East Anglia is a region of rivers. There are forty in Norfolk alone. The four major catchments – the Great Ouse in the North, the Wensum/Yare and the Stour in the East, and the Lea in the South – have shaped the economy and population patterns of the region for millennia. The Nene, the Thames and the Lea define much of the region’s boundary.
People are drawn to rivers. From the Lee Valley Park to the Norfolk Broads, people sail, canoe, and swim in them, and they walk, fish, camp, drink and dine beside them. They have inspired poets and artists. John Betjeman’s poetry celebrates the Norfolk rivers. One of the great iconic images of rural England is John Constable’s Hay Wain, painted on the Stour in Dedham Vale, a tradition followed most recently by Tor Falcon’s paintings of the Norfolk rivers.
Five of our rivers are navigable, with dozens of tributaries, and a handful of canals. Some navigations remain active, but others have fallen into disuse through neglect or floods. In the past, they provided transport routes for agricultural and industrial produce. Now, the traffic is mostly recreational, from sailors on the Crouch to punters on the Cam. There are plans to open a new canal to connect the Great Ouse to the Grand Union canal.
Our rivers are the home of major ports, from Tilbury and Purfleet on the Thames round to Kings Lynn on the Great Ouse. The Orwell supports Ipswich, and Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port. On the Stour, Harwich provides an international ferry link to the Netherlands. Other ports have vanished through storms and erosion. The Dunwich river, once one of the biggest medieval ports on the East coast, is now a small channel reaching the sea three miles away. Similar pressures have reshaped the Alde and the Orwell, and ended international trade from the North Norfolk ports on the river Glaven.
Humans have been reshaping the rivers since at least the 17th century: to drain marshland for agriculture, to protect settlements from flooding, and to dispose of waste. Ely ceased to be an island when the Fens were drained. The landscape of Norfolk was transformed by the medieval peat cuttings which now form the Broads. But some rivers are themselves sources of flooding. There are now plans to “rewild” some rivers, to reduce floods, and restore wildlife habitats.
There is also public concern about water quality. Increased rainfall overloads our neglected sewage systems, leading to sewage discharge into rivers, which combines with surplus fertilisers running off farmland to produce a poisonous cocktail of pollutants. It becomes impossible for natural ecosystems to survive.
Water supply and quality
The rivers play a critical role in water supply for domestic, agricultural and industrial use, both within the region and into London. The Cut-off Channel links the Lark and the Little Ouse to relieve flooding in winter and provide water to Essex in the summer. But there are growing concerns about whether there is sufficient water (in the driest region of the UK) for a growing population, and about possible environmental damage from over extraction from some rivers, especially from the chalk streams, which are particularly at risk, from over extraction and pollution.
Our rivers are a great asset, but many are under threat. In our series of articles over the next year, we take one new river each month and explore its role, problems and future.