When the Apprentice Boys shut fast the gate,
they had the Pope’s blessing.
Standing on the leads of Phoenix Tower
(eponymously, King Charles’), he saw
his cavalry routed on the heath, scattered
through its gorsey hollows and narrow lanes.
Watching Twelfth Night, Charles crossed out the title
on his programme and wrote, ‘Malvolio –
Tragedy’. He was a connoisseur of
defeats. ‘I’ll be revenged.’
On a Whit Monday, long before bandstand,
suspension bridge and pleasure steamers,
two watermen rowed an outing of girls.
When one of the men threw an apple,
they jostled to catch it. Shrill scrambling
upturned the boat and drowned them, lasses and men…
A school acquaintance, bright, admired, sculling
late on a December afternoon,
somehow – where the river curves like a sickle
round meadowland – upset the skiff and drowned
beneath that ‘wisard stream’.
Even here are Principles and the Sword.
Two Christian martyrs share one monument
on Richmond (then Gallows) Hill: George Marsh,
John Plessington, Protestant, Catholic –
distanced by three monarchs, a civil war,
a regicide and a little doctrine –
each burnt by the others’ brothers in Christ.
When Bobby Sands had starved himself to death,
some houses flew black flags.
In the ten minutes or so it took me,
one bleakly raw February-fill-the-Dyke day,
to cross the ‘twenties suspension bridge,
pass the Norman salmon leap and weir,
return across the 14th century
three arch sandstone bridge to where I started,
by the bandstand with cast iron tracery,
the rising river – awhirl with the debris
of factories, mountains, centuries
– had covered the towpath.