Most of us these days use Google Maps to help us get about, naming our destination and expecting directions. If there is a river in the way, it does not matter. We may never even learn its name or where it flows. However, its name is often reflected in place names.
For example, Weybridge in Surrey was built near a crossing of the river Wey; at Dartford in Kent, the river Darent could be forded on the London–Canterbury way; Lenham was a settlement on the stream called Len. Medieval maps tended to focus on bridges and fords, whereas today rivers have been so engineered that we barely notice when we are crossing one. Especially in London, many streams have long ago been encased in piping.
I was delighted to read recently the notice at Abbey Mill, near the Miller’s Arms at Canterbury, that the wooded area there is now closed in order to enable works to rehabilitate the river and its banks. What they plan to restore is a riverside area more friendly to wildlife. The river, flowing as it does through an area that has been inhabited for more than 1000 years, has been stripped of the natural vegetation on its banks. In particular, the plan is to remove the building rubble from the area (placed to strengthen the banks? or just dumped?) and return the banks to natural planting. They will then become havens for wildlife, both flora and fauna.
In my rural childhood, I grew to appreciate riverbank wildlife by canoe, made from a plywood and plastic kit. Using this, in my early teens, we explored the Rother, the Medway and the Royal Military Canal. It is a quiet form of transport, which barely disturbs the birds and the little mammals (water voles mostly) that live along the banks. Your head and eyes, as a canoeist, are quite low to the water, so you are in amongst all the swarming life (including insects such as dragonflies) rather than separate from or above it.
The next best quiet form of river transport is punting, although this is mostly undertaken in busy tourist spots like Oxford and Cambridge. Canterbury also has punting trips on the Stour, organized from Water Lane.
Further towards the sea, the river is navigable by motor boats. Predictably, there are mooring sites that look as crowded as a city car-park. This looks like a conflict of interest between using a river for recreation and understanding its common value for nature.
Most of our rivers in England have been so tamed and over-used by the needs of human inhabitants that many of us have lost a sense of the natural power and flow of water in our weather systems and geo-structures. If asked by the company supplying our water to attend a meeting about the water management catchment plans for the area where we live – would we know which catchment area we are in?
Maps for this are not on Google Maps but are supplied by the UK Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs. There is further information on the websites of South East Water and Southern Water. Kent has five water management areas: North Kent, Stour, Rother, Medway and Darent. Surrey has two, the Mole and the Wey.
Prudent property buyers will check for flood risk before buying. This is not just a matter of being near or far from a river. It depends also on the level of groundwater (the invisible water in the ground below our human settlements). This is greatly affected by the type of rocks and soil – permeable or impermeable – and the level of different layers. These measurements are made by geologists, with data to be found and explained on the British geo-data website.
In much of Kent and Surrey, we have chalk aquifers along the line of the North Downs. This is dubbed a ‘dual porosity medium’ in that the water flows both within the layer and through its fractures. About 70% of the water supplied to households in Kent and Surrey by South East Water comes from groundwater, with 23% from rivers and 7% from the four reservoirs.
Some groundwater would have seeped down to deep levels decades ago, so the worrying question arises – will lessening rainfall and increasing population eventually cause us to exhaust groundwater? Hydrologists have to look at the data and predict the water supply decades ahead, bearing in mind climate change.
What is a river?
According to Wikipedia, Surrey has 23 pages of river names, while Kent has 37. But both include, as well as the rivers, several named ‘streams’ and some ‘dykes’. So, what is the difference? A list of rivers will specify the main rivers (the Mole and the Wey, as well as the Thames, for Surrey; the Medway, Darent, Stour and Rother for Kent) and then for the smaller rivers, specify that they are tributaries of one of these.
So, when does a named stream become a river? It is a matter of size and flow of water. Some streams, especially in drier countries overseas, are ephemeral: they only appear in the rainy season. They are also often fordable, not needing bridge construction. Rivers are larger, flowing in valleys on more permanent courses. Many are navigable, so have been very useful for human trade and travel, but they also need bridges for cross-traffic.
Rivers at risk
These days, in the UK, people wanting to visit rivers (or streams) for recreation can look up various beauty spots and sat-navigate to the location. But the problem is that one does not really get a sense of the whole flow and direction of the water (as one does from a canoe).
Unfortunately, it is mostly impossible to follow any water course from source to sea because it flows through fenced-off land. Some of this land hosts activities that pollute the water and spoil the banks for wildlife, such as intensive agriculture that drains slurry into the water, or industrial uses with harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, although there is regulation to mitigate these harms, the Environment Agency is under-resourced to police these properly.
Meanwhile, the public can wake up to the need to preserve local rivers and streams by being attentive to where they are, and visiting them where they are accessible. Those keen to get involved can volunteer with the Southeast Rivers Trust.