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 9th March 2023 — a very cold and drizzly afternoon, with snow flurries trying to carpet the road outside — about 30 ladies from Royston WI were transported to the world of the Mel through the Waterlight film.
Royston is a particularly appropriate setting for showing the film as the water that supplies the Mel originates as rain falling on the soft chalk hills surrounding the town. Today, the melted snow will percolate through the chalk to eventually emerge at the springs in Melbourn, the source of the Mel. In his introduction, Bruce Huett drew parallels with his experience of snow melt from the Himalayas supplying the rivers of Tibet, other parts of China and India.
Although Waterlight was not made as a campaigning film, audience members recognised links to national concerns about the general health of English rivers and mentioned the recent BBC programmes ‘Our Troubled Rivers’.
Following the screening, the Royston WI secretary e-mailed:
“Thank you again for coming to show your film and talk to us this afternoon. It was a very calm, peaceful watch, with beautiful music, as well as being very informative. I hope you could see how engaged all our ladies were. It made our afternoon very enjoyable”.
Bruce was again delighted to receive an account of someone who remembered playing in the river at Melbourn as a child, which was similar to accounts he had collected in ‘memory capture’ events with elderly residents in Melbourn and Royston. They had described swimming, paddling down the river in boats improvisedfrom rubber tubes or barrels, fishing and generally messing about in the river or on the banks for whole days in the summer. Some of these accounts are on the Your Waterlight Stories page of this website and others can be found in the Mel pages at Meldreth History, The Story of a Cambridgeshire Village.
Others, who had visited the British Queen pub in Meldreth but had never taken the short walk across the field at the back to the river, now decided that on their next trip there they will definitely take a stroll along the Mel and visit the adjacent Melwood local Nature Reserve that is featured in the film.
On Saturday 4th February 2023, Bruce Huett and Nigel Kinnings showed the Waterlight film for the first time in a spiritual space: the Norman parish church at Linton, Cambridgeshire.Bruce Huett linked this, in his introduction, to his ideas about the spirituality of water and the possibility that the Mel springs may have been an ancient ritual site.
The afternoon started with a substantial tea of sandwiches, scones with jam and cream and cakes, all prepared and served by local volunteers.
Bruce and Nigel were a bit concerned that the substantial tea might put the audience into an inattentive stupor. However this was not the case and everyone had their eyes glued to the screen throughout and there were a lot of positive comments afterwards, with the possibility of another showing at the local WI.
The church at Linton is situated by the local chalk stream, the Granta, a tributary of the Cam.Before the showing Bruce and Nigel took the opportunity to explore the local stretch and Bruce was very pleased to meet members of the local chalk stream restoration group: FROG (Friends of the River Granta) who were attending the showing.Thanks to their hard work the stream looked in excellent condition with a gravelly base below clear water.Rob Mungovan, in the film,indicates that this is just how a healthy chalk stream should look.
It was a rewarding experience to show the film in this space and also to be able to link aspects of Waterlight to the local water environment of Linton.
Local historian and conservationist and Waterlight Project team member Bruce Huett shares an update on the latest showing of our film — and the choice of venue, at a landmark building in Eddington, a sustainable development near Cambridge.
The Waterlight team were delighted to be able to show the film twice (the 27-minute and 45-minute versions) at the Storey’s Field Centre on the Eddington estate on SaturdayFebruary 22nd 2020. The showings at the centre, on the outskirts of Cambridge (near Madingley Park and Ride), were previewed in an interview with Bruce Huett of the project for the local radio station.
The audiences were made up of local families and also chalk stream enthusiasts who had come from Cambridge and surrounding villages.We had a lively discussion after the second showing, which we hope will lead to some new posts on this blog.
A sustainable site
We were especially pleased to be at the Eddington development as this is an excellent example of what can be done to provide a sustainable living environment when the effort is made. It has the UK’s largest water recycling system, which can only be good for endangered chalk streams. There are two systems on site: one recycles rain and surface water to be used for flushing toilets, clothes washing and garden watering, and another supplies high quality treated water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Both are designed to minimise potable water consumption. There are also ‘green roofs‘, where sedum plants capture rainfall.
The development was constructed with sustainability in mind so insulation is of a very high quality and there is extensive use of solar energy.The buildings have all been designed and built to the Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5 and BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method is part of the Code for a Sustainable Built Environment, which is a strategic international framework for sustainability assessment of buildings). There is a centralised energy centre and district heating network, providing greener, more environmentally friendly heating, hot water and energy.The energy centre uses gas to generate heating and hot water distributed via the network.
There is an innovative waste disposal system. Stainless steel bins have an underground sealed container to collect waste and recycling materials. When the container is 80% full, a signal is automatically sent to the collection company to alert them to empty the container.
There are over 50 hectares of open and green spaces around Eddington. Lakes at Brook Leys store the rainwater collected from across Eddington before it is treated and pumped back to the homes.The site is a Cambridge University project using a number of architects and sympathetic construction firms.
Historically the area is important, with the site of a Roman villa close by and evidence of even earlier occupation going back to prehistoric times. Roman coins have been found in an ancient well and, in 2014, artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie worked with the Archaeology department and used subsoil from the dig, combining the historical settlement and future development to create a scale model of the first phase of the development made from cob, an ancient, sustainable form of building. I participated in the archaeological event and the cob making.
There is also an interesting ancient conduit head nearby. Built in 1327, this used to supply water to a Franciscan friary in Cambridge in wooden pipes, then Sidney Sussex college and now Trinity College. This may have been a holy well in Roman, and possibly, pre-Roman times.
Thus this site, with its sacred water connections, was a perfect venue for the film showing, as there were many links to themes developed in the film: the spirituality of water; the importance of maintaining a healthy natural water environment; and the way in which this can inspire creative poetry and visual imagery.
We will be showing the film again at Eddington on 27th June, with Cambridge Past Present & Future — see our Upcoming Events page for details.
Waterlight Project team member, local historian, conservationist and Secretary of the Melwood Conservation group Bruce Huett highlights the environmental issues associated with local chalk rivers and the importance of a consultation on the new local plan.
I would like to draw your attention to the local plan framework that is currently out for consultation. Unfortunately, this has not been widely publicised and the consultation period ends on the 24th of February. You can access the documents and post your comments at Greater Cambridge Local Plan website.
As someone very concerned about our local environment I would encourage local residents to contribute their thoughts on how the local plan could help to preserve our precious local environment, especially our chalk streams.
The Local Plan: how to comment
Councillor Lewis Herbert, leader of the city council has said sustainability of water supply would be addressed in the next local plan. I suggest that the most significant areas for comment are the ‘Choosing our big themes’ and the ‘Biodiversity and green spaces’ sections, although obviously the climate change section is also relevant. In fact there are opportunities to comment environmentally under most headings.
The consultation gives you the opportunity to influence the priorities that the planning authorities will take into account when preparing our local plan.
Local plans are prepared by the Local Planning Authority. In this case all the Councils in Greater Cambridgeshire are involved. They provide a framework for addressing housing needs and other economic, social and environmental priorities. Note that the primary consideration is housing needs.
The last local plan for this area was initially rejected by the national inspector partially due to a failure to fully implement government housing targets. It had to be revised.
It is therefore important that, at this stage, as many people as possible actively take part in the consultation to stress the importance of consideration for the environment in contrast to environmentally dangerous development.
The most important document you’ve never heard of?
A desire for sustainability is part of the considerations, but I wonder if this isn’t ‘greenwashing’ as it is certain that the pace of house-building will increase and could even double. There was a good article in the Cambridge Independent on 23rd September 2019, summarising their understanding of the framework for the plan. The final plan is expected to be agreed in 2023.
The councils have described the document as: “the most important document most people have never heard of” and say it will shape “where homes will be built, new jobs located, what education facilities are needed and how people can get around”.
Greater Cambridge had 117,000 homes in 2017, and there are already plans in place for an additional 36,400 homes by 2040. However, to meet the council’s commitments under the wider Cambridgeshire devolution deal, an additional 30,000 homes may be needed in the same time span. Forecasts suggest that Greater Cambridgeshire may need to increase its rate of development from the 1,675 homes a year already agreed to last until 2031, to 2,900 homes a year from now until 2040.
All of this development will have a serious effect on the environment if not carefully planned. Unfortunately, fully taking on board environmental considerations increase the costs for developers so, unless the plan is forceful on ensuring that these are robust, they will be avoided.
A talk recently at the Cambridge Natural History Society by Ruth Hawksley, water expert for the local division of the Wildlife Trust, highlighted the poor state of the local chalk streams and how these could be very adversely affected if the development plans do not take full consideration of the water supply requirements and require sustainable water systems, as at Eddington (a new development on the outskirts on Cambridge).
Critical issues for chalk streams
The key issue is that the streams are dependent on water that percolates through soft chalk. This provides the very pure, mineral-rich water characteristic of chalk streams and supports their rich biodiversity. The springs emerge when this water meets the hard chalk base through which it cannot penetrate. With dry periods and over-abstraction, the permeable chalk dries out. Like a dry sponge, it then takes a lot of time — with a period of steady rainfall — to get replenished. During the dry period the river levels and the flow both fall and this deposits silt, which harms the flora and fauna, particularly the invertebrate population — the basis of the food chain leading to the trout, otters and egrets. It also concentrates harmful chemicals and sewage discharges (because of the nature of the landscape, Cambridgeshire has many small sewage farms discharging into chalk streams rather than larger ones where sewage treatment is more effective).
In 2019 Environment Agency classified the River Cam’s flow rate as the lowest recorded since 1949. In fact, the plight of the English chalk streams (over 60% of the world’s chalk streams are in England) is becoming an important issue, with prominent figures such as Feargal Sharkey (the former lead singer with the Undertones) championing their cause. He has said: “The Cam and the Granta, we have discovered, are in the process of drying up simply because the whole area is over abstracted. We have taken too much water out of the aquifer (water table) that feeds the springs that generate these rivers. Now these rivers do not have enough flow to survive.”
Others have highlighted the fact that trees planted to assist with climate change amelioration require water. There have been articles in the Guardian (July 2014, December 2018 and August 2019) and the BBC has mentioned it, for instance in a Countryfile programme in 2019 and on the local East of England news in July 2019. In Cambridgeshire, the Cam Valley Forum issued a manifesto highting the issues (available via our Links page) and Cambridge Councillor Katie Thornburrow convened a seminar in November 2019 — the report is available here.
The Mel itself has been affected by these issues and the flow in late autumn was so low that you could walk across it in wellington boots near the source. I visited three other Cambridgeshire chalk streams in 2019 that all were completely dried up. At Little Wilbraham the local river action group organiser said that she had never seen it so dry in the thirty years that she had lived in the village.
We hope that, as we move forward, we can ensure that the Mel will survive and continue to provide a wonderful place to enjoy the natural environment for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and future generations.