10 July 2019

To The River by Olivia Laing

During a staycation a couple of weeks ago, I went to Toronto for an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The air was thick with humidity that day, the sun was blazing, and I felt sorry for those suited in business wear because I was hot in a light dress.  During the fifteen minute walk from the train station to the gallery I made two stops to cool off.....one for a yogurt berry parfait and the other at Ben McNally Books.  Buying a book is a necessary souvenir while on a day out and I was going to leave with one, no matter what.  My eureka moment arrived in the Literary Travel section.  Having just finished reading The Years by Virginia Woolf it felt like a bolt of serendipity to turn the book over for the blurb and read....

Over sixty years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the River Ouse, Olivia Laing set out one midsummer morning to walk its banks, from source to sea.  Along the way she explores the roles that rivers play in human lives, tracing their intricate flow through literature, mythology and folklore.

To The River was such a perfect find that I pushed aside the book I'd planned to read and just dove straight in (bad pun, sorry).

After a sad parting of ways between the author and her longtime partner, as well as a job loss, Olivia Laing planned a solo adventure along the River Ouse.  Describing herself as a 'hydrophile' the lure of water always held both fascination and a sense of calm.  What better way to distract yourself from the anxieties of what's to happen next than to focus on something you both love and have no control over.

Booking rooms in the small villages that dot along the river, Olivia used ordnance maps to carefully plot her route.  Packing a rucksack and counting on cheese and oatcakes to fend off hunger between stops she set off for a week-long journey.

   'The swifts were there when I woke, rising as if from deep water, rinsed clean by sleep for the first time in months.  The swifts were there, and a fox in the car park of the hospital, a scrawny, mottled orange-grey fox, who sat and scratched in the sun and then slunk back into the shadows of the old incinerator.  It was 21 June, the longest day of the year, the sky screened by fine cloud, the sea swaddled in mist.  My pack was ready at the bottom of the bed, stuffed with neat layers of clothes and maps, the side pockets bulging with bottles of suntan lotion and water, a battered copy of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe and a rusty Opinel that no longer locked.'

Beginning with a train ride, then a cab to Slaugham to check in at the Chequers, Olivia heads out into the nearby field through wildflowers and fence lines.  There are laws about trespassing on certain plots of land but sometimes you just have to duck under a fence and hope for the best.

I can't say enough about how much I loved this book for the beautiful writing,  both lyrical and straightforward in turns.  On one page I was learning about the bloody Battle of Lewes and King Henry III, and then further on about the burning of martyrs during the time of Marian persecutions.  Laing also paints beautiful mental images of the trees, flowers and wildlife bordering the river and the birds that fly past.  I had no idea that a hawk's vision is 20/5 or that the author Kenneth Grahame's life was dotted with such sadness.  And while we should all be concerned about climate change, coastal villages have experienced rising sea levels, erosion and devastating storms since the Middle Ages.

After feeling as though I too had spent an afternoon hiking in the sun alongside Olivia, I smiled with satisfaction at the flask of hot milk and homemade truffle that Olivia was handed at one stellar B&B.  Although, I can't say that stepping into the sucking mud for a refreshing swim had the same effect.

Having taken the train from London to Lewes myself in 2017, I so enjoyed the anticipation of Laing's journey eventually taking her to Rodmell.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf are frequently mentioned but in a tender and thoughtful way; this is not a book that acts as a backdrop to Virginia's suicide.  While I was visiting Monk's House another visitor asked if I wanted to join her for a walk to the place where Virginia walked into the river.  That wasn't an experience I felt I needed so the offer was politely declined.  The River Ouse is more than the place where Virginia Woolf ended her life, it has a fascinating history that's worth exploring for its own sake. 

I didn't just like this book, I loved it.

The River Ouse
(photo credit here)


  1. Oh, wonderful. Travel memoirs are very much my cup of tea, whether a year long trek along the Silk road by bike, or, like this, a trip along the river to steep oneself in its personality.

    1. While looking for another read like this one, I came across an article that says nature writing is having a resurgence. Lucky us, Susan!

  2. Lovely review, Darlene! And isn't it a wonderful book? I read it very slowly over many weeks, and adored it.

    1. It's the sort of book I label 'hug to your chest when you've finished'. You need to tell me, Simon, when you discover these wonderful reads so I'm not left to stumble upon them in a case of serendipity!

    2. Deal! I'll start coding my reviews with a "Darlene must read"

  3. I've had this on my radar ever since reading Laing's "The Trip to Echo Spring", which is a sad yet fascinating account of the lives of six writers who were also alcoholics.
    My library doesn't have this title so I might have to purchase my own.

    1. You won't be sorry if you do. It will be a refreshingly cool book to read during your blazing summer, Anbolyn!