Upminster Barn and Museum of Nastalgia

It is not easy to describe Upminster Barn and Museum of Nastalgia. Those descriptions I had read were sufficient to make me want to visit. If you read my last blog, you will understand that this may well have been on the barn’s own merit. It was however, a desire to discover what exactly was in it that enticed me out of bed early one Saturday morning in 2019.

Once on my bike it was a downhill freewheel to reach the Waterlink Way (National Cycle Route 21). This provided a mostly off-road route alongside the Rivers Pool and Ravensbourne to Greenwich. The building below is the lift shaft for the foot tunnel which I used to cross under the River Thames.

On the North side, rather than loop around on National Route 1, I took the direct route to join National Route 13. It was then head down and go East, getting more and more annoyed at some of the infrastructure layout where cycle lanes crossed side roads. Getting lost where building developers had, with permission, closed a cycle path and failed to sign the diversions, was even more frustrating.

Fortunately for my blood pressure, it didn’t take too long to reach Rainham where I turned left on to National Route 136. I had a Garmin on the bike, a smart phone in my pocket, and a battery bank in the pannier should either need recharging. If like me, you also prefer to have an analogue map tucked away somewhere; then the relevant sections of these routes are on both Sustrans maps: 9 Essex and Thames Estuary and 53 London Cycle Map.

Almost immediately, the Ingreborne Valley Way (Route 136) becomes a quiet route through parkland beside the Ingrebourne River. There was even farm land to view. I failed to stop and take pictures as I intended to return and visit some of the local nature reserves.

This brought me to Upminster Town Centre. At the exit of Upminster Park there were public toilets which, with the immediate surrounds, were delightfully never quite symmetrical. As I was about to visit a barn, I was pleased to avail myself of them.

At this point National Route 136 joins a main road through Upminster. I followed this for about a kilometre which brought me to the entrance to the barn site. Once past the station the road was not that busy and was lined by mature trees. 

The Barn is a timber-framed, aisled barn, and was constructed about 1450. Built on an estate belonging to the Abbey of Waltham, it was adjacent to a hunting lodge used by the abbots. After the dissolution, that survived as a private house, but is now used by Upminster Golf Club.

Although now called the Tithe Barn, like Croxley Great Barn in my last blog, it was never used for tithes. Historic England have listed the barn as a Scheduled Monument describing it as a grange barn. Upminster had a real tithe barn but this wasn’t it.

The listing provides a potted history of early monasticism in the UK as well as a detailed description of the barn.  The following is extracted from that listing.

This weather-boarded aisled barn is about 44m long and 11m wide and has nine bays. There is a gabled entrance in the centre of the north side. The thatched and half-hipped roof is of crown post construction with reversed assembly in the aisles. There is a three rail arrangement of aisle walls with ventilation at the top. …By 1813, three of the bays of the barn had been floored in oak. …It was re-thatched in 1965… Dendrochronological analysis of some of the timbers indicates a likely date range of AD 1423-1440 for the felling of the assemblage.

Before the re-thatching, it had at some time been fitted with a corrugated iron roof. It was again re-thatched after arsonists set light to the thatch in 1973. The Hornchurch & District Historical Society then took it over to use as an agricultural and folk museum, which opened in 1976.  It has become “The Upminster Tithe Barn Museum of Nostalgia”.

Approaching the barn, which is only open a few days each year, I fell into conversation with one of the volunteers. Sadly, I found that they were now very few in number and concerned about how much longer they could continue. At the turn of the century I was the Press Officer for a small museum and part of the management team. One thing we recognized was that volunteering had become a very different proposition to what it had been in the decades following World War II. Perhaps wrongly, I gained the impression that here, this wasn’t really understood.  I just hope the barn and museum re-open after lockdown.

Outside the barn was a delivery bike in Co-Operative Society Ltd livery. Quite a contrast to the latest Co-op cargo e-bikes.

A few other display items had also been brought outside for cleaning.

Going inside the barn I was confronted by the most incredible array of exhibits appearing to cover every aspect of society. Although at first it appeared to be chaos but later, as I moved around the barn, some sense order began to appear.

Before that though, I took the time to appreciate the structure itself.

This was not easy as whatever direction I looked there was something to distract me.  I quickly decided that I would need to return with a camera to photograph the contents properly. I took a few pictures on my phone but never did return. Shortly after my visit a cycling accident made it difficult to walk. Six months later just as I was reaching fullish mobility, lockdown v1.0 happened.

Some of the bays within the barn had, at one time or the other, obviously been dedicated to specific interest areas. Now some were bursting with multiple layers of display and exhibits.

There was a display of cobbling paraphernalia. One of my great grandfathers had been a boot maker, and growing up some of his old equipment had been knocking around my grandparents house. Some of the equipment appeared very similar to that. Some was not so different from that still used by my local shoe repairer.

As can be seen in the next three pictures, home entertainment systems were represented. I looked at these and then at the smart phone in my hand. The delivery system may be different, but it provides recorded music, radio and pictures for my entertainment. The old adage of ‘content is king’, clearly still applies.

For me, one of the highlights was the farm machinery distributed around the barn. The Fordson filled me with nostalgia; as did the old horse-drawn cart, reaper binder, seed or fertilizer distributor, and hay tedder. Having seen similar tractor and implements in action (or used them!), I felt old.

As a young teenager I spent a couple of summers stood in front of a winnower ensuring the screens were clear, and changing and weighing hessian sacks filled with the cleaned grain. Seeing an example of the very same model on display I understood why it was now called a museum of nostalgia. 

There were some old bikes lying around. How they were equiped was of more interest than the basic bikes.

I really do hope the museum will be open in the New Year so that I can return and take more photos that fully reflect the artifacts held in its collection. After all, where else will you find a telex machine these days?

Leaving the Museum of Nostalgia, I headed a little further north on National Route 136 before taking to quiet meandering country lanes that led me in the general direction of Shenfield. I paused when I passed the barn above to admire the way the different materials used in its construction had blended together.

On the edge of Shenfield I stopped at the Church of St Mary the Virgin and discovered that it has its own butterfly meadow.

The clouds were beginning to build at this point so, when I saw Shenfield station, I decided to take the train into London. My Freedom pass meant that the journey was free. By the time I left Liverpool Street Station the sun was once again shining. Even pre Covid, the cycle lanes meant that passing across Central London and heading South was relatively quick and easy.

And finally

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Croxley Great Barn – A Wonder in Wood

In the 1970s I visited a lot of farms in the South West of England. This was both through working for an agricultural contractor and, later, for a government organisation. A bonus of these jobs was the range of old farm buildings that I was able to work in or explore. 

These included examples that had been built as ‘model farms’ in a previous century, and some great timber framed barns.  Sadly, some of the former were falling into disrepair as the courtyard format and limited size of the internal space was incompatible with the contemporary farming methods.  

Close to where I grew up was the great barn of Abbotsbury Abbey. The etching above is from a Cassells publication dated 1892, which I am fortunate to have on my bookshelves. Nearly 700 years old, Abbotsbury Abbey barn is reputed to have once been the largest in England. Being a listed building in the care of English Heritage, it has escaped the fate of so many others I visited. They have become domestic dwellings with much of their structure and charm lost and hidden in shrouds of contemporary chic.

In recent years I have spent time walking and cycling in the Chilterns – no doubt seeking the familiarity of chalk downland.  This has included taking the London Underground train to Chesham to walk the length of the River Chess.

I have also gone by train to Watford and then cycled along the Ebury Way to Rickmansworth before going further afield, or dropping onto the Grand Union canal at Lot Mead lock. Usually this was so that I could obtain some very fairly priced (cheap) coffee and cake from the Rickmansworth Waterways Trust at the Batchworth Lock Canal Centre.

Both of these examples provided glimpses of a wonderful looking barn at Croxley. A little research quickly revealed that this was Croxley Great Barn and, better still, it was open to visitors once a month. Eventually, one Saturday last summer, I was able to visit before walking the Grand Union Canal back to Uxbridge and a train home.

I took the train to Rickmansworth. After leaving the station, I passed under the overbridge on Station Road and turned left onto a footpath. This ran alongside the railway line to High Street, which I crossed over on to Caravan Lane which, in turn, gave access to a continuance of the footpath. It was now tree lined, with the playing fields of St Joan of Arc School on the side opposite the railway.

After crossing the River Chess, I came to what was the original entrance way to the barn and was immediately distracted by the adjacent byres especially the rooves.

This gave me access to the North End of the barn. When I tried to open a door, a voice from inside shouted through to tell me that I was on someone else’s property. I was given instruction to return along the footpath to a hole in the fence, and then walk across the playing field to the barn. I may have missed instructions in the carpark of St Joan of Arc School on how to approach the barn.

I entered the barn on the East side close to the North End. Oh, wow.  It was stunning to see so much of the original fantastic structure still in place. I’m putting external and matching internal views of the barn adjacent to each other to assist in interpreting them.  

Historic England has categorised the barn as a Grade II* Listed Building describing it thus:

Tithe barn. Probably built 1396-1401 for Abbey of St. Albans during abbacy of John Moote, restored 1975. Timber frame. Flint, clunch and brick base walls. Weatherboarded. Tiled roof. 5 bays with nave and aisles, 2 bay entrance porch. 101ft by 38½ft. Central gabled entrance porch to E with double doors. C17 brick buttresses to base which has a low door to E. Doors to N and to W with two 16 pane fixed windows. Half hipped roof with gablets. Interior: hoggin floor, lime washed, 5ft high flint walls with clunch quoins and coping separate each bay in aisles.

An additional contribution from Historic England Research informs us that: “The dendrochronological study of this barn revealed that fast-grown young oaks were used in its construction. Five timbers dated, with one retaining complete sapwood. This timber was felled in the winter of AD 1397/8 and the others have estimated felling dates which include this date. It seems most likely therefore that the barn was constructed during the short abbacy of John Moote (AD 1396-1401)…”

On the day I visited, a representative of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was present to share the story of the barn.  The first thing he explained was that it was one of the surviving barns which originally belonged to St. Alban’s Abbey. As monastic institutions could not raise tithes, it is not actually a tithe barn.  As an occasional vintner, my ears pricked up when he mentioned that the farm of which the barn was part, was responsible to the abbey’s cellarer. It provided the abbey with cereals for both cooking and brewing.

By now a couple of other people had arrived at the barn and we were told that the Abbot, John Moote, had provided 100 marks to build a large barn and other buildings at Croxley. In today’s money that’s about £70! With the dissolution of the monasteries following Henry VIII’s hissy fit with the Pope, the Manor of Croxley became crown property. The King’s military endeavours meant that he needed money so, in 1557, it was sold to a Dr Caius. He gave it as part of the endowment to Gonville College, Cambridge, that saw his name added to its.  From then, until 1972, the barn was owned by the College. It and some of the land was granted to Hertfordshire County Council to become part of the St Joan of Arc School. The barn was in a pretty dire state. The Council had it restored to good condition before passing it to the school.

Thinking back to my days of driving tractors and trailers, I noticed that there was only one entrance way for a horse and cart. Normally there were entrance/exits on opposite sides so that horses and carts could roll in and roll out rather like a RORO ferry. We were told that, when built, the barn was the largest in Hertfordshire, with internal bays so large that a cart could be turned around inside it. Heavy horses are probably more agile than tractors.

If you would like to find more about Croxley Great Barn, the Croxley Green History Project website has a wealth of information, This includes plenty of historic photographs, some taken more than a century ago.

Currently, open days at the barn are suspended due to the Covid 19 related restrictions. Normally details can be found on the Three Rivers Museum website.

The adjacent Croxley Hall Farm is private property but can be seen from the track the runs from the Barn to Lot Mead lock on the Grand Union Canal. The farmstead has a 16th century, rebuilt in 19th century, farmhouse which, for aficionados of these things, retains some early red brick. Also, there is a 19th century weatherboarded timber frame staddle barn, on cast-iron staddles; a granary of similar construction; and a 17th century weatherboarded timber frame barn on a brick base. A brief view of these structures can be seen near the start of the video below, which is of the opening of the barn to the public.

Finally

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When the Air in My Lungs Stopped Killing Me

During the National Lockdown earlier this year, it was commonplace to hear people commenting on how fresh the air was, or how much bird song they were noticing. I used the daily permitted outdoor exercise periods to explore remnants of the old Great North Wood, or areas where some kind of regeneration had taken place. On the 18th of May this took in Camberwell Mountain – or Dawsons Hill to give it the correct name. 

The view of central London was incredible. I had never had such a clear view of it. The photo below was taken on a very mediocre smart phone. Because of the clean air, the clarity of the image was such that I was able enlarge one small part of it to provide the image above.

Camberwell Mountain

The quality of the air, the light and the blueness of sky was consistent for the duration of the lockdown. The picture below of the oaks in Grangewood Park was taken one early morning towards the end of March.  Motorised traffic was negligible and already that transformation in air quality was there to be seen.

Taken from different angles, the images below of Beaulieu Heights are from each end of the lockdown. Similar pictures could have been taken most days in between.

Dulwich Park in South London usually has a good display of rhododendrons and azalias in April or May. This year they were early and there was a fantastic display by the third week of April.  The whites and warm colours had great depth and vividness to them. I assume that this was due to far more ultraviolet light reaching them. 

It was not only road traffic that declined in lockdown. Air traffic virtually disappeared and, on many days, I didn’t even see or hear a plane.   

The novelty of this is because up until then, most days one could look up at the sky and either see vapour trails or, within a few minutes, an aircraft. The picture above of a smoggy Canary Wharf and City of London was taken last year. It was taken from Royal Albert Dock which is fringed on the North side with student halls of residence – stunning if you ignore the airport on the South side!

The West of London is affected by the approaches and outbound routes of Heathrow. When I took this picture of the River Thames at Kew, the planes were passing every 90 seconds.

At least the Royal Family have to put up with it too. This picture was taken from Kensington Palace.

Air traffic remains severely curtailed and therefore the pollution from that source is reduced from the pre-covid norm. Nonetheless, by mid-August, road traffic had increased and once again a layer of polluted air could be seen over Central London.

Why Truck Design is Key to Safer City Streets

Steam Lorry

It is simple things in life that give me pleasure. An example, is when I attend an event and spend time exploring something other than my reason for being there.

Alexandra Palace

Last year I attended the ‘Freight in the City Expo’ at Alexandra Palace. The main reason for attending was a presentation on how the City of London were proposing to implement last mile logistics solutions. These had the objective of reducing delivery vehicle mileage and air pollution whilst improving the environment for all users including residents and pedestrians. This was, of course, pre Covid.

Vans

I also wanted to look at a couple of new cargo bike and light delivery vehicle designs, and alternative fuel/energy sources for goods vehicles.

DPD Delivery Vehicle

What distracted me though, was the effect that Transport for London’s (TfL) ‘Direct Vision Standard’ was having on those parts of the transport industry which were represented at the expo.

Display Lorry

I started driving agricultural tractors at the age of 13 and quickly learnt that a tractor and trailer effectively has six corners, and at least one of these will be out of vision when reversing. The length of a modern articulated lorry exaggerates this even more.

It may be the vagaries of memory, but I seem to recall a time when many lorries had not only a driver but also a driver’s mate. The latter not only helped with loading or unloading, but acted as a banksman (is there a gender neutral alternative other than the less accurate ‘marshal’). In this role they would assist the driver when manoeuvring the vehicle to avoid it coming into conflict with other road users. Bulk loads and palletisation meant that the role of driver’s mate was no longer considered necessary. An efficiency saving for sure; but the loss of an extra pair of eyes to assist the driver.

Old Cabs

Rightly or wrongly, I have gained the impression that for many years truck design was more concerned with functionality There was little interest in the welfare of the driver or safety of other road users. The cabs on the vehicles above have limited viability and numerous blind spots.

The picture below shows two tractor units a few generations and a world apart in terms of technology. The new one has bigger and better wing mirrors yet many of those blind spots remain.

Cabs Contrast

The drivers of these HGVs are higher-up than those in smaller vehicles. They are unable to see cyclists on their near-side, shorter pedestrian immediately in front of them, or what is immediately behind.

Vision Zero

When the Mayor of London (Sadiq Khan) took office in 2016 he set the target of aiming to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries caused by road collisions from London by 2041. The ‘Vision Zeroinitiative is the means for delivering this and has developed the Direct Vision Standard (DVS).  An ‘HGV Safety Permit’ showing compliance with the DVS will be require for a lorry of more than 12 tonnes gross vehicle weight to operate in Greater London.

TfL2

To give a perspective to this, the data that influenced Mayor Khan’s decision included the following. In the five years to 2016, 23% of all cyclist deaths in the UK resulted from collisions involving lorries, but only 5% of traffic in Britain is comprised of lorries. 5.7% of all cyclists died when colliding with an HGV. By contrast only 0.3% of all cyclists died when colliding with a car. Studies of other vulnerable road users painted a similar picture.

Of course, the driver of a vehicle is totally responsible for it. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have all the available tools to enable them to operate it as safely as possible. This starts at the design stage of the vehicle.

Principal Requirement – Direct Vision

Vintage Lorries Westow Hill

The DVS is based on how much a driver can see directly through their cab windows. This is then rated from zero (lowest) to five (highest). To gain the necessary safety permit to operate in London, any vehicle rated zero will need improved overall safety derived by fitting additional measures. In most cases this will including a camera monitoring system, an audible left-turn vehicle manoeuvring warning, and cyclist/pedestrian proximity sensors before October 2020. Following the Covid outbreak, enforcement of these measures has been put back to the spring of 2021.

By 2024, the minimum star rating will be raised to three stars. Many vehicle operators have responded by bringing their vehicles to at least the three star standard and ensuring any new vehicles meet the five star standard. London’s DVS will be first initiative of its kind in the world to categorise lorries according to the how much a driver can see directly through their cab windows and by using mirrors, and how big residual blind spots are.

Bus cab vision improvements

One of the biggest design changes that can be seen on new vehicles is the low cab – change that took place in bus design many years ago.

This local dustcart (refuse collection vehicle) that has a lower cab with bus-style full height glass doors, illustrates the point. The vehicle in the background has side guards to prevent under runs and to prevent another road user falling beneath its wheels. These ‘low entry’ cabs are also appearing on tipper trucks and articulated lorries.

Lorry Cab Good Vision

The ubiquitous UPS delivery vehicles have had nearside doors like this for many years. New businesses have grown to meet the needs of the DVS including the retro fitting of additional windows in the doors of older trucks. 

Door windows

Indirect Vision

Vehicles that fail the minimum one-star direct vision rating must have front and side blind spots completely eliminated or minimised as far as practical. The requirements specify that this should be by use of the following:

Class V and VI mirrors or cameras that eliminate blind spots around the vehicle cab area.

Lorry Cab Mirrors 2



A fully operational camera monitoring system including side cameras and an in-cab monitor that increase driver visibility

Side cameras

Near-side proximity sensors with a driver alert warns drivers of any vulnerable road users on their near-side

screen display

monitors

A rear mounted camera gives the driver a full view across the area adjacent to the back of their vehicle when reversing.

Reversing Camera

Minimising Physical Impact of a Hazard

The Vision Zero regulations extend beyond just the direct and indirect vision standard. Vehicles that do not meet the one-star direct vision standard will have to be fitted with physical barriers to deflect vulnerable road users away from them.

Lorry sidebars

It is worth noting, that in the picture above the straps fastening the curtain side have been properly secured so that they do not flap and becoming a hazard. The side bars shown will help prevent a person falling under the wheels, but there is still some risk of becoming entangled in them.

The solution recommended in Vision Zero is to panel the sidebars in to become side guards, like the lorry in the background of the picture of the dustcart earlier in this blog. Sideguards reduce the chance of injury to cyclists and pedestrians.

Side protection tipper lorry

The tipper truck above has not only had side panels added, but also a less angular design of upright at the front to reduce the damage it may cause if impacting a body. The picture below shows how good design can remove a potential hazard. In this case, a change of design has moved the protruding hinge of the load sheeting system to above the head height of a pedestrian or cyclist.

lorry load cover mounts

Warning of intended manoeuvre

As well as visual indication (reversing lights and turn indicators), vehicles will have to be fitted with a working reverse alarm to alert vulnerable road users of a reversing manoeuvre. To be fair, these are already commonplace.

Also required will be a left-turn audible alarm that warns when a driver operates the vehicle’s left turn indicator. These are the disjointed voices that announce, “Caution, this vehicle is turning left”. Recently I noticed that a lorry, waiting at traffic lights on the nearby one-way system, was announcing that it was “… turning right.”

Suicidal motorcyclist

This is another lorry waiting to turn right at the same lights. I have a quick flinch every time I see another road user squeezing through these spaces. The new standard requires improved signage on vehicles but could be bettered to respond to this type of turn right scenario.

Signage

Bike ban sign

Signs on lorries suggesting cyclists should not pass on the left, despite this being where most cycle lanes are, will be replaced. Instead, there will be signage to warn road users of the hazards around the vehicle.

Vehicle signage 2

Vehicle signage 1

Is This Really Something New?

Many lorry operators already use the ‘Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme’ (FORS) to demonstrate that they follow best practice in terms of safety, efficiency, and environmental protection. The scheme has three standards; Bronze, Silver and Gold.

The DVS largely mirrors the safety requirements of the FORS silver level. As a result, those operators who meet the silver or gold standard will have little, if any, extra work to do in order to comply with the DVS.

FORS

Implementation has been timed to coincide with changes to the Low Emission Zone which will require that lorries meet Euro VI emissions standards or pay a daily charge to drive within the Greater London area. Operators changing their vehicles to comply with the latter requirements, could select replacements that also meet the DVS.

Dennis DVS Vehicle

Will it Make a Difference.

All I can base my judgement on is my experience of cycling in Central London over the last 20 years.

I should perhaps say that I have never subscribed to any view other than the vast majority of truck drivers are thoroughly decent people trying to do an honest job of work to the best of their abilities. Likewise, other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, are not immune from lapses of concentration or from making errors of judgement.

Whilst only one of the above groups may be equipped with 44 tonnes of loaded vehicle, that does not necessarily put them in the wrong when conflict occurs. That is why I personally oppose moves to introduce a presumption of blame on to the driver of a motor vehicle when it is in collision with a vulnerable road user. My experience from conducting accident investigations is that an open mind has to be kept if the true underlying causes of an accident is to be established.

There is a need though for all road users to perceive that they are treated fairly. One of the biggest obstacles to this are the way lazy journalists and sloppy editors report events.  The role of drivers is usually minimised whilst other road users have things personalised to them. One of my favourite headlines was, “Lorry Runs Amok – Two Dogs Hurt.” Assuming that the lorry had no feelings, emotions or control over what happened to it; then this should have been reported as ‘Driver Loses Control of Lorry’. Later it was established that failure of a third-party brake component not manufactured to the original specification caused the driver to lose control.

I’ve seen first hand not only the affects that the trauma of a road accident has on those directly involved, but also those who attend to aid the victims. I fully support the DVS as I believe that it gives drivers the tools they need to manoeuvre safely, and results in a massive reduction in blind spots. The professional driver can use their skills and abilities to operate the vehicle safely and in a way that does not endanger vulnerable road users.

Commer Trucks

In recent years my perception is that truck drivers appear to be more aware of vulnerable road users. The FORS scheme has meant that many vehicles have become better equipped and drivers given the tools to be more aware of risk around their vehicle.

The Metropolitan Police ran a ‘Changing Places’ campaign encouraging drivers and cyclists to exchange places as part of a drive to improve road safety; and more recently have been running ‘Operation Close Pass’.

Aldgate Square

The increased provision in recent years of both segregated and unsegregated cycle routes has encouraged more people to cycle. This has increased cycling visibility, so drivers are likely to be more aware of the need to cater for other road users.

Thames Furniture Lorry

A Manifesto for Chalk Streams.

Stream in Summer

Introduction

Over the years I have been involved in some single cause environmental campaigns, and observed others. Success, where it has come, has mostly been won when there has been one combined consistent and coherent voice. Most have also had a clearly stated set of goals around which support could coalesce and a campaign strategy be built.

Currently there are one or two prominent individuals and many interest groups acting as advocates for chalk streams. There is even a conference with the water companies and regulator proposed for the autumn. However, if they are to survive, I believe the chalk streams of England now need such a unified voice, and a clear manifesto that sets minimum acceptable standards for chalk stream health.

The following is offered as a discussion document and suggestions in the hope that someone will come forward to take it further. Perhaps one of the existing groups can set up a Zoom conference and invite all the others to appoint a representative to join in. 

 

Perspective

The chalk streams of England are one of the rarest habitats in the world, arguably more threatened than the rainforests. There are only about 200 in the whole world with the vast majority being in the South and East of England. The few that aren’t, are in Northern France. In recent years the very existence of these streams in England has been threatened, with most suffering some kind of environmental damage; and in some cases, extinction level harm.

Water in chalks streams is some of the freshest and cleanest to be found due to the filtering effect provided by the chalk. This has resulted in it being exploited by the water companies to the point where streams have dried up completely. 

The privately-owned water companies make profit from supplying water.  There has been a drought in the South East of England for the last three years, however, they have refused to impose measures like introducing a hosepipe ban.  Politically this could be disastrous for them. It would highlight their failures to develop and maintain a sustainable and resilient water supply; and failures on the part of government, the Environment Agency and Ofwat to effectively regulate the industry.

Water companies also routinely release untreated sewage into rivers causing pollution and further environmental degradation.

Some pension funds have shareholdings in the water companies and effectively elect directors. They therefore bear some of the responsibilities for these actions.  Despite apparently being contrary to their sustainable development and ethical commitments, some of these funds appear to support the water companies on the basis of maximum dividend at any price.

There are questions relating to whether the current government is about to lower environmental standards, and regulation of bodies like water companies and investment funds.

There is some media coverage of the current chalk stream crisis. Nationally this often involves a prominent individual and, locally, interest groups and associations. There is regular social media activity; often using the hashtag #chalkstreamsincrisis. Last year there was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons and, in June this year, the Public Accounts Committee questioned Defra, Ofwat and the Environment Agency over their management of the water companies and water supply.

Companies and regulators are used to handling data and measuring performance against defined standards. Having a manifesto that gives standards means that they can be held to account properly and not against their own cosily derived criteria. The manifesto standards would mean that in any discussion the water companies will know what is expected of them, making it more difficult to offer some sop rather than taking proper action. Politicians and those creating environmental policies will also know what is expected and, with sufficient public support, demanded of them. When campaigners are asked what they want, the answer will be there in detail.

Despite legislation and twenty years of talking, the chalk streams of England are once again beginning to dry. NOW, more than ever before, a manifesto for their future is required.

The Campaign for Chalk Streams

I propose that an organisation with this name is established as both a charity and a limited company. Initially membership would be open to all organisations with an interest in preserving and restoring chalk streams. This will hopefully provide a degree of base funding. Individual supporter membership could follow, but structured so as not to harm existing groups.

This would require groups that perhaps do not at first appear to be natural allies to come together.  For example, the angling community and the aquatic re-wilders may not agree on how a stream is managed – but their arguments are pointless if in the meantime the chalk streams have disappeared. Another example would be the farmer interested in maintaining local levels of ground water and the ecologist advocating wide river bank margins to reduce agricultural run-off. These arguments are surely a luxury for another day.

I have established this kind of umbrella organisation before and it offers a number of advantages. It can do the hard campaigning that local groups may not feel able to do. It can confront water companies or government, initiate legal action or challenge the media; whilst the local groups can maintain their existing relationships with these organisations. Once a campaign to secure a minimum standard of future for the chalk streams has been successful, the organisation can be dissolved leaving the local groups with their relationships intact to continue with their monitoring and care of the chalk streams.

The organisation should:

Ideally have a full-time director and support staff.  There should be a ‘high profile’ Chair-person or President to help maintain the profile of the organisation and cause.

Campaign for a minimum level of Environmental Protection for all chalk streams and Enhanced Protection for key rivers.

Campaign for effective regulation by a strong regulator that can impose penalties that make compliance more advantageous than facing the punishment – i.e. it no longer being cheaper and easier to pay fines rather than comply with legal obligations.

Campaign for dividends paid by water companies to be capped to a diminishing percentage of the previous year’s dividend, following each pollution, or excessive reduction of water flow, incident.

Campaign for an effective regeneration, by the relevant water company, of sections of chalk stream that in the last ten years have dried out at any point due to over abstraction of water. To include creating a profile of all species associated with that particular section of chalk stream: based on historical records, surveys of contiguous ecosystems and any relocated specimens; and the creation of a genetic library for each so that any restocking comes from an appropriate population. To include plant, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and bacteria; not just fish.

Create a minimum standard for the health of each chalk stream:
Create a minimum standard for river flow.
Create a minimum standard for river water quality.

Create a biodiversity standard – all species not just key indicator species.
These demands and standards should clearly be expressed in a ‘Manifesto for Chalk Streams’.

Maintain press and media awareness of, and interest in, these issues.

Become the one-stop-shop of choice for those requiring quality information relating to the welfare of chalk streams.

Inform and affect policy through lobbying politicians, local and national government.

Promote public awareness of the importance of chalk streams as internationally rare and threatened ecosystems.

Promote public involvement in the management and maintenance of chalk streams through involvement in existing local support groups and participation in consultation processes.

Promote citizen science and encourage school science departments and universities to set up monitoring programmes as part of their field studies.

Promote, and fund, academic research.

Raise awareness of the threat to chalk streams within the wider environmental movement both nationally and internationally.

Promote agricultural practices that protect streams from animal waste or chemical run-off.

Promote measures to prevent road and urban run-off into chalk streams including infrastructure re-engineering where required.

Promote individual responsibility for personal water consumption.

A Manifesto for Chalk Streams.

  1. The water flow in any chalk stream should not drop below the 25-year average for the period 1976 – 2000, for that day of the year. Where it drops below 75% of that average for more than five days, water abstraction from the source aquifer shall immediately be reduced by not less than 20% of the previous seven-day average. For each subsequent consecutive five-day period of reduced water flow, the abstraction shall be reduced by a further 20% until such time as the water flow is restored. If the period of reduced flow lasts for ten days, drought measures shall immediately be implemented. 
  2. If on 30 April each year the level of groundwater in any aquifer feeding a chalk stream is less than 80% of 25-year average for the period 1976 – 2000, the permitted abstraction from that aquifer shall be reduced by not less than 20% of the date average for the previous five years. If it is less than 60%, the permitted abstraction shall be reduced by not less than 50% of the date average for the previous five years, and drought measures shall immediately be implemented. If on any other date in the year, the level of groundwater in the aquifer falls below 50% of the 1976 – 2000 average for that day of the year, the permitted abstraction shall be reduced by not less than 50% of the date average for the previous five years, and drought measures shall immediately be implemented. 
  3. Where water flow in a stream reduces to a point where the full biodiversity can no longer be maintained, or it ceases to flow completely, all water abstraction shall cease until the water flow returns to 50% of the norm, at which point the two clauses above will again apply. Following such an event the water company shall be responsible for restoring, from genetically matched populations, all species to population levels shown in the biodiversity standard. 
  4. Where a chalk stream has no designated environmental protection, in all planning and other matters it will considered to have the same status as a SSSI. 
  5. There shall be a presumption that there will be no development within five metres of the bank of a chalk stream. Where there is a development on land running to the bank of a chalk stream, there shall be a two-metre-wide margin from the edge of the bank left for natural wild growth. 
  6. Where there is provision for rain or other waste-water run-off in to a chalk stream, the property owner or relevant highway authority, shall reduce this by 50% by 2025, and completely by 2030. Blue-green measures to attenuate flow and adequately filter the water shall be an acceptable alternative. 
  7. All sewage, industrial waste, and waste-water processing plants shall have the capacity to handle up to, and including, one in 50 years level incidences. All treated water discharged from these plants into a chalk stream should be chemically balanced, to match that from the source aquifer of the stream, and be free of micro-plastics. 
  8. In the event of a pollution incident; failure to stop it, take measures to mitigate the effects (e.g. oxygenation), and advise all interested authorities; at the earliest opportunity, shall be considered aggravating factors resulting in more severe punishment. If there are more than five incidents by the same polluter in the same stream, in any 12-month period, the directors (including non-executive) or owners of that business may be held personally liable and fined or imprisoned. 
  9. During a pollution incident; the polluter shall start clean-up operations at the earliest opportunity, including whilst the event is still happening.  The response should incorporate teams hand picking items such as wipes. 
  10. Where reasonably practicable, any man-made obstacles such as dams, weirs or flood control measures shall be removed from chalk streams to promote fish migration and greater biodiversity in the upper reaches. Where this is not possible, fish ladders, eel passes and other bypasses shall be installed for the same purpose. 
  11. No new fish farms, or expansion of existing ones, will be permitted in chalk streams. No fish that are genetically different to the local population shall be farmed in any chalk stream. Statutory provision shall be made requiring the owners of any such fish farm to arrange for routine monthly health and disease screening of the fish stocks, with mandatory reporting of results. 
  12. The owners of any fish farm shall routinely monitor dissolved oxygen levels, urea levels and river bed contamination for one mile downstream from the farm. They shall be required to clean the river bed of excess amounts of waste food or fish waste product; and should urea levels exceed a predetermined level, immediately reduce stock levels. 
  13. It is acknowledged that chalk streams are one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet. There are about 200 true chalk streams to be found anywhere in the world and most of them are in England.  They support their own niche ecosystem and deserve the highest levels of environmental protection.

In Conclusion

Sir Charles Walker MP, speaking last year in the House of Commons, stated:

“I find it extraordinary, given our own poor environmental record, that colleagues in this House lecture Indonesia and Brazil so freely on their responsibility to the rain forests. Of course, those two countries have a huge responsibility to the rain forests, but if we cannot save the chalk streams that are literally in our own backyard, what are we doing lecturing other countries on their environmental responsibilities? Saving the world does not start with the rest of the world. Saving the world starts right here, right now, doing our bit locally with our chalk streams—think locally, act globally.” Hansard Vol.663 col 1168 22 July 2019.

Forty years ago, I would have relished the challenge of such a campaign. Today is no longer my time; but I’m sure that amongst the various groups set up to protect particular chalk streams, there are the women and men whose time is today and tomorrow.  I invite them to step forward, gird their loins and not ask or discuss, but demand that the chalk streams of England are saved, and saved now – not for us but for the world and the future.

Should you wish to discuss this further with me, volunteer to co-ordinate responses or host a video meeting, my email is peter@byfootandbike.com These links are to some blogs about chalk streams that I have posted: 

https://bit.ly/2ZNl7uh
https://bit.ly/2O8TLt8

2 Pastoral

The Great North Wood – One wood but many parts.

Heading

The lockdown for Corona Virus has not been as restrictive in the UK as in some other countries.  Until today, the ‘rules’ have allowed individual to venture out once a day, for a period of no more than about an hour, for exercise. I have chosen to use this as an opportunity to explore the remnants of the old Great North Wood near where I live in Norwood; the name itself being a contraction of North Wood.

The map below, produced by John Rocque in the early 1740s, show the wooded area remaining at that time – the red dot indicates where I am currently living.

John Rocque map of Great North Wood

The name ‘North Wood’, was given to differentiate it from the huge ‘South Wood’ that covered much of Sussex, Surrey and Kent.  The term ‘weald’, used to describe much of the geography of those counties, comes from the Old English word for forest.

I remember being told as a child, that an oak tree takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to live and 300 years to die. Indeed, there are some oaks more than 1000 years old. I like to think that in my journeying I will pass by at least one tree that was alive when Rocque made his map. 200 metres from where I live is the oak below and I gain great pleasure watching it day-by-day through the seasons.

Westow Street Oak

At the time of Rocque, areas of the Great North Wood had been managed by coppicing for several centuries; both to provide raw materials and to supply charcoal kilns. The picture below, of charcoal burning is from John Evelyn’s ‘Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions ’, of 1664.  Not only is this one of the finest treatises on forestry ever written, it was prescient in its warnings regarding the threat of deforestation. Living in Deptford, he would have been very familiar with the Great North Wood.

Charcoal Burning John Evelyn’s Sylva 1664

In reality the widespread deforestation of Britain had already taken place.  10,000 years ago, following a bit of a chilly spell, the country was densely wooded. Sometimes this is referred to as the ‘wildwood’ or ‘wyldewood’  to differentiate it from more recent ‘managed’ woodlands.  The wildwood, in terms of the bigger picture over time, did not last for long. 

By the end of the Bronze Age 3000 years ago, settlements had proliferated and become quite extensive with, almost urban, groupings of round houses like the one below which is located at Flag Fen Archaeological Park. The foundations of modern agriculture were in place with cleared pasture and systems of cultivated land. Copper was being mined in industrial amounts; and the free movements of people and goods throughout much of Europe was well established.  Where felled trees have survived, such as those at Seahenge; the number of different axe heads used, show that these people were well practiced, and proficient, at felling trees.

Bronze Age Roundhouse

When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43AD, the demand for wood increased dramatically to support the needs of a growing infrastructure and industry. It was also the main fuel.  As with other parts of the empire, forests and woodlands were being decimated.

When the Romans left Britain in about 400 AD, the Great North Wood may have already contracted to a size closer that mapped by John Rocque. Unfortunately, due to Corona virus shutdowns I cannot obtain permission to include a modern reworking of a map from that period showing this.

Wildwood

The Anglo Saxons are known to have cleared large portions of forest. The survival of the Great North Wood may be down to the geology of the Norwood Ridge on which much of it is located. This is formed of London Clay which, although ideal for deep rooted trees, made it a poor prospect for either cultivation or settlement.

From the Domesday Book (1086) we learn that much of the land on which the wood is located had come into the ownership of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Some hunting rights may have remained with local lords; whilst local people retained some right to graze and manage the woodland. It also shows that by then wood-pasture and woodland covered only about 15% of England. By the time of the Black Death in 1349, half of that remaining woodland had also been felled.

Black Death

The Port of Weymouth, in my home county of Dorsetshire, celebrates the part it played in the arrival of plague, by displaying the above plaque on the quayside. The Black Death and resulting reduction in the population brought respite to the woodlands, for perhaps a century, before growing demands of industry once again created a need for fuel.

Gypsy Hill Plague Pits

This small parcel of land in Gypsy Hill which would once have one been in the Great North Wood, has avoided development due to being the site of plague pits where victims of the black death were buried.

Launch of HMS St Albans

During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; colder winters, and an increase in ship building which required good quality oak, increased the pressure on woodlands. New agricultural techniques, developed in the Eighteenth Century, meant that land that once had only been suitable for woodland, could now be farmed.

As more land was enclosed and woodland became less economically important, parcels of land were sold off for housing.

London and Croydon Railway

The coming of the railways meant that coal could easily be brought into the area, possibly saving what was left of the old Great North Wood. The railway cutting in the illustration above, like much of the line of the original London to Croydon Railway, is wooded and plays an important part in linking remnants of the wood. There are even some mini nature reserves in places along the route.

Dulwich Rail Cutting

Today there are more than 30 areas of woodland or associated green space, left within the boundary of the medieval wood.  Many of these are now secure and some are managed by the London Wildlife Trust. Much of this is due to the work of the ‘Friends of the Great North Wood’, a group formed in 1992. My favourite tree in the remains of the Great North Wood is one of the humblest. I wrote about it here.

In 2017 the London Wildlife Trust launched the Great North Wood project with the aim of reviving and re imagining the Great North Wood. The Heritage Lottery Fund stumped up nearly £700,000 towards the cost of this.

View from Tower St Peters Brockley

Much of the wood cover in the area is provided by mature broad-leave trees in gardens, other privately owned spaces and roadside planting.

Tarleton Gardens Banner

Sadly, all across the old Great North Wood, trees are being lost to development, or local authority administrative convenience.

Save Me Tree

I don’t know whether there is any truth in the reports that 5G phone signals are corrupted by wet leaves on trees.  Following upgrades to the mast below, you can see where in the last few days several mature broadleaf trees have been felled and replaced by some that are little more than sapling.

5g Mast

There are small areas of ground dotted about that have never been enclosed or had ownership registered.  If an individual fences such land and maintains control of it for 12 years, they can register ownership with the Land Registry.  I guess I should check whether there is an owner registered for the patch of land below and, if not, pull the fence down or take control of it by planting and maintaining a couple of fruit trees. It could then be incorporated into the management of nearby Stambourne Wood.  

Enclosed Land

If one of the organisations involved in the future of the Great North Wood had the time, I suspect a number of these pockets of land could be located and secured, especially as the Land Registry has a target for comprehensive land registration by 2030.

Building Plot

One of the busier roads on the Norwood Ridge is fairly well lined by mature trees, although many are in private gardens. On one side of the road behind the trees there are a line of scrubby patches of ground that is effectively protecting the tree roots and providing a wildlife corridor.  This is slowly being taken for building. The plot above is for sale with planning permission for 8 houses.

The five pictures above have been taken in the last four days. Groups like the London Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Great North Wood are doing a great job in saving parts of the Great North Wood; most notably Hillcrest Wood which, as recently as two years ago, was due to be ravaged to provide space for housing development.

However, it is the constant loss of fragments like those above that, collectively, may compromise what little of the wood is left.  The decision to fell the tree in the picture below, and photographed today, can hardly be argued with . It was one of what originally was a row of more than 30 trees. As age has taken its toll, gaps in that line have started appearing.  What is not happening, is any replanting for the benefit of future generations. Losing trees from an estate may be seen  by some as good economic sense and a way of reducing costs.

Tree Bole

During the current Corona Virus lockdown, I have used my exercise allowance to visit several remnants of the wood although one or two that are run as nature reserves are currently closed.  Most of the parks in the area have always had some mature trees in them to reflect their woodland heritage. Over the last 25 years many have been quite heavily planted with trees and former green deserts are beginning to thrive as semi woodlands.  

Elder Hole Coppice

I have been interested to observe in recent summers that, on the hottest days, space in the shade of a tree has become more desirable than that in full sun. I have used these parks as connecting routes between the woodlands to minimise the amount of pavement walking. 

I was going to reproduce a map here showing the location of these green spaces, but again could not obtain permission to do so.   Therefore, I’m putting up one picture for each of the wooded areas I’ve walked in during the lockdown. Clicking on the images will link you to further relevant information.

Belair Park

Belair Park Oak

Beaulieu Heights

Beulah Heights

Biggin Wood

Biggin Wood

Crystal Palace Park

Crystal Palace Park Woodland

Dulwich Park

Dulwich Park

Dulwich Wood

Dulwich Wood

Gipsy Hill Plague Pits – aka Long Meadow

Gipsy Hill Plague Pits

Grangewood Park

Grangewood Park

Hillcrest Wood

Hillcrest Wood

Horniman Museum Gardens

Horniman Museum Gardens

Norwood Grove

Norwood Grove

Norwood Park

Norwood Park

One Tree Hill

One Tree Hill

South Norwood Grounds

South Norwood Grounds

Spa Wood

Spa Wood

Stambourne Wood

Stambourne Wood

Streatham Common

Streatham Common

Sydenham Hill Wood

Sydenham Hill Wood

Sydenham Wells Park

Sydenham Wells Park Pond

Upper Norwood Recreation Ground

Upper Norwood Recreation Ground

Westow Park

Westow Park

The Corona Virus lockdown has encouraged me to explore more of what is on my doorstep. As of today the restrictions on time spent outdoors has been relaxed, so I should be able to wander a little further to the more outlying part of the Great North Wood.

Finally

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Tail Piece

A Tale of Two (or is it Three) Cities.

City of London Skyline

In the past I have written about London, usually meaning the metropolis of Greater London. Occasionally however, I am referring to the ‘City of London’ or ‘Square Mile’ as it is sometimes known. I thought it may be useful to do a quick explanation of the difference between the two, before I publish a blog about the approaches each is taking to reducing the effects of freight transport on the environment. Clicking on the images will link you to further relevant information.

Moorfields

I should take a moment to explain the hiatus there has been in my blogging.  In most part, this was due to a sudden major decline in my eyesight about two years ago and finding it virtually impossible to read a book or to use a computer screen.  It probably also contributed to a rather painful bicycle accident which I have written about. Thanks to the fantastic team at the Moorfields eye clinic, after several visits I may not have 20/20 vision, but what I do have is not far short of that, although there are some on-going problems to be addressed when life returns to normal. It’s like being able to see properly for the first time again, an experience I had as a young child receiving my first prescription glasses. A family member reminded me of how euphoric I had been at that time.

Nasa Satelite Image of London UK

Greater London, or London, is the larger area and for those who like statistics, comprises 607 square miles made up of 32 Boroughs and the ‘City of London’.  It has approximately 8 ½ million people living within its boundaries.  London-wide administrative matters are dealt with by the Greater London Assembly currently under the stewardship of Mayor Sadiq Khan. Both are based in City Hall which is the building, shaped like Darth Vader’s helmet, in the picture below.

City Hall and Shard London UK

Also known as the ‘Square Mile’, the ‘City of London’ is based on the area settled by the Romans a couple of millennia ago on the northern bank of the River Thames. 

Roman Londinium

Being Romans, the settlement included an amphitheatre in which gladiators would strut their stuff for the entertainment of the masses. 

Roman Amphitheatre London

The remains of the amphitheatre were discovered beneath the yard of Guildhall during the course of an archaeological dig in 1988.

Guildhall London

These are now incorporated into the Guildhall Art Gallery and, in normal times, are open to the public (admission free!!!).

Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie

The City of London is the main financial district and includes many landmark buildings such a as Tower 42, the ‘Cheese-grater’, and ‘Walkie-talkie’; as well as older ones such as the Bank of England and Royal Exchange below.

Bank of England

A further satellite financial district has developed at Canary Wharf, below, which transformed from redundant docks to a mass of high-rise towers.

Canary Wharf and RN College

The City of London has its own Lord Mayor, now known as ‘Lord Mayor of the City of London’ to avoid confusion with the ‘Mayor of London’. The Lord Mayor is head of the City of London and heads up the City of London Corporation which governs it. Elected annually, the current lord mayor isWilliam Russell.   A click on the image below will bring up a short video of his Lord Mayor’s Parade.  

Lord Mayor videolink

He is assisted by Sheriff’s who are also responsible for the running of the Old Bailey which holds trials of national significance.  The City of  London also has its own police force. Being an ancient post, appearances by the Lord Mayor are often accompanied by pomp, pageantry and regalia.

Pikemen and Musketeers

The City of London is the oldest continual municipal democracy in the world.  It was recorded in 1032 and possibly predates that. Located close to the Bank of England, the Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor. This 1837 engraving of it is by John Woods and based on a picture byHablot Knight Browne which itself drew on a study by the architect and draughtsman Robert Garland.

Mansion House london

The Lord Mayor of the City of London acts as a worldwide ambassador for financial district and the Financial Services industry.  Whilst this is not part of government, the importance of the role is recognised twice a year when, at prestigious dinners, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at one, and the Foreign Secretary at the other, make keynote speeches that usually contain policy announcements and are studied and followed world-wide. 

City of London Dragon

Dotted around the perimeter of the City of London are boundary markers, such as this one on the embankment; whilst bollard around the city also carry its red and white heraldic colours.

The House of Fools

London also has another city; the City of Westminster.  The City of Westminster is now just one of the London boroughs, but retains the titular name. It has no more status or responsibility than the other boroughs.  Within its boundaries, the City of Westminster has the Palace of Westminster home to the Houses of Parliament – the mother of parliaments; not to mention Buckingham Palace and Saint James Palace, home to the court of Saint James. 

Buckingham Palace

Westminster Abbey is where not only royal weddings and funerals take place, but artists poets and Kings are buried. It is of course, the final resting places of the Unknown Warrior. 

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior WestminsterAbbey

 A little way from the Abbey is the catholic Westminster Cathedral.

Westminster Cathedral at night

In the future I hope to do a number of blogs regarding environmental and transport issues within London, and contrast the approaches of the metropolis and the City of London. Along the way I’ll probably refer to ’Westminster’ as well, but usually as shorthand for the government, parliament and administration of the UK.  I hope that you will find this blog useful and it will help avoid confusion in the future.

London UK Skyline at Dusk

When You Get To Know One Tree; You Learn to Love the Forest.

Malus in Bloom

London National Park City.

In many respects it should be no surprise that London is the world’s first National Park City.  One of the criteria for this is to be: “A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape.” 

With about eight and a half million trees that provide cover for about a fifth of the area it is, sometimes, also referred to as an urban forest. The Mayor of London even has an online map which shows where many of them are should one want to find a particular type of tree.

Like many of my blog posts, if clicked-on many of the pictures are links to further information.

View from Tower St Peters Brockley2

These views from the tower of St Peter’s Church, Brockley, show this tree cover.

View from Tower St Peters Brockley

The Great North Wood

Some of the trees in the pictures above are, or are descended from, remnants of what is now referred to as the Great North Wood.  At one time the area that arches through South London would have been totally wooded. By the time of the Norman Conquest large parts had been cleared, and by the 20th Century it had been reduced to pockets of woodland and a few coppices.

SITE OF THE CRYSTAL PALACE IN 1852

In 1992 the Friends of the Great North Wood was formed to promote interest in, and sympathetic cohesive management of the woods across the various landowners involved.  In 2017 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £700,000 to the London Wildlife Trust  to help restore and preserve what remains of the woodland. Locally, each year sees more tree whips and trees being planted, transforming green deserts into richer more varied habitats.

Yesterday I was walking in Sydenham Hill Wood, which is managed by the trust, when for a few minutes the sun came out and brightened up an otherwise dull December afternoon.

Sydenham Hill Woods

My Favourite Tree

One of the parks I regularly cycle through has many fine trees in it including a remnant of the Great North Wood. My favourite tree in the whole park is a rather age wearied old crab apple or, as it is known to arboriculturists, Malus sylvestris. The introductory picture at the start of this post, is of that very tree in bloom.

Crab Apple tree sign

But of all the trees in the wood, why is this Malus my favourite?  Like all crab apples, it has a ‘crabby’ rather dishevelled appearance that reminds me of what my hair, when I had it, used to look like. Most of all though is that despite its far from prepossessing appearance, when one takes time to look more closely, many great facets of it become clear.

Naked Malus in Winter

In folk tradition, crab apples are associated with fertility and linked with love and marriage. One much quoted myth is that if you throw pips of the crab apple into a fire while saying the name of your sweetheart, the pips will explode if it is true love. Use of this imagery can be seen in the etchings below.

Daniel Hopfer

These are by Daniel Hopfer 1470 – 1536, who was an armourer by trade. Sometimes also listed as a German Old Masters artist, he was one of the first artists in Europe to use this technique for print making. The oldest surviving etchings by a European are those by Albrecht Dürer produced in 1515; whilst one surviving etching by Hopfer can be dated to 1523.

The association with fertility may also reflect that the pollen of the crab apple is particularly viable. Even today, you will find examples kept as a cross pollinator in commercial orchards growing varieties of modern apple that are not self-fertile. This role is enhanced by its long flowering season which, even if not required as a cross-pollinator, will attract bees and pollinating insects to the orchard prior to the commercial fruit trees coming into blossom.

Malus Fruit 1

Illustrations of the Adam and Eve story often included a crab apple to represent the ‘tree of life’ or ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’. Until some of the Popes took exception to it, December 24th was also known in parts of Europe as ‘Adam and Eve Day’. As the Christmas tree tradition developed this was reflected by the use of apples as a decoration which developed in to the more familiar bauble. It is likely that this was also an appropriation of a pagan winter solstice tradition.

The fruit of the crab apple is small, hard and tart yet is in the DNA of every modern apple. These are mostly descended from the Asian wild apple Malus sieversii but about 20% of the genetic material will have come from the European Crab Apple Malus sylvestris.

Malus by Mattioli

Many of the wild crab apples identified as Malus Sylvestris, when tested turn out to be hybrids of the crab and cultivated species. This does however mean that the ‘pure’ specimens can be identifiedand the genetic material conserved against future need. ‘My’ malus in the park truly demonstrates the old saying; “the Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree”.  It is now a small clump of crab apples – one more and it would qualify as an orchard. Most of the fruit is taken by wildlife and the pips are presumably distributed more widely.

Die Bäume und Sträucher des Waldes

A Cradle of Life

The most incredible thing about this old crab apple is the sheer amount of life it supports. Some moth species like the Eyed Hawk Moth below favour crab apple trees as do some caterpillars

Eyed Hawk Moth

It is covered by an incredible diversity of lichens and mosses.  These are not parasites but rely on the environment of the tree for survival. In summer when they need to conserve moisture, the tree canopy provides shade. In winter when they need more light to photosynthesise, the tree sheds it leaves to let the light in.  The fact that there are smaller trees growing alongside means that the next generations of these well matched species can continue to thrive together rather than having to find new hosts.

Moss and Lichen on Malus

Whilst snuggling up to a tree results in strange looks from passing dog walkers and joggers, it gives the chance to use a magnifying lens to look closer at what’s happening on it.  This reveals that areas of it are like mini rain forests and full of life in the form of tiny creatures.  These are in their turn a source of food for small mammals and birds.  The moss and lichens have, over many decades, managed to populate almost every part of the tree from the base of the trunk to the tips of the smallest twigs.

This tree is a cradle of life that supports a range of species that is out of all proportion to its size and visual impact, and yet it is one tree in a mix of trees that together support and maintain an even wider breadth of life.

Moss and Lichen on Malus 2

What this does is demonstrate the paucity of the argument put forward by developers and other that, for every tree they cut down they will plant another, or even more. The new trees will not support for many years the kind of localised ecosystem that a mature specimen does.  In the intervening years, other reliant species may well have declined. In urban areas the benefits brought to local air quality is lost.

Crab apples can be purchased on a range of rootstock meaning that there will be one appropriate for any size of garden or patio – why not give your local wildlife a treat and find a corner for one in your garden.

Finally 

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Moss and Lichen on Malus 3

 

 

The Destruction of our Chalk Streams Continues – But they could be Saved.

Beverley Brook at Wimbledon Common

Following my blog post last week about the ecocide of many of England’s chalk streams, I received some queries which I have decided to answer in the form of another post. As requested, this includes more links to further sources of information.

winter afternoon on River Chess

Can Chalk Streams really be compared to the Rain Forests?

I’ve been questioned over equating the plight of chalk streams in England with the destruction of the rain forests.  In terms of the percentage being damaged and destroyed, the chalk streams are far less likely to survive.  There is also an ethical context as voiced by Charles (now Sir Charles) Walker, Member of Parliament for Broxbourne, in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons

“It is important that I put the situation in context. As I said a moment ago, we have 85% of the world’s chalk streams and most of them are highly degraded. I find it extraordinary, given our own poor environmental record, that colleagues in this House lecture Indonesia and Brazil so freely on their responsibility to the rain forests. Of course, those two countries have a huge responsibility to the rain forests, but if we cannot save the chalk streams that are literally in our own backyard, what are we doing lecturing other countries on their environmental responsibilities? Saving the world does not start with the rest of the world. Saving the world starts right here, right now, doing our bit locally with our chalk streams—think locally, act globally.” Hansard Vol.663 col 1168 22 July 2019. 

Dry bed of River Misbourne

There are only 200 or so chalk streams in the world, with about 85% of them in England.  About a dozen of these have had major sections dry out completely whilst many others are so depleted that normal aquatic life cannot be supported. Although it was brought out two years ago, this report from the WWF provides a well-researched easy to read overview.

Water for wildlife

The following WWF reports are slightly dated but a good introduction to the subject of chalk streams and related issues. The reference section of each are good starting points for further study.

The State of England Chalk StreamsRivers on the EdgeRiverside Tales

Is it true that Loss of Chalk Streams can result in Extinctions?

I wrote in the last post:

Removing and “saving” a few headline aquatic species, whilst of value, does not address the full degree of devastation the drying-up of a chalk stream brings.  To describe it as ecocide does not seem extreme. It is a loss of a complete ecosystem from mammals such as water voles, through the invertebrates that support so much of river life, to the single cell organisms and bacteria that contribute to water quality.  Some of these will be adapted, perhaps uniquely, to the stream, or even the pool in which they are found.

I should have added, that in the ‘lesser’ species, unique populations have, in all probability, been lost.

The last puddle in the Misbourne

It would be ridiculous to suggest that it did not matter if African elephants were wiped out as there were always Asian elephants – yet this appears to be the approach being taken by the UK Environment Agency and water companies.  The random catching and distribution of fish from a chalk stream hit by over abstraction is equally as damaging.  These fish should be relocated within the same river system or kept in a contained environment for later release once the river has recovered.

Trout in River Itchen at Tichborne

A paper published last year in the ‘Journal of Fish Biology’  detailed recent research that has shown that the salmon found in our chalk streams are genetically distinct from those in other UK rivers. It costs money to read on-line but, for those with the interest, the PhD thesis of one of the papers authors is available here: “Population Level Variation of Atlantic Salmon in the Chalk Streams of Southern England and Neighbouring Regions”.

It has been recognised since the 19th Century that there are about 20 distinct populations of brown trout in this country.  If a full study of the DNA of the UK trout stock is completed, is considered likely that genetic populations unique to chalk or hardwater streams will be identified.  In recent times most concern about this has been around the affect that the escape of fertile trout, from fish farms and not naturally native to its location, would have. The report, “Genetic impacts of stocking on indigenous brown trout populations” by the Environment Agency, examines this.    

Fishing hut on River Itchen

How can the Chalk Streams be Restored to full Biodiversity?

The principle that those responsible for damaging the environment should pay for its restoration is long established. Sadly, the water companies all too often seem to evade this.  When a stream dries out repeatedly, an entire ecosystem is lost – it cannot restock itself when the water returns. 

Dry bed of River Chess July 2019

If a fish migrates up stream following the return of water, it finds no aquatic plants to provide shelter or food, or to vary the water flow. The bacteria in the stream bed that would have helped condition the stream will have gone. Whilst the stream was dry, any rain storms will have caused run-off to enter the dry watercourse. With no water flow to dilute and flush them away, the pollutants will have soaked in to the upper layers of the stream bed contaminating it.  Local insect populations dependent on the stream will have crashed – there will none flying above the water, and no lavae in it. There will be no young fish or fish of the smaller species. No invertebrates, no anything. That returning fish has nowhere to live, nowhere to breed, nothing to eat nor any heathy water to live in. The same applies to insects, amphibians and small mammals.

Frog.jpg

The bird that rely on insects for nourishment will be affected. Those that rely on these streams as a source of insects, to fatten up before migrating, will have had thin pickings this autumn.  With no larvae, in the spring the insects will not be present in sufficient quantity for some birds to reach breeding condition or to support a brood. I guess some spiders will be hit by this as well. Riding my bicycle around the chalk streams of Hertfordshire last summer it was noticeable how rarely I swallowed a fly. I reflected at the time. ‘… at least I’m not a poor old bat’.

Great Crested Grebe.jpg

So, if the water companies are to make good, as far as possible, the damage caused by over extraction and failure to seek a drought order; what should they do?

I argue that each water company should be ordered to build a series of fluvaria, each several hundred metres long. One for each section of dried up chalk river or stream in that company’s operational area, and each supplied with water from the source of that stream’s flow.  Samples of the closest surviving stream beds to the dried-up sections should be taken and used to seed new beds created in each fluvarium.

Healthy bed of River Wandle

The process for stocking with plants, fish and other creatures to start building a new ecosystem would be slightly different. Where relocated stock can clearly be identified, they can be moved to the fluvaria. Before catching and stocking from elsewhere in the same river, or river system, a trawl for data on the mix of species associated with the dried-up section will identify what that mix should be.  Fortunately, naturalists have studied these streams and kept notes over the centuries. Collectively, the angling community has a wealth of historic photos showing not only their catches, but also the wider river environment. With the right level of resource, a profile could be drawn up of what that river in good health should look like. In some species it may be possible to find features that identify from which population the pictured specimen came. As each fluvaria is stocked, all organisms going into it should be DNA tested to identify individual populations and traits within them.

Trout fishing Beddington Park

The fluvaria would then provide the base material to breed up and multiply stock to return to the associated river system. This requires each fluvaria, once established, to have an associated plant, fish, amphibian and insect etc nurseries.

Projects like this would need to last for at least a decade and would cost the water companies many millions of pounds – indeed I could see Affinity having to spend well over £50 million; much of it front loaded. This is not a bad thing as it would be a delayed spend of the money saved through not investing to meet their statutory duty in regards to maintaining a resilient and sustainable water supply. Just as those who damage the environment should pay to make good; they should also not be permitted to profit from it. When it is cheaper to pay fines rather than act responsibly, large corporations have tended to lower their standards.

Fishermans logbook

The study of historic data to establish a new standard for these water courses; may result in a higher baseline standard of water flow and maintenance than has been seen in recent times.  If it was shown that traditionally a trout fishery produced catches of fish averaging 2.5 lb each, with the occasional trophy fish of 4lb; then the amount of water in a stream and other environmental conditions to achieve this can be calculated. The DNA sampling would greatly increase the scientific knowledge and assist future conservation. The water companies would no doubt complain that for them to have funded this is unfair but, it is however, necessary for proper restoration and can count as restitution.

Consumers water bills need not be affected as this money has been saved once already and is only a fraction of what the cost will be if proper investment in future supply does not take place.

Surely some Chalk Streams have always Dried Out

Looking Across the Chilterns

Chalk streams typically start with a spring that rises from the slopes of hills that are formed predominantly of chalk.  Rain that falls on these hills percolates into the chalk where it is held and forms an aquifer that then supplies the chalk streams. These are typically wide and shallow and, due to the filtering effect of the chalk, their waters are alkaline and very clear.

Confluence River Colne and River Ver

The relationship between a chalk stream and the underground aquifer is such, that the health or state of one, reflects that of the other. Both rely on being recharged, predominantly from rainfall, and are susceptible to drought or over exploitation.

An aquifer filled with water will flow from springs, winterbournes (streams, or ‘bournes’, that only flow in winter), and into the chalk streams. As a year progresses into spring and summer, the groundwater level in the aquifer will lower and the winterbournes and most of the springs will dry up, leaving just the chalk streams with water in them.

I’ve produced the graphic below (based on one by the WWF) to illustrate this.

Aquifer diagram

The pictures below are of the South Dorset Winterborne which feeds into the Frome. The first shows it in winter with water flowing through it. The second is after it has dried up as the water level in the aquifer has dropped. 

South Winterborne in flowSouth Winterborne Dry

Historically these would disappear and reappear about the same time each year – perhaps flowing for a little longer after a wet winter, or a little late returning following a dry summer.  What this shows is that even with seasonal variation it would have been extremely rare for the aquifer not to have been fully recharged each winter. 

There are now winterbournes that do not reappear some winters, if at all – they have simply disappeared. Earlier in the year the one below, after three completely dry winters, was looking more like pasture than a bourne. This is due to the aquifers not having a chance to recover from excessive abstraction.

Ghost of a winterbourne

The current crisis is that it is not just the winterbournes, but major chalk streams that have dried up.  In my previous blog post I stated that this was due to over-abstraction of water, as illustrated in the third of the diagrams above, rather than the current drought in the South of England. 

The National Trust have a really good illustration and explanation on their website – just click on the  picture below.

Hughenden Stream in Hughenden Park

Whilst the drought has no doubt had an effect, the historic data on the state of the aquifers, water flows in streams and rainfall are all publicly available and allow long term trends to be monitored.

Brant Broughton Gauging Station

The River Levels UK website gives a snapshot of the current status of UK rivers on its homepage.

Riverlevels website home

Clicking on the ‘River Levels Map’ button brings up a map of river level monitoring stations.   Clicking on a particular monitoring station, shows current flow information for that river and, if you scroll past the advertisements on the page, trends over the previous week and year.  One needs to be aware that this only records the flow at that one point in the river’s length. So, for example, if the measuring station is below the waste water outlet from a sewage works, it will show that there is water flowing in the river; even if much of it above the outfall is totally dry. A number of chalk streams are dependent on this source of water.

UK River Levels

River Rib

National River Flow Archive

If you are interested in historic water levels in a river, these are available at the National River Flow Archive website, which also has rainfall figures.   The examples below show flows on the Chess at Rickmansworth for 2006, a year when parts of it dried up, and a wet year, 2014. Clicking the graphs will take you to the website.  A poke about will find the available data for any UK river.

Water Flows on River Chess

The site also publishes a monthly Hydrological Summary which besides rainfall and river flow, reports on groundwater levels and reservoir stocks.

Borehole at Oakhanger

Water abstraction data is less easy to find. An annual summary is available here   whilst further can downloaded from the Gov.UK website.

Gov logo

The risk is that over exploitation of a chalk aquifer will lead to the collapse of both geological and biological integrity.  Currently they are not recharging, or only partially so. In the House of Commons debate mentioned above, Charles Walker revealed:

“Affinity… reduced pumping at one pumping station on the River Beane by 90%, which was actually a very brave thing to do. Yet that part of the river has not started flowing again because the long-term damage to aquifers that have been used and abused for the past 30, 40 or 50 years is so extreme that it may take decades to recover.”

Totally dry River Beane

During the recent BBC TV series ‘The Americas with Simon Reeve’; he visited an area of California where underground aquifers have been totally exhausted and destroyed from supplying water for intensive agriculture and a rapidly growing population. As a result, the ground level has dropped by between three and ten metres. If the chalk structure within our aquifers was to dry, crumble and collapse; the resulting denser material will be severely restricted in its ability to hold water, with much running off rather than soaking in. 

Some water companies are protecting aquifers by artificially recharging them through pumping water from elsewhere into the boreholes. This is not without problem, and that which concerns me most is the bio-integrity of the aquifer itself.  The shallow layers of soil and plant growth above the chalk are an informal filter bed that rainfall passes through. If waste water from a sewage works is fed into a borehole; who knows what effect hormones, antibiotics etc. will have on any bacteria within the aquifer?  For some years now, Thames Water’s ‘North London Artificial Recharge Scheme’ has been doing this with the chalk aquifer beneath Enfield, Haringey and the Lee Valley. It is topped up with treated water to use as a back-up resource to boost supplies during droughts.

Sutton Bingham

Surely, it is more important that we have Water to Drink?

And this is why I say the water companies have failed in their duty to provide a resilient and sustainable water supply. To maximise profits, they will give assurance that they can supply water for any proposed development without making the necessary investment in supply infrastructure.

Over the last three years the situation could have been mitigated in part if the water companies had sought drought orders so that drinking water was not used to wash cars or water plants. This would, however, have highlighted the water companies, and the regulators’, failures in this area.

To be fair, some water companies are putting in infrastructure for large scale water transfers. Examples include Severn Trent’s Birmingham Resilience scheme; and Wessex Water building 24 new pumping stations and installing 200km of pipeline to create a supply grid.  Whilst these are great for regional supply, they don’t address the core issue that the wettest parts of this country are the least populated, whilst the driest have the densest population.

What we do not have in this country is any kind of National Grid for water and, given the problems of pushing water through pipes one is probably not that feasible. Water movement between areas though, still needs to addressed.

Hogsmill Sewage Works

Earlier this year I visited the Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works. This was a really interesting afternoon and Thames Water even provided some rather nice (free) fish and chips. I had invited my partner to join me, but she wasn’t very impressed at the idea that fish and chips in the sewage works may merit being described as a ‘date’.

new water sources

One presentation focussed on finding new sources of water for the South East.  These included moving water from North to South of the UK using the canal network, and restoring the Thames and Severn Canal as part of a plan to move water from the River Severn to the River Thames.

Grand Union Canal near Watford..jpg

It seemed to come as a surprise to the water company representative when I pointed out that neither of these were new proposals. In the late 1990s, the civil engineering consultants W S Atkins proposed a scheme to transfer water using the Grand Union Canal – indeed I attended an exhibition about this proposal.  Some of the spillways, or bywashes, may have needed upgrading but most of the infrastructure is in place. Yes, some pumps would be required, but this is a relatively quick, easy and lower cost solution. The reason that canals and rivers tend to be favoured for large scale water transfer, is because it takes a lot of energy to push water through a pipe and, during that process, water tends to degrade.  A side benefit is that it puts more water into canals at times when the level is low.

Lack of water in Regents Canal

In 2001 I spent a long, but very pleasant day, walking much of the route of the Thames and Severn Canal as there was a lot of interest in restoring it.  The Cotswold Canals Trust has started the process but, as a voluntary  organisation funding a lot of the work through National Lottery grants, progress is naturally slow.  Given the relatively short distance I suspect Thames Water may still prefer to run a pipe, but restoring the canal offers numerous other benefits in the areas of biodiversity and outdoor activity.

Jubilee Bridge Thames and Severn Canal.

If these schemes had been taken on board 20 plus years ago when last proposed, they would now be operational and bringing more water into the South East.  With timely, planned investment, water companies can provide sufficient water in all parts of the country without destroying the environment. It is also up to consumers to use water more responsibly, and for waste water to be reused more effectively.

Stream in Summer.jpg

And finally

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Hogsmill River.jpg

 

 

You Don’t Miss the Water until your Well Runs Dry.

River Chess at Sarratt

At the moment there is widespread flooding in parts of the North of England and, quite rightly, the news channels are reporting this and featuring the poor people who are currently unable to live in their homes as a result.  Once the immediate relief efforts have subsided hopefully the media will focus on the abject failure of the water companies, the Environment Agency and Environment Ministers to manage the water catchments, water supply and waste water in this country – or to meet their regulatory obligations.

The North is flooding, but the South East has been experiencing a drought that is having a catastrophic effect on the natural environment, particularly on Chalk Streams, like the Chess above.

Old Sluice on River Kennet at Axford

So – what is special about chalk streams?

There’s an old saying: ‘you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry’.

For a lot of us in the UK, chalk streams are our water-wells. But they’re much more than that too. They’re part of our landscape and our natural environment – our history, culture, geography and economy as well as our ecology.” WWF-UK The State of England’s Chalk Streams 2015.

River Pool in Lewisham

Chalk streams are one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet. There are about 200 true chalk streams to be found anywhere in the world and most of them are in England.  The rest are in Northern France. In good health, these streams have the clearest and freshest of water; as clear as the purest crystal. Clean gravel beds appear between luxurious beds of emerald green water plants.

These are unique rivers – fragile and beautiful, they host an abundance of wildlife and are the foundation on which their own complete niche ecosystems are built.  These are the rivers of Ophelia.

Ophelia - Millais.jpg

Sadly, rather than being treated like crown jewels, many are threatened and some disappearing.  Arguably rarer than, and as equally threatened, as rain forests; they are home to genetically unique species as much at risk as orang utangs.

 In the last part of the 20th century and first two decade of the 21st Century, the chalk streams of England have had their existence threatened with some on the verge of disappearing completely.  In its 2009 report ‘Rivers on the Edge’, WWF described chalk streams as having: “…been characterised by wasteful exploitation of a diminishing resource. They are on the edge of survival.”

Despite this, only about 15% of English chalk stream (by length) have any real degree of statutory protection. Only four benefit from international protection.

Environmental Desecration

Today many of our chalk streams look like this:

Dried up bed of River Chess

But lest you think this is a one-off rare occurrence, I include the picture below of the River Chess in 2006 to illustrate that. sadly, this has happened several times this century. One of the causes of this problem on the Chess, is that historically the licences that had been issued for the extraction of water, amounted to about 135% of what the aquifer could actually support. 

River Chess Dried up at Waterside

What a photo like this doesn’t show, is the locals who were desperately trying to save stranded fish and other aquatic life as the water disappeared.

River Chess In flow at Waterside.jpg

Over the decades the amount of water being extracted from aquifers has increased to the point where they do not always return to their historic winter levels.  In dry summers, the water extracted at source from the aquifers is increased whilst more, perhaps for irrigation, is taken from the rivers themselves.   For some chalk streams like the Ver and others in the Chiltern hills, there has been chronic over abstraction for more than 50 years. The problem is now acute and potentially terminal as the health of aquifer itself is threatened (and I’m not referring here to HS2 going through Chiltern Hills aquifer and how that may affect the hydrology).

Irrigating onion crop

Chalk streams are in crisis. 

Despite flooding in the North of this country and some rain in the South, many chalk streams are still dried up completely, or in part with new perennial heads forming down stream from the original river source. Clicking on the picture below will give access to the Chalk Streams in Crisis report published in June 2019. It has the advantage of combining accuracy with being informative and easy to read.

Chalk Streams in Crisis

In mid September I was in Amersham and watched the River Misbourne die. As the last of the water began to disapear, local residents moved the remaining fish to a nearby lake. In the end, all that was left were concentrations of waterfleas becoming ever more agitated as the water heated and eventually disapeared. 

Video river Misbourne

Yes, there were tears in my eyes; I’m not sure if it was due to frustration, anger or despair. 

Dry River Misbourne

Part of the anger I felt was because this was not an isolated incident, but one of several rivers destroyed by over abstraction of water from the aquifer.

Emma Howard Boyd Mimram tweet

Environment Agency Mimram Tweet

Nigel Parker River Mimram tweetFergal Sharkey Mimram Tweet

One of the benefits of social media is that it is possible to get a wider view of the current situation; as the above and following demonstrate.

Pang Valley Flood TweetFergal Sharkey Dried up rivers

As can be seen, local Environment Agency (EA) staff put some effort into doing what they can to mitigate as far as possible the effect of a loss of a chalk stream.  The reality is though that this is usually too little too late.  They cannot compensate for the total failure of the EA at a strategic and policy level.  Indeed, these exercises appear in some cases to be little more than a photo opportunity aimed at portraying the EA as proactive and responsible.  What they actually do is illustrate the sheer magnitude of the failure of the EA to properly manage and regulate any aspect of the fresh water environment in the UK.

Fish in River Pool

Removing and “saving” a few headline aquatic species, whilst of value, does not address the full degree of devastation the drying-up of a chalk stream brings.  To describe it as ecocide does not seem extreme. It is a loss of a complete eco system from mammals such as water voles, through the invertebrates that support so much of river life, to the single cell organisms and bacteria that contribute to water quality.  Some of these will be adapted, perhaps uniquely, to the stream, or even the pool in which they are found.

Failure of Regulation

The EA has introduced a system whereby, once flow rates reduce to a certain level, some licence holders are limited in the amount of water they can extract.  Whilst agreements can be made with water companies to limit water extraction at critical times, there are however commercial water users who would be entitled to crippling compensation if their extraction licences were revoked or limited. An alternative would be to transport water to them – equally as costly. This deters the water companies from limiting them.

Chub and Dace in Hogsmill River.jpg

There has been a drought in the South East of England for the last two years. The privately-owned water companies however, have refused to declare a drought or impose measures like introducing a hosepipe ban.  Politically this could be disastrous for them. It would highlight their failures to maintain a sustainable and resilient water supply; and failures on the part of government, the Environment Agency and Ofwat to effectively regulate the industry.

La Somme à La Chaussée-Tirancourt

By contrast in France, the only other country in the world to have chalk streams and also affected by the drought, have had strict limitations on the use of water from the affected aquifers.

L’Aa à Merck-Saint-Liévin

The lunacy illustrated below is at the head of the Hogsmill.  The black pipe should be discharging groundwater but over-abstraction of water from the aquifer has reached the point that its supply has ceased. Now water is being abstracted elsewhere, and fed into the stream to keep it running to meet the licence requirements to allow further extraction from the already failing aquifer that should be feeding it. This is unlikely to be of the right chemical composition and temperature for the organisms adapted to survive in the stream.

Head of Hogsmill River

Recently the EA has blamed three years of low rainfall as the primary cause of the problem. Like the rivers concerned, this does not hold water as the records show that the drying up of some of these rivers has been a regular occurence through out the first two decades of the 21st Century.  In a tweet reproduced further up in this post, The EA also blame water useage. If they had introduced drout orders in each of the last three summers; then at least some of that water useage would have been reduced.

The water companies in the UK make profit from supplying water. The more properties they supply, the bigger the profit. The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) introduced in the year 2000 takes an holistic approach affecting all aspects of the ecology of a water body or system requiring improvements to meet certain minimum standards; including future sustainable use. 

River Cray near St Mary Cray

The UK government requires the water companies to: “…provide a secure supply of water to their customers over a 25-year period…” and “…produce a water resources management plan (WRMP) every 5 years that shows how they will achieve this”. To do this they have to take account of population growth, future housing and business development and the possible effects of climate change. (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Policy Paper https://bit.ly/2WasKYB )

River Lee in Hertfordshire

If there is not sanction on the water companies for failing to meet these regulatory requirements or for the environmental damage they have caused; then there is no incentive for them to do any thing other than continue to pump the well dry and maximise their profits.

River Wandle Morden Park