Early on a sunny Saturday in April last year, I asked a friend if he was up for a stroll. I had no inkling then that the walk we were about to start that morning – ten miles upstream from the Thames Barrier to the Tower of London – would be the beginning of what was to become an 180 mile expedition to the source of the River Thames.
Nine months later, fresh from the final leg in Gloucestershire, I know I have found a connection with rivers that will last the rest of my life.
Like most people, I appreciate the water in our taps but it has only been in recent years that I’ve linked this to the water that’s in our rivers, streams and lakes. When it rains, those droplets find their way into our rivers and underground aquifers. Once within reach, we water our crops, feed our power stations and factories, use it in our homes and then, when we are ready, we give it back. It’s a cycle, which aside from in times of brutal winter floods or summer droughts, usually works. But this is not the only reason that rivers are special. Here are four other reasons why.
Defining our landscape
On that first day back in April, I remember looking at the Thames – its massive width, depth and strength – and couldn’t help thinking how much it has defined the south-east of England. Whilst little is known about the earliest occupants of the Thames Valley, by the Bronze Age it was already important for commerce and by Roman times, London had become a significant trading port. The Romans and then others in the following centuries, developed fortifications and trading towns along the river taking advantage of its freshwater and fish, its provision of power to run mills, transport goods and irrigate land. Today it continues to provide essential services, not least supplying about two-thirds of London’s drinking water (PDF), with groundwater supplying about 40 percent of public water in the catchment.
Shaping our history
As a historian by trade, I was fascinated by the London stretch of the Thames. Its banks are inundated with the ancient homes and castles of the powerful. The ruins of Edward III’s palace at Bermondsey, the Tower of London first built by William the Conquer, the present day Houses of Parliament (possibly on the site of King Canute’s royal palace), Thomas Wolsey’s Hampton Court and then, further upstream, gems like Windsor Castle. And, of course, there are the events whose traces we can no longer see. In Deptford, Queen Elizabeth boarded the Tudor galleon, the Golden Hinde, to knight Francis Drake in 1581. In Rotherhithe, the Mayflower departed (via Plymouth) to carry the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620. And on the banks of the river at Runnymede, King John signed the Magna Carta, under duress, in 1215.
Providing a playground
On our expedition, there were many, like us, enjoying the river. Once under the M25 and heading for Marlow, Henley, Reading and Oxford, the riverside buzzed with walkers, picnickers, bikers and anglers enjoying the fresh air, river views and country paths. The river teemed with rowers, punters, kayakers and boaters gliding gracefully over its glassy surface, narrowly trying to avoid each other and navigating the more than 40 locks that dot the river.
A home for wildlife
And we are not the only species enjoying its watery benefits. In the nineteenth century, the Thames suffered from such bad pollution, mainly due to the dumping of raw sewage, that fish and other freshwater life was virtually wiped out. Whilst today there are still many environmental improvements that need to be made for wildlife, it is cleaner than it was then. In places, it ebbs and flows with brown trout, lamprey and bullhead and its banks bustle with the chirp of moorhen, the squawk of heron and swan. Beyond Oxford, the river narrows, the landscape becoming increasingly rural so by the end of our river expedition, birds and cows were our only friends. Whilst it felt much lonelier than earlier stretches, it was no less beautiful for it.
2015 – a defining year for rivers
As we approached the source, in a muddy field beyond Cricklade, I thought a lot about my Thames journey and the importance of other rivers across the UK.
The statistics are disheartening. Currently, only 23 percent of our rivers are what the Environment Agency categorises as being at ‘good status’. This means that a staggering three quarters of our rivers are suffering from habitat destruction, agricultural and industrial pollution and in many places too much water is also being taken out for use in power stations, factories and for our own personal use.
And yet all is not lost. In the Autumn, the Secretary of State will be faced with one of the most crucial environmental decisions of the next Parliament – the setting of new targets and implementation plans to improve (or not) each river in the country.
Here at WWF-UK, we believe that it is essential that the government introduces ambitious plans that will deliver a healthy water environment. But we need your help to make sure the right decision is made. If you also have a soft spot for rivers and want to help save them, do sign up in support of our work.
Sources and further reading
What do you think of Belinda’s blog? Leave us your comments.