Our rivers are in trouble and this distresses me. I love all our waterways. I have fallen in most of them.
I have paddled up to Runcorn. I have surfed the Severn Bore. I have punted the Great Ouse. I have kayaked the Wye. I have upset a coracle in Welsh rapids, abseiled through waterfalls in Scotland and swum in the Waveney. I remember the eerie feeling of the reeds brushing against my thighs and the sweet taste of fresh water in my mouth.
I even went ‘lave fishing’ with one the very few remaining operators in the Severn. That’s catching the fish with nothing but a net in the shallows. Not easy. But even then, 15 years ago, I was ashamed to discover that the highest recorded catch of salmon on that river had been as recently as the 1970s and the number had then sunk, during my own lifetime, to become a crisis. This year the few remaining lave fishermen who catch no more than six in a year have been ordered to stop to preserve stocks.
I also went out with our last remaining professional eel-catcher. His trade had died, in the very place where they named a cathedral after the huge number that used to be caught there, Ely.
Salmon have gone. Eels have gone. Fish are expiring. Rivers have dried up. The weeds are rotting. The water is dying. We have a growing emergency. Little Welsh rivers such as the Llynfi have recently choked with dead fish. Singer-turned-campaigner Feargal Sharkey is pleading with us to pay attention to the chalk streams.
What is going on? I thought we were a good, aware, hip, green generation. Yet things are getting worse and worse, while the water companies trumpet that we have never had it so good.
Many of us have been venturing on to our waterways in this suffocating, staycation summer. It’s been hot. You may have noticed. Just a few weeks ago, I escorted my infant grandson, the two-year-old Elwyn, down to the riverside, wrapped him up in a buoyancy jacket and paddled my canoe up the silvery Stour. What bliss.
It was important that little Elwyn did not fall in, not because he can’t swim – at the age of two he can: the prodigy merman – but because he might swallow some of the water. Experts assert, astonishingly, that no river in the UK is really safe to swim in. None at all. Not encouraging is it?
This is not just because you might dive head first on to an old car, or be attacked by unloved alligators washed into the system from private terrariums, but simply because the rivers are full of… yes what is that floating past there? There are 18,000 sewerage overflows brimming up alongside our beloved riverbanks: poised to discharge toilet waste on to Toad, Moley, Ratty and Badger.
They are only ever supposed to do so in cases of extreme rainfall. But around ten per cent of them pump out every week. Between a third and half do so every month. Go on. Go for a dip. You will effectively be cooling off in a network of great British open sewers.
I sincerely hope that my beloved river Stour in Suffolk is not one of them. The ‘navigable river’ so carefully recorded by John Constable, is also an open water main. Fresh water from the Fens goes in near Clare, is pumped out again just north of Colchester and gushes out of the taps in Dagenham.
This was one of the reasons that an historic battle was fought to close it to boats. The water authorities wanted to keep pesky humans off their valuable commodity, but the pesky humans fought back. The battle reached the House of Lords who agreed that it had always been a navigable river. It was made a navigable river by law and should remain so.
Yet it is not a tiny number of canoeists who pollute rivers today. It is the authorities themselves. Officialdom is supposed to police the water. But their flow of testing has dwindled to a trickle.
The number of water quality tests taken by the Environment Agency for all pollutants fell to 1.3 million in 2018 from nearly five million in 2000. The number of successful prosecutions for fly-tipping pollution in England has dried up completely. To one. One successful prosecution after 76,000 reported cases. The sewage still gushes in.
I am very afraid that it is not just human faeces. That is chicken waste compared with the chicken waste. Or the flood of cow pats. Or the tidal wave of pigswill.
So long as nobody stops them, hard-pressed farmers with massive, intensively farmed flocks relieving themselves all over the shop, will quietly wash the slop into the nearest river. And they do.
And those bright gorgeous green fields on the slopes above? The potent fertiliser that keeps them glowing seeps through the good earth to join the liquid soup in the valley. Fish can’t survive. The weeds and slime take out the oxygen. The river dies.
Mines are permitted to wash a bit of their waste in as well. And it’s all getting murkier and murkier as the tide of noxious waste floods in, and the tide of proper supervision ebbs away.
And these are the most important arteries of the body that is the United Kingdom. My own trip down the tiny river Lea was a revelatory experience. Unlike that other route into London from Luton, the M1, this little chalk stream is a magical, secret and enchanting place.
As a natural phenomenon, the Lea is unique. There are only two hundred of these flinty bottomed chalk streams fed by bubbling springs the world over. Apart from a few in France they are totally British wonders.
We have carefully managed this vital water source ever since the Lea was the border with the invading Danes over a thousand years ago. Beyond it was Danelaw. Today its modest, winding course still disrupts the East-West traffic and snarls up the East End as it heads for the Thames opposite the O2.
Elizabeth I allowed her adviser Lord Burghley to turn the Lea into a canal for his barges. It became the source of the barley that created the great London beers.
Our Lee-Enfield rifles were made alongside it. Henry VIII built a massive gunpowder factory in the woods near Waltham Abbey. They needed gentle wooden sailing boats to carry the dangerous cargo down to the Thames right up until the Second World War. Yet, despite all this furious usage, it survived and sang. It remained clean. The Compleat Angler Izaak Walton did his fishing on this very river.
So how, in this modern age, at a time when we should know better, when we are rich and have rockets blasting off to Mars every second week, and no longer manufacture poisonous chemical rubbish in London, how can we be wrecking this river? Now?
It has dried up along great stretches of its length and the descendants of the very fish that Walton chased have suffocated through lack of water.
The answer is simple thirst. A great living cultural marvel is dying because somebody loves our water so much, they are using too much of it.
The water in these unique rivers comes from what is known an aquifer. Further round the M25, in Chesham alone, three abstraction points run by Affinity Water and Thames Water take out 12 million litres per day –that’s about 80,000 baths. Remember, that’s per day – over a year that comes to 4.4 billion litres, or 29.2 million baths. It is all what ecologists call ‘unsustainable’ and what I call ‘a racket’.
What in the name of the Earth, is going on? Rivers were, since the very beginnings of man’s primacy in these islands, a reliable, automatic city-flushing system. The vast majority of our towns were founded on the banks of rivers. Downstream came the fresh drinking water. Into the river went the detritus, and the flow carried it all away.
Then came the flushing loo. In the late 18th Century, a water closet got to be as fashionable as a smart TV, with pretty much the same content. But the mess had to ‘flow’ somewhere – and in London that meant the Thames.
Yet the mighty London river was simply too sluggish to carry the waste away. It got so smelly during a particularly hot heat wave in 1858 (ring any bells?) that the smell of the river – The Great Stink – overpowered the smell of Parliament. The legislators actually noticed. Hats off to them, they initiated all sorts of ingenious infrastructure to get the stuff away from their own back garden.
The embankment was built, to narrow the river and increase the flow. Huge proper effluent pipes ran under it. Massive pumping stations were constructed to offload the lot on to Southend. These Victorian works were so successful that 160 years later we are still utterly reliant on them. But we are a much bigger city and we regularly get sewage overflows into the Thames from this antique, out-of-date system. It is surely time for some more Parliamentary head-scratching.
There is a lot of self-congratulation among water companies. They point to bewildered whales flopping about off Gravesend because, see, the Thames is so wonderfully clean and free of industrial content. Yet these same companies are busy emptying their sewage tanks into the river to pay their executives huge salaries and splash their shareholders with dividends.
But one of the most polluted rivers of all in Britain is still the poor old Mersey. Fifteen years ago, I was invited to swim across it. The water board were so proud of the way that the Industrial North and the petrochemical industry had sunk to its knees that its staff regularly plunged in at Birkenhead and emerged, dripping and wholesome in front of the Liver Building. We got about halfway across before we had to put a stop to my floundering.
But today would I be so cheery, given that the microplastic content in Gerry Marsden’s favourite watercourse is higher even than the great Pacific Garbage Patch? Higher than any other environment on Earth?
We are hardly aware of what is happening. Vested interests have closed off more than 90 per cent of our rivers to exploration by the simple expedient of banning the canoe. Apparently, paddlers frighten fish and upset anglers.
But sewage, fertiliser and chemicals kill those fish dead.
We need to reclaim these underused rivers and streams, the secret routes into the fields and back gardens of Britain, in order to monitor what is going on. There is another Great Stink today and it is coming from the inert, half-dead, rotten political bodies, quangos, authorities and institutions that fiercely protect their own rights to our water, while allowing it to become polluted, fetid and dead.
Not enough testing. Not enough monitoring. Not enough prosecution of tippers and polluters. Not enough control of their own sewage farms’ loose bowels.
Whew. What is that smell, Great Britain?