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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Sold down the river

photo by MLP

photo by MLP

This week I sat in a meeting with the Environment Agency. We were there to discuss my plans to restore the River Stour through Canterbury. I was polite as I listened to plans to install concrete walls where I would like to create soft banks with wetland plants. I said that I understood it was hard to give the go ahead to plans which would increase the wildlife of the river when people were on the phone screaming at you because their riverside garden was flooded and their garden gnomes were floating out to sea. I was courteous to all those at the table, after all these were not the rule setters just the people forced to abide by them but the truth of it is I don’t believe what they believe. I don’t believe that protecting every property against a 1 in 100 year flood is correct. 1 in 100 year floods are massive and very rare. Why are we allowing the wildlife and health of our rivers to suffer for 99 years just to protect the interest of a very small number of water front properties?

Millions of pounds of public money are sucked up to protect the interests of a small minority while instead it could be used to give life back to our rivers so they could not only benefit wildlife but the many more people who enjoy our beautiful rivers for recreation. When are we going to accept that we have built too many properties in the flood plain and some of them are just going to be too expensive to protect?

I appreciate that my property is far enough from a river that it is only likely to flood in a 1 in 1000 year event but if you knocked a 0 off of this, I’d take it. I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t protect people or their properties from flooding at all. Protecting properties from regularly flooding is correct, maybe accepting that your living room is going to float out to sea every 10 years is too much to expect of anyone. But personally if I owned a property that backed onto a river I would accept that a soggy garden and yes, maybe even a soggy cellar was part of the bargain. Fair payment for the day in day out enjoyment of enjoying a healthy river system which benefits everyone.