Saving England’s Chalk Streams, and other Signs and Wonders

On Thursday 28 April the University of Cambridge posted a major story, Saving England’s Chalk Streams, in response to our conference. We are deeply grateful to its author Tom Almeroth-Williams.

Alice Willitts, poet, gardener and activist for her local river the Cam – which should probably make her a Campaigner – was unable to join us as we’d hoped for the writers and film makers’ panel we held during our conference as part of the Cambridge Festival. But she has now sent us both the poem she would have shared with us that evening and, just below it, a recording, with accompaniment, of ‘Chalk Stream Warnings Issued to Environment Agency at 16h30 on Tues 8 Oct 2019’. That title is grimly prosaic, and carries the bitter taste of urgent reality, but Alice makes her poem as sinuous and plangent on the page as it is moving through the air. Read and listen along.

At a funeral recently in Cambridge for a dear friend and colleague whose life had run a rich course, supported by a quiet but deep Christian faith, the congregation sang John Newton’s great eighteenth century hymn, ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken.’ At least one member of the congregation heard the second verse rather differently in the light of the conference; could Newton have possibly written these lines had he been living in the age of over-abstraction and pollution?

See, the streams of living waters,
springing from eternal love,
well supply your sons and daughters
and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
ever will their thirst assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the giver,
never fails from age to age.

An Instagram post of our conference statement brought many enthusiastic endorsements, among them this unexpectedly beautiful response from Sandy Sykes. Sandy is a botanical illustrator based near Shaftesbury in Dorset, chalk stream country. But he happened to be further west, leading a session on illustration for a group from DEFRA, and near one of Rick Stein’s restaurants, when it occurred to him that a fish might make a good subject for his class. The restaurant obliged, and Sandy produced this ethereal head. He isn’t sure of the species (email if you are) but posted it with lines from W.B.Yeats’s ‘The Song of Wandering Angus’. All this within a day of a beautiful film of the same poem, on an Irish river, being posted on Instagram by Activist Anglers. ‘Owned by Everyone’ is very grateful to Sandy Sykes, Jim Murray and Dominic West for sharing their work.

Here is Sandy Sykes’s fish:

And here is W.B.Yeats’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, as read by ghillie Dominic West, with Jim Murray casting his own spell on the waters as the fisherman:

Rivers flow, reach their mouth at the sea, and connect us with the wonders of the world beyond their banks. If you haven’t yet listened to Tom Worthington on swim ways or Marc Dando, fish illustrator, on the art of scaling up, or Amy-Jane Beer on what she finds in rivers, and chalk streams in particular, you can hear and see their presentations here, as you can a number of others from our conference: more will follow soon.

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