Summer treasure 14: Chalk streams

River Wylye leaf26/7/20 The other day I found myself standing ankle-deep in the River Wylye.

When it was time to go, I said to my friend Peter, ‘Can you leave me here and come back for me tomorrow?’

I was joking, of course. But not entirely.  Between the long moments of blankness – the simple staring at the crystal-clear surface, at the colourful gravel bed, listening to the flowing water – thoughts came and went.

‘I could stay here for hours.’

‘I love chalk streams.’

‘Is this what meditation is?’

‘A chalk stream is actually all I need to feel better. It could cure me of anything.’

I’d not written anything for several weeks. I simply couldn’t think of any subject I wanted to write about. I was waking every morning with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I was feeling low, anxious, overwhelmed. Nothing that usually makes me happy, excited or even calm felt possible.

River Wylye
The River Wylye at Heytesbury village

With one exception: walking. Walking, my reliable rescuer, led as always to problem solving. In this case, how to improve my state of mind, which in turn led to a three-night stay in Wiltshire with friends. That is how I ended up standing in the River Wylye.

The picture-perfect village we cycled to that afternoon was Sherrington, one of many villages along the River Wylye. Another village nearby, Upton Lovell, possesses my favourite pub in the world. Or, at least, my favourite of all the pubs I know, because you can sit in the garden by the River Wylye here, stare at the water and watch the trout jump or swim to stay still in the current. I wish there was a pub like this in Suffolk. Although perhaps it is lucky there isn’t or I might spend far too much time and money there.

I have known for a long time that I love this river, but it didn’t consciously occur to me as a factor in my decision making. I also didn’t know until recently that the river I was loving was a chalk stream. Michael McCarthy taught me this, in his book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.

River Wylye Upton Lovell
The River Wylye at Upton Lovell

It was from him I learned not only that the River Wylye is a chalk stream, but that chalk streams are spring-fed; their waters are purified by the layers of chalk they filter through; the water temperature is constant year-round; a whopping 85% (approximately 160) of the world’s chalk streams are found in England; and that they are a globally unique ecosystem with high biodiversity.

River Wylye detailWhy do I love chalk streams so much? They are obviously beautiful, but aside from this, Michael McCarthy thinks their appeal comes from a combination of genetic hard-wiring – humans have always loved small rivers – coupled with their embodiment of purity, which is almost otherworldly. I can’t judge whether he is right, particularly because I am aware that they can no longer be quite as pure as they look. I wish I could drink of their water: I am sure it must be holy, cleansing water. But even the purity of spring-fed chalk streams must be compromised to some extent by human activity, so I don’t dare.

River Wylye gravelFor myself, I can only answer this question of ‘why?’ by listing their obvious characteristics, or at least the characteristics of the parts of the River Wylye with which I am acquainted. I love shallow water. I love pools. I love clear water, the colourful gravel on the riverbed – a river without mud! – the contrasting greenness of the flowing weeds, the sound of the flowing water. I can stare into them. I can listen to them. I can stand in them. This is a compulsion for which summer is required: despite the water temperature of chalk streams apparently being approximately 10°C all year round, I am sure that if the water was truly that temperature, with no warming from the sun and the stones it flows over, I wouldn’t have been able to stand in it for half an hour without my feet going numb. Without so much as feeling they were cold.

This time my curiosity about chalk streams was truly aroused: I wanted to know more. The information I found was fairly basic, but my initial question of where they were to be found was answered readily. I read that the Rivers Lark and Linnet in north Suffolk are chalk streams. First I was excited; then I was worried. I know these rivers. By and large, they are unremarkable – narrow and sometimes ditch-like. I know they have been abused: it is painful even to think about the River Lark as it passes through the Tesco car park in Bury St Edmunds, where Roger Deakin sat down and wept for it. But in case I had simply failed to ‘see’ them in places where they might have a chance of being cared for, I decided to visit Fullers Mill Garden this afternoon, to see how the River Lark is faring there.

Culford Stream
Culford Stream

The garden encompasses the River Lark and the Culford Stream, one of its tributaries. They join at the end of the garden. I love all rivers, so it is always wonderful to sit beside one, no matter how small. But they are very narrow, with some stretches too straight to be natural, with banks implying constriction and diversion for convenience. Some sections are choked with silt and floating weeds, and there is no sound of flowing water except at the weir below the mill pond. The water is clear, however; gravel and pebbles are visible in places on the riverbed, and watching the fish is a pleasure. This is more easily achieved in the Culford Stream than the River Lark: it is shallower and less crowded with irises.

These chalk streams, I can now confirm, are entirely different beings to the River Wylye. For starters, they are much smaller; more stream-like than river-like. I don’t know what condition they are in along their full length, but I suspect they are generally not in the best of health, as chalk streams go. They might cure me of the metaphorical sniffles, but they couldn’t cure me of the flu.

Fortunately, they are not the only chalk streams in East Anglia. They are common in Norfolk, in reach of a day’s outing, and I know many of these are larger than Suffolk’s diminutive rivers. I will go looking as soon as I have the opportunity. Maybe I can’t live in a chalk stream – and swimming in one is a pleasure I have yet to experience – but being able to visit one without going on holiday is a good start.

Within 24 hours of arriving in Wiltshire three possible subjects to write about had presented themselves to me. How would I decide between them? Perhaps, ultimately, I won’t. But as my first and most urgent choice, chalk streams had no competition.