On a balmy autumn evening on 5th September 2023, 20 members of the Linton WI sat back and enjoyed the Waterlight film — presented by Bruce Huett from the Waterlight Project team — and discussed the state of the local chalk stream, the Granta, which feeds the Cam.
There had been a debate about whether to watch the shorter or longer version and Bruce had persuaded them to view the latter. In the end, they all agreed that this was the right choice as the interviews were very interesting and put the poems in a wider context.
As usual, there were some interesting questions and comments after the film. One member described the biodiverse stream near her property in Australia. She didn’t know what the base of the stream was (certainly not chalk) and a guess was made that it might be granite.
As this 2021 item on work on the Granta by the Wild Trout Trust and funded by the Environment Agency says, “The Granta has suffered in recent dry years but also presents a flood risk to some properties. The River Granta is a chalk river that rises from springs above Bartlow. The river flows for ~29km through Linton, the Abingtons and Babraham before joining the River Cam at Stapleford.”
There is an active group of volunteers (FROG – Friends of the River Granta) who have significantly improved the water quality, but the level is now low again. A June 2023 report on the BBC News website describing Concerns about River Granta rare chalk stream drying up, mentions the work of Linton FROG, whose Chair Helen Brookes said then of the chalk stream: “It’s been here for thousands of years; it was here before any of us were here. It would be lovely to know, or to hope, that it will continue to flow through the village as it has done. It’s a beautiful, natural, rare chalk stream and we’re lucky to have it.”
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes has agreed a resolution about creating bathing waters in rivers across England and Wales as a way to drive the cleanup of our waters: Clean Rivers for People and Wildlife, which includes:
Water quality in our rivers is shameful. Legally designated bathing waters must be regularly monitored for pollution. The NFWI urges its members, the wider public, local authorities, and Government to make, support and promote applications for officially designated bathing sites on appropriate stretches of rivers in their area. This will be instrumental to the clean-up of rivers as it has been for water quality improvement at coastal beaches.
A representative from a chalk stream preservation organisation, Cam Valley Forum (of which Bruce is an officer), will be talking to the group later in the autumn.
Linton WI Members were keen to visit the Mel and hoped that there might be another bird walk as depicted in the film. Bruce said the Melwood Conservation Group were hoping to arrange one and he would contact the WI when this was arranged.
The evening ended with people chatting about water resources and similar issues over a welcome cup of tea.
Don’t forget to check our Upcoming Events page for future talks or screenings of Waterlight.
On a rather wet and dreary night, about 30 members of the Friends of Paradise Nature Reserve gathered at the Newnham Croft Sports and Social Club in Cambridge to watch the Waterlight film.
It is clear from the appreciative message sent by the Chairman that the film was much appreciated:
“I’m writing on behalf of Friends of Paradise to thank you, and the film team, for an extremely uplifting and positive evening watching the beautiful and lyrical film of Waterlight.
Beset as we are by the climate emergency, the world situation, the energy crisis and our own local fight against development … not to mention the November rain and darkness, it was a sheer delight to follow the successful and fascinating story of the regeneration of the River Mel.
We all loved it, from the glorious River itself to the wonderful wildlife, old photographs, and the music and memories, all enhanced by the poetry. We were heartened by the story, and felt solidarity with like-minded people. Now we know about the river and the reserve I’m sure that we will be visiting them”.
Bruce Huett introduced the film with additional pictures of children “messing around in the river” which had been obtained in “memory capture” events during the preparation of the film. He and fellow Waterlight project team members James Murray-White and Nigel Kinnings responded to several questions after the showing and there was a lively general discussion, aided by the fact the bar was then open!
During the discussion after the showing it was clear that, although the film was made to celebrate Clare’s poetry and her love of the Mel landscape, people present saw that it also provided material that could be used in the campaign to save Cambridgeshire’s endangered chalk streams. More information on this campaign can be found on the Cam Valley Forum website:https://camvalleyforum.uk.
The audience departed into damp night with spirits uplifted and with plans to visit the Mel in the spring.
Watch out for future Waterlight film screenings on our Upcoming Events page.
Waterlight Project team member and filmmaker, James Murray-White shares recent work on tree-planting in the Melwood and his vision of rewilding our rivers.
We know that trees need water to thrive, and some might know of the intricate ecological balance that rivers need trees to thrive too: river beds and banks are often interwoven through with tree roots. Too much felling of trees beside river banks, or no trees whatsoever, can lead to a severely weakened bank, which can burst or be overcome quickly during flooding. Both elements are part of the intricate living web of life that holds everything together in balance.
Trees and water
We are delighted that we have sourced some English Oak saplings, from the community volunteer NGO TCV: the Conservation Volunteers. The bulk of these were planted by an Extinction Rebellion Rewilding group on a small-holding in Wales, but some have been handed over to Clare and her husband Iain for planting in the Melwood, along the banks of the Mel, as a thank you to the river for generously engaging with us during the making of ‘Waterlight’!
While wrapping them in a recent copy of the Cambridge Independent, I noticed that articles on opposite pages celebrated the planting of 1,500 saplings in the village of Willingham and also mourned the imminent felling of trees along Histon Road, which is about to undergo widening as part of its ‘development’ as a major artery in our ever-expanding city.
This shows the crass irony of our modern human existence: we need to cut down for ‘progress’, and at the same time we need to plant in massive numbers nearby! I’ve just watched a French documentary on rewilding, and in the past two years I’ve become engaged in the idea and the practice: how can we make the argument that land (and large swathes of it — whole moors, and land that was once farmland) be given back to nature to return to how it has been before human intervention, and to enable top predator species — wolves, lynx, auroch — to return and roam?
Rewilding the River Mel
We have only to wander along stretches of the River Mel — this tiny chalk stream, which we hope has seeded some wildness and wonder of the natural world within the minds and imaginations of those who have watched the film (or will see future screenings), heard Clare’s poems, or explored all the words and images on this website — to appreciate both the ecological processes and synergy that are ever on-going and the visceral rewilding of the natural world.
Start with the River Mel, gently puttering along between its banks, see the trout, a moorhen, and then — a beaver! And see and get to know the trees, find the oak saplings that will shortly be planted, a muntjac and then a red deer, a stag… Then see if you can stretch to see a bison wandering through the sun-dappled glade! It has been before. Maybe again?
You can read a previous post from James, where he discusses filming the River Mel and his connection to this river and to water.
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.
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.
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.
We then showed the full version of the film which, as usual, received rapt attention and enthusiastic applause at the end.
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.
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 Manifestohere.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ).
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.
Local historian and conservationist Bruce Huett, a core member of the Waterlight Project team, updates us on the latest successful milestone — the local (and national!) premiere of the film we’ve been working on throughout the project.
Over fifty people crammed into the upper room at The Plough in Shepreth to watch the first showing of the Waterlight film of the river Mel. Expectations were high as many of those present had helped to fund the project. After the excited hum of attendees exchanging experiences of the river and their involvement in the film all went silent as the lights dimmed and the opening sequence started with gentle sound and evocative images of the river. All was quiet for the forty-odd minutes of the film. When it ended there was a spontaneous eruption of applause and the lights went up to reveal an audience enraptured by the film.
A brief discussion period elicited only praise for the production and stimulated some discussion on issues of water levels and problems of extraction and potential danger to wildlife. Representatives from the River Mel Restoration Group were able to give the audience the benefit of their extensive understanding of the issues and the efforts they were taking to ensure the Environment Agency was aware of the situation and were taking action.
We were lucky to have representatives from local conservation groups including the Melwood Conservation Group, Cam Valley Forum and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
The Melwood representative described the film as “really lovely- actually very moving at times! We thought that the balance between speech, poetry, music and visuals was just right — and the poetry was especially enjoyed.”
The chairman of Cam Valley Forum, an organisation supporting river conservation in the Cam Valley, posted on our website “Your poetry and the Waterlight film were greatly enjoyed by everyone. I thought the eclectic mix of genres in the film was so special and genuinely unique in my experience. It was a wonderful word and picture image of ‘place’ and human belonging, of local history, social history, natural history and much more. The weave of the stream’s images and sounds with your descriptive poetry was technically excellent and deeply memorable. I can’t wait to see it again.”
The wanting to see it again was something expressed by several of the attendees and we are hoping for a good attendance at the next showing a the Melbourn Community Hall at 8pm on 25th July.
We were very glad that many of those who had sponsored or helped to fund the film were present. They were unanimous in their appreciation that the money had been well used to provide a community asset. The representative from TPP (a major science research company in Melbourn, who was a significant sponsor) lived locally and said that the film would encourage him to spend more time with his family exploring this wonderful local environmental resource. He described the film as “very loving, a visual caress”. The company wrote: “it sounds like the perfect piece of history for the village to treasure!” — exactly what we were trying to achieve: a heritage resource as well as something to be enjoyed now.
Others described the content as “captivating”, “mesmerising”. The event also provided opportunities to investigate wider showing of the film and there is a possibility that it will be shown at DEFRA (the government department responsible for the environment), at a Cambridge Conservation Initiative venue in Cambridge and a Cam Valley Forum event as well as festivals etc.
We were very appreciative of the support given by the owners of The Plough. They were very welcoming and supportive and also helped out with ensuring the AV worked well, etc. An excellent venue with a great range of beer and beverages!
We are delighted that this first step in the film distribution has been so successful and we are now planning exciting further distribution plans. Watch this space! In fact, as I write this we have excellent feedback from fellow project team member, filmmaker James Murray-White, who has been showing the film during a visit north:
“Very positive screening here this afternoon at Expressing the Earth, with the Scottish Geopoetics Institute here in the Borders… Most folk loved the range of ways we covered the river, and the organiser raved about it showing off the best of British folklore culture, something he craves as a Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Luing. And one of the participants, a film-poet, was in tears: turns out she grew up in Melbourne and it took her right back to a happy childhood in the Mel! She’d love to join us for a screening some time, when she’s back in Cambridge.”
Included as part of the screening was this extract from the film: Waste features Clare Crossman reading one of her poems to highlight problems of waste and pollution of our watercourses, such as the Mel.
You can find more of Clare’s poems for the Waterlight Project — and poems from other contributors — at our Waterlight Poems page. And Clare’s website includes many more of her poems.
For details of future screenings of the Waterlight film, keep an eye on our Upcoming Events page or sign up for news via the Receive Updates link on our Contact Us page.
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.
Our second guest post comes from poet and novelist J.S. Watts, who looks at the many contributions of chalk streams to English literature. J.S. has also written two poems for the Waterlight Project — Life Line and Time Flows Through — which you can enjoy along with other contributions to the literature at the Waterlight Poems section of our site.
At the beginning of this year I was very happy to be asked by Clare Crossman to write a guest post for the Waterlight Project blog. I’d already written two poems for the project, plus the Cambridgeshire village where I live is close to Melbourn and Meldreth and has its own spring and chalk stream, or it may be a part of the same water flow as the River Mel. That’s the nature of chalk streams and rivers, they split, merge, separate and conjoin and it’s not always clear to the uninitiated what is a tributary to what.
Anyway, I was delighted to say yes and then Clare said, “I was thinking a piece about literature associated with chalk streams might be nice.” Okay, that suits me. I’m a poet and novelist with a degree in English Language and Literature, so what better than to write about literature? I picked up my pen enthusiastically (I tend to draft most things longhand. It’s something about the flow of the words) and then reality hit. To write about the literature of chalk streams and rivers, I really need to know where those rivers are, the names of them and then research the writers associated with them. In other words, I need to know the geography and possibly the history of chalk streams. It turns out an English degree is not so well suited to sussing out the ways of the chalk.
Chalk streams — an English phenomenon
I resorted to the age-old traditional writer’s technique of searching the Internet. According to the Waterlight Project website there are only 210 chalk streams in the world “and 160 of these are in England”. Another website asserts there are only 200 globally and 180 are in England. The World Wild Fund for Nature states, “there are only about 200 chalk streams in the world, and most of them are in the southern half of England (with a few in France).” I guess it’s how you add up those confusingly merging rivers, streams and tributaries, but regardless, it’s clear that chalk streams are a very rare and English phenomenon.
The next question is where in England are they? My online research indicated they were mostly in Southern England, but basically followed the line of the chalk from Yorkshire to Dorset, flowing through the East Riding (Guess what? The River Hull in Humberside is a chalk river. Who knew? Well lots of chalk stream experts, obviously, but I didn’t until now), Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and into Dorset (not forgetting a trickle from Kent across the southern chalk and into Hampshire). Based on that, the southern chalk streams flow across the countryside and counties once known to Jane Austen, Richard Adams and Thomas Hardy. So far so good and quite impressive in literary terms.
Here we have the landscape described in Thomas Hardy’s poem In Front of The Landscape,
… And the coomb and the upland Coppice – crowned Ancient chalk-pit, milestone, rills in the grass-flat Stroked by the light
The names of the chalk streams and rivers that flow throughout England as a whole resonate to the landscapes and histories of their respective areas. In addition to the sometimes brown and murky Hull there are the clear and glittering Lymn, Cam, Granta, the Test, the Itchen and the Avon. There are also the Loddon, Ver, Piddle, Kennet, Frome and many, many more. The list goes on.
Exploring chalk streams in literature
I then made the mistake of Googling (other search engines are available) the literature of chalk streams. What came up, over and over and over again, was fly fishing. Apparently it’s a thing in relation to chalk streams and lots of people have written at considerable length about it, including Charles Kingsley who (rather appropriately) also wrote The Water Babies (where an abused child chimney sweep falls into a river and is transformed into a water baby) and Westward Ho! Charles Kingsley was rector of the Parish of Eversley, Hampshire for thirty-five years and knew the chalk streams and rivers of the area well, especially the River Blackwater (a tributary of the River Test).
From what I can tell (I don’t fish myself), the good fly fishing streams seem to be located significantly around Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, but there is at least one chalk-based anglers’ paradise in Lincolnshire. There are, after all, between 160 and 180 of these special, light-catching watercourses and though serious fishing does not appear possible in all of them, the healthy streams do seem to boast a fecundity of fish.
Indeed, another book constantly referenced in terms of chalk streams and fly fishing is The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame lived in Berkshire and the clear, sparkling water of his river bank tales, teaming with fish, lush flora, rats, voles, moles, toads and other small mammals is seen by many as stereotypical of the chalk stream environment in which plants, fish and animals thrive. Grahame’s animal characters also like to fish and spend much of their time paddling around in boats.
Moving away from fly fishing, I stumbled over the rabbits of Richard Adams’s Watership Down. They live their communal lives in a typical chalk landscape and, in one particular scene in the novel, escape down the River Test on a punt.
Something in the water
Poets too have played around on punts and written poems about the chalk water experience. In Cambridge, Wordsworth’s poem Lines Written While Sailing a Boat at Evening was allegedly inspired by a walk along The Cam:
How richly glows the water’s breast Before us, tinged with evening hues,
Whilst the water down the road and the river at Grantchester was immortalised by Rupert Brooke in his poem, The Old Vicarage Grantchester:
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through, Beside the river make for you A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep Deeply above; and green and deep The stream mysterious glides beneath, Green as a dream and deep as death.
Keeping to the East of England, but heading north, there are the Lincolnshire Wolds where Alfred Lord Tennyson spent much of his life. The River Lymn flows close to the area around Somersby where Tennyson was born. Stockwith Mill on the River Lymn is quoted as the inspiration for Tennyson’s poem, The Miller’s Daughter:
I loved the brimming wave that swam Thro’ quiet meadows round the mill, The sleepy pool above the dam, The pool beneath it never still,
There is also this particularly vivid description of the chalk mill-stream from the same poem:
Still hither thither idly sway’d Like those long mosses in the stream.
Or from the bridge I lean’d to hear The milldam rushing down with noise, And see the minnows everywhere In crystal eddies glance and poise The tall flag-flowers when they sprung Below the range of stepping stones, Or those three chestnuts near, that hung In masses thick with milky cones.
One discovery I wasn’t expecting in my trawl through the Internet was that the poet John Keats, who as a former Londoner I have always associated with London and Hampstead, wrote his famous poem To Autumn after an evening walk along the River Itchen near Winchester:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn Among the river sallows, borne aloft Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies
And I could go on. As I continued to look for literary links to England’s Chalk streams I kept finding more and more poetry that had been written about the chalk’s glittering waterways. These poems are not necessarily as renowned or accomplished as Keats’s iconic To Autumn, but are still lovingly soaked in the bright waters that criss-cross England’s chalklands. It must be something about the shining, clear waters of this nation’s chalk streams that inspires writers to put pen to paper and causes their words to flow.
J.S. Watts is a poet and novelist. Her work appears in publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the States and has been broadcast on BBC and Independent Radio. She has edited assorted magazines and anthologies.
To date, J.S. has published six books: poetry collections, Cats and Other Myths and Years Ago You Coloured Me, plus multi-award nominated poetry pamphlet Songs of Steelyard Sue and her most recent pamphlet, The Submerged Sea. Her novels are A Darker Moon – dark fiction and Witchlight – paranormal. Her next novel, Old Light, is due out in Summer 2019. For further details see www.jswatts.co.uk.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.