Our broken river

Kingfisher by Peter Trimmings

Kingfisher by Peter Trimmings

I took a paddle upriver last week, along one of the most beautiful parts of the River Stour outside of Canterbury.

My volunteer group were busy on the bank pulling Himalayan Balsam, an exotic plant, which, if allowed, would cover the banks and shade out all the native plants. I paddled ahead to look for more exotic plants, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, garden escapes which had run amok.

I paddled in a kayak we had found dumped some months previously, the holes patched with gaffa tape with a woodworm riddled paddle found at the back of the workshop. But the kayak was water tight and the river beautiful. Rafts of water crowfoot flowered mid channel, the river clear and gravel bottomed, banded demoiselles, tiny blue and green jewels flitting mid channel, little groups of sapphire males fighting over resting places, favoured leaves and pebbles.

I paddled past banks lined with water forget-me-not and woundwort, trees with creeping roots clambering over and under and through broken walls of Victorian bricks built by shirt sleeved and braces men of long ago. Willow overhung the channel, forcing me to duck and dive through swampy undergrowth, a kingfisher vanished in a flash of brilliance up ahead.

This part of the Stour is all that’s left, miles of river either side of Canterbury have been destroyed by riverside developments. Once quiet backwaters, opened up to public gaze, trees cut back, wildlife disturbed all in the name of public access as if we had a right, a right to every tiny inch of the countryside, as if we can’t be happy to leave some places untouched and unknown, some places for the wildlife alone.

But is any part of our countryside now undamaged? Among the rafts of water crowfoot were plastic bottles and crisp packets. Shopping trolleys, carried by currents from supermarkets in town, lay along the banks, fishing wire hung from trees, waiting to ensnare birds wings and legs. The river smelt of phosphate, misconnected drains and sewers leaching poison into the river, a dead fish lay in front of one outlet, and further upstream crept the ever reaching tendrils of housing development. A new town of riverside flats was being created on the bank, the spoil and plastic pipes tumbling down the embankment, smothering the vegetation, cascading soil and silt into the river to cover the gravely beds downstream.

Sometimes, I am ashamed to be human, part of the same race that would arrogantly and blindly wreak such havoc on other living creatures. I would shut down this part of the river, remove the footpaths, so no to riverside access and, yes, even ban me and my kayak. I would say no more. There is enough access to the river, we have a right to no more. I would leave this part, this small little section alone, leave it to the fish and the water vole and the kingfisher, allow it to be a secret place once more and visit it only in my mind.

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