the man who mends rivers

Simon Cain is a man who mends rivers. He only wanted to be a trout bum, and for years he fished his way round the world. Then he settled on the upper Avon, near Salisbury, and started to build bamboo fly rods. It is the sort of countryside that rock stars buy when they have everything else (Sting's mansion is just up the road); and the river Avon that runs past it is one of the classic English chalk streams, where the trout are as plump and picky as the men who own the fishing.  But river-mending comes with the territory now. The great chalk streams of England are shrunken trickles of their former selves.

The Avon, like the Test and the Kennet,  is a  river fed by springs: the water is meant to flow steadily: it rises from innumerable sources on the chalk downs, which seep all year round into the broad valley bed. This ensures a steady flow of filtered, clear, alkaline water which is extraordinarily productive. Wild trout in such rivers grow to more than five times the size they do in the acid, spate streams of Dartmoor or Wales. At least that used to be true. But for the last thirty years, the rivers have been shrinking and speeding up, and losing their unique character. The River Kennet has shrunk by about four miles in its upper reaches: a stretch where 25 years ago I had to ford a waist-deep river to escape a furious landowner is now a dry depression in the meadow, without either fish or schoolboys to poach them. The banks of the Avon at Amesbury, which forty years ago were water meadows, now stand two feet proud of the river; and you can cross the main bed in Wellington boots.

The drought is only on reason for this slow change of character. Most of the damage has been done by cars, and the changes they have brought to the countryside. The spread of the suburbs has led to an inexorably rising demand for water, most of which is abstracted from bore holes in the chalk before it can ever reach the rivers. 75,000 new houses are planned for Wiltshire alone before 2015; 10,000 of them round Salisbury. These damage the rivers in other, more subtle ways than abstraction. As well as diminishing the supply of water from springs, they increase the sudden run-off: where once the rain which fell in the valleys was slowly filtered through fields and water meadows to the river it is now collected in gutters, and dumped all in one go into the rivers, which thus lose the even flow which was one of their main distinctions.

Some of the river menders feel this makes their efforts hopeless.  "It's all bullshit" says Ronnie Butler, a prosperous businessman who as president of the Wild Trout Society has taken the day off from the office to splash and haul with the best of them. "This is only an elastoplast if they don't do something about the housing higher up."

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