Cambridge University screen Waterlight at the David Attenborough Building

Local historian and conservationist and Waterlight Project team member Bruce Huett writes on the latest showing of our film — and the most prestigious so far. The special event, on 19th November at the David Attenborough Building at the heart of Cambridge University, was hosted by the Cambridge Conservation Forum and the Cam Valley Forum.


The David Attenborough Building, to quote from a news report on its opening, “acts as a collaborative hub for the conservation community within Cambridge and beyond. Creating a collaborative and dynamic space in which experts from academia, practice and policy interact and work together on a daily basis helps shape the future of life on Earth and the relationship between people and the natural environment on which we depend for our own wellbeing and survival.” It is visually stunning and the reception is backed by a wall of live plants stretching several stories high.

The Cambridge Conservation Forum and Cam Valley Forum are significant conservation organisations in Cambridge. The CCF, a founder member of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), assists in co-ordinating the activities of over 60 conservation organisations in and around Cambridge, including practitioners and researchers. The CVF is the co-ordination body for an extensive network of partners working to protect and improve the environment of the River Cam and its tributaries, including the River Mel.

An engaged audience

It was therefore a very significant venue in which to show the film.  The event was fully booked (about a hundred spaces) several weeks before the event, indicating the interest in this topic. The audience comprised representatives of conservation organisations and river groups in and around Cambridge stretching as far afield as Baldock, Bury St Edmunds and Milton Keynes.

Cambridge conservation - a capacity screening
A capacity screening

The event started with Stephen Tomkins from CVF and Humphrey Crick from CCF welcoming the audience. I then introduced the project, against a backdrop of archival photographs of activities in the river. This was a pleasurable opportunity to share what I see as the spirituality of the river to such a wide audience; thereby realising one of the main community focused aims of the project. 

Bruce Huett

Clare read some of her poems and Penni and Bryan played some of their folk music. James and Nigel then gave an introduction to the making of the film.

Clare Crossman

We then showed the full version of the film which, as usual, received rapt attention and enthusiastic applause at the end.

Waterlight folk music

Enthusiastic discussion

CCF had kindly provided refreshments and this gave an opportunity for everyone to mingle and share their river experiences and conservation initiatives. Several groups expressed an interest in developing a similar project and there were expressions of interest for showing the film at other venues.

After an enjoyable break, the evening continued with questions to a well-informed panel of: Rob Mungovan from the Wild Trout Trust (who had also assisted with Mel restoration); Ruth Hawksley from the Wildlife Trust (who had also advised on Mel restoration); Steve Hawkins, Chair of the Mel River Restoration Group; and Mike Foley, bird expert and CVF member.

Questions mainly focused on water abstraction and augmentation issues and how organisations could bring pressure to bear on the environmental agency, water companies and the government to improve the situation. There had been an important meeting recently with these parties at the Guildhall in Cambridge to discuss the pressure on the local watercourses.

There was a question about finding a balance between tourist demands for a good flow in Bury St Edmonds against reduced flow elsewhere in the water system; the consensus on the panel was that it was difficult to resolve.

An interesting discussion point was the excess of phosphate in local water courses. Although nitrate runoff from agricultural land is now largely under control in Cambridgeshire this is not the case for phosphates. Although not as detrimental to the food chain as nitrates, phosphates do encourage plant growth, resulting in more weed needing to be removed from the streams on clearing sessions in order to maintain a reasonable flow.

Luckily mink had not been seen on the Mel recently and recent mammal and invertebrate sampling showed a reasonably healthy river.

Cambridge conservation - Iain Webb (Cambridge Wildlife Trust) & Rob Mungovan (local ecologist)
Iain Webb (Cambridge Wildlife Trust) & Rob Mungovan (local ecologist featured in the Waterlight film)

Reference was made to the Cam Valley Forum’s Cam River Manifesto, a recent analysis of the threats to the Cambridgeshire chalk streams. We’ve linked to the manifesto below.

Praise for the Waterlight approach

After this session there was a further opportunity to mingle and discuss issues. During these conversations there was a lot of praise for the film and, despite our requests for any ideas for improvements, all the comments were positive.

Julia Grosse — event co-ordinator for CCF — said: “It was lovely to hear the fond memories of this little river. It goes to show how important places are to people. A great mix of history, nature and culture; beautifully filmed. I am now looking into how we can incorporate water use / chalk stream ecosystems into the Earth Optimism event next April. It will be good to give people ideas of ways to reduce water use and raise awareness of their rare local habitats.”

Dr Humphrey Crick, CCF’s Chair, initially commented: “The film was superb — congratulations!” He then went on to email us that “Chalk streams are little jewels in our countryside and Waterlight shows this to perfection! The film highlights how these national treasures are threatened by a range of pressures but also how local communities can come together to conserve them, a wonderful example to show how each of us can make a difference.”

Stephen, from CVF, said: “It was a brilliant idea and the whole project was a model of community achievement. The serenity of the film is the abiding impression. It’s a gem…”

Jacky Sutton-Adam, chair of Cam Transition was also delighted by the film: “Waterlight is a fine work weaving history, geography, nature, and communities; past and present. The beautiful imagery, poetry and music were incredibly moving, I felt joy, sadness, hope and wonder by turn. The interwoven lives of nature and humans through history meander like the river itself, and now converge once more with the help of the Mel River Restoration Group, a band of dedicated locals who’ve worked and nurtured this chalk stream back to health. At heart, its an eloquent story of communities — I absolutely loved it.”

A representative from Baldock stated: “It was a fantastic evening. Please let me know of future screenings as I would love to promote them to relevant local groups in Letchworth. I volunteer with Friends of Baldock Green Spaces, where our chalk stream the River Ivel is running dry. The plight of the Mel is very relevant to us and the publicity this film gives it is amazing.”

Another quote was: “It was a fantastic film! One which seamlessly combined poetry, film, science and local views beautifully.”

An even more intriguing comment was: “For early Man, water was the only way it could see itself. I wonder if the murky view one now gets on peering into our chalks streams is a reflection of our blurred attitude to the importance of our natural world.”

After a couple of hours of intense interaction the audience left the building fired up about the film, the wonder of our chalk streams and the need to ensure their survival.


Find out more about this event’s hosts — and other important local organisations and groups — on our Links page. And you can find the Cam Valley Forum’s River Cam Manifesto here.

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