Taming the Flood

Taming the Flood: Rivers, Wetlands and the Centuries-Old Battle Against Flooding

The British landscape has changed constantly since the ice sheets made their hesitant retreat north. It is likely that many of our river valleys were scoured from the land hundreds of thousands of years ago in the most extreme period of glacial action that our islands saw when great sheets of ice travelled to and fro over the land.  In the span of recordable history the gentle action of these rivers fine-tuned their courses, eroding in places and depositing in others. More violently, periodic deluge and inundation from the sea brought sudden changes to the land too. 

Sketch onto this, the work of countless farmers, river keepers, water engineers and, more latterly, nature reserve managers and you begin to get a feel for the complexity of Britain's rivers and our relationship with them. In ancient lore, rivers brought plenty as well as the biblical fear of floods.  A Nile boatman told me that 'in life only two things are pure, your mother and a river'.  The brook that gives the dairy herd a drink in summer may flood the farmer’s grass in winter. The prestigious city-centre frontage needs to hold back a river in spate as well as look good to prospective investors.

Generations of anglers, charmed by, and fiercely protective of, fish have been the historic guardians of rivers. Joining their efforts in our era are the agencies, boards and societies who manage rivers with all their intricate frustrations.   The complexity makes a full understanding of rivers, their history, natural history and management an almost impossible task unless, that is you have a lifetime’s experience in them.  Jeremy Purseglove is an insider in the world of rivers, and Taming the Flood is that insider's view from someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of rivers.

For most of us, floods are a transitory, seasonal news story of tearful home-owners picking over sodden possessions, stoically ruined farmers and hapless Ministers, pledging illusory solutions to a crisis made by nature and our use of the land.   Purseglove knows rivers, not just in the abstract sense of knowledge which he has in scholarly weight, but very personally because he knows each of the rivers he writes about very personally. His expertise is expressed lightly in an easily-read text that entertains and informs.

Originally published in 1986, Taming the Flood was a book that influenced a generation of people then managing our rivers and land.  Its authoritative chapters on river history, cultural associations, natural history and management tell the reader all they needed to know to understand how a river works and how our actions can improve or harm its character.  And his book taught us about our place in our land much as Oliver Rackham did with trees, woodlands and the historic terrestrial landscape.  A professional life negotiating with farmers, engaging with the agencies and watching the life in our rivers gives Purseglove’s chapters on river management certainty, authority and lucidity.  This revised version, sparingly updated and carefully annotated with helpful notes, retains its original clarity, and has only one short, but important, new chapter.

Purseglove's annotations to his, now classic, 1986 text are only added when strictly necessary.  In most instances they tell of improvements in the last three decades, such as the introduction of nitrate vulnerable zones to limit fertiliser run-off, the ending of wasteful Environment Agency maintenance practices and the long-term protection of peat lands. Purseglove welcomes the positive influence of newer, larger and better managed nature reserves and the re-colonisation of birds and other wildlife that were scarce or declining 30 years ago. I found his careful jottings on his original text uplifting as much as they were informative. 

Purseglove sets out in a clear, unfussy and accessible way to advise a new generation of wetland and river managers and one that is as much in need of his counsel as were their predecessors 30 years ago. A good part of the book is an engagingly written history of the use and management of rivers, from the gentle impact of a mill weir to the attempted wholesale drainage of the Fens by Cornelius Vermuyden's Grand Plan.  Purseglove's historical authority is important to the carefully argued central message of this book, that the management of semi-artificial rivers is just as relevant to the upkeep of our landscape as it is for hedges and field barns. 

The battle to control water on our land is ancient and, today, a work in progress such that our river landscapes are as close to nature as Durham cathedral is to a natural rock face, but all the more valuable culturally for that.  Purseglove brings a level-head to the debate on what is the right balance of intervention, especially in the sensitive topic of dredging rivers.  Each page is a rich blend of descriptive history and geography with an ecological commentary of the place of nature described well.  Purseglove is respectful of farmers and river engineers and he shows particular regard to digger drivers for their detailed knowledge and willingness to flex their plans to meet the needs of nature.

Purseglove was pragmatic in 1986 and he retains that in his new final chapter in which he reviews the 2014 Somerset floods and the wider experience of flood management over the last three decades.  He accepts the case for some dredging but his counsel is that we should not expect floods caused by excessive rain always to be stemmed by slightly deeper and slightly wider channels.  Instead, the answer lies in looking at creating much larger natural reservoirs of land where nature and water management can go hand in hand.  The answers lie in a careful mix of traditional and new river management practices: dredging and pumping, but so too making agricultural soils rich in organic matter to hold more water, ponds and wetlands scattered across the landscape as small holding reservoirs and headwater landscapes managed to slow the flow of water. But the limitless search for solutions that dry all land and straighten all rivers is as dated a solution as it is ultimately futile.

Taming the Flood is generally well illustrated, with engaging line drawings of wetland birds and a good range of black and white and colour photographs well-chosen to illustrate the text. Sadly, a few too many have reproduced badly which tarnishes an otherwise well-made book that overall feels and looks good. 

Jeremy Purseglove Taming the Flood: Rivers, Wetlands and the Centuries-Old Battle Against Flooding was published by William Collins on Thursday 30 July For further details, contact [email protected].

Jim Dixon is a freelance writer and environmental consultant. www.jimdixonwriter.com @jimdixonwriter [email protected]

Posted on: August 2nd, 2015