Caught by the River

The ‘shocking’ State of England’s Chalk-Streams 2014

Charles Rangeley-Wilson | 30th November 2014


Words and picture: Charles Rangeley-Wilson.
Originally published on his blog on 26 November. Used with permission.

Last night I was invited to speak at the launch of WWF’s new report: The State of England’s Chalk Streams 2014. The report reveals that over three-quarters of these iconic and globally unique rivers are failing to meet targets for ecological health. This is what I said to the audience at the South Bank Centre:

“I want to talk to you this evening about how the state of England’s chalk-streams – a state this new WWF report correctly describes as shocking – could become the most incredible opportunity for ecological restoration. We have the means and we have the knowledge to rehabilitate this broken ecosystem. All we lack is the will. But will is only a change of mindset. Minds can be changed.

In some ways this ‘shocking state’ is not surprising.

I’ve just spent five years researching a book looking for the reasons why, in 1965, a chalk-stream in Buckinghamshire called the River Wye was buried under the streets of the town it gave life to. The answers were on one level mundane and soulless: the river was buried to widen a road. On another they were as complex and layered as the history of the valley that river flowed through. Geology and industry and slum clearance and town planning stacked up one after the other, until the river’s burial became as inevitable as the construction of a shopping centre above it: a retail cathedral which the Council named Eden.

The world over the struggle between nature and man, between the stream and the street, ends with the incarceration of the stream. It’s not that anyone especially means rivers any harm. It’s just that through an ironic twist of history rivers give birth to and then get in the way of economic expansion. Swap street for field, the principle holds.

English chalk-streams flow through landscape at the epi-centre of Western civilisation: certainly in terms of the depth of its history, the density of its use. In other words, they are a globally unique eco-system in the very hottest part of the fire. Of course they’ve been pushed to the edge of existence. Looked at this way, it is a minor miracle that we have any chalk-streams left at all.

That river was buried to widen a road. It is worth remembering that this is how it happens. No-one is planning or hoping for a world in which there is no room for nature. But the end of the wet and the wild is death by a thousand cuts: none of them is actually mendacious, but all of them are careless.

And yet, this grim fact is also an exciting opportunity. If economic growth almost always leads to ecological destruction, it doesn’t have to. Making room for nature begins with seeing how it matters. So why do chalk-streams matter? Why should we care more? I can try to tell you why I care.

I grew up in London, but every other Friday night through the late 1960s and then the 1970s we drove north to spend the weekends in Norfolk. I had no particular idea then, as I struggled to peer out the car window, that the route we took, around the edge of the Chilterns, across the Hertfordshire downs, up the ridge of the Gog Magog hills all the way to the multi-coloured cliffs of Hunstanton, was more or less entirely across a chalk landscape. But towards the end of the journey, when the evenings were long in summer I would ask my father to slow down over one or other of the bridges which crossed the streams near our house. One was over a river called the Ingol, where it tumbled over a small waterfall beside a bus stop. Another was over an equally small stream called the Babingley. I adored these miniature brooks for a reason I could never have explained. They just spoke to me and I loved to spend a few moments watching them flow.

Now, forty years on, I know that these little brooks were chalk streams. I also know that we would have crossed others on that journey: the Colne outside Heathrow, and then that river’s Chilterns tributaries the Chess, Misbourne, Gade and Ver. Running north up the A1 we would have crossed the Lea and the Mimram and then, riding the ridges of those chalk hills we threaded between the Beane, Oughton and Purwell. Turning east we narrowly missed a few more – the Cat Ditch, the Ivel, the Hiz – before we crossed the Cam and then the Granta. Further on we crossed the Snail and then the Fenland incarnation of the Lark. Then the Little Ouse, the Wissey, the Nar, and finally, nearing home, we crossed the Babingley, the Ingol, the Heacham and smallest of all, the Hun.

Those 24 names represent a good proportion of all the chalk-streams that exist globally: about one-eighth of those in England, whose total of a little over 200 streams – varying in size from the stately River Test in Hampshire, to diminutive little brooks you can almost hop over – make up most of the chalk-streams in the world. There are a number of chalk-streams over the channel in Normandy. But further afield, although there are great swathes of chalk across Kaliningrad, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, or the Ukraine, although there is chalk in Texas, Israel, Egypt and Australia, it seems that there just aren’t any rivers like the English chalk-streams. Ours appear to be almost unique.

To understand why you need to think of Europe as … well if you’re into cooking think of a layered cake and if you’re into DIY think of plywood. I’ll go with the cake metaphor …

… the chalk is just one layer, the white sponge say, sandwiched between layers above and below. Now, imagine you tilt the cake so the layers no longer lie flat. Now, squeeze it from each side so the whole cake buckles. Finally take a knife. This knife is made of time and ice and rain and wind. Run the knife across the top of the cake: but don’t be too careful about taking a neat, even slice. The knife, you’ll find, slips more easily through the softer layers, the cream, the fluffy sponge; but it struggles a bit at the toffee and caramel. It all gets a bit messy of course: the cake you have cut away, some of it dissolves, while some of it is spread across the surface elsewhere. This layered, tilted, buckled and untidily sliced cake that you have imagined is the surface of the earth. The layers of rock, the layers of the cake, show at the surface in bands. In places the bands are smeared over with the remnants of other layers. In places they stand clear. The layer of white chalk at the surface in the Chilterns, for example, has been cut away and is long since gone from over Scotland; it lies intact but deep under the surface of eastern France; and in Bulgaria, while it might be more or less at the surface, it is covered with great smears of other stuff.

This is why most chalk-streams are English. Chalk-streams only flow where that soft, soluble white rock protudes at the surface, and more to the point, where it is relatively uncorrupted by the marbled mess of depositions left behind by the knife.

And what is this chalk? It is the fossilised remains of infinitesimally small sea creatures which swarmed millions of years ago in pre-historic seas. Most of Europe was once under the sea. Chalk formed at its edges where countless billions of dead coccoliths rained down to the ocean floor, settling and compressing into a porridgy ooze, which became in time, chalk. It took a while: the chalk accreted at a rate of one millimetre a century, one centimetre every thousand years. And now we have our chalk hills: a great belt of them in England that runs from south-west Dorset, past London, through East Anglia and up into the Yorkshire Wolds. Some of these hills are hundreds of meters thick.

Chalk-streams, like most rivers, begin with rain. But when rain falls on chalk it sinks into the ground through fissures and cracks, or it soaks into the body of the chalk itself, turning the hills into underground oceans of trapped water. A drop of rain might travel five miles or 50 under the earth, it might stay down there five months or five years or five centuries. The subterranean topography that determines exactly where the water goes is immensely complex, almost unknowable.

What we do know is that here and there, in a wet furrow in a meadow, or under the roots of an ancient tree, or in a rook-filled copse on the edge of a hill, that water re-emerges as springs – and that in these special places chalk streams are born.

What flows from the spring is no longer plain rainwater, however. It is chalk-water: cold and clear, and rich in minerals. The steady flow of this cool, fertile water in meandering, gravelly channels creates spectacularly diverse ecosystems. The unspoilt chalk stream is like a watery Garden of Eden: chequered beds of water crowfoot swaying in the marbled currents, constellations of white flowers, vibrant green beards of starwort and clouds of water-parsnip; the banks decked in marsh marigolds, water mint, and flag iris; under the surface brown trout and grayling, young salmon and sea trout, white-clawed crayfish, freshwater shrimp; in and over the plashy meadows, snipe and otters, water voles and mayflies.

But chalk streams are special not just in their geological origins, and the wonderful ecosystems this creates. No river on Earth is as much a product of human as well as natural history. They are such gentle, malleable rivers. They have been harnessed and lived with for thousands of years, shaping and shaped by human history in one of the most used landscapes anywhere in the world. Think of the Roman villas, the mills, the medieval priories and holy houses, the castles, the ornate Palladian parks and gardens, the fisheries, the Georgian water meadows. All these things give chalk streams a distinct beauty that is not the same as the sublime, unpeopled beauty of craggy peaks and spouting waterfalls. Chalk streams are home-spun and life-giving. Chalk streams are pastoral. Chalk streams are living, flowing history.

This intersection of geology and geography, of climatic history and finally human history has created a unique type of river: Edenic, life-giving. Chalk-streams are an English Okavango Delta, an English Great Barrier Reef, an English rainforest. Which ought to mean we should value this heritage as highly as we would any other globally unique eco-system.

Sadly, we don’t. Instead these unique rivers are abused: some to the extent that they have dried up and ceased to be rivers at all. Others are rivers in so much as they have water in them, but in every other way they are changed. Some are buried underground. Most are polluted too. To our shame most of the really debilitating changes have occurred in the last 50 or 60 years. Before that time chalk-streams were certainly much-used river systems, but our relationship with these rivers was to a large degree symbiotic. Since 1946 a fatal combination of dredging, diffuse pollution and water abstraction has made it parasitic.

Today, the range of threats is diverse and most are difficult to overcome in a busy, valuable landscape which also supports farming and industry, people and businesses.

Difficult to overcome, but surely – given the value of these rivers – not impossible?

Remember that river which was buried to widen a road? Now, fifty years after it was lost to the world, the Town Council is planning to unearth it again. The change has come because they believe it is possible and can see reasons enough to want to. The river will bring back the heart of the town. Like the rock that made the river, history took that stream underground and has brought it to the surface again. All it takes is will. A change of mind. A different way of valuing things.

There are two ways to look at this struggle between man and nature, between environmental growth and ecological destruction. Either we sacrifice the places where we live and work and try to pickle the places we don’t: which won’t save them, by the way, because they too will shrink until there’s nothing left.

Or, we learn to make room for nature and create a world where unique eco-systems can exist alongside or even inside functioning, economically viable landscapes. It is that polar choice which makes the sobering state of the English chalk-stream the most tremendous opportunity. If we can make that room here – and I know we can – we set an example for the rest of the world. We create a beacon of hope.

If we can do this in this busiest of landscapes, we can do it anywhere.

If chalk-streams are our burning rainforest, it is up to us to put the fires out.”

Charles Rangeley-Wilson on Caught by the River