Life of a Chalk Stream

by frankbeswick

Simon Cooper's book gives an insight into an overlooked corner of English life.

Chalk Streams conjure up images of rolling downs, green fields and crystal waters gently flowing through pleasant countryside. This may be because chalk lands are soft and gentle, in far contrast to the granite of the lands further west. Cooper's book does not disappoint in this respect. As keeper of the river he draws upon his extensive experience of managing a river in the southern English county of Hampshire and the detailed observations of the wild life that are consequent upon long hours maintaining his stretch of water. This is a delightful work well worth reading.

Image courtesy of Verdateo

Crystal Stream and Ancient Wood

Early in his work Cooper explains chalk streams, which are an internationally rare habitat most commonly found in the rolling chalk lands of Southern England, though there are a few in Northern France. These are an internationally rare habitats renowned for their crystal clarity and for the trout that thrive in the alkaline waters that flow upwards from the chalk that underlies Southern England. These waters fell months, sometimes years before they surfaced, as they first sank down into the porous chalk to remain until the saturated rock gave up its excess load. 

Yet Cooper tells us that the chalk stream is not a habitat that was discovered by the earliest Britons, but is the product of centuries of history dating back through Mediaeval times. In ancient times the stream would have been a muddy meander sloshing shallowly through a valley, but as humans began to use the valleys they established water mills, which necessitated containing the channel. The  result was not only a narrower stream, but lands suitable for farming along the banks. This sort of land gave rise to water meadows, lands whose flooding was managed for the rich mud and water that was added to the soil. so economically valuable were the meadows that a now extinct profession arose to manage them, the drowner. Drowners were men employed to manage the water levels that flowed through the network of channels that took the flooding over the land and moved it off before it overstayed and ruined the soil.

All this human attention meant that the streams became clear of mud and weeds and began to become the ideal home for trout. Soon the Victorians got to know of them, and the chalk streams of the south were a magnet for wealthy anglers, stimulating the development of angling as a business. The use of water meadows has now faded  because of artificial fertilizers, but there are moves to preserve them, and Prince Charles is an enthusiastic supporter of the redevelopment of ancient meadows. So there is hope. 

Cooper's stream is the Evitt, which flows southwards to the English Channel, for part of its stretch through Gavel's Wood. The term gavel means a payment of dues, and why the wood is so named no one knows, but that is its ancient name. The wood seems to have been allowed to be itself for several hundred years, with no intrusions from agriculture, so it is a piece of Mediaval woodland in a modern landscape. 

Keeper of the River

Cooper has a delightful job, keeper of the river. It comes with his being owner of a company that provides fly fishing experiences on the Evitt. If you want to find out about a rare and not well known occupation, then you will learn much here.

The river keeper has to maintain his stretch of river. In a chalk stream this means clearing  the gravel bases in which the female trout scrabble to make the redds, the indents in which they lay their eggs. But it also meant clearing channels through the ancient and neglected water meadows to provide more habitat. Clearing the ever growing river weed is vital for sustaining the current required for trout to flourish. Too little weed and the river flows too fast and becomes shallower than is needed for trout. Too much weed and the river slows down and overflows in rainy times. 

Cooper takes us through his year, revealing the pleasures and pains of his job. He clearly enjoys the peace and quiet of the countryside around the Evitt and the village of Nether Wallop [nether being an old English term for lower.] We read of his struggles in the freezing cold winds that strike sometimes in the variable English Spring; he moves through June to the Autumn, capturing the cycle of the English year in words. 

Throughout the book he revels in his knowledge of natural history, which he shares with readers. As keeper of a chalk stream he has perforce to be something of an entomologist, and anyone who enjoys natural history will delight in his profound acquaintance with the insect world. But he speaks of the antics of bats and owls that fly nocturnally out of Gavelwood, the voles and otters, all of which he encounters in his labours and whose behaviour he observes, seemingly for the love of it, and his love or the wildlife in his domains is infectious. He seems to have a balanced view of river beasts. He displays none of the dislike of the mink, an escapee from fur farms much hated for its predatory behaviour, that we find in conservationists. He seems sympathetic to the signal crayfish, also an unpopular immigrant, as he regards it as part of the  ecosystem that has evolved. 

This is a book for anyone who loves natural history. It is worth your attention. 




Updated: 06/30/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/20/2016

The more people who are concerned with the conservation of nature the better, and it helps when they are well-positioned in society.

blackspanielgallery on 03/20/2016

I see Prince Charles in involved. While I do not see him as a great future king, it is a positive on his behalf. When a person who could potentially ascend the throne becomes involved in preservation there is hope.

frankbeswick on 09/18/2015

The return of water meadows is long overdue. They not only enrich the land, but provide overflow management for swollen rivers.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/18/2015

frankbeswick, Isn't it ironically comforting to know that human re-configuration of slip-sliding mud into water meadows?
River-keeping seems like such a practical, valuable contribution to the environment and to human progress, particularly when river-keepers such as Simon Cooper share.

frankbeswick on 06/30/2015

When reading this book you would not think that the peaceful Evitt valley was the scene of a bloody battle in the fifth century between warring groups containing Saxons and Britons. No evidence of the battle remains.

frankbeswick on 06/30/2015

Great, that makes me feel good. I am an educator at heart, and so I get a good feeling when people make comments like yours.

AngelaJohnson on 06/30/2015

I'm expanding my education. I've never heard of chalk streams although I have heard of the White Cliffs of Dover. Great article.

frankbeswick on 06/29/2015

A word that I might need to explain to non-English readers: downs is a name given ranges of low, softly rolling hills in Southern England. It is etymologically linked to the word dune,

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