To Dream a River

The notion of streams and rivers as the veins and arteries of a nation, bringing life giving fluids to the country’s urban hearts, is an overplayed one for sure.  But it’s accurate nonetheless, even if these fluids contain biodiversity enough to give any blood disease specialist palpitations.   Given their importance it is therefore odd (I’m tempted to write “suicidal”)  that in Britain we have a history of our towns turning their backs, both metaphorically and literally, on our rivers, ignoring their cultural, social, biological and frankly life sustaining importance.  I’ve mentioned the brewery and sewage effluent entering the River Wear at Sunderland in an earlier posting.  As the pollution went in so there was a  gradual receding of business, industry and habitation away from the river.  There seems to be a correlation between the use and value of a river and the condition of its water and biodiversity: as rivers become ignored and disconnected from urban centres, so they become dumping grounds for whatever can be flushed or piped into them.

This process of riparian neglect was repeated throughout the twentieth century across the country and Northampton’s River Nene is no exception.  From its central place in the town’s commercial activities in the nineteenth century, with its links to the Grand Union Canal and to the North Sea, the Nene has declined in both importance to the town and in its ability to support wildlife, at least in the stretch running through the town and just down river.  Much of the ecological quality of water in this stretch is considered “moderate” to “poor” against the criteria set out by the Water Framework Directive, the main driver of European (and therefore UK) water management.

Against this backdrop of neglect and  river decline, recently a group of us went for a seven mile hike along the River Nene, from the western fringes of Northampton at Duston Mill, through the centre of the town, out to Billing Mill.   The trek was organised by a former student of ours, Neil Monaghan, now working for the River Nene Regional Park (RNRP).  The purpose of this walk was (quoting Neil’s brief for the day) “to inform the Northampton Enterprise Zone River Nene Re-naturalisation Study” by “identify[ing] issues and opportunities for works in-stream and in areas influencing the watercourse which would be likely to facilitate improvements (or at least negate degradation) through land use change or water management”.  My particular interest in this relates to the work we are doing as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project I’ve mentioned before. Also taking part in the hike were representatives from most of the groups with an interest in the River Nene’s ecology, water quality and flood risk management, including my university colleagues Duncan McCollin & Chris Holt; another former student Hugh Bunker, now working for the Environment Agency (EA); independent consultant ecologist Steve Brayshaw; Heather Ball and Oliver Burke from the Wildlife Trust; Martin Janes from the River Restoration Centre; and other staff from RNRP, the EA, Northants County Council and Northampton Borough Council.  All in all, a wide range of interests and expertise, giving their own perspectives on the River Nene.

Although I’d visited parts of the area that we walked, I’d never before hiked this whole stretch.  It was a revelation.  We passed some really pleasant stretches of river and lake close to commercial centres in Northampton that I know well, in the sense of “drive there, buy things, drive away”.  But I was wholly ignorant of just how close the river is to some of these points.

One of the reasons why it’s easy to lose track of the water courses and lakes, is that it is so geographically complex.  Take a look at the Nene Valley on Google Earth and what you’ll see what I mean.  The aerial view reveals a network of river branches, tributaries, canals and lakes, traced across the landscape.  Some of these seem to have no obvious starting point, or end abruptly.  At one point a lower lying stream passes under the river via a siphon.  It’s very confusing for a predominantly terrestrial ecologist!  The whole area is historically prone to flooding, as Chris has discussed in some of his published research and so understanding the dynamics of the whole catchment is an important task for the Environment Agency and local government.

Away from the river, one of the highlights of the trip was a guerrilla visit to a post-industrial site that is posited as the new campus for the university.  It’s actually the site of the former Northampton power station and like many abandoned brownfields across the country, it has developed its own ecological community of invasive alien plants (for example buddleia, in abundance) and native species, many of them normally at home on dry grasslands.  One section was described by Steve, half seriously, as “urban tundra” as it was dominated by a species of lichen from the genus Cladonia.   

Our main attention was the River Nene, of course, never far from the path that we walked.  Further down the course we came to the Northampton Washlands, an area of low lying grassland and flooded gravel pits that serves to store flood water when the river overtops its banks.  It’s also an internationally important site for migratory birds such as lapwing and golden plover, and is part of the recently designated  Special Protection Area (SPA).  It was another highlight in a day of exploration and surprises.

The dream of a river which can support biodiversity, provide drinking water, allow a wide range of recreation, and be flood managed, is a hugely ambitious one.  But there are many people and organisations working hard to see it flourish because the River Nene is a  vital part of the life of the town and the county.  And without dreams, what are we….?

9 thoughts on “To Dream a River

  1. Roger Harris (@rharris)

    Thought-provoking article. I’d be interested in knowing what your ideas are regarding how valuable canals are as an aquatic resource. Considering some of the UKs canals have been around since the 1700s could they now offer good wildlife habitat?

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Roger. Interesting question. I don’t know of any formal research work that’s looked at canals in comparison to rivers, but there must be some out there. Informally though I feel that canals can be quite rich. Over the summer we took a couple of trips along the Grand Union with a friend who owns a narrow boat and saw quite a lot of wildlife associated with the vegetation along canal banks. An area worth further study I feel.

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