With thanks to all the speakers, session chairs, audience and supporters of our recent Cambridge conference on the wonder, plight and future of chalk streams, it’s a great pleasure to announce that the series of podcasts we contemplated producing back as our gathering drew to a close at the end of March has now been released in full. You’ll find our eight episodes by searching for ‘Owned by everyone?’ at most of the major podcast providers, or here:
This eighth and final podcast is devoted to an open discussion about the future of chalk streams. It's chaired by Tony Juniper, the Chair of Natural England, and introduced by author, natural historian and activist Amy-Jane Beer, and by Stephen Tomkins, outgoing Chair of the Cam Valley Forum and Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College. After eighty minutes of contributions and ideas from speakers whose voices you may recognise from earlier episodes and members of our invited audience, Mark Wormald wraps up and looks forward. To keep up to date with the plans Mark describes, to read a statement issued in early April 2023 on behalf of the conference delegates, and to contribute your own ideas and resources, please visit https://ownedbyeveryone.org.Timings:Tony Juniper concludes the discussion at 1.16.38.Mark wraps up from 1.16.53.Thank you for listening. If you've found any of these episodes enjoyable or provoking, please share. They are, as the health of our chalk streams should be, owned by everyone. Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Released to coincide with the publication of eight podcasts sharing all the presentations, Q & A and closing discussion from our chalk stream conference in Cambridge on 30-31 March 2023, this is where you’ll find the slides (generally in PDF format) provided by our speakers, for you to scroll through or download, and, course, the podcasts themselves. Hosted by Acast, you will find them here.
Episode One: the crisis facing our chalk streams
Making something happen: Ted Hughes, wild fish and chalk streams, by Mark Wormald
An open discussion about chalk streams, chaired by Tony Juniper and introduced by Stephen Tomkins and Amy-Jane Beer, revisits the theme of our discussions over two days and generates ideas about how best to ensure their survival and future health.
All eight episodes are now available as podcasts hosted by ACast and
Charles Rangeley-Wilson has spent most of his adult life fishing, photographing, restoring and championing the cause of chalk streams, recently as Chair of the Chalk Stream Restoration Group responsible for the Catchment Based Approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy (2021) and Implementation Plan (2022), having also contributed to the World Wildlife Fund’s reports ‘Rivers on the Edge’, ‘The State of England’s Chalk Streams’ and Flushed Away. He established the Wild Trout Trust and the Norfolk Rivers Trust, and leads the Chalk Streams.
These hugely important roles, and the elegance, accessibility and authority of the Strategy and Plan, might have been predicted by anyone familiar with the beautiful and useful website he curates, devoted to chalk streams, or with his prose, wherever they encounter it. Charles is one of our finest fishing writers, and we are delighted that, as a contributor to our Cambridge Conference and a member of the audience at our Cambridge Festival writers and filmmakers, he has agreed to share his essay on chalk streams that features on his website and first appeared as the introduction to his anthology Chalkstream: Fishing the Perfect River (Medlar Press, 2005).
The story of chalk began in a much warmer world about 100 million years ago. Carbon dioxide levels were four times what they are today. The oceans over the British Isles were a tropical 20 degrees centigrade or more. The supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwanaland were breaking up – the Atlantic Ocean was in the early stages of formation and sea levels were much higher than they are now. Kent was over 100 metres below the surface of the waves.
There were few mammals. On land mostly dinosaurs, and insects. In the sea rays, sharks and reptiles. Also a planktonic green algae called a coccolith. As the coccoliths died their skeletons sank to the sea-bed, and there mixed with the remains of bottom-dwelling molluscs of various types – foraminifera, ostracods, and ammonites – and the deposited layers of these skeletons built up over time to form chalk.
So prominent was chalk in the perception of the earliest geologists that it lent its name to the entire geological time-period – the Cretaceous (from the Latin creta meaning chalk). The derivation of the word chalk in English comes from the Saxon crealc, and the hard pronunciation of the word kalk is said to still be in use by some in Lincolnshire.
The Cretaceous period – and the accumulation of chalk – ended when a giant meteorite struck the earth near the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. The collision caused giant tsunamis, which radiated in all directions, and threw enough dust into the atmosphere to cause a nuclear winter lasting for many years and global cooling on a vast sacle. Most animals including the dinosaurs were wiped out.
Chalk occurs all over the world in the Anglo-Parisian basin, running from Flamborough Head in Yorkshire to the coast of Dorset, and across the channel into Normandy in northern France. Some chalk occurs in the great Cretaceous deposits of Russia, and in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and S. Dakota in the United States. Hard white chalk occurs in Ireland in Antrim, and on the opposite shore of Scotland in Mull and Morven. There is chalk in Australia and Israel.
But it is only in England and Normandy that massive chalk deposits and a temperate climate have coincided to give us chalk-streams as we know them: a globally unique ecosystem.
The reason is subtle, but crucial: only in this Anglo-Parisian basin is the chalk close enough to the surface to create the kinds of rivers we know as chalk-streams.
There might well be chalk across great swathes of the Ukraine, for example, but it is buried deep under peri-glacial drift or younger layers of sand, mud and clay. In England and France the chalk layers deposited in shallow seas during that Cretaceous epoch have been lifted to the surface and polished clean by glaciers, but they have not been worn away. It is this clean but intact chalk-downland and our rain-swept landscape and temperate climate that gives us chalk-streams as we know them.
There might well also be rivers throughout the world that look like chalk-streams: but that doesn’t mean they are. Limestone streams are very similar. Limestone is chemically identical to chalk, it is also made up of the remains of tiny sea-creatures. But generally it is much older and harder and it is rather less soluble. This makes a difference to the flow regime, and the PH and to the landscape across which the rivers flow. Chalk-streams flow through softer downland: their gradients are shallower, their flow regimes more equable.
Chalk-streams form when rain falls on chalk down-land and seeps through fissures in the rocks, coalescing into trickles and rivulets. Where the fissures have widened with erosion the rivulets may even gather further to form underground streams. A chalk aquifer is not so much an underground body of water, as a saturation of all the fissures, through which the water flows. This hidden migration of water is of unknowable complexity. Layers of marl and flint interrupt the chalk, and where they do water can flow laterally along these seams for miles. The seams may run counter to the hills above ground. Water may flow in one direction along one seam, and in another along a seam below that. Surface rivers are fundamentally two-dimensional, but to envisage the workings of a chalk aquifer we need to think in three dimensions, to imagine water flowing like marbles through an Escheresque jumble of tunnels.
Over millions of years these subterranean inclines have in places concentrated the erosive action of the water to form chalk valleys. And in these valleys where the aquifer fills in winter – imagine a leaky bucket overflowing – or where it rests on a bed of marl and flint, water emerges as springs and a chalk-stream is born.
Coleridge wrote some lines that evoke the birth of a chalk-stream:
Unperishing youth ! Thou leapest from forth
The cell of thy hidden nativity;
Never mortal saw
The cradle of the strong one;
Never mortal heard
The gathering of his voices;
The deep-murmured charm of the son of the rock,
That is lisp’d evermore at his slumberless fountain.
I know places like this: a path in Dorset runs along the foot of a chalk escarpment between woods and the River Stour. In winter after heavy rain dozens of springs burst at the foot of the slope and run across the path to the river. In one place the springs break underwater in the river itself. The bank has fallen away, undermined by the erosion from within, and when the Stour is coloured this spring clears a hole in the opaque water like a view through to blue sky on a cloudy day.
Further west in another valley a wood grows around a hollow in the sloping land where springs break through the roots of beech trees and collect in a pool. The pool spills over a derelict hatchway, and forms a stream that runs across a farm track. At dusk in mid-winter the stark trees are like black bars against the glowing western skyline. The sounds of rooks and tumbling water underline the isolation and quietness of the place, the hidden nativity of a chalk river.
I became fascinated by chalk-streams long before I saw or fished one. I had a book on angling, and in a section on trout fishing found a colour photograph of a chalk-stream. Though I’ve lost the book I have the picture in my head: high summer, a bright day. Trees overarch the river. Alongside the river is a meadow full of wild flowers, and heavy tussocks of grass. A thatch-roofed hut is in the background. The stream runs towards me from a row of hatchways. It is blowsy and clear. Patches in the weed show clean gravel between. Was there a trout in the picture, or did I place it there? I used to fish that river in my imagination.
Now I fish rivers like it for real and I find the foundations of that first captivation remain the same.
In a more famous poem Coleridge places a spring-fed stream inside a walled pleasure-garden, ‘Where Alph the sacred river ran’. The stream is wild – it meanders, and at its springhead it rises in tumults like a volcano. But the romantic power of the poem comes partly from the relationship between this river and the pleasure garden. The wild is set beside the man-made, and each gives something to the other: the tamed wildness; the works of man placed in context.
The hut was significant in that picture, and now that I know more about more chalk rivers, I realise that so was the shape of the channel, its relationship to the meadow, the hatch mechanism through which the water spilled, the stately spacing of the trees. Chalk-streams are not only inseparable from the works of man; they are largely man-made. This particular relationship is vital. It gives the rivers an aesthetic whole. It makes them enchanting, soothing places to spend time.
It’s difficult to find a painting by Claude, Constable, or Turner in which the natural world is not offset by something of man. Turner’s most vaporous scenes need a castle or a mast. In Claude’s classical landscapes a bridge, boat or a thoughtful shepherd metre out the rhythm of the scene. Constable painted the chalk-streams of Suffolk: the sluices and mooring posts of his paintings do the same as the hut and the hatchway in that photograph: they set up an aesthetic tension and balance.
That same balance is what makes the sight of water spilling through a brick and timber hatchway so satisfying. Better still if the hatch is derelict, if the bricks are crumbling and if brambles overhang the white water at the head of the pool – a hint of Romanticism. In the Classical tradition man harnesses nature, in the Romantic he is overcome by it. There is a bit of both in the beauty of a chalk-stream.
This aesthetic balance is not unique to chalk rivers, but it is heightened in them. Chalk rivers are by their nature so malleable. They don’t flood; they don’t dry up. They flow through gentle, habitable countryside: an epicentre of human development since the Romans.
Pre-historic chalk-streams would have flowed through wetlands dense with willow, alder and sedge, braided into channels. It is difficult to find a chalk-stream today in this state, though the headwaters and isolated sections of some streams get close. I know several spots where rivers flow through unkempt woodland and the channels braid. Where springs enter a main river – there’s a place on the Frome above Dorchester, another on the Itchen close to Winchester, another near an old Priory in Norfolk – and where there has never been a reason for harnessing and channelling that flow, the braided, wild-wood stream can remain.
For the most part though the wet woodland was cleared for agriculture, the process beginning over two thousand years ago. And since the Roman occupation chalk-stream river channels have been progressively modified. Romans used the Lea as a navigable route to Verulamium, and in 1430 in the first known example of money borrowed by a statutory body for a public work, commissioners were given the power to remove the many obstructions or ‘shelfs’ along the course of the Lea. The Domesday book refers to thirteen mills on the River Wandle. Castle Acre priory was built with stones floated upstream on barges on the River Nar, a tiny Norfolk chalk-stream.
In the early 17th century a conduit of drinking water for a burgeoning London was constructed to flow from the springs of the Lea into the middle of the City – the New River. An attempt to do the same to the Wandle was defeated by the millers. Navigational canals were built alongside some chalk rivers. A plan to navigate the Avon to Salisbury was abandoned in the 1660’s, but later rivers like the Driffield, Kennet and the Itchen all had navigational canals built alongside them.
Water mills – fulling mills and flour mills – also changed the channels, each mill creating an impounded headwater, a mill pool and mill race.
In the grounds of stately homes streams were opened to form broad-waters and lakes in the craze for landscaping that gripped the moneyed classes of the 18th and 19th centuries. At Wilton the River Nadder is grandified and flows under an extravagant Palladian bridge.
Most distinctive was the harnessing of chalk-streams to create water meadows: a system of agriculture developed between the 17th and 19th centuries that shaped these rivers into a patchwork of channels, sluices and hatchways. Side streams or carriers were cut off the main channel forming a loop around and through the surrounding meadows. Hatchways were built to control flows into and out of this network of carriers, and cuts were made across the meadows to carry water to flood the ground: the flooding was intended to protect grazing meadows from frost and to fertilise the ground with sediment.
All of these developments dramatically shaped our chalk rivers and we fish amongst the relics – the hatchways and broad-waters, the maze of carriers that on rivers like the lower Frome, or the Kennet divide the floodplain into a complicated web of water.
But if the works of man set the scene, they have also undermined it.
The changes that have overtaken the chalk-streams since the mid-19th century while less visually dramatic for the most part, have unfortunately been more pernicious. The rivers of London felt some of the worst of them first: pollution and abstraction. The Wandle was once so great a river that Royal Preserves (1606) protected its fish stocks. Nelson fished it with his good arm. Walton referred to the trout spotted like tortoises, and Camden in 1586 to the ‘cleare rivulet Wandle, so full of the best trouts’.
Nature holds on with some tenacity. In 1805 according to Malcolm’s Compendium of Modern Husbandry, the Wandle supported twelve calico works, nine flour mills, five snuff mills, three bleaching grounds, five oil mills, two dyeing works, one paper mill, one skinning mill, one logwood mill, one copper mill, one porter brewery: forty-two industries in eight miles of water employing 3000 people. Trade was so brisk that the Wandle was the site of Britain’s first pre-steam rail-route, the horse-drawn Surrey Railway.
It remained a good trout stream for some time. A description of the river at Croydon in 1830 refers to the ‘nice gravely bottom for the trout to spawn in’ (that part of the river is now buried in a pipe). Halford caught his first dry fly trout on the Wandle at Carshalton in 1868, but forty years later the river was described as “sage-green and sluggish, a sticky stream soiled by a dozen factories and smelling vilely.” In 1934 its last trout was caught by a bait fisherman – a 5lb 2oz trout, 22 inches long. Industrial pollution, sewage from the suburbs and the intensifying effects of abstraction and the urbanisation of the catchment had finally contrived to kill the river.
In the 20th century a sprawling suburbia and its growing satellite towns demanded more and more water and the chalk aquifers of the Chilterns and North Downs supplied it. Drilling technology improved and boreholes were sunk deep into the ground. Rivers like the Chess, Misbourne and Darent are shadows today of what they once were, their aquifers denuded by the water pumps.
The effect of abstraction spread outwards as the heavily populated south and south east demanded more water. Today there is hardly a chalk-stream that does not feel the impact of abstraction. In some cases the impact is deadly. In 1995 I spent two weeks in July rescuing trout from a drying River Tarrant in Dorset. Eventually the river disappeared, all the way to its confluence with the Stour. When once our small chalk-streams would have survived a drought, the same conditions now can finish them off.
On the River Misbourne from 1962 until 1997 65% of the available water was pumped for public water supply. So extreme was the impact that in 1997 over 23km out of 25 km of river ran dry.
On the River Piddle at Briantspuddle – right on top of the cone of aquifer depression caused by the pumping station – the river has sometimes disappeared in hot dry summers. Now compensation water is needed to keep the stream going.
The compounding effects of abstraction – even when rivers do not dry completely – are severe. Pollutants become concentrated. The rivers slow down and drop sediment. Habitat for fish, insects and plants is reduced and severely altered. Any other negative impact on water quality – fish- or cress-farm pollution, sediment and nitrogen input from agriculture, phosphate input from sewage – is greatly increased by abstraction.
The population growth demanding water from the chalk downs has unfortunately coincided over the past 50 years with a second agricultural revolution – the post-war intensification of farming. In the decades following 1945 more and more land was brought into cultivation, more and more chemical fertilisers were applied to it and, perhaps worst of all, many rivers were dredged in agricultural drainage schemes, or so-called flood prevention measures which have since been shown to be poorly conceived and even counter-productive.
Between 1931 and 1991 the population in the Kennet valley grew from 55,000 to 175,000. The numbers of sheep and pigs increased massively, and the area cultivated for cereal crops trebled. Phosphorus inputs nearly trebled, and nitrogen inputs more than doubled. The combined input of nitrogen mostly from farming, and phosphorus mostly from sewage, and the intensifying effect of abstraction has brought on unpleasant changes to the ecology of our chalk rivers. Blanket weed and filamentous algae smother the gravels and river weeds on which the health and habitat of the river largely depends. Instead of deep, clear water flowing over clean gravel between stands of water buttercup, we get insipid opaque trickles over a slimy carpet of green ectoplasm.
As more land has been brought under the plough, and flows have weakened, so our chalk rivers have begun to choke with silt. Silt smothers the gravel on the river bed, smoothing over and blocking the rough texture, and spaces between the stones on which rooted plants and insects depend. Silt blocks the flow of water through the gravel redds cut by trout, grayling and salmon, suffocating their developing eggs. Silt feeds the algae with nutrients. Now autumn ploughing threatens to accelerate the rot. Rivers like the Upper Frome in Dorset are carrying far too much silt and appear to be losing their ability to sustain healthy numbers of wild trout.
Where livestock is farmed intensively cattle and even sheep can destroy river channels, treading the delicate margins into a dust bowl. When riverbanks lose the protection of plants they erode quickly. The channel gets wider, the river shallower, the water warmer. Badly poached rivers can became barren wastelands.
Invasive foreign pants have the same impact as herds of cattle. Himalayan Balsam, first imported by Victorian gardeners, thrives on our chalk-river banks. It has a sweet odour and pretty flowers but it is rampant and grows in dense patches, excluding all other plants. It colonises river-banks, but as an annual dies away to nothing in the winter, exposing bare earth to the erosive impact of winter flows.
While phosphorus and nitrogen inputs, and even abstraction can with a will be reduced in time, the work of the dragline and digger has wrecked many chalk-streams forever. It is abomination that so many miles of chalk river were dredged. Chalk-streams are not high-energy rivers. They have acquired their gravel and flint beds over millions of years, and once removed there is little chance of new material entering the system. But a living river needs its gravel like we need oxygen: the whole fluvial process depends on the relationship between flowing water and the material it moves around and over. Take out the gravel and you break the back of the river. Long reaches of the Lower Frome in Dorset are dispirited canals, with silt troughs for a bed. English Nature funded a small project of mine in 1999 to reinstate three gravel riffles, and the results on those few yards show that reparation can work. But such efforts will be sticking plaster until a will exists to restore to these rivers the full amount of material that was taken out of them.
After such a catalogue of debilitating impacts it is a miracle to consider that our chalk-streams are not completely destroyed. It has been their saving grace then to be such fine fishing streams and to have had as a result a passionate army of defenders. Anglers. Anglers have cared enough to observe and take note. They have also cared enough to act. In recent years it has been the anglers on these rivers who have agitated for reductions in abstraction, for gravel to be re-placed, for dredging programmes to be abated, for fly-surveys to be conducted, for phosphorus strippers to be installed at sewage works, for river banks to be fenced, for rubbish to be cleared from urban streams, for city-centre conservation projects, for miles of river bank to be restored, for invasive plant impacts to be taken seriously, for sediment inputs to be assessed, for more responsible agricultural practice, for government enquiries into the impact of cress farming and for the river corridors to be preserved. Anglers could rightly claim to be at the vanguard of efforts to save these unique rivers from the panoply of destructive influences the last 100 years of development has brought to bear, and as a result public trusts and governmental bodies have now taken up the cause with some enthusiasm.
But anglers still have one boil of their own to lance. In 1905 Plunket-Green wrote passionately of the folly of overstocking a wild stream in ‘Where the Bright Waters Meet’. In 1993 Sidney Vines wrote in The Field of widespread stocking practices that were greedy and disrespectful to both river and fish. The intervening years had taught us little. There is a delicate balance of course, and in many cases careful stocking is used to overcome some of the ways in which our chalk-streams have been undermined whilst still preserving a fishery. But trickle stocking to maintain sport and the benefits of a viable fishery is one thing. Swamp stocking with outsized fish calculated to satisfy the soulless trophy hunter is another. It is a curiously pointless exercise angling for a huge trout that only got huge on trout kibble, but more significantly poor stocking practise undermines the viability of what wild trout populations we have left.
In 2004 the Environment Agency published its Trout and Grayling strategy, which threatened to bring more careful controls to bear on the stocking of wild trout streams. The writing is on the wall. Anglers must clean up their act before it is cleaned up for them. (since writing this the EA has introduced a rule to allow stocking with only infertile (triploid) trout, and much more significantly the wild trout and wild rivers movement has made great strides. We are stocking less and less.)
Durnford’s fishing diary of 1809 makes interesting reading in this context. Trout caught in May of that year on the river Test averaged just over a pound. During ten years Durnford caught trout over two pounds in mayfly time, and the occasional three-pounder, nothing bigger. But today on some beats of the same river a three-pound trout would be the smallest fish in the bag.
If I try to think of the perfect trout stream I know that it is a chalk-stream. Limestone streams are more widespread, and often flow through less spoiled parts of the world but a chalk-stream at its best is unbeatable. All the qualities of a spring-fed river – constant, equable, cool, fertile – are magnified in a chalk-stream. Chalk-streams have a constancy that spans the seasons, they have a verdant opulence that the rougher-edged limestone stream cannot match, a sedate grandeur too. In this limpid environment of marbled currents wild trout thrive, growing fat and fantastically fussy.
But if I know that it is a chalk-stream I falter when I try to say which one. I think of all these qualities, and wonder where they meet their fullest expression and I hesitate. Not because there is such variety – which there is – but because nowhere is a chalk-stream flowing quite as it should be. And so this essay is a plea for their restoration and preservation.
A sickle shape of chalk rises the other side of the English channel in Normandy, drops under the sea, reappearing in Dorset buckling like waves against a reef. The waves gather height as they ride north and east through Wiltshire, Hampshire, settle to an easy swell through Berkshire, and furrow gently around the north of London, until as the swell rides out on the flat plains of East Anglia, the ripples are as gentle as the farthest reach of surf on a sweep of flat sand. Then the chalk is gone, though it surfaces again as an echo further north in Lincolnshire, and then again in Yorkshire. Right along this bed of chalk there are chalk-streams – hundreds of them. Far more than most who know chalk-streams well would guess. We think easily of the famous dozen or so, the Test, Itchen, Wylye, Avon, Kennet and so on. But who’s heard of the Jordan, Snail or Hun?
The fact that there are so many more than we would have suspected should be encouraging when we consider their condition. But ironically it only goes to underline that the chalk-stream is a finite thing. There are only so many and God is not making any more of them. The fact that not one mile of their globally unique habitat is as it should be ought to worry us, not least because it is a failure that belongs to the current generation.
The writing in this book is in collective praise of the chalk-stream. My small hope is that it will encourage one or two more pumps to be switched off, or one or two hundred tons more gravel to be put back.
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 Thread: Fishological Moments and the Pursuit of Paradise (Scribner, 2021).
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.
issued after the Conference: ‘Owned by Everyone’? The wonder, plight and future of chalk streams, held at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College Cambridge 30-31 March 2023, with the support of the CCI, Pembroke College, the Impact Fund of the University of Cambridge’s School of Arts and Humanities, and in partnership with WildFish Conservation.
Ninety women and men – scientists and song writers, writers, river keepers, riparian owners, students, wild swimmers, kayakers, artists, illustrators and ornithologists, representatives of local community action groups and our leading NGOs, local and national politicians, board members and former directors of water companies – gathered for two days at the end of March 2023 at the David Attenborough Building in the University of Cambridge. We came from all over England and beyond to discuss the wonder, plight and future of England’s chalk streams and the fate of their extraordinary mineral-rich water.
We agreed to issue this statement, and to do all we can to act on it, and keep on acting, and to build a coalition of care for our chalk streams that is as strong as it is inclusive. Chalk streams murmur, equably, so it is for us to raise our voice on their behalf. Their destiny is our responsibility; their very life is in our hands, and it is running, with the last of its depleted strength, through our fingers. We must all act now to restore them to their, and our, natural vitality.
If England wore a crown, it would be made of chalk stream water. Chalk streams are fed by aquifers in chalk hills sixty million years old, on which rain falls and is filtered over months and through the fossilised remains of calcium-rich shells of creatures that once teemed in long-vanished seas. They are rare as rhinos, but much more English: they are our coral reefs. They are rivers of global importance, concentrated into a fan that opens in North-East Yorkshire – Chalkshire – and closes in Dorset: think of them as the Stonehenge, the Shakespeare Sonnets, the Lark Ascending of Rivers. Novelists, poets and children’s writers have written them into our national feeling. We are unthinkable without them.
Images by Charles Rangeley-Wilson
And yet, if a nation’s culture is no better than its rivers, ours is in crisis. Many of our chalk streams are dying, murkily, and we are incensed, not least by the killing of the Cam, four hundred yards from where we met. Like many other chalk streams, chronic and intensifying over-abstraction to supply the needs of housing developments and our own careless habits of consumption within them. Intensive agriculture has robbed it of its chalk groundwater, only to replace it with untreated sewage, run off from roads and additives, phosphates and fertiliser from agriculture. Bizarrely, boreholes drilled deep into aquifers are needed to sustain what flow there is in the Cam and its tributaries. Licences for abstraction are granted, but the amount abstracted is neither sensibly limited nor adequately monitored.
So our rivers are dying, completely unnecessarily. Statutory protection for these ecosystems that in a sane world would all be Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and our lungs, our sources of spiritual refreshment, wonder, besides, are —as the Devon rivers of our conference’s inspiration, the poet and activist Ted Hughes, had become in the 1980s – sewers. Wild fish can’t breathe in water robbed of its flow, can’t breed where gravels are not washed clean by a chalk stream’s sinuous flow, can’t shelter or feed where Ranunculus, common water crowfoot, starwort, have been replaced in dredged straightened channels by blanket weed, algal blooms.
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode, May 2021. Image: Liz Thompson
Time is short. We note the important foundations recently laid in the Catchment Based Approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy 2021and Implementation Plan 2022. But these crucial documents are necessary but not yet sufficient, because they are as yet not widely enough known, or supported by the resources and investment required to accelerate their recommendations as our rivers deserve, and as the Government’s plans for imminent withdrawal (by the end of 2023) of many crucial Europe-wide environmental protection legislation without adequate plans to replace them or staff to monitor those replacements. Already this year the statutory requirement to publish annual reports on water quality has been ditched. This is not good enough, not what our chalk streams need or deserve.
So we must act radically and shrewdly, not just within existing interest groups or parties but by acknowledging and acting on the recognition that chalk streams should and must belong to everyone, and that everyone is responsible for protecting their rights to life, until English law and environmental democracy recognises those rights. In building that strong, inclusive coalition of care, we must make every effort, beginning with the group assembled here, to complement the work of the Chalk Stream Hub and share resources: to find and keep using the language that hits home, touches everyone, children of all ages, makes us feel their responsibility for this crisis; the power of underwater photography and film; the wonderful examples of community action groups.
As the example and advice of Sir David Attenborough proves, only by bringing sustained and overwhelming pressure of public opinion to bear on those we elect as our representatives can historic and current class and party interests yield to all our long-term interests, in the health and vitality of our rivers. We must become Thomas Hardy’s description of watered meadows, resemble ‘silver gridirons’ in the bright coordination of what we say and what we do. We must pool our resources, using best practice to empower each local catchment to manage its common water resources better. We must advocate for the acceleration of the construction of new reservoirs, maintain the pressure to address massive leakage from pipes no longer fit for purpose, and increase investment in desalination, as alternatives to the horror of uncontrolled abstraction. We must – as swimmers, paddlers, anglers, naturalists, farmers or riparian owners, walkers and those seeking refuge and refreshment by a river – reimagine and so empower access to these extraordinary arteries in our natural and individual lives. We must, as individual water consumers, change our own attitudes to water and its consumption – noting that English people use, and waste, far more water per day than in many European nations, and that, unlike any other privatised utility, individual consumers have no choice of supplier. Those of us who can afford it must be prepared to pay more for water; those who can’t will need a form of universal credit for this essential element.
That work is only beginning, but it must mean reaching those not in our Cambridge ninety. Those who don’t know that catchments fill rivers as well as schools. We must find means by which we can, urgently, reach and maximise the recent upwelling of public outrage, that groundswell, that source of deep emotion, at some of the most hideous signs of our rivers’ decline, and we must listen to that human flow, learn from and become influencers, increase the political pressure for greater investment, greater monitoring, greater accountability until we wash away greenwashing. We must also listen to those who have not yet discovered the power of rivers, and help them discover it.
We must, then, work together not just to treat the symptoms of the terminal decline of our chalk streams – abstraction, pollution – but to address their cause. We must no longer tolerate successive institutional failures in which we have been complicit, and instead ensure, by our action, our advocacy and our example, that those institutions on which we depend – privatised water companies, local authorities, national governments, our judiciary – do what nature needs them to: protect and restore our chalk streams. Let them flow as nature intended. And we must do this fast. Our beloved chalk streams, and our children, and their children, deserve no less.
In due course, the pages and links at OWNED BY EVERYONE will, we hope, become a version for our times of what Dermot Wilson founded for the Salmon & Trout Association: a Water Resources Board. His was a board of committed people, but who happened to fish for game fish, and were, mostly, male. For Dermot Wilson, the trout, too, was ‘His Lordship’. And inspired by memory of her own father’s fishing, anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote a brilliant essay called ‘The Gender of the Trout’.
Image: Charles Rangeley-Wilson
Our version will, we hope, be an interactive forum hosting experiences, testimony, images, art, writing as beautiful as the rivers that inspires it, as well as cutting edge science, news and successes from river restoration projects, latest news and stories: advice on how to work with a local authority, or why it’s not always a good idea to let your dog plunge into the water; examples of a water company’s good practice (there is some); citizen science initiatives; fish, insects, kingfishers, otters; celebrations of a particular river’s history, or of particular people whose lives have been touched and changed direction by contact with a river.
To get us started, and set the bar inspiringly high, we thought we would share, in two instalments,, some of the contents of a public panel of writers and film makers which took place during the conference as part of the Cambridge Festival 2023, and the work led by one of the audience, and England’s leading chalk stream restorationist, writer and photographer. As it happens, technical challenges on the night meant that we couldn’t record the panel event, but we have gone one better here, and will begin with three short films as doorways onto the beauty of our chalk streams. Discover what follows at your own pace, particularly if you’ve already enjoyed Kate’s Drifting Paper, which we introduce on our home page.
First, two trailers of fine films about Cambridge’s waters.
Waterlight began as a collaboration between poet and writer Clare Crossman and filmmaker James Murray-White, and the project team has since grown to include local expert Bruce Huett and filmmaker Nigel Kinnings. James joined us by Zoom to introduce the trailer, which you can watch here:
Further details of the Waterlight Project, including how to buying a DVD of the whole film or or download a digital copy, are here.
Cambridge conservationist, film maker and member of the Cam Valley Forum Tony Eva also introduced his new film about Hobson’s Conduit, which too many Cambridge residents step over, or in by accident, and probably never do more than curse or raise an eyebrow at. Never again. You can watch the trailer for Pure Clean Water here:
And find the website, still in development, as this one is, here.
Please share these films.
And then enjoy, or be moved by, this, from poet and activist Tony Davis, and share this too. Tony and his partner Genny Early swim locally in Oxfordshire Genny also works on projects locally in Oxfordshire to improve the state of Nature with her Farmland Bird Aid Network and also the Wychwood Flora Group.
They both recently had a zoom session with our Stonesfield village environment group (our nearest river is the Evenlode – a tributary of the Thames). This meeting featured pioneering work done by W.A.S.P in Witney against river pollution. Predictably, writes Tony, their local MP Robert Courts (West Oxfordshire) voted against the recent Lords amendment requiring the water companies to reduce pollution and sewage outflows.
This was so upsetting that Tony set about writing a poem about it. He’s now created a shortened video version of this with music by Nick Hooper.
Lest water company board members don’t watch movies, Tony is also planning to send hard copy versions of the poem to all water company board members with specific verses written for the catchment they’re responsible for damaging.
I think it’s safe to say that there are more films from Tony to follow; here’s one called Auguries of Iciness, based on WildSwimmer Kath Fotheringingham’s photographs taken during an icy swim in the Cherwell.
And talking of things to follow, our next posts, as we prepare the first episodes of our series of podcasts from our conference, will include its Closing Statement, new writing from new Adam Nicolson and David Profumo, and links to the impressive Catchment Based Approach Chalk Stream Strategy, Implementation Plan and Chalk Hubs, which we see these pages as complementing and extending, helping them flow.
‘Owned by everyone’: the phrase has inspired two Cambridge conferences, on the Atlantic salmon in 2019 and, in March 2023, on chalk streams. It comes from Ted Hughes: the great poet, fisherman and champion of wild fish and wild waters. Here Mark Wormald introduces the latest response to the man and his work: a new book, The Catch, published by Bloomsbury on 28 April.
Ten springs ago, I spent a week of glorious Devon sunshine in a cottage above the river Tamar. I’ve always loved rivers. For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried, and often failed, to catch fish in them. And since August 1983, when I was seventeen, and a course my father sent me on at the Arundell Arms hotel ten miles north of Rose Cottage, on the Tamar and its tributaries, I’ve at least known how to cast a fly. But on this trip I deliberately didn’t bring my tackle with me. I needed to keep my hands dry and my head above water. I was here to read and then to write an essay about a collection of poetry published the month after that course, almost forty years now: River, by Ted Hughes.
My day job is as a teacher and researcher of English literature. It so happens that the Cambridge College where I work was where the poet studied in the early 1950s. But such chance coincidences don’t usually feature in literary critical essays. So even though, by the time I opened River and started reading, I knew that Ted Hughes had started keeping fishing diaries six years before he published this collection, and even though, in the manuscripts room of the British Library, I’d recently had a first startling encounter with this essentially personal and even private record of his fishing, I thought I knew what I was about: a fun but containable exercise, an essay, nothing more. I’d demonstrate how those handwritten diaries fed the printed pages of poems, open before me as the sun drew me out onto the terrace, and beginning to stir and flap in the warm breeze.
That week and the adventures that followed changed my life.
Not immediately. I wrote and published that essay as ‘Fishing for Ted’, a gentle variant on a fine essay, ‘Fishing with Ted’, which the novelist Graham Swift had written as soon as he’d learned the shocking news of Hughes’s death in 1998. They’d got to know each other on the banks of a river they both loved, the Torridge, which twisted through a secret shared Paradise of a subtly different landscape, an hour or so northeast of where I read River that week. I envied Graham those direct memories, which he soon shared with me in person, in my Cambridge study: for hours he stared, rapt, through me into experiences and recollections as vivid as any as I’d heard a stranger tell.
I never met Ted Hughes. But soon, meeting Ted’s fishing friends, in place, theirs and his – and he had different friends for different species of fish in different countries – convinced me of two things.
First, that fishing, for Ted Hughes, was more than the hobby or pastime or even source of analogy that those non-fishing friends and admirers of his work thought it to be. It [‘went] deep’, as he put it in one of his wonderfully intense radio broadcasts of the nineteen sixties. As a boy, fishing had helped him learn to think; always it provided deep and sure contact with aspects of his true self – even, I began to sense, with different aspects of that self, according to the species of fish he was hunting.
Fishing sustained him, helped heal him, among the many personal tragedies and losses he suffered. Some of those tragedies were unspeakable. But so, literally, was fishing, at least for the hours after he’d been alone beside or in the river, with the fish, the flies, the birds, the creatures of those hidden places of essential flow.
Be assumed into glistening of lymph
As if creation were a wound
As if this flow were all plasm healing
Ted Hughes, from ‘Go fishing’ in River (1983)
As I joined those friends on those same waters, I heard them speak of their unconditional love for the man, even if not all of them quite understood his poetry, and I came to realise something else. To fathom these poems myself, as I’d begun to beside the Tamar, and the depth of what they stirred in me, opened for me, I would need to do more than sit back, more than keep to my desk and chair and keyboard. I would need actually and actively to fish for him myself. As truly as possible: as faithfully, to the place and pool and date and time of day, as I could manage.
Much more often than not, it worked. Doors and gates swung open, ‘opened inwards’, as Ted liked to say. I forged friendships of my own, learned much about these waters and the secrets they still held.
But I learned what they’d lost, too. The health and flow of the rivers Ted Hughes loved have changed, over thirty, forty years. Shrunk, along with their populations of fish, their fly life, their fauna. We have missed opportunities to respond to his own passionate care and advocacy on their behalf, a care that itself underwent a profound change, from that of predator – a mutual friend described him to Graham Swift just before the novelist’s first meeting with the poet as ‘A great killer of fish’ – to protector. The Torridge, he came to realise, after an hour of shockingly successful plunder from his favourite pool, already under assault from intensive farming, abstraction and pollution, was ‘a river that needed its fish more than I did.’
I’ve come, myself, to find the enduring truth of those words, fishing in Ted Hughes’s footsteps this past decade. More, I think I’ve found myself, fishing. I’m 56 now. His writing, in and beyond River, his way of being, fishing, with his son Nicholas, to whom he dedicated that book, has helped heal me, as a son, a brother, a father, from habits I suspect I share with many other British men, of my generation and his: assumptions and failures to look at and below the surface of things as honestly and closely as his writing did, and still does.
I’d urge anyone who cares about wild fish, wild rivers, and the wild somewhere in themselves to read River. And if you want a guide, The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes, is published by Bloomsbury on 28 April.
This week, we had been hoping to host a second gathering in Cambridge, between the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College; those of us involved in the months of careful planning, and the assembly of an impressively diverse array of distinguished speakers, have got into the habit of calling it OBE2. Its subject, announced along with the date on earlier posts, is the wonder, plight and future of chalk streams. England is home to 85% of the world’s chalk streams, and they’re not making any more. After centuries of more or less equable management of them, the last seventy years have witnessed a steady and steadily more terrible decline in their health.
OBE stands, of course, for ‘Owned by everyone’, the phrase Ted Hughes gave to the salmon smolt hero and slave of the poem he wrote in aid of the Atlantic Salmon Trust in 1985, ‘The Best Worker in Europe’. The most iconic of our chalk streams cannot be said to be ‘owned by everyone’, but everyone of us — water consumers and bill payers, dog walkers, farmers, trout farmers, wild swimmers, those who watch pouring rain wash over and off the concrete and asphalt with which ever more of our country is covered and into and out of storm drains, as well as the privileged few who own or fish the iconic rivers of Hampshire and Wiltshire — has a responsibility for their future. Because it’s ours, too, and our children’s. And thus enough of us have to learn to feel for them, to care, too.
Back in January, the surge in cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 led to advice from our hosts, the University of Cambridge, that we could plan only for limited numbers at OBE2. But all of our speakers and our invited guests wanted to come. So they will — just a year later than planned. We will be confirming dates very soon.
In the meantime, and now that spring has taken glorious hold of the land and its waters, and rivers and their fish and birds and flylife beckon some of us, here is one man’s hymn to chalk streams. David Profumo is one of our finest fishing writers, and the fishing correspondent for Country Life magazine. His wonderful memoir, The Lightning Thread: Fishological Moments and the Pursuit of Paradise, first published last year, is out in paperback from Scribner on April 28th and may be ordered here.
I was brought up on a stretch of chalk stream that nobody else fished, and even back then (in the late Sixties) I realised what a singular privilege this was.
The Rib – near Westmill, in Hertfordshire – ran through a dishevelled wood at the end of a pasture opposite our home. The river itself was less than kempt: no fly-boards, or nice footbridges upholstered with chicken wire, or even a path up its banks. You couldn’t wade, for all the treefalls. Its holt-like pools harboured a few long, lean wild brown trout, which I spent hundreds of teenage hours trying to deceive – occasionally with unorthodox methods.
If the Itchen is a love lyric by some Romantic versifier, this stream was a garbled diary entry by Hunter S. Thompson.
It kept me (mostly) out of trouble during certain crucial years; and it also imbued me with five decades of being in thrall to the charm – or should that be ‘the glamour’ (as in love spell)? – of chalk country. I have now fished a fair few of the two hundred-plus such streams, but have always had a penchant for the more minor waters. Dun, Dever, Chess and Misbourne have beguiled me with their spring-fed beauty, their gravel glimpses and soft punctuations of green, their spilling and whispering, the peek they afford into another world entirely. And I have an abiding fondness for the life that thrives there, when all is well: starwort and milfoil, grayling and minnows, dippers, water voles and scudding shrimp – as the poet Auden wrote (in praise of Lakes) ‘Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy’.
I have come to believe there is something else, slightly peculiar, about the appeal of chalk streams, too. It’s to do with their delicacy, that hint of glass-blown perfection and delight, a certain managed gentleness. They are, after all, partly human artefacts, which perhaps makes them all the more fragile and valuable. Subjectively, I associate them with the apparent pastoralism of England prior to the Great War, or the uncluttered milieu of The Wind in the Willows. There is a mesmerised, slightly cross-eyed, body of literature that celebrates these waters (by Kingsley, Grey, Hills and Plunket Greene, for instance) which you don’t get from, say, the hydrodynamic celebration of Highland rivers and their hurly-burly, or indeed the heroics of billfish safaris, and the like. If I’m being fanciful, I might suggest chalk streams are good for the soul (though some of us by now may be beyond salvation). ‘Glory was in me,’ wrote John Betjeman, of his beloved Kennet. Well, what’s so wrong with a bit of that?
John Ruskin hymned the Wandle, back in 1870, for its ‘welling of stainless water, trembling and pure, like a body of light.’ These days, as we all know (though occasionally you must preach to the converted) all is not well in chalk country. Sometimes referred to as the English equivalent of the rain forests – though I prefer Dr. Janina Grey’s analogy of the imperilled coral reefs – there is a crisis that has recently been highlighted with admirable, and apt, clarity in the Restoration Strategy of the Catchment Based Approach Chalk Streams publication. It reminds us that these rare waters have for centuries been managed, harnessed, modified and exploited, but now (thanks to excessively thirsty British households) they need better protection, fast. The present ‘priority habitat status’ designation is not enough. There are ingenious and complex ways in which chalk streams can be enhanced or ‘mended’, but the will to implement such practices is not yet widespread.
This is symptomatic of an inexplicable national attitude towards the provision of good, clean water in quantity and quality. Fewer than one in five of our English rivers are considered to be in an acceptable ecological state. Is it because we covertly subscribe to the myth that we inhabit a soaking wet island, and that therefore Nature always remedies itself? Setting aside the disgraceful whipping of MPs to vote down that amendment to the Environment Bill, or the outrageous claims from some of our privatised Water Companies (who continue to dump untreated sewage into our waterways on a Third World scale), what will future generations make of our failure to curb pollution and abstraction, the lack of investment in reservoirs to reconcile these new cycles of drought and inundation?
If chalk streams don’t matter, there is not much hope for the future of the more unlovely parts of our British environment. Right now, I can’t think of a better call to arms than this.
We can’t just invent fresh, clean water – and we can not allow our chalk streams to die of thirst.
The most recent post on this website announced a major fundraising initiative being launched by Salmon & Trout Conservation to make possible a much-needed reassessment of Atlantic Salmon by the IUCN Red List. It also looked forward to a new magazine, WILD FISH.
It’s a delight to bring excellent news on both fronts. Thanks to the generosity of individuals and organisations, above all Salmon & Trout Conservation itself, the funding has been secured, and Will Darwall and his colleagues at the IUCN are now at work on reviewing global and sub-population data. Results are expected next spring, and should provide an enormously important tool in the ongoing fight for wild salmon and the waters in which they swim.
John Fanshawe and I are also thrilled to announce that, all the more dazzling for its second winter at sea, WILD FISH is now available as a breathtakingly beautiful ebook and in print — again thanks to the generosity and expertise of the Salmon & Trout Conservation team and the designer Jon Ogbourne. You can download the ebook here, or via the S@TC website.
The contents of WILD FISH reflect the structure of our conference in December 2019, and its ethos — to encourage the fisheries scientists, anthropologists, literary critics, conservationists, poets and anglers who spoke then and have written now to reach beyond their accustomed audiences in passionate defence of the scientific, spiritual and cultural wonders of the salmon and the importance of our relationship with him. But the power of the prose, poetry and scientific evidence it contains, the stories and videos and further reading to which you’ll find live links, go well beyond what we could have hoped for. From its first page to its last, WILD FISH also reflects the enduring inspiration of Ted Hughes, a reading of whose poem ‘October Salmon’ from his great collection River (1983) concluded our gathering in Cambridge, and which with the permission of the Ted Hughes Estate and Faber & Faber Ltd is reprinted here. Please enjoy WILD FISH, and help ensure that it reaches as many eyes and hearts as it can, by sharing it widely. Print copies are also available at £5 from email@example.com, and I have just this morning received mine through the post. It really is very fine: order yours now!
None of us who attended the dinner at our ‘Owned by everyone’ conference in Cambridge will have forgotten the wonderful speech which the distinguished novelist and journalist David Profumo gave about his own friendship with Ted Hughes, and the importance of fishing for them both. David was then deep at work on the dazzling memoir of a life spent fishing and learning, The Lightning Thread: Fishological Moments and the Pursuit of Paradise, which was published by Scribner on the very same day as Salmon & Trout Conservation released WILD FISH.
David’s title combines Dylan Thomas and the Irish fisherman-philosopher A.A.Luce, and the book as a whole is written out of a love of Izaac Walton, whose ‘watery discourse’ is clearly an inspiration. But it also reminded me of Hughes’s praise for Dermot Wilson’s Fishing the Dry Fly: ‘Wherever I open it my eye alights on a paragraph that is delightful to read, and that leads on irresistibly to the next paragraph that is equally delightful and that leads on irresistibly . . . ‘ David fished with both men, and with many of the other great fishermen writers from the nearly six decades in which he has been catching fish, and fish lore. He wears his immense and quirky learning lightly, shares many intensely personal portraits of the people, places and fish that have made David’s life on and in the water one of real happiness, and throughout casts a beautiful line. And amongst his adventures you will find a strange and moving story from our Cambridge conference.
Or, I should say, from our first Cambridge conference. As John Fanshawe describes in his ‘Afterword’ to Wild Fish, plans are now in place for a second ‘Owned by everyone’, devoted to the ecological and cultural importance of chalk streams, their water fish, their fauna and flora, the manifold threats they have come to face over recent decade, and what we can do to remove all kinds of barriers — chemical, physical, political, economic — to their health and even their survival. This will take place in Cambridge from 31 March to 2 April 2022. Watch this space for more details.