Exploring Britain's Lost World

How did your river journey begin?
After the Mountains series went down well I wanted to put together a history of landscape. However, that’s a huge subject so we turned our attention to what made our landscape – water. So from the mountains I went to the valleys. What fascinates me is that our rivers are how man truly interacts with the wild. They’re corridors of eternal nature, because rivers will be there long after we’ve come and gone.

How has that interaction changed over time?
For 3,000 years there was an unchanging relationship between man and rivers. They were originally great paths through a landscape that would have been almost impenetrable. In medieval times they were extraordinary highways, where now obscure inland towns were built to benefit from not only trade routes, but also the drainage and health capabilities of the water. But in the last 300 years there has been a complete change. This very symbiotic relationship was severed by the coming of the industrial age, an age that ironically only came about because of the rivers themselves.

In what way?
Well, look at Ironbridge on the Severn. Without the river you would never have had the iron works. It created the availability of the iron in the first place, and then the need to transport it brought about the invention of the first metal boat there. Head up to the Derwent and Cromford and you’ll meet the first mechanisation powered by the water, Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”. Suddenly water meant power.

But in the modern day surely water means pleasure?
Not as much as you’d think. Of the 150,000 miles of inland river in the UK, only 41,000 miles have public access. In England and Wales we have huge restrictions on where you can travel, imposed by the vested interest of the various landowners.
I’m lucky on my local patch of river, the Stour in East Anglia. In the 70s, users of the river found out that sections were to be closed down by the reservoir companies. They took the fight to the House of Lords and won a historic victory for navigational rivers. They now have to be kept open by law, but still the vast majority of rivers are closed to navigation in a way that Edward I would have found extraordinary. He was constantly passing legislation to stop people putting in dams or weirs and stopping free navigation.

But surely we can’t allow people to navigate every section of our rivers?
Of course not. We don’t want canoes churning up the salmon beds of the Wye. But as our relationship with the river has broken down, so our understanding has too, and the majority of us don’t realise how quickly we’ve changed the river environment. It’s not that the river is no longer a resource.
We were dependant on our rivers for life, legend, politics and trade; now we see them as a resource to exploit.
In the last 50 years we’ve exploited our rivers more violently than at any other time in history and yet at the same point we’ve turned our back on them. We don’t travel by them. We hardly acknowledge them. We no longer harvest the willow that grows on their banks and indeed, our banks are now dominated by nettles which gives you an idea of the quality of the soil. The river has become an agricultural dish, awash with chemicals. In the past we let them become an industrial dish, an action we’re now repairing. Our rivers have lost their value and I think that’s rather dangerous.

But how do you get people to reconnect, to rebuild that broken relationship?
The first stage, and the most difficult, is to get across their sheer beauty. In this country we have one of the most celebrated stretches of river in the world. Pictures of it hang on the walls of museums and everyone knows it even if they don’t know its name. It’s a name I’ve already mentioned, the Stour; in particular the 6 or 7 miles that John Constable painted over 25 years. Next time you see a Constable picture, take a moment to think about what he’s capturing. It’s a working river, bustling with activity rather than just a lifeless set. Huge weather systems hang above his pictures, showing our relationship with the elements and most importantly, the river works at its own speed. Speed is what killed the British river. Until the lorry came along, people were content that it took time to transport grain to London.
This is the image of the river that I love, the image we put on tea towels. A very British river – a vital river – and one that is finely balanced. If a stretch of water is merely a place where people kayak or where water authorities ban navigation, we lose the value, both of its beauty and as a social institution.

Do you hope that your tv series will inspire people to look again at our rivers?
I hope it inspires them to take their own journey into the back garden of our country, the forgotten places that are only seen from the water. Venture on to this now deserted world and you’ll be completely isolated, flanked by bulrushes and water lilies the size of your hand. Again, I’m lucky that I live on the Stour. You can cruise along a length of waterway that is packed with fish. It feels like you’re passing through an aquarium and beneath you the bed is covered with freshwater mussel shells that reflect the sun. When Sir John Everett Millais painted Ophelia he didn’t get a hundredth of the glories of that river.
The British river is the garden of God. I’ve been in Swedish woods, I’ve been in the mountains of Montana, I’ve seen carpets of the most extraordinary wild flowers, but nothing compares to the wonder of a river in this country. Here is an extraordinary corridor of natural beauty that you can experience if you can be bothered to jump into a canoe. And what’s even more extraordinary is that you’ll be only one of a handful of people who see it.
Who do you disturb? The occasional fisherman. You’ll be no more disturbing fish anymore than a log passing by. I’ve met a lot of fisherman and decided that we should disturb as many as possible. What we all need to remember is that the river isn’t there for a few, but for the many. Rivers have been a forgotten world for far too long.

Join Griff for his River Journeys on BBC One from Sunday 26 July.



Picture: Modern TV

Comments: 3

River access for canoeists

Mon, 17/08/2009 - 18:56
Barry Waddilove

Common sense must prevail for everyone wanting to visit and use our waterways. They, the rivers, are not owned by anyone as far as I am concerned. If any individual thinks they own a river or part thereof, does it vanish when they die? Or can a new 'owner' take it somewhere else? What a stupid notion. A river is part of nature in this my country and I will navigate any river that I choose to, and no-one will stop me.

What we have is a constant reminder that this little country with greedy little people and little minds, is over-populated. No pathetic individual can make parts of it disappear like removing pieces of a jigsaw.

Rivers and peace

Sat, 25/07/2009 - 15:32

Angling is a sport enjoyed by some 3 million people in the UK. Riperian owners and river users contribute a huge annual sum towards keeping rivers the way they are. They do so mostly for the love of the sport, and for the tranquility and beauty of such places, a tranquility that his tiny minority of non-contributing canoeist amigos would disturb - at least they always have done so when I have encountered them. They shout to each other, bang paddles on their canoes, charge through fishing lines, go ashore to picnic and light fires, and leave an angler who has crept lightly upon a pool where extremely shy wild trout lie, spitting in frustration. Unlike them, he will will usually have paid to be there. To suggest that canoes disturb fish no more than a floating log shows a quite staggering ignorance on the subject. Anyone writing about rivers not knowing anything about fish and fishing is frankly under-educated for the task.
Call me cynical, but Gryff R-J is obviously making a bob or two out of this, or I'm sure he wouldn't bother to encourage people to destroy the tranquility he so loves. To go as far as to encourage them to disturb anglers is contentious in the extreme, and plain irresponsible.
Some rivers are navigable, some are not. His populist approach would have every 'I know my rights' merchant in the country out on the rivers, and no-where would be tranquil any more. Forget the whimsical mediaeval nonsense, this is the 21st century with all the pressures of a massive population increase. There's room for everyone the way it is now - leave it alone Gryff! Write about something you know about!

Canoeists deserve better

Wed, 05/08/2009 - 20:00
Will Abson

As someone who has enjoyed canoeing since an early age I must say that I entirely agree with Griff Rhys Jones's sentiments.

As Simon points out in his reply, there are no doubt a large number of anglers in the UK who are able to gain enjoyment from the many miles of inland rivers that we are blessed with. However, there are also a significant number of other river users - including canoeists - who today are denied access to over two thirds of those rivers.

Our rivers are a terribly undervalued resource. They are full of wildlife, fascinating places to unwind and a great educational resource for children. For others they provide a safe space for exercise and sport of all kinds, not just on the water, but also along their banks.

As Griff points out, they offer a fascinating glimpse back in time, a connection to our pre-industrial past that all too few people are able to appreciate. If we are to teach future generations about the importance of respecting our natural resources, we first need to give them access to experience those resources.

On the stretches of water I myself paddle on, I regularly come into contact with anglers and very rarely have I had any problems. A little consideration on both sides goes a long way to ensuring that we are all able to share and enjoy the use of those shared waterways.

Canoeists are not demanding unfettered access to all stretches of inland water in the country. We appreciate that in some circumstances on certain rivers it is not appropriate to use a canoe. What we seek is a reasonable code of access, laying down the terms under which access may be provided to us and to other river users. This may also define the penalties for any person who breaks those rules.

The current framework of voluntary agreements is not fit for purpose. There exists no obligation on the part of landowners to provide access, leading to one-sided arrangements whereby access is provided for one or two days of the year. This is unreasonable and not at all acceptable.

It is terribly unfair to imply that canoeists do not contribute to the upkeep of our rivers. I enjoy the right to paddle along many stretches of water including the River Thames and the 2000 miles of inland waterways maintained by British Waterways, through my membership of the British Canoe Union, who themselves have agreements with the Environment Agency and BW. Furthermore, the Environment Agency is a public body funded by the taxpayer as well as by anglers and canoeists individually.

I am terribly saddened by the selfish response of many anglers including Simon to Griff's comments. Given the pleasure they quite rightly take from using our rivers, it is disappointing in the extreme that they wish to keep those rivers for themselves rather than sharing them with others.

As Simon states, we live in a terribly crowded country, but the solution to that is not to restrict access to the valuable natural resources which we posses to any particular group of individuals, it is to establish a common understanding and a set of rules - which may involve compromise – so that we may all enjoy their benefits.

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