By some coincidence we were visiting an area of France with historical connections to paper making. Near Angouleme there are two mills one dating from the eighteenth century the other from the even earlier that still produce paper in the traditional way. There was a chance to make comparisons between the Grand Union Canal and early industrialisation, and the beautiful Charante and craft production.
The mill at Fleurac is a working museum, demonstrating how paper used to be made whilst still producing high quality, craft paper. It is in a beautiful location by the river and recently money has been spent developing the landscape to enhance the sense of peace and timelessness.
In someway Fleurac is a bit to perfectly preserved, as if it is part of the heritage industry. The Verger mill, a little further along the Charente, gives a greater sense of continuity, showing more signs of the lumps and bumps of age. Paper has been made here since 1539 and it is still a business making facsimile 17th and 18th Century paper for the restoration of books prints and drawings.
When thinking of this type of paper I think of watermarks and remember how I was fascinated by them as a kid. Firstly they were only in thick, good quality paper, something I rarely used and therefore thought a bit special. Secondly, and most importantly, you could only see them properly when you held them up to the light. They held a secret message, they were slightly mysterious, they were a hidden code.
Only later did I discover how they were made. In manufacture,the paper is pressed with a mark when still wet, When it dries that mark remains in its structure. I like the word because it precisely describes the process. It is a mark made in water – and how poetic is that idea?
By analogy you can extend it to any mark that is embedded when something is being formed. I think of dough-like infants being pressed by their experiences and then carrying that semi-invisible branding as they grow older and firmer. These things form you character. When you start any new venture, and are learning, you are still watery enough to be marked. With running I think of the early stages and a couple of things that hit me almost as revelations, which are still part of the fabric of me as a runner.
The first was the understanding that slowing down meant I could run further. This may sound stupidly self evident, but I had previously thought that proper running meant puffing hard and being uncomfortable. Only after I finding an easy pace did I discover the enjoyment in running and know that if I could run for 20 minutes I could also run for 30, then if 30 I could also run for 40, etc, etc. It is a matter of finding your own internal rhythm – your own watermark.
The second was the enjoyment of being outside as part of the landscape, feeling its changes and finding the places you like to be. This is often the canal and if anything runs consistently through my running it is the Grand Union – another watermark.