Some years ago, I was invited to say a few words at the launch of Christine Gregory’s first book, ‘Brown Hares in the Derbyshire Dales’ which had been financially supported by the National Park. As I read that book, I was mesmerised by the clarity with which the words and pictures told the story of this wonderful mammal.
I thought it was a book in the tradition of Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selborne’. I wasn’t alone. The book was endorsed by no-less than the late Dr Derek Yalden, President of the Mammal Society. It was an immediate hit with the public too and quickly sold out leading to a second edition.
When I heard that the Bradford River Action Group had had the foresight to ask Christine to write a book on the River Bradford, I was delighted and a little worried. Delighted, because Christine’s talent for telling a story in words and pictures was exactly what our rivers need. But, I was worried because I feared it would be difficult to beat and repeat the success of ‘Brown Hares’. I need not have worried.
Here, I want to say something about rivers. Then I want to comment on the book. Then, like the book itself, I wanted to say something about the future.
A river boatman told me recently that ‘in this world, there are only two things that are innately good: a river and one’s mother’. The boatman kept a felucca, or traditional wooden boat on the Nile. Earlier this year, I was privileged to have travelled by and on the Nile for a few days. As the greatest river in the World, the Nile drives the economy of a whole region of Africa. It has been the cradle of so much our civilisation. Today, it is the backdrop to the latest sad and challenging chapter in this part of the World’s history.
As we sailed north and downstream along this wide river I reflected on the essentials of a river. We trailed our hands in the cool, refreshing water. We drank it and swam in it. Just a few hundred yards either side of the Nile the unforgiving Sahara desert is arid and utterly lifeless.
In the river, its swamps, banks and hinterland all life is there. In the ditches, canals, lakes and ponds there are fish, frogs, snakes and swarms of insects. I saw herons and egrets of all sorts, rollers, bee-eaters, hoopoes, shrikes and thousands of turtle doves.
The crops are diverse and the land supports chickens, sheep, goats, cattle and donkeys. There are small farms, villages, towns and the greatest city in Africa, the megalopolis of Cairo. All of this life is dependent on the river and away from it the desert is still and lifeless.
Like the Egyptians, in our lives today when we have ipads and the internet, a global economy and all of life’s richness and wealth, our lives are still wholly dependent on the water which runs in our rivers. It is one of the essentials and constants of all of our lives.
Lord Smith is one of our great environmental thinkers and one of the most influential people in the world of water. I think it’s testament to Christine’s excellent book that he has taken time to read her book and write a foreword to it. A few lines stand out for me from his words:
“Running streams are vital to us, not only for sustenance, for the provision of essential support to our human existence, not just for the support they afford to the astonishing variety of natural life, but for the way they calm us and move us and provide us with a glimpse of something more profound than our everyday lives”
Rivers are life-givers. Charles Cotton writing of our White Peak Rivers spoke of “streams supplied below, which scatter blessings as they go”. This reminds us that there is something special about our White Peak Rivers. In a limestone landscape, as W H Auden reminds us, “the essential thing about limestone is that it dissolves in water”.
As our rain falls, in the catchment over time it does so much more than erodes a channel. It has sculpted all of the wealth of our landscapes features above and below ground – the cliffs, pinnacles, dale sides, caves and caverns. This is what we call a Karst landscape.
The ‘blessings’ that Cotton writes about depend on us understanding the entire catchment. So for us, it is about the whole landscape and all of our lives. Norman Mclean in his novel ‘A River Runs Through It’ says “ Eventually all this merges into one and a river runs through it”. In our landscapes, the river is the unifying feature which shapes, supports and enlightens our lives.
So, what does Christine’s book tell us? Are we, as Lord Smith reminds us that rivers do for us moved, given a glimpse of a profound idea and calmed?
The subject matter is very complex, but Christine unpicks this complexity in a masterly matrix that gives us a multi-dimensional view of the River Bradford. We are taken on a dam by dam, rock by rock and tree by tree journey from the source to confluence. We learn a huge amount about the physical feel of the river and what it is like to be there. We are also taken on a scholarly journey in time in which Christie weaves the geological timelines alongside the more recent human history, telling us about farming, mining and fishing in a highly accomplished way.
Like ‘Brown Hares’, Christine’s prose and pictures tell us about the science, literature and expert views and the quality of her research is very high indeed. But, as she did in ‘Brown Hares’ with the farmers of Haddon Fields, so here she gives a voice to the people whose lives are so intimately tied up with the river including the community and the river keeper.
Quite properly, star of this part of the book is Warren Slaney whose work to restore the rivers of the Haddon Estate to their natural state is justifiably renowned across the country. Through Christine’s book, Warren’s powerful conservation messages will get a wider and new audience.
The elegantly constructed matrix of ideas explains the complexity of the river and as you progress through the book you are moved. And you are certainly given a glimpse of something profound. But are you calmed?
In part, you are calmed because the book is beautifully written, illustrated and made and the team at Grafika have done a first rate job. But, just as with ‘Brown Hares’ there is something about this book that makes you a little troubled, a little angry and a little impatient. There is a call to action and it is a number of powerful conservation messages and this is far from calming.
The conservation messages are powerful indeed and I would encourage everyone to read the book and come to your own conclusions. But I took the following messages from this book:
1. We have to do much better to understand all of the dimensions of our rivers. Our collective and formal knowledge and the public’s awareness of our rivers are woeful and we have to up our game in terms of gaining more knowledge.
2. There are multiple perspectives and we need to consider a river from all of these, taking into account the views of the water resource managers, the flood defence people, the naturalists, the historians, the anglers, the birdwatchers, the dog-walkers and the farmers.
3. Rivers are life-givers and in our modern era we need to do much more to make sure that as well as protecting that resource, we need to ensure everyone is fully aware of the importance of rivers to our lives today.
4. The rain that powers the river flows not just within the channel, but in the whole catchment and so if we are to steward our rivers we have to thin, plan and do across the whole catchment, much as we are doing in the Derwent, Wye, Lathkill and Ecclesbourne.
5. Change can happen and good practical ideas that improve the life of our rivers can be implemented, as we have seen very clearly by Warren’s work on restoring the rivers on the Haddon Estate.
6. We have to act locally – on the management, awareness and protection of our rivers – but also support action globally to remove the threat of the biggest challenge to our rivers, that of an unpredictable and uncontrollable change in our climate.
Finally, please buy a copy of Christine’s book and encourage anyone that you know who may be interested in rivers and the environment to do so as well. Details at www.riverintime.org.uk
This article is based on the speech I gave at the launch of ‘A River in Time’ at Haddon Hall Friday 27 September 2013. My huge thanks to Christine Gregory for inviting me to be part of that launch.