Recently I drove the WWF Prius up to the River Nar in Norfolk to meet ITV’s Countrywise team to discuss the state of our nation’s chalk streams, and what we can do to help them.
Roughly 85% of the 200-odd chalk streams in the world are situated in England. Formed over millennia their clear chalk filtered water has fostered a unique diversity of wildlife and fauna, helped by the cool, constant temperatures and steady flowing waters.
However years of increasing demand has meant many of our rivers are now under threat. Add in pollution from agricultural run off and humanity’s need to tinker with their route to straighten them (altering their flow and habitats) and the rivers are not in a happy place. Indeed, only 25% are classed by the Environment Agency as in ‘good ecological status’.
However it is not all bad.
There is increased concern over our environmental heritage which in many places is translating into action.
We caught up with Countrywise presenter Liz Bonnin to investigate the state of the River Nar with Kathy Hughes (WWF’s freshwater expert and ecologist) to see the work that our partner – Norfolk Rivers Trust – was doing to return the river to its natural, winding state.
The Countrywise team were out in the field and travelling light. This meant alongside their film crew of four was approximately a large van’s worth of equipment.
Filming is a slow process which takes real skill to look natural – think of how much Morecombe and Wise were said to practise their natural ‘spontaneous’ wisecracks. A seemingly short few minutes of film may look effortless but when you look closely it will actually be made up of numerous cuts and takes, establishing shots, close ups, background shots and cutaways to ensure that there is a consistent and coherent narrative. This is done to allow the brain to focus on the content and story – not subconsciously ‘jarring’ at things that don’t flow. Add in going underwater with how ever many thousands of pounds worth of kit, and you have a challenging shoot.
If you realise back in the studio that you’ve missed a shot, you can’t really go back and get it. But as everything shot has to be edited, my preferred technique of shooting tons on the premise that some of it will be good would not be well received.
Countrywise had their own techniques and pretty soon Kathy was chatting naturally onscreen like a seasoned pro – forgetting the blinking great camera trained on her as she waded up and down the river with Liz.
The piece finished, we all packed up, making sure we had left no reminders of our presence, and went our separate ways.
Our trip to the River Nar and seeing our work with the Norfolk Rivers Trust was a great experience. Despite the rise of social media and the general convergence of channels as the boundaries between TV and online blur, broadcast remains a powerful medium that can tell a story like no other. The Nar reminds me how fragile our environment is, yet there is hidden strength that enables it to keep going despite our efforts, but we can’t keep taking without giving something back, which is why the work of groups like the Norfolk Rivers Trust is invaluable.
It gives me hope for the future and makes me realise that we can all do things to make it a little better. That modern life doesn’t have to mean the end of tradition. Technology is a tool that should help us improve and there is a happy medium if we make the effort to find it, instead of taking the easy, short term option. We all have the power to do things differently, be it using less water, stopping leaks or getting a water meter. If we’re able we can even follow the lead of the NRT and spend some time looking after our local green spaces. The difference could mean a fuller, healthier river or area and more Swallows and Amazons.
For me personally, an overriding memory will be from the first day’s filming. Just before we finished that evening, I found myself standing on a bend of the river with David, Norfolk Rivers Trust’s chairman and local resident. As we stood there, enjoying the scene, with only the sounds of the river on the breeze, David pointed upstream, towards the small bridge over the river against a background of slight hills, with a few old houses and a church spire nestled within. “If you look over there, at the homes and the trees, you can see England in the 1920’s.” he said, and I knew what he meant.
As I looked, for a brief moment I was out of time, away from my smartphone and piles of tech, and a machine that went ping. As we stood there in the fading light, listening to the chalk stream murmur, we noticed a water vole sitting on some reeds slightly further up. We looked at the vole, the vole looked at us. The moment was timeless as we contemplated England, our rivers and what they meant to us, our sense of self, our homes and history, and the water vole contemplated its dinner.
The moment passed and we were brought back to 2013 by the soft sweary call of the lesser spotted cameraman as he realised the shot was being ruined by the delicate roar of a common (or garden) fighter jet overhead, most likely a Tornado GR4 from nearby RAF Marham. I looked back to see the vole slip into the water as a lorry trundled over the bridge, belching fumes and clashing gears as it went. Hello again, 21st Century.
We must and can do better.
Kathy Hughes will be interviewed by Liz Bonnin on Countrywise 23rd September on ITV at 8pm.