As I drew closer, a couple of dark figures came into view. One ran off down the path, the other stood on the cobbles directing the beam from his torch into the brown, swirling waters between the pillars of the bridge. What was he was looking for, I asked. ‘Otters,’ he replied.
I’ve only seen otters in the River Severn twice. The first occasion was the night I moved into town back in 1997. I walked down St Mary’s Water Lane in the dark and stood looking at the black river as it flowed out of town. Suddenly up popped what I thought at first was a seal. Except it couldn’t be a seal - I’d seen seals off the Welsh Coast, and they were bigger than this little creature.
It took one look at me and dived again, and then I didn’t see any more otters until a couple of years ago. It was a bright sunshiny day and I was dog walking between the Castle Walk footbridge and the railway bridge. Suddenly there the little fellow was, swimming along by my side. It dived and resurfaced, dived and swam out of sight, then reappeared again. Somewhere around the steps at the bottom of St Mary’s Water Lane I lost sight of it for good. For all my looking, I couldn’t find it again.
Not could I this time. The man with the torch told me he’d first seen it on the far side of the river. Then he’d caught a glimpse of it diving off the plinth holding up the central section of the railway bridge. Then it had popped up its head right in front of him, on this side of the river, and the last time he’d seen it had been over the other side again, which was why his friend had gone running down the river, hoping to get across it and along the far bank for a closer view.
Whether he succeeded or not, I’ve no idea, but I’ve been hanging onto the story ever since, hoping that one day I’d see it too and could tell you all about it. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve decided to write about the railway bridge anyway.
Despite the graffiti that you sometimes find down there, the slippery cobbles and the pigeon poo, the railway bridge is one of my favourite places in Shrewsbury, firing my imagination like almost nowhere else. It’s actually not just one bridge, but three – two of them made of iron-girders, the third an arched stone bridge tucked almost out of sight between the other two. At the right time of day, you’ll get sunlight reflected off the river onto the bridge’s grimy walls, even reaching into its deepest, darkest recesses. Trains rumble overhead, and its acoustics are fantastic. Whether it’s the hrmm-hrmm of pigeons, the slap-slap of water against pillars or the notes of a jazz saxophone improvising under the girders on a still, quiet night, the quality of sound is remarkable.
I haven’t heard that saxophone for years now. The first time I heard it was around the same time I caught my first glimpse of that otter. I remember a white veil of mist coming up off the river, street lamps under the bridge being broken and this wonderful music coming out of the darkness. I couldn’t see who was playing it, but often after that I’d go down at night, and the phantom saxophonist would be there. I should have gone and introduced myself instead of enjoying his music from afar. I suppose I didn’t want to interrupt somebody’s private pleasure. Now, though, all these years later, I wish I’d said thank you.
What I did do, though, was put that saxophonist – and indeed the railway bridge - into the first of my ‘Children of Plynlimon’ novels, ‘Sabrina Fludde’: ‘What the girl wanted was a memory that would rescue her with answers. But what she got was music instead. She looked around, trying to see where it was coming from, but the river path stood empty, and so did the railway bridge. Nobody was here to play to her, but she could hear the tune all the same.
‘The girl listened to it, reluctant at first, but slowly lulled despite herself. How could it be otherwise? The tune sang out as if if it were a living thing, soaring and swooping among the girders of the railway bridge, echoing up to its black stone arches and rolling across the river like a mist. And its notes were words, and every one of them a song of secret comfort.
‘”You’re fine,” it sang out. “Really. Fine. You’re brave and strong and where you should be. There’s nothing to be frightened of. Everything is just fine. Trust me.”’
And the girl did! The notes seeped into her like an enchantment, and suddenly she WAS fine! She knew she was, just like the music said. She didn’t feel sorry for herself any more. She didn’t feel frightened. She felt safe.’
Abren is the child with no memory. She turns up in Shrewsbury [Pengwern in the book], carried by the River Severn. Along with the street boy, Phaze II, she makes herself a home up amongst the girders of the railway bridge where nobody ever looks up. Except for me, of course. Having invented both these children I look up and see them all the time. Even today, all these years later, I can’t believe that they aren’t there.
It’s thirteen years now since Sabrina Fludde was published. I have two particularly abiding memories from it. The first is Millennium Night, the two children sitting out on the girders over the dark river, listening to the town whooping and cheering as the fireworks go off. They live in the heart of the town, yet its life is a world away from them. And at the end of the book, having made the Severn journey from source to sea, a new adventure steers them beneath the stars.
I attempted a new adventure myself last week, trying to get to the Abbey under the arches on the other side of the river. It always used to be possible back in the days of the Gay Meadow football ground, coming out at the Wakeman Garden by the English Bridge. I assumed that was a right of way. For years I’ve seen people using it. But that way’s blocked now, and when I followed the footpath at the back of the old football ground [now the building site for David Wilson Homes] I found that way blocked too. In fact padlocked. Interesting, given that a proper tarmac path had been laid. What’s it there for if people can’t use it?
Somebody told me once that Shrewsbury railways station is one of only three in the world to be built across a river. I don’t know if this is true, but it doesn’t need to be true to make the railway bridge special. If you don’t know it, go and take a look. And, if you’re a musician and your instrument is transportable, then - be it penny whistle or saxophone - take it along.