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.

The Waterlight Concert – Melbourn Hub, 8th March 2019

Our latest guest post comes from Eleanor FitzGerald, who offers her review of the special Waterlight Project event in Melbourn earlier this month. Her review includes a video of the specially composed Waterlight tune, composed and performed for the event. Eleanor is secretary of Gallery Writers, a group founded by three local writers and which aims to provide an outlet for writers of all abilities and interest in the surrounding area and to provide a forum in which to share their work. 


You missed a treat at Melbourn Hub on Friday evening, if you weren’t there for the Waterlight Poetry and Music celebration. The Hub was a perfect location for this event, whose theme was the chalky River Mel and its history, expressed in authentic voice by poets and musicians, including Penni McClaren Walker and Bryan Causton.

They sang and played beautifully to the folk tunes, some self-composed — such as Waterlight — and some from composer, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, who lived in Meldreth, interspersed with poets and novelists, Kate Swindlehurst and J.S.Watts who read immaculately. In complement, the musicians and poets gave us a highly professional, atmospheric and enjoyable evening. 

‘Waterlight tune’, composed & performed by Penni McClaren Walker & Bryan Causton. Filmed by Nigel Kinnings & Christine Lloyd-Fitt.

They reminded us of the significance of the river and its past to the poorer, rural communities of Meldreth and Melbourn, not in a nostalgic way but of the origins of these communities and its relationship to the land and nature. It also signified the importance of the chalk streams to the work and leisure of the people who worked on it, either in boats or in the fields. There were humour, character and pathos from the songs and poems, whilst the mandolin and bazouki of Bryan Causton sounded like the River Mel itself, trickling, rippling or gushing by.

So thank you to all of you, including the Melbourn Hub Management and to Clare Crossman who originated it and Bruce Huett and to any others I may have omitted.

A perfect evening.

Vaughan Williams in Meldreth

Clare Crossman shares her research into the time that composer Ralph Vaughan Williams spent in Meldreth. His work collecting the music and words of local folk singers has preserved an oral tradition that he saw was at risk.


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1892 to ’94. In 1906 he and his wife Adeline came to Meldreth for a summer holiday and they returned for visits in 1907 and 1908. In 1906 they leased a large house called The Warren at the North end of the village where it stood on its own, surrounded by fields.

He cycled a great deal and as Meldreth had its own station it was easy to make day trips through the surrounding areas, near the river Mel. He collected songs in Orwell, Bassingbourn, Fowlmere, Little Shelford and Royston. He rode out to pubs where the singers traditionally performed: in Meldreth it was Ginger Clayton; in Fowlmere it was Hoppy Flack; in Bassingbourn, Mr Harmonin; Orwell Billy Waggs. He may have been told about the source singers by Lucy Broadwood, Secretary of the Folk Song Society but many songs could have been collected by chance encounters. Most of the singers were farm workers or in the labouring trades.

From Hoppy Flack in Fowlmere, he collected May Song and Lord Ellenwater. Nothing much is known about Ginger Clayton in Meldreth, as he does not seem to have been resident there; but John Valentine Harman (Harmon) was an agricultural labourer who lived at the Tan Yard in Bassingbourn with his wife and seven children. The Lakes of Cold Fen was collected from him.

Most of these people would have been illiterate so they sang their literature, as in the oral tradition, and Vaughan Williams collected the tunes first and words later as he believed these folk melodies were dying out. Much of his annotation is held in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room of the British Library. Many of the songs were known to him in other variants and the words were available as published broadsides but they were sung in this area and known by those who sang them and heard by those who listened.

Songs from this area of south Cambridgeshire include:

  • Lakes of Cold Fen (Bassingbourn 1907, text from traditional sources)
  • Lord Ellenwater (written down in full as sung by Hoppy Flack, Fowlmere)
  • Cambridge May Song (as sung by Hoppy Flack, a Christian version of traditional pagan May songs)
  • Georgie (from an unnamed singer, Fowlmere 1907)
  • The Green Bushes (Mr Wiltshire, inmate of Royston Union 1907, text traditional)
  • The Trees They Do Grow High (Ginger Clayton, Meldreth text completed from Broadside).

The words and stories had a long tradition, but the tunes were important to Vaughan Williams.

Joan Baez sang a version of The Trees Do Grow High:

The trees they do grow high and the leaves they do grow green
The days are gone and past my love that you and I have seen
It’s a cold winters night my love that I must lie alone
My bonny lad is young but he is growing.

O father dear father you have done me much wrong
You have married me to a boy who is too young
O daughter dearest daughter if you’ll stay along with me
A lady you will be while he’s growing.

We’ll send him to college for a year or two
And then perhaps in time my love the boy will do for you.
We’ll buy him white ribbons to tie around his waist
To let the ladies know that he is married.

I went unto the college and looked over the wall
I saw four and twenty gentlemen a playing at the ball
One of them my own true love, but they wouldn’t let him come
Because he was a young lad a growing

At the age of sixteen he was a married man
At the age of 17 the father of a son
At the age of eighteen on his tomb the grass grows green
Cruel death had put an end to his growing.

I’ll make my love a shroud of the Holland cloth so fine
And every stich she put in the tears came trickling down
I’ll sit and mourn all on his tomb until the day I die
But I’ll watch o’er his child while he’s growing.

Oh he is dead and buried and in the churchyard do lie
The green grass grows over him oh so very high
I once I had a sweetheart but now got n’er a one#
So fare you well my true love forever.

The tune she sings is in a major key whereas the tune collected by Vaughan Williams is in a minor key and far more wistful and melancholic. You can hear it sung with this tune by Bert Jansch when he was singer with Pentangle.

To hear the rest of the songs you may need to come to the concert which is on March 8th 2019 with Penni Mclaren Walker and Bryan Causton at the Hub in Melbourn … More details anon.


Notes

In the writing of this piece, I am greatly indebted to Cambridgeshire folk singer Mary Humphreys whose careful research in manuscripts at the British Library and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library has made the task of finding these songs very easy. Her book Folksongs collected in Cambridgeshire is published by Hedingham Fair and is available directly from her site.