Rivulet 3. Third in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.
When you’re starting off with a project like this, in a totally new area, you spend a lot of time banging your head against a brick wall. Or I seem to anyway. You don’t know who to talk to, so you keep approaching organisations but getting stuck at the switchboard. You spend half a day carefully composing a sprightly and engaging email, which gets totally ignored by the recipient.
In my view, things like organisational diagrams are works of fiction. People vary so much in what they think their job entails. There are some people who seem to get everything done in organisations, and know everyone in the field. They are the ones you want to get hold of.
Julie Wozniczka from the Central Rivers Initiative was one of those people. She knows everyone to do with the Trent. Julie clearly cares very much about her job, and about the river. She got straight away what we were trying to do, and how it furthered their aims. Once I’d found her, everything really took off.
Julie was a mine of useful information. I spoke to her several times on the phone, and every time my pen couldn’t keep up taking notes. She told me that 85% of all river courses in the UK have been changed by humans.
That doesn’t mean, 85% of rivers have had a bit of them changed, somewhere. It means that if you took all the lengths of river in the UK and laid them end to end, humans have altered 85% of that total length. Only 15% is in a natural state.
People have dredged rivers to make them deeper for bigger boats to travel down. We’ve put in artificial banks or walls to stop them flooding, or for ease of loading and unloading freight. We’ve put in locks and weirs, for a variety of reasons of our own convenience.
Most rivers in their original states would have been wider, shallower, messier, with numerous channels and little islands in amongst them. Often surrounded by marshes. Think of the Thames through London – it looks almost like a giant canal. Originally it would have been nothing like that. It would have been a sprawling, marshy, river/land mashup. There’d have been many shallower channels, with islands dotted about.
Most of us in the UK have no idea what the natural state of rivers is.
To a great extent we can blame the Victorians for this. Boo for the Victorians! They liked to make things neat and efficient.
But it began much earlier. 2000 years ago the Romans were dredging rivers and digging artificial channels, so that they could transport goods by water where they wanted to. I always think of the Romans as the spiritual brethren of the Victorians – so uptight and busy inventing things and conquering places.
The Romans probably built the first canal in Britain – the Foss Dyke, in 120 AD – so they could transport fleeces and wool to Lincoln, from the River Trent. We stopped at Torksey Lock, where the Foss Dyke begins and spoke to the lock-keeper and he told us all about it.
He said it’s always assumed the Romans built the Foss Dyke (and he thinks they most probably did), but strangely there are no known records of it from the time. Given what bureaucrats the Romans were, that seems surprising. But maybe it suggests that altering water courses was so commonplace it wasn’t worth commenting on…
And thus began two thousand years of messing around with rivers, which has had all sorts of consequences. Tomorrow I’ll tell you a bit about how we’re messing with rivers today.