February 7th – The Festival of the Alternate River

If you go to the centre of the City today, to the Lost Channel Communal Farm, you will barely be able to move for people. They fill the long strip of land, a dried-up river bed that was filled with soil and turned into a park and then an allotment, standing shoulder to shoulder, swaying with the breeze, waiting for a boat.

The Festival of the Alternate River used to be known as the Festival of Landing, but it changed in name and practice in 1432. Parliament was finding the stink from the then highly polluted river odious, and there was a general feeling that the industry (upon which Buentoille was coming to depend) gathered on its banks was not visually pleasing enough for the City’s centre. A long channel was dug around (what was then) the outskirts of the City, and the mills were relocated there. Then, after a long protracted speech from a minor parliamentarian, the river was diverted down this new course, and its old route became a scar; the memory of water gushing past for hundreds of years.

The change of course gathered many critics, not from the factory owners (they were well paid by Parliament for their troubles), but from ordinary folk who felt that altering the course of the river was somehow wrong, a transgression. Some even came out to protest proceedings, but as environmentalism had not progressed to a scientific stage at the time (now that there was much living in the river then), their arguments were primarily sentimental in nature, and were roundly ignored. Yet whilst they did not directly oppose the diversion, many shared these sentimentalities, not least because of the supposed historical significance of the stretch of river.

The Festival of Landing was an ancient festival; it’s not known when it started, but it was held to commemorate the arrival of the first Buentoillitants to the land where the City would be founded. According to legend (of which there are hundreds of different versions), the settlers travelled in a long barge up the river, from what is now called the Buentoille Bay. Where they came from is different with each version of the story, with options ranging from Homesford, just the other side of the Inner Sea, to some mythical island far into the Outer Sea where all life supposedly began. There is no scientific evidence one way or another. All versions of the story agree that when the settlers had reached the spot where the centre of the City now rests, they felt a strange sense of comfort come upon them. Perhaps it was something about the shape of the land around them, the curve of the bay, the fish and crayfish flitting about beneath their craft, the willow and oak dipping their roots in the water; they could see a happy life unfold before them. They broke their barge up, turned it into a house, and never left.

In an approximation of the legend, a number of people would build makeshift boats and row up the river, landing at Jason’s Point, a bend where sandy sediment had been deposited, making it the perfect point from which to launch or land boats. There the boats they rowed were broken up and a den-building competition was held. When the river disappeared it took the festival with it, or so everybody thought.

It was mainly those who had felt some connection to the river, those who had shared those sentimentalities that they couldn’t quite lay their finger on, who went to the dried-up river bed that first year after the diversion. They stood in the hollow and thought about the water that would be rushing past them, carrying them down to the bay and out into the inner sea. They looked at the scarred rock beneath them, not yet covered over with soil, and thought about the pebbles that had worn this course, this artery into the land over hundreds of years. There weren’t so many people there then as today, but there was still enough that, when a group of young men and women hauled the skeleton of a row boat out of a patch of mud, they could pass it over their heads as if it were travelling on the water’s surface.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Feline Festival