Rivulet 5: Rivers are barriers

Rivulet 5. Fifth in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

I saw a talk last year from a philosopher, about object-oriented ontology. It’s a metaphysical philosopher thing. About taking physical objects more seriously. I’m not sure I understood it to be honest. I kind of thought most of us were already taking physical objects seriously, and that if anyone hadn’t been, maybe it was philosophers…

Anyway, one of the things he said was, ‘You don’t interact with a stick by talking about it. You interact with a stick by picking it up and doing things.’

Similarly, you interact with a landscape by moving through it, not by talking about it. And that’s part of why we did all this. Walking all the way along the river, and talking to the people we met along the way, gave us a much greater appreciation of the physicality of the river.

One of the things it really brought home to us is that a river is a barrier. Yes, I know, it seems pretty obvious. You can know that, intellectually. But when you are on one side of a river, and your next gig is on the other side. And you’re on foot. And the nearest bridge is miles away. Well THEN you know what it means that the river is a barrier.

The Trent as a barrier even has a starring role in history. It held back  advancing Roman armies. From 43 AD to 79 AD the Trent marked the northernmost reach of the Roman Empire.

It held back marauding Scots. In 1745 it marked the southernmost reach of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his invading Scottish army. They turned back at Swarkestone Bridge, near Derby.

At one time the Trent formed one of the borders of Mercia. It’s often regarded as a kind of notional dividing line between the North and South of England.

Strangely, we realised from talking to people, the river is far more of a barrier now than it was a generation or two ago, and for hundreds of years before that. As we walked along the north-flowing part of the Trent, we noticed matching pairs of villages either side of the river. West Stockwith and East Stockwith, Owston Ferry and East Ferry, West Butterwick and East Butterwick. There would be a road approaching each settlement, but now going no further.

Until a few decades ago there would have been a ferry connecting each of these matching pairs of villages, meaning that these dead-end roads joined up. Also, of course, meaning that the two settlements were in daily contact. People had friends, or sweethearts, on the other side.

We stood on Main Street, West Stockwith, looking across the river to the houses of East Stockwith. You could see who’d got their curtains open or shut. You could wave at them. You could probably have shouted across, just about. But now it’s a 12 mile round trip to get there by road.

The loss of the ferries – they stopped making economic sense to run – has changed the human geography of the area, without changing the physical geography. ‘Neighbouring village’ has changed its meaning in just a generation or two.

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Rivulet 4: We’re now trying to change rivers back to how they were (as much as possible)

Rivulet 4. Fourth in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

In yesterday’s post I talked a bit about how much humans have altered UK rivers. By doing this we’ve given ourselves a load of headaches. In places we’ve made flooding more likely (as there’s now less ‘give’ in the system). We’ve messed up the ecology, reduced the fish populations (and therefore the predators like herons or otters who feed on them). We’ve given ourselves river furniture (like locks and weirs) that needs maintaining and freeing from silt. We’ve reduced the natural fertilising of farmland by silt-heavy floodwaters. We’ve built unsuitable houses on floodplains.

There are now a bunch of people working on rivers for the Environment Agency whose job is to try to put rivers back to how they were before we messed with them. A lot of time, effort and money is going into returning rivers to their ‘natural’ state. Which casts quite an ironic light on what we mean by ‘natural’, when you think about it…

But of course it’s not really possible to go back in time (we can’t knock down whole areas of housing for a start), so they have to make choices about what aspect they improve. Is it the ecology? The flood resilience? The leisure access?

Often these are in tension. A river full of debris like shopping trolleys doesn’t look that nice, but it’s a happy playground for fish, with plenty of places for small fish to hang out without getting eaten. You can say the fish are what’s important, and dismiss aesthetics. But if it looks rubbish, then people don’t use the river. And if people aren’t using the river for leisure – dog walking, boating, angling – then no-one cares about the river. And if no-one cares about the river, then who thinks EA funding is important enough to protect? And without funding, how can they improve the rivers?

The tensions are even more subtle than leisure vs ecology. For example, which leisure use do we promote? The anglers don’t like canoeists, because they disturb the fish. The dog walkers don’t like the anglers because they have to watch out for them casting their lines. Things you do to improve the river for one set of leisure users don’t necessarily suit another set of leisure users.

We hadn’t realised organisations dealing with rivers had so many interests to balance. I guess most people don’t. Most of us just get on with our lives and concerns, don’t we? Even if we going walking by rivers, we think of them as just being there.

Walking from one end of a river and finding out all this stuff has made me want to tell people about rivers a lot. And that it’s all a bit more complicated than they think. It’s made me worry about the Water Framework Directive. And it’s made me wonder how many other things I know nothing about are actually completely fascinating.

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Rivulet 3: People have changed rivers

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.

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Rivulet 2: Bargees, barges and boatmen

Rivulet 2. Second in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

Part of the disappearing way of life on the waterways, that I talked about yesterday, was its terminology, which we started to learn.

Bargees were the men who drove narrowboats along canals. (It’s narrowboats on canals because they have to be narrow.)

Barges were the bigger boats that went along the wider rivers. But the men who who drove barges were called boatmen.

You mustn’t call boatmen bargees, they get offended.

All clear?

Boatman or bargee, it was often a hard life. One old guy in a pub in Stoke told us about his Granddad the bargee. As a kid, the guy used to go on a Saturday to help his Granddad. He’d ride the horses to the farrier to be shod. The horses walked so far they needed new horseshoes every week.

The Granddad transported loads of paper up the Trent and Mersey canal. At one point there was a tunnel over a mile long. There was no towpath through the tunnel, for the horses to walk along, so his Grandma would walk them around, while his Granddad ‘legged’ the barge through the tunnel. This meant lying on his back on top of the boat, pushing it along with his legs against the roof of the tunnel. For a mile.

We mentioned this story to Les Reid of Newark Heritage Barge (Les is an absolute mine of information about the history of shipping on the Trent) and he laughed a dismissive laugh. Pushing a narrowboat for a mile was nothing, he implied.

He told us about one apprentice boatman whose master used to make him pull a barge all the way down the Foss Dyke from Torksey to Lincoln. That’s trudging along the towpath with a rope around his middle, pulling a barge single-handed for 11 miles. Most people would have a horse do that, but this guy saved money by getting the lad to do it.

A photograph of an old black and white photo from an information board. Picture shows a rather fierce-looking couple, between them stands a horse, the man is holding it's bridle. Beside the woman, sitting on the ground, is a dog. Behind them is a narrowboat. The caption below it reads, 'A boatman and his family on the Trent and Mersey Canal at Rugeley, c1890-1900. Horses were used to draw the narrowboats, and couldtransport up to one hundred times more weight on water than on land. Image courtesy of Staffordhsire Arts and Museum Service.

This photo is from a canal-side info panel and shows a bargee, his wife and their narrowboat. The writer obviously didn’t talk to Les Reid about terminology…

The boatmen would live aboard the barge, with their whole family. The wife and the kids would all have jobs to do, and they’d all live and sleep in the small cabin at the end of the boat. It could get pretty crowded, so the older kids might get farmed off on other boatmen who didn’t have families, as apprentices. Sometimes they’d be treated kindly and like part of the family. Sometimes, as with the lad who was made to push a barge from Torksey to Lincoln, they were treated pretty harshly.

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What do you learn by walking from one end of a river to the other? – Rivulet 1

Last September, me and my boyfriend walked from one end of the River Trent to the other. As you do. It’s 185 miles long, in case you’re wondering.

I know it’s pretty unimpressive in world terms. The Nile is over 4,000 miles long. The Amazon and the Yangtse not much shorter. But the Trent is the third longest river in Britain. This is only a little island, you can’t go far without hitting the sea.

In fact, the Trent goes to a lot of trouble to get as long as it does in the small span available. It starts in Staffordshire, and then goes down a bit, along a bit, then up again, in a great big ‘U’ shape, before joining the Humber Estuary north of Scunthorpe.

A simple map of the course of the Trent, showing the major towns it passes though: Stoke-on-Trent, Burton-on-Trent, Nottingham, Newark, Gainsborough, and passing near Scunthorpe

All I can say is, much as I’d like to do the Nile one day, it took us three weeks to walk the Trent. It seemed long enough to us.

We got blisters, and sore feet. We had adventures. We had arguments on towpaths. I burst into tears on more than one occasion. We learned a lot about working together. We got stung by nettles. We had so much fun I’m now 7½ months pregnant…

(I like to think Tales from the River was a good training ground for parenthood. You’ve got to give yourself little obstacle courses in life, haven’t you, to make sure you’ll be able to cope when the big stuff comes along?)

We did all this because… well, because it seemed like a romantic idea and we wanted to be modern-day troubadours. We put on shows along the way – storytelling and playing music everywhere from the back rooms of pubs to a university conference centre. It was partly a mythical adventure, and partly a great big experiment in new ways of doing public engagement. Our shows were all about the Trent – its history, its geology and our journey along it.

We learned loads about rivers, and the River Trent particularly. My personal prime directive is that real public engagement is a two-way process, where you have to be willing to change too.

This journey changed our view of rivers and the Trent in all sorts of ways. Not least because the Trent now feels a bit like someone we know – we followed it from being a tiny trickle, to being a half-mile-wide river. You get attached. But I’ll leave the emotional journey for future posts…

I started writing, trying to answer the question, what do two people who knew almost nothing about rivers and about the Trent learn from making a journey like this? And the post started getting too long. So I’m chopping it up into bits and will post them one by one.

Think of them as rivulets. So here is rivulet the first:-

“Towns have turned their backs on the river”

I can’t remember who said this to us now. But walking North out of Newark, along the river, past crumbling warehouse that would once have been a bustling waterfront, I knew what they meant. It was similar all along the Trent. There’s the odd strip of regenerated bars and cafes. But most of the time when you’re walking through towns along the river it’s all cracked concrete, broken windows and buddleias growing out of guttering.

On old, clearly abandoned, warehouse with broken windows and bushes growing out of it, by the water

A canal-side warehouse in Stoke on Trent

Parts of towns and cities which used to be central hives of activity are now unimportant, forgotten, somewhere you wouldn’t walk on your own. The thoroughfares of commerce have moved elsewhere. The river’s still there, the town’s still there, but… the town has turned its back on the river.

Towns like Newark and Gainsborough used to be significant inland ports. I’d never even heard the term ‘inland port’ before we walked down the Trent. Raw materials like tobacco, cotton, food stuffs would come from overseas, often from the empire, down the Humber, down the Trent, to Gainsborough or Newark. There they could be transferred into smaller vessels and sent – via river and canal – on to industrial centres like Nottingham, where they’d be processed or manufactured into finished goods – cigarettes, clothing, etc.

There was a whole way of life based around the freight on the river, which has now almost disappeared. Since WW1, river and canal freight has been in decline, as roads and rail became cheaper and more convenient.

In Newark, we met a man called Les Reid. He’s been fascinated by the river since childhood. He used to bunk off school as a boy, and get lifts on barges going up the river. His Mum would come looking for him at Newark wharf and be told he was probably in Scunthorpe, but not to worry, ‘cos one of the captains would bring him back later.

Les Reid, is a man in his late 60s who somehow looks exactly like you expect a captain to look. Weatherbeaten face, wearing a checked shirt and a fisherman's cap and has a grey beard and a half-smile. He's standing on the deck of his barge, you can just see part of the river behind and he's holding some bits of wood in his hands.

Les Reid, on the deck of his barge

He spent his working life on freight barges on the Trent. He can identify any barge that worked the Trent, just by hearing its whistle. He knows all the stories and the families. He’s spending his retirement re-fitting one of the old barges and creating Newark Heritage Barge, to celebrate and record this disappearing history.

Les is bitter that the local council don’t support the work he’s doing, but would rather put their heritage money into a Civil War Visitors Centre,

“The Civil War was – what? – three years of the town’s history. But they don’t care about something that was part of the real life of the town for a hundred years or more!”

Les really deserves his own feature article. If you ever want to know anything about shipping on the Trent, he’s your man.

Newark wasn’t the only place you caught glimpses of a disappearing way of life. It was just the only place we came across someone trying to preserve it. As our journey went on we became a magnet for people’s stories about this disappearing world.

We’d be having a cup of tea in a pub, someone would point at our backpacks and ask where we were headed, and when they heard, some old guy would come over and tell us about his Granddad the boatman. I feel kind of responsible now for carrying those stories along with me and making some sense of them. That was something we never expected when we set off on our adventure.


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Evaluation 1: The basics

I’ve not done a full-on summative evaluation for Tales from the River Trent like I’d do if this was a work thing.

This was a self-funded, hobby project. But I’m enough of an evaluation nerd that I have done some thinking about it – both for our own interest, and in case it’s useful/interesting to others. So here’s a quick post of the basics.

What were we trying to do?

In formal terms, we had some practical objectives:-

  1. Walk 185 miles from one end of the River Trent to the other, on our own two feet.
  2. Over three weeks, 1-21st September 2012
  3. Doing storytelling and storysharing events on the way.
    We hoped that people in communities along the way would be interested, entertained and informed by our events. And that it would give people a chance to think about and talk about their relationship to the landscape.
  4. Document it as we went – so people could follow along from home and even interact with us – using blogposts, twitter, photos and recordings.
  5. Experiment with a new form of public engagement – as far as I know no-one’s walked along a river telling stories as a form of public engagement before – try variations, find out what works and what doesn’t work about it.
  6. Learn stuff about rivers in general and the River Trent in particular.
  7. Have fun and an adventure:-)

How did we do against these objectives?

1. Walk 185 miles from one end of the River Trent to the other, on our own two feet.


OK, we cheated one bit near Alrewas where we were really knackered and depressed and getting behind and we took a bus to get to where our gig was. We thought of going back the next day to make up the ground, but we decided we weren’t doing an endurance event or a Guinness Book of Records attempt and it was probably OK just to get some sleep.

We did walk loads more than 185 miles overall though, cos there was plenty of walking off route we did at various points.

2. Over three weeks, 1-21st September


Incidentally, we were incredibly lucky with the weather. Do you remember how wet last July and August were? It would have been a nightmare if we’d walked the Trent any earlier in the Summer.

As it was we had glorious sunshine nearly every day (ending up with one-sided tans from walking in the same direction all day) and only got rained on three times. Which in Britain is some kind of miracle.

A screenshot from the metoffice app, on my phone, showing happy yellow suns all day. For Long Eaton.

The Met Office app looked like this a lot.

A screenshot of the metoffice app, on my phone, forecasting heavy rain for the next few days. In Scunthorpe,

It only started looking like this at the end

Learning point: If you want to do a walking project in Britain, I strongly recommend planning it for September. (Although looking at the Met Office’s historic weather data, maybe we were just lucky…)

3. Doing storytelling and storysharing events on the way.


Although, among the many things that didn’t work out quite how we’d hoped, some places we’d turn up to do an event and they obviously weren’t really expecting us, or no-one had come to see us. So we’d be faced with a pub beer garden full of people eating their Sunday lunch in the sunshine and not expecting Tales from the River at all.

Out of bloody-mindedness and optimism, we’d do the show anyway and tell stories and play the ukulele at them. But it’s beyond even my powers of stubbornness to order a field full of innocent diners to break into small discussion groups and do exercises I set them. I may be descended from teachers, but there are limits.

So some places we just did storytelling and music shows. Some places we had the discussion afterwards too.

(Or, on one memorable occasion, we turned up to a completely empty venue. We just went to the pub. You had to get pretty zen about it all.)

Overall, we did 15 events, attended by approximately 170 people.

4. We hoped that people in communities along the way would be interested, entertained and informed by our events. And that it would give people a chance to think about and talk about their relationship to the landscape.


I think. Some people anyway. I’ll ramble on go into this in more depth in a future post (series of future posts…). Cos really this is the big question, and it deserves more than a paragraph.

5. Document it as we went – so people could follow along from home and even interact with us – using blogposts, twitter, photos and recordings.


This included:-

  • Daily blogposts
  • After the first few days, short audio logs daily
  • Uploading photos several times a day (899 photos in all)
  • 932 tweets altogether on the #talesfromtheriver hashtag, from 68 unique tweeters (although the majority of tweets were from Sophia and Ross). There were also lots of reply tweets from people not using the hashtag.
  • 122 comments on the blog
  • 26,766 views to date on the website

6. Experiment with a new form of public engagement.

Check. In spades. So much so, we’re planning a new project based on this. We’ll be announcing all about it shortly. Watch this space.

7. Learn stuff about rivers in general and the River Trent in particular.


I’m going to write a series of blogposts on some of the stuff we learned. If you’ve got any particular questions or things you want to know about, let me know in the comments (or on twitter, or by whatever channel you prefer…) and I will try to accommodate.

8. Have fun and an adventure:-)


We had so much fun I’m now 7½ months pregnant…

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