Fear and loathing on Walsworth Common

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Of all the undignified ways to shuffle off this mortal coil, getting sucked into bottomless mud while clearing litter in your local park has got to rank right up there.

Which makes my misadventure yesterday, when I found myself sinking fast into the bed of a misleadingly inoffensive stream that I’ve known since childhood, all the more embarrassing.

Litter picking in the Purwell

Litter picking in the Purwell

Once a month, Beloved Other Half and I head down to the nearest large park to join a litter clear-up organised by one of our neighbours.

Usually it’s just a case of scouring the park boundaries, the edges of the footpaths and the area around the skateboard ramps, using council-provided pickers – blue plastic claws with long handles – and black bin bags.

Two dedicated chaps from the Green Party usually take care of recovering beer cans from a pond off at the far end and bicycles from the river that runs along one boundary, providing a home to moorhens, water voles and (inevitably) rats.

But yesterday neither of them came, so me and Beloved Other Half got to play in the water instead.

As the photo shows, it’s really not a deep stream at all. The bed is a mix of hard sand and shingle on the fast bends, with a couple of inches of soft mud overlaying it in the quieter stretches.

So we made good progress, fishing out one bicycle and filling two bin-bags with cans, chocolate wrappers and endless waterlogged packaging from loaves of bread, presumably dumped by people who had finished feeding the ducks.

Marching along the stream bed, separated from our colleagues working elsewhere, hidden from the park on one side and the road on the other by high banks, it was easy to forget we were in a town. All rather idyllic, actually, apart from the litter.

Where it went pear-shaped was when I decided to take advantage of a break in the vegetation on the opposite bank to get out, regroup and maybe cash in my bin-bag for an empty one.

A few paces towards the middle, the stream bed got a lot softer. A couple more and suddenly my right boot was full of water. I shifted my weight onto my left leg to retreat, felt that one start to sink too, went back onto my right, and immediately that leg was knee-deep in the mud.

Twisting round to call out to Beloved Other Half turned out to be a bad idea – although I was able to keep my left foot from going more than a couple inches into the mud, my right started sinking further.

I was going down into the mud, and I didn’t know how far I’d go before I stopped – or even, for a horrible few seconds, whether I’d stop at all.

I did, of course. I was crouching on my left leg with my right in the mud all the way up to my thigh and water lapping around my unmentionables, but I’d stopped sinking.

Hadn’t a clue how to get out, though.

Beloved Other Half came over to help, but started sinking herself before she could pull me upwards. And when she stayed a safer distance away and pulled laterally all that happened was that she ended up on her hands and knees in the water.

I had visions of a humiliating rescue by the Fire Brigade, followed by an equally embarrassing jokey piece in the local paper that would have made a muddy grave the preferable choice.

Beloved Other Half, meanwhile, was taking advantage of the fact that I was plainly not going anywhere to dump all the bin-bags and litter-pickers on or near the bank – a couple of times so far we’d come close to the lot floating away downstream, shedding rubbish as they went.

Eventually, I hit on a plan that worked. I was stable enough in the mud by now to be able to bounce up and down on the toes of my right foot without anything too bad happening. This broke the suction and gave me a shot at getting free.

Beloved Other Half pulled and the right leg (complete with boot, to my surprise) started to emerge even as the left started to sink because of the shifting of the weight. Not a problem – I had enough momentum to keep moving and stop it sticking, and soon I was on the bank, with evil-smelling black gunge slopping out of my boots.

After that, it was the devil’s own job to get them off – much comical huffing and puffing and tugging while lying by the side of a main road – followed by a quick (and probably unnecessary, given what we looked like) conversation with one of the volunteers, explaining why we leaving, and a barefoot walk home, clutching our dripping wellies.

Then tea, hot shower, more tea and a solicitous visit from the organiser to check I was OK – which I was, part utterly freaked out by the suddenness of it all, part embarrassed by the sheer silliness of it.

Any real danger? No, probably not – all pretty trivial, really, now it’s over. But the moment of eye-popping terror when one leg was gone, and for all I knew the other was about to follow it, will not be quickly forgotten.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.