New writing from our Cambridge Festival 2023 panel

Here are two examples of writing drawn from chalk water which we shared with an audience in the Cockcroft lecture theatre at the University of Cambridge on 30 March, along with the films shared in a recent post. We asked our panel to share a story, a moment, an experience, an image that had awoken them to the wonder of chalk streams; an equivalent moment or words or images that made them aware of their current plight; and then to reflect what difference, if any, sharing these stories can make.

We hope to share more new writing in the coming days.

David Profumo, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, shared this:

Like a number of others at our conference, I came to love – and be fascinated by – chalk streams through fishing. In my case, I was almost preternaturally privileged, because I was actually brought upon one. At the end of the field in front of our house in Hertfordshire was an extraordinarily unkempt, and seldom managed, stretch of the little river Rib (which eventually joins the fabled Lea), and the farmer that owned it had no interest in developing it, so, as a schoolboy, I was free to go there whenever I wanted – and I did so for years. It transformed forever my experience of looking at water. I haven’t been back there in ages, but I’ve heard tell that it runs brown with phosphates these days, in the low flows of Summer, so I’m just going to leave it as it was, lodged here in my memory –and in my book, The Lightning ThreadFishological Moments and the Pursuit of Paradise (Scribner, 2021). 

The Rib at Aspenden – image by Charles Rangeley-Wilson

But the current state of the Rib, robbed of its current and its clarity, does prompt me to remark on the particularities of what Sir David Attenborough recently called, ‘one of the rarest habitats on Earth’. First, though, I wanted to say something about our British attitudes to water in general:

I feel that for a long while we have taken clean water supplies for granted, partly due to the popular misconception that because we live in a drenched and windswept island, Nature will somehow make things good in the long run. It’s part of the proverbially phlegmatic outlook of the UK towards the weather – and what else is water but liquid weather? Back in Victorian times, Cecil Rhodes observed that if ‘cold, fresh water cost a guinea a glass, nobody would want to drink anything else’. We have historically undervalued it, until recently.

In 1981, I became aware of this when I took for granted – naively – that if river water was good enough for salmon and trout to swim in, it must be good enough to drink; and I scooped two glasses full directly from the Scottish Spey to dilute with a little whisky, and by nightfall was running a high fever, which lasted two days, after which I had to be driven back South.

Of course, now I would never do such a thing because most of us know that practically all our waterways contain either phosphorous from sewage discharges, or nitrogen from intensive agriculture run-off, or both – to say nothing of hormones from pharmaceutical products, anti-bacterial-resistant superbugs, microplastic particles or other ‘forever chemicals’.  Those should not form any ingredient of a cocktail, so, when out fishing these days, I take my scotch straight.

As part of the new awareness of the plight of our freshwaters and coastal areas, we are told that only 14% of English rivers have good ecological status, and none are chemically pristine. Chalk streams may be a rarefied case, but  they serve to highlight our present crisis, since many of them suffer from the same overall negative impacts that have come to light, and for too long have been the Dirty Big Secrets (I use the adjective deliberately) of those nine principal Water Companies, about which we have been hearing so much – the Environment Agency just reported that in 2022 there were more than 300,000 episodes of untreated sewage being discharged in England, and that was a reduction of 34% on the previous year. The outdated practice of self-monitoring means the true figure is not ascertainable. Savings on treating sewage generate shareholder profits, of course.

 Chalk streams are especially vulnerable to abstraction, which causes low flows and damages them by reducing oxygen levels and concentrating pollutants, that stimulate the growth of toxic algae which can affect the entire biological web, from water crowfoot to otters. Borehole abstraction is dangerously efficient and convenient – the water companies are getting much of their raw product for free, and (unlike the situation with power-providers) you can’t shop around geographically. I wrote in my book that our underground aquifers are, ‘the cool-water deposit accounts from which chalk streams withdraw their currency.’ But abstraction has caused some of our streams to die of thirst – I saw this for myself on the Misbourne , which effectively disappeared in the 90’s, and from the lovely Mimram. It has perhaps become hackneyed to compare fresh water with lifeblood – but there’s only so much a body can donate, before the system flatlines.

The legal framework does exist to regulate the excesses of privately owned water company practices, but it seems the watch-dogs have rarely bared their teeth. It has been cheaper to pay the fines than make the long-overdue investments in improving infrastructure – I mean, would anybody comply with speeding regulations if you only lost your driving license after clocking up a thousand points? There is a movement now towards tougher measures, including custodial sentences for directors of companies that vandalise the environment – in the meantime, it wouldn’t do their image any harm if they put a cap on bonus payments for a while. In 2021, Southern Water declared a profit of some £139 million, despite a £90-million fine for 6,971 illegal sewage discharges. 

One thing we desperately need is more water storage, to reconcile our recurring cycles of flood and drought, which continue to baffle the public, and can only get worse with climate change. Southern Water has been promising a new reservoir since 2017, but there’s little sign of it. In times of drought, they abstract from the Test – arguably the world’s most famous chalk stream. We’ve just had the driest February for 30 years, so we can expect yet more hosepipe bans this Summer. It might cost a great deal of money, but would some kind of National Water Grid not be feasible? Or desalination plants in places? We can’t just invent fresh water, so it’s got to come from somewhere other than these protected habitats.

And we have a growing population, with all those power-showers and clothes-washers. Some sort of re-education scheme perhaps needs to be established, to increase awareness of the value of water; and people must be prepared to pay more for it. Ofwat is already announcing an increase in cost of some 7½ % this year, and we are going to have to get used to it. Even in times of well-publicised droughts, 38% of our population seems to make no reduction in its water consumption. If encouraging folk to appreciate fresh water resources means a little more managed access to the privately conserved areas of chalk country, then by all means let’s look at striking some kind of new balance – that may have to be part of the whole rethink.

Because of their peculiar mineral fertility, healthy chalk streams are ‘makers’ of diverse life forms – insect abundance is just one yardstick. Nowadays, as many folk will attest, even after an Evening Rise you seldom have to clean the bugs off your windscreen. Chalk streams are delicate and rare and beautiful; they have undeniable charisma. And if even they don’t matter, then I wouldn’t hold out much hope for the chances of future improvement for our more un-lovely parts of the British Isles. Reversing the damage of decades will take years – we have passed the Eleventh Hour, and we’re staring at Midnight. But it’s not too late.

I believe that writing can help, in this last late hour, and not just to pass the time. It can convince people that these places are symptomatic of what we can achieve by improving the delicate balance of the environment. It can demonstrate how inspirational they have been, and can continue being. Writing keeps alive the concept of the ideal, the gentle, and the fertile in a modern world where such things are not rated as once they were (if I am a Romantic, I make no apology – it’s one of the things that keeps me going).

Chalk streams require our renewed attention precisely because they are not entirely wild, but have been sculpted and mended for many centuries, and it is partly because they are in that sense artificial that we need to value them. I am convinced they are good for the soul – translucent, tranquil, inspirational.

The River Itchen at Chilland – image by Mark Wormald

Mark Wormald, who chaired the panel, began by reading ‘Go Fishing’, from Ted Hughes’ wonderful collection River (1983) and drew the evening to a close with this passage from his recent book The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes (Bloomsbury Books, 2022, reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

I work, too far from the right kind of tumbling rivers, alongside fishing sceptics. Cambridge can be a dry, flat world, full of words. I’ve learned who I can share my obsession with, and who will regard it as only a hobby, or an indulgence, or escape. And, yes, sometimes, as an idea for the next trip begins to twitch, wriggles to the surface of your life, emerges, rests there, unnoticed by everyone else in the meeting, while wings dry, before taking flight – yes, it can feel like an escape – from the pressures of all that. From family troubles, too: mostly our adopted sons, young men now. While I’ve been following Ted, they’ve been growing into a world they’ve found harder to read than their younger brother. More than once they’ve found themselves deep in trouble when I’m by a Devon river, and I’ve emerged from a cleft in the hills that has had no mobile signal and picked up Sarah’s message, and the guilt has been as hard to bear, then, as the long drive home to help.

But much more often, going fishing has been not an escape from but into. Another dimension. Another world. Into water, yes. Into the life of the fish you have to trust it holds. But while you’re searching for that fish – and no other pursuit I know comes close to the concentration it demands of hand, body, eye, balance, will, confidence, care, faith – while you’re reading that water for signs of where the fish may be holding themselves in the current (in the shadow of that rock? In the dappled shade of that alder? Close against the gravel of the riverbed where the flow is swift?) it’s reading you. Putting you in your place. You feel your way. You deepen. You remake yourself. You become, for as long as you can make it last, a part of the river’s life. A young kingfisher stares and stares from its perch an inch or two above the water only thirty feet away and lets you be. And you rest while its gaze holds you, and then press upstream, gently, gently. A decent fish shows, and, who knows, it might show again, to the fly you’ve offered it. And if you control the excitement, lift into it, you feel that fish; the line thrums and jags and, with luck, in a few seconds, a minute, two, five, who knows – what has happened to time? – this extraordinary beauty glides to you across the water.

In those last moments, of weariness, those flanks are always more dazzling, the shawl of water more miraculous, than you could possibly have imagined. What have you done? Now you are responsible. You wanted this, the hunter in you wanted this. But you also have to be protector. So you moisten your hands, everything under water if you can, ease the fly from the gristle of that gulping jaw, return it to its element, cradle that fish, working until the body flexes and it’s away upstream again, into the stream, gone. Taking something of you, too. Humbled, but recovering. Recharged. Healed. All this before words come back. The first call home. Or at the hospital bed.

    I return home having broken through. And Sarah can tell, Ben can tell, the friends who know me well can tell. It can last, this feeling, for weeks, months. I make do, through the winter, with walking by our local lode. And when that doesn’t work, or my concentration wanders, I read Ted’s poem ‘Go Fishing’. Discover it yourself. That never fails.

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