What goes around ….

River Avon at Widcombe

The river level had fallen slightly today after the weekend storms but it still looked dangerous this morning as we walked past. Falling in, in these conditions, is not a safe option, and this stretch of the Avon has taken more than a dozen lives in the last ten years. That said, we did see a couple of sturdy paddle boarders making very slow progress against the flow. The pleasure boats have all stopped, due to the renewed lockdown, but I wouldn’t even think about taking our inflatable kayak out in conditions more suitable for white water specialists.

It’s a salutary experience to watch the raw power of nature. Our regular riverside walk takes us under the bridge that appears in the video, beneath which the flood levels over the past century have been carved into the plinth. Most of them are well above our heads! This last year, flood prevention work has continued down this length of the river, and a new terraced water storage area has been created while the canalised banks have been raised even further; but canalisation, while protecting the centre of town, still moves the problem downstream. There are computerised side sluices which were in use yesterday, but they occasionally jam open, causing havoc and draining the waterway in the locked section upstream. It’s only when you see a whole tree passing down the river faster than you can walk, that you can judge the awesome strength of the flow – and that’s a chastening thought when you think about the environmental dangers we’re courting at the moment.

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago. I can remember any number of warning signs over the years; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, typhoons more severe than ever before and the melting of the Arctic ice. It’s been happening for so long we’ve got almost cosy with the idea – “what catastrophe?”, we wonder, when the changes are so slow we can accommodate them easily in our minds. “Climate change?”we say – “it’s like old age creeping up; these are just twinges in the knees, there’s plenty of time to sort things out. So here’s the thing. When nature gets upset or disturbed it’s not like waking a small bear, it’s like opening a pandora’s box of events so unmanageable, so unpredictable and so indiscriminate; that none of them can be summarily dealt with. When catastrophic events that are only predicted to occur once a century turn up three at a time in consecutive years then something’s up – rather like binge drinking for years, when your liver won’t give you the luxury of a gap between “not yet” and “too late”.

Curiously enough – or maybe fortuitously enough – there was another lesson to be learned from the river today. I’ve been saying for months to Madame that I can smell the detergent as we get with 200 yards of Pulteney Weir. Today you could see it as well. This thick layer of grey foam had caught my eye as a useful visual aid for showing the speed of the flow, earlier in our walk. Here, in the backwash next to the flood relief sluice, there was a floating layer of foam a foot deep. Less than a mile upstream we’ve seen people wild swimming below Grosvenor bridge. Here’s why that might be a dangerous idea, because quite aside from the danger of getting into trouble with underwater obstacles – the kind that killed a school friend when I was twelve – this stuff, the detergent, doesn’t make its own way into the river via a separate pipe marked “not too bad”. It comes via the overflows from the sewage works dotted along the banks. When torrential rain comes – as it does ever more frequently these days – the usual legal niceties controlling the treatment works are automatically suspended and raw sewage flows out straight into the river. The detergent foam may be an indicator; it may be a menace in its own right – rich, as it is, with phosphates; but even then it’s not as immediately dangerous as the other chemical, bacterial and viral contaminants that we’ve drained into it from our kitchens and bathrooms.

I mentioned a similar problem in a newspaper column years ago and was unceremoniously chucked out of a fly fishing club for bringing its waters into disrepute. Hi guys – still fishing in your own shit?

So there it is – you can’t escape the worries even during a quiet walk up the river. On the bright side they’ve just installed the first new bridge across the river for 100 years, for walkers and cyclists only which, predictably, has brought out the trolls who call it ‘the bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere’. In fact it creates a safe route from the South to the North side of the city without using the Mad Max roundabouts along the main car route. Here are a couple of photos: –

The crane that lifted the bridge into place was a 170 ton crawler crane that arrived on over twenty low loaders to be assembled on site. It was awesome – the biggest crane I’ve ever seen; and yet when I was admiring it the security guard said “Oh that’s only a small one – the one at the Hinkley Point Power Station is twice as big”. Unsurprisingly the crane attracted a crowd of admiring men (and their less admiring partners). What is it about hyper-powerful machinery that gets us so excited? On the other had if it came to a tug of war between the crawler crane and the river in full spate I reckon the river would win without even breaking a sweat.

For all the pleasure and education that natural history television has brought us I often wonder whether it has falsely domesticated our sense of the wild. So often we read stories of people getting attacked when they climb over security fences to get closer to the animals in zoos and wildlife parks and it may be that a contributory factor (apart from being an idiot) is the sense that the wild is there for our entertainment. Almost all our attempts to ‘tame’ nature are hubristic. I mentioned Hinkley Point earlier and thought Chernobyl even as I typed it. The last iteration of the flood prevention scheme here broke down, they say, due to a software error, and dozens of residential boats were sunk, leaving many people homeless. Here’s a bigger video of the river at Pulteney Weir today:-

Storm Dennis – counting the cost

So leaving Birmingham we decided to drive south and west across to the Malvern Hills and go for a walk with our son.  We used to visit the Malverns frequently when the children were young but we haven’t been there for at least four years since we moved to Bath – it’s that little bit too far now for a spontaneous walk. This place, on the border between Herefordshire and Worcestershire overlooks the Severn Valley to the East, forming the the Vale of Evesham with the River Wye to the West so it was as good a place as any to see the effects of the flooding from the vantage point of the hills.  There was no doubting the effects on the roads – there were warning signs of road closures all the way down the M5 and there was much more traffic than usual on the motorway – not least lorries trying to find an unblocked way west.

The whole area is regularly beset with flooding, but in the last few years it’s got progressively worse. The relentless rain during this winter has left the valleys waterlogged and unable to cope with the additional flow. What makes it even trickier is the fact that there are always two peaks of flooding – the first coming directly off the land locally and the second, a couple of days later, is formed by the floodwaters flowing down from the mountainous catchment area around Plynlimon in mid-Wales.  What that means, of course, is that the long term remedy for flooding needs to be sought in changes in farming and building practices in the most populated areas downriver, but also in the headwater region.  The Malvern Hills which occupy the area between the Wye and the Severn is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has 15 SSSI’s within its boundaries. It’s also managed by the Malvern Conservators founded by act of parliament in 1884 – so you can see it’s a pretty heavily regulated area.

IMG_20200218_120834That’s just to set the scene a bit – yesterday we set off from Hollybush in deteriorating weather and by the time we got to the top of the first climb it was sheeting down, blowing a hoolie and extremely cold.  We carried on and the weather slowly improved and by the time we got to Sally’s Place (great refreshment hut) at British Camp, the sun had put in an appearance. But looking out towards the Severn from the vantage point of the hilltop we could see how much flooding there is at the moment. It’s not possible to discern the actual course of the river unless it’s by the tops of the bankside trees.  For the most part the flooding extends for several fields either side, and of course larger towns like Upton on Severn, Tewkesbury and Worcester (OK I know it’s a city but writing the list any other way looks pedantic!) – are severely affected once again. After a four hour walk out and back we arrived at Hollybush again just as the rain got organised and we drove home in opposite directions, both of us – it turned out – in appalling driving conditions.

Back in Bath, the river is continuing to fill, and we discovered that yesterday it covered Pulteney weir for the first time since 1960 when 7 people died in the floods. Bathampton Meadows are underwater again – doing exactly what they’re meant to do, which is to store floodwater.  It still amazes me that even as late as 2017 the local authority were still trying to turn this nature reserve into a park and ride scheme. If you’re looking for an example of cognitive dissonance look no further. The latest flood risk assessment sounds breezily confident that the risk isn’t rising, and there are plans to decommission the floodgates at Pulteney weir. The strategy for dealing with the climate crisis at government level seems to be to tell us to stick our fingers in our ears and shout “la la la la” very loudly. Those of us who remember the similarly laughable “protect and survive” campaign will recall that the then government advised us that the best protection against all-out nuclear war was to whitewash the windows and hide under a table. That was what we were meant to do at least, the government plans for themselves involved moving into nuclear bomb proof shelters, curiously named “regional seats of government” and sitting it out until it was safe to emerge and govern the smoking radioactive ashes. One recently discovered criminal repurposing of an abandoned nuclear shelter was to use it to grow cannabis on an industrial scale – you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Anyway, if all this doesn’t constitute a crisis I don’t know what does.  Everywhere we looked we could see the stubble from last year’s fodder maize crop.  The land is too wet to sow seed and consequently the top soil is being washed into the rivers, further depleting the earth. I read through a couple of the many official reports concerning the Malvern Hills when we got home, and one of them suggested that one effect of global heating might be to allow farmers to take two crops a year.  Merciful heavens! that surely means we’ll simply exhaust the soil that much quicker unless we make radical changes.

Traditionally, Japanese potters would dig porcellanous and stoneware clays and store them for their grandchildren to use. These clays lacked plasticity and prolonged storage after initial preparation made them easier, although never easy, to use. We need politicians to move to a similar timescale. We need to stop asking what will be the case in five or ten years time , and soberly consider what it might be in fifty. To paraphrase an earlier teacher:

For what will it profit us if we hoard our savings but lose the whole earth?