Tonga, Saudi Arabia, Nauru, Kiribati, The Marshall Islands, Monaco and The Maldives. They all have something in common. … and it is not that they would be plucky answers to countries in the world in the quiz Pointless. What they share, or to be more accurate what they don’t share, is the presence of any rivers on their territory. Consequently they are all also places to which this particular tourist will never make a visit. Rivers are wonderful things!
Up in the hills of Scotland the babbling burn dives steeply down slopes, twisting and turning sharply in its descent; its liquid meanders across moors and peat bogs, heads into forests, plunges over waterfalls and then slows as it flows through steep banked gorges. Broken branches form temporary dams, trout filled pools lurk beneath busy cataracts and the sun struggles to break through the canopy of trees that cover the secrecy that hides below. These are private creatures whose vibrant life passes by unobserved by anyone; to access their beauty requires more energy and time than humans can be bothered to find in their hectic schedules.

The existence of larger rivers is a more public affair and yet, in their infancy, they too enjoy a quieter life far from the bustle of the town. The Severn rises in Mid Wales and it requires dedication to reach its source: it is not somewhere you may just chance upon and not for many, many miles does it reach adolescence. The Thames begins its Eastward journey near Tetbury and ever so slowly and innocently winds through Gloucestershire and Wiltshire before it reaches adulthood in Oxfordshire. You can stride along the towpaths of these two great rivers for a good distance before they become navigable; here, dog walkers, hikers or picnickers will seldom interrupt your peace. 

The river is the home of beautiful trees: of the birch and aspen, of the Nuttall oak and the seductive weeping willow. Beneath this willow’s hanging veil coots and teal dart and duck whilst the occasional arrogant swan glides smoothly on its way. Wildlife of all kinds is drawn to the banks and into the waters; moody cattle ruminate in the mud of its shore, geese gather and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a water vole near the bank. The waters of the rural river offer a visual feast but the opportunity is also there for quiet contemplation, for an emptying of the mind, for total relaxation.

Near the coast the river becomes a different creature entirely. At low water, mud flats stretch into the distance and a rich variety of seabirds, hopping in the shallows, grazes contentedly on plentiful food. Hidden logs emerge from the waters and the streams, that join the greater flow, can be jumped by the casual walker. At high tide waves lap amongst the grasses along the shore and you sense the raw power and might of the beast as its two shores move ever further apart.

Yet humankind, so frequently denigrated, has itself added to the charm of the river. Colourful boats and barges chug along the liquid pathways; their reflections delight the eye. Old bridges made of beautiful stone enchant, watermills and churches delight and, at the weirs, racing rapids excite and thrill. As the river passes through towns and cities, the architects have begun to use their imagination and no longer is the water merely functional; buildings are designed to enhance and be enhanced by the water. Man and nature can combine in wonderful ways.

No city is complete for me unless a river passes through its heart. All across Europe magnificent water courses unite with urban settings to produce glorious scenes: the Rhine and the Danube, the Seine and the Rhône, the Moselle and the Douro and countless others. To spend an hour or two quaffing wine on the shore, whether in town or countryside, is time well-spent. Further afield there remain huge rivers to be discovered: the Yangtse, the Amazon and the Nile, the Mississipi and the Missouri, the Murray and the Darling, an almost never-ending list whose very names stir the imagination and conjure up great pictures. Each waterway has its own character; whether it is a tiny brook, a sinuous stream, a dark creek or a mighty estuary, it has its own story to tell. Monaco may have its casinos, Saudi its sand and Tonga is endless archipelago but they lack the lure and the romance of the river.