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.

Royston Probus Club Excited by Waterlight Film

Local historian and conservationist Bruce Huett shares another enthusiastic response for the Waterlight film, this time at Royston Probus Club at Royston Golf Club on 10th October.


Although the film showing following a sumptuous meal, accompanied by wine, attention was riveted on the screen throughout. 

After the showing a lively discussion ensued, encompassing mills, otter hounds, the spiritual nature of water, local fishing and even beavers. The group were very interested in the history of the maintenance of waterways and I was able to describe findings from 13th-century manorial records, enclosure documents, 1950s flood prevention correspondence and the work of the River Mel Restoration Group on how this had evolved.

Royston Probus Club
Royston Probus Club
Photograph: Bruce Huett © 2019

Members had interesting accounts about other streams they had visited around the country and it was distressing to hear that a local stream in Foxton (described in The Common Stream by Rowland Parker) and the Guilden Brook were now dried up. Someone remembered fishing here and catching dabs.

The group were particularly impressed with the way that the powerful imagery supported Clare’s evocative poetry, effectively set in a historical, social and environmental context. Several members of the local photography group were present and commented on how well the film shooting captured the “spirit” of the river.

Damsel fly
A still from the film, Waterlight
Image: Nigel Kinnings © 2019

The group were so impressed with the film that a walk will be arranged next year to experience the river in more detail, including, of course, the local public houses. The link here is that water for the local beer would have come from the Mel in days now past.

It has also resulted in an invitation to show it at the Royston Ladies Lunch Club next year.


Editor note:  Probus clubs are a spin-off from Rotary for retired people to meet socially, often over a meal. Royston Probus Club holds lunch meetings at Royston Golf Club on the second Thursday of each month (starting at 12.30 for 1 pm), with a guest speaker approximately every other meeting.

You can find accounts of other local screenings of the Waterlight film in previous blog posts – at the Community Hall in Melbourn on 25th July and a The Plough in Shelpreth  on 13th June — and do check our Upcoming Events page for new screenings.

Waterlight Film Receives Another Rapturous Response

Local historian and conservationist Bruce Huett updates us with the latest screening of the project’s film, at the Community Hall in Melbourn on 25th July.


On a very hot and thunderous night, we welcomed over 60 people to the Melbourn Community Hall to watch the first public showing of the Waterlight film. We had to open doors on both sides of the hall in an attempt to provide a through-breeze, although this provided an added local rural atmosphere to the proceedings as the neighbouring church bell practice was in full swing. More people kept arriving, we had to quickly unpack more chairs, and the hall was filled to capacity.

A packed Melbourn Community Hall
A packed Community Hall
Photo: Bruce Huett © 2019

Clare gave a brief introduction to the background to the making of the film and then there was an appreciative hush, occasionally punctuated by appropriate laughs or intakes of breath, as the film unfolded. Despite the conditions, attention was riveted to the screen and the ending received with enthusiastic applause.

During the refreshments break people mingled and exchanged their memories of the river triggered by the film. The audience was made up of a wide range of local residents, some actively involved with the river or who had lived around (or spent time in) it. Anthony and Sylvia Hopkinson, previous owners of the Bury (the property at the source of the stream) were present. The manor had been in Sylvia’s family for many generations. They said the film brought back many happy memories of their times there and Sylvia was genuinely touched by a photograph of her grandmother included in the film. Another attendee identified a girl in an old photograph (with a jam jar for fishing) as her mother (this picture, below, features on our Taming the Mel page, part of the section on The Story of the Mel ).

Fishing in the Mel
Pictorial Melbourn
The Melbourn Village History Group

Many commented on how the film had brought out the wonderful character of the stream, a stream which had been transformed over their lifetimes. However there was also much discussion of the current problems facing the river, and similar ones in the area. One person mentioned three rivers he had visited recently: Little Willbraham, Cherry Hinton Brook and Potton Brook, all of which had dried up in stretches. He also mentioned a recent talk by a civil engineer on the problems caused to these steams by over-extraction and inappropriate design of runoffs from housing development.

People had also come from other groups associated with river conservation in Cambridgeshire and one group were keen to try and carry out a similar project on their local nature reserve. Obviously we have offered to help as one of the aims of the project was to distribute knowledge amongst communities.

In fact the backbone of the project, as well as the artistic side, has been community engagement and the combination of the website, memory capture events, activities with school children and now the showings and lively discussions has amply fulfilled this objective.

We now look forward to future reporting of showings in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire and at festivals further afield.


We’re delighted to share two short clips from the Waterlight film. The first shows local walker Chris Ranner and his dogs enjoying the river, and the second features Clare reading her poem, Vaughan Williams at Warren Bank.

An extract from the Waterlight film, showing footage of local walker Chriss Ranner and his dogs enjoying the River Mel. Filmed by Nigel Kinnings for the Waterlight Project. The Waterlight Project on Vimeo.

An extract from the Waterlight film, showing footage of the River Mel with a voiceover from Clare Crossman reading her poem ‘Vaughan Williams at Warren Bank’. Filmed by Nigel Kinnings for the Waterlight Project, including footage by James Murray-White. The Waterlight Project on Vimeo.

You can see another clip, featuring another of Clare’s poems – Waste – in our previous post The Waterlight Film Premiere, which gives a summary of the earlier, invitee-only screening at The Plough in Shepreth. 

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.

Reflections on Water, Reflections on Climate Change

In the Waterlight Project’s first guest blog, poet Kate Swindlehurst begins with an imaginary journey along the Cam, Rhee and Mel as she reflects on the history of the river and impacts of our changing climate on our environment and in poetic responses.  


Photo by Kate Swindlehurst
Photo: Kate Swindlehurst

Cambridge, January, the dead of winter. Sometimes, when the weather is fine, I’m tempted after swimming to walk along the river rather than head straight home. These days I rarely swim anywhere other than in a chlorinated indoor pool and it’s 50 years since I had a dip in the Cam but early mornings along its banks can be magical and I like to think that its water still holds a part of me. Although geography has never been my strong point, I let my mind wander upstream to Grantchester and south, following the Rhee to the point where it receives the River Mel at Malton and then tracing the course of the Mel towards its source in Melbourn. Along the way I might meet my friend and poet Clare Crossman walking the dog or perhaps film-maker James Murray-White with his camera and I imagine the Cam reaching out to welcome the waters of the modest stream.

I’ve only walked Meldreth’s river a couple of times but the Waterlight website provides a compelling multifaceted picture of this small waterway, its flora and fauna, its geology and history. Poems and photographs, anecdotes and reminiscences and conversations come together to create a living map of memory and connotation which takes the reader beyond this particular chalk stream.

Tindale Washpool, photo by Richard Knights
Tindale Washpool, Photo: Richard Knights

Like Clare, I spent much of my adult life in Cumbria: not the Lake District, though that was in visiting distance, but close to the Eden Valley, a more remote north-eastern corner of the county where I learnt to dread the winter, its short days of horizontal rain and near darkness, cloud sitting stubbornly over the fells. The streams there spill over sandstone rather than chalk, carving a pathway through the soft red rock and there is Roman graffiti on the cliffs above the Gelt and the Irthing. I remember skinny-dipping in the Washpool near Tindale and the briefest splash in the River Gelt at Jockey Shield. Even though it was midsummer, the water was cold enough to turn my limbs blue.

A hundred years ago a stroll along the Mel would have been a very different experience, passing osier beds and mills, the steam laundry and brewery. Like its larger cousin in the north, it has also been subject to flooding, with hindsight attributable in large part to human activity or rather the lack of it. As the mills and brewery closed and arable farming replaced water meadows and osier beds, there was no longer a vested interest in maintaining the waterway.

Flooding & our changing climate

Carlisle floods 2015. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Carlisle floods 2015. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Back in Cumbria, rivers burst their banks three times while I was living there, with devastating consequences for thousands of residents across the county. Although each instance was prompted by record rainfall, there were clearly problems arising from large-scale development on the flood plain and an overloaded Victorian sewage system, compounded by inadequate flood defences. Families hit more than once struggled to afford the rising cost of insurance, so suffered a double impact. I vividly recall driving the long Warwick Road into Carlisle years after the 2009 floods, past skip after skip still standing outside ruined houses. Just before I left Cumbria for good, I rented out my house to a family who had just finished refurbishing their property when they again fell victim to flooding in 2015.

Globally, flooding is one of a number of indicators of our changing climate, with particular communities under repeated threat of losing their homes if not their lives, and with wildlife especially vulnerable. I recently attended an evening of poems on the theme of Climate Change, hosted jointly by Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Magma Poetry.

Poetry as opportunity

Magma - the climate change issue
Magma – the climate change issue

The event celebrated collaborations between eight poets and eight scientists and conservationists. As well as highlighting the damage we have inflicted on the planet, the outcome celebrated “the way arts practice can challenge and reshape approaches to contemporary conservation”, according to author and environmentalist John Fanshawe. Much of the work expressed a strong sense of loss: Jos Smith asked “Would you hear / The silence of lapwings, of thrushes?” Claudine Toutoungi said, “the last kittiwake has / no comment”. Nancy Campbell’s photograph Greenland Dogs No Ice pictures the two animals looking rather lost in a snow-free environment. And whilst Kathleen Jamie stresses the importance of advocacy in our response to nature, giving voice to aspects of the natural world, she has found her ability to write poetry silenced in the face of climate change.

John Kinsella is anything but silent, regarding poetry as an opportunity for protest and an integral part of his activism, which affects every area of life. He stands fast and roaring in the face of the bulldozers which raze the forest to the ground in the development of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt. Here he describes “the chainsaw effect”:

It is not subtle. It is not ambient…
…gung-ho,
blazon, overconfident. Hubristic
to the final cut, last drop of fuel.

Body of 'Splash' the Dolphin. Photoby DBCA
Body of ‘Splash’ the Dolphin. Photo: DBCA

Kinsella comes from the Swan River area of Perth in Western Australia, familiar to me at one remove in the person of Georgiana Molloy who, in 1830, arrived there from her native Cumbria with her new husband to establish a colony. I came upon her first in the herbarium in the Sainsbury Centre at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and her extraordinary story, emerging from a stifling religious Victorian background into an independent pioneer with a passion for plant-collecting, became the subject of one of the short stories inspired by my residency. Kinsella enabled me to see her from a different angle, not only as a first-rate if undervalued botanist but also as a representative of a colonial past responsible for the wholesale theft of land from its indigenous peoples. For Kinsella, Swan River is also the site of damaging pollution, its population of dolphins dying tangled in fishing line or poisoned by toxic chemicals.

Photo by Kate Swindlehurst
Photo: Kate Swindlehurst

A quieter response to climate change came from Polly Atkin who also, coincidentally, lives in Cumbria. Her sequence Notes on a Transect echoes her conversation with British Trust for Ornithology’s Blaise Martay in form as well as content and reflects the joy in our relationship with the living world that both “kept returning to” in their exchange. Polly also records Blaise’s excitement – at the return of ospreys and beavers, for example – and the importance of excitement in building connections and instigating change.

I found both excitement and joy in Anna Selby’s Flowers in the Volcano:

At my feet, the impossibility
of three purple violets
shaking in the dark.

As I make for home along the Cam I’m thinking that these two qualities, excitement and joy, are also reflected in the Waterlight project. I love the way it marries the essential nourishment we gain from both words and water. Underpinned by dialogue between the arts (poetry, prose, image), considered and heartfelt responses to the natural world and a practical commitment to the messy business of effecting change, this local project is inspiring in its reach and its achievements. 


Kate Swindlehurst is poet and writer of short stories, novels and Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect: My Year on the Dance Floor, “a personal account of the physical, social and emotional benefits of my tango habit, and I believe it makes a significant if modest contribution to the data from the perspective of the dancer with Parkinson’s.” You can discover more of her work at http://www.kateswindlehurst.com.

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.

A Classic English Chalk Stream

Clare Crossman introduces the river Mel and the new project she has launched to explore its nature and communities. 


The river Mel is a classic English chalk stream that I have walked in all weathers for the last 18 years and in winter it can indeed be sullen, especially when just below the A10  when it becomes full of crisp packets, plastic bottles and other things which just happen to be dumped from cars. It is only the painstaking work of the River Mel Restoration volunteers who have slowly removed this from the river there.
The river links my village, Meldreth, with the next village, Melbourn, and is a well-worn route crossing fields and through woodlands used by dog walkers, runners, and children on their way to Melbourn village college.
As TS Eliot says in the poem Dry Salvages, ‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’ and for me, the river Mel close to my home has always been a consolation, a healing force, and a surprise in that it is different every day. Consequently, it inspired a short sequence of poems, published in my last collection The Blue Hour (Shoestring Press 2017). They have in turn inspired Waterlight, this film and community project about the river, which includes interviews with people who have lived close to it all their lives, children’s poetry, music and new poems from local writers. The film is being made by my friend, filmmaker James Murray White.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

Even though short and hidden, the river Mel has its own beauty and as Eric Schumacher wrote many years ago, Small is Beautiful. There are vistas, meanders, pools and changes. Different depths of water, reeds, grebes, coots, the heron that lives there and the white egret which has taken up residence as well as the dart of some kingfishers. 

According to Tristran Gooley’s anthropological book How to Read Water, it is a healthy river and its flow shows no sluggishness even at low water. It passes under small stone bridges and through weirs, creates ponds at mills and was clearly once lived around, in and on and was at the centre of village life. Just about wide enough to float a canoe, it can be swung across … and it joins the River Rhee (a tributary of the Cam) just outside Meldreth.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

Recently James and I were granted access to the garden at Melbourn Bury where the Mel rises. It was a beautiful day and the water clear as a bell. It was explained to us how the lake in the garden contains several springs which when the water is low can be seen coming out of the ground.

If there is very low water a small culvert which looks like a well gushes, turns into a waterfall as water is pumped from the aquifer in the heath just before Royston. The lake is so large that the former owners had built small bridges to be able to cross it at the edge as it literally just pools out where the water rises and is full of reeds and yellow flag iris clear and shallow.

The river leaves the lake at a small weir which is really a funnel for the water, which then broadens into a wide chalk stream surrounded by trees and fields. The place is idyllic. The large garden was, in Edwardian times, opened to the public to boat on the shallow lake and to visit to see the snowdrops in spring. The lawn boasts an ancient Mulberry tree en route to the river. After Melbourn Bury the river crosses into the local nature reserve at Stockbridge Meadows where it is possible to paddle, wade, and just enjoy the cool.

In mid-May James, myself and our conservationist friend, Bruce, took Year 6 from Meldreth Primary School on a filmmaking and poetry writing walk on the section of the river behind Meldreth High Street, through woods and fields, past the mill and up to the church field. Everyone was given an iPad for the return walk.

The outward walk was used for collecting ideas and impressions. We were lucky that it was a beautiful day, so grass fights and playing Pooh Sticks were also involved, particularly as some of the children did not know what Pooh Sticks was. There was a queue to see how it was played. Despite dire warnings about children’s contact with the natural world, this year I noticed that several of them knew common plant names e.g. clover, buttercup. Boys were seen picking cow parsley and looking at it closely in wonder (for the first time, I think). And I have to say, the speed at which they can make short films about their experience that morning was breathtaking.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

This first post on my blog is for all of those who supported our crowdfunding appeal. You enabled us to raise a further £1,2000 from our local parish solar funds and we are very grateful.