Recently, The Rivers Trust supported two events at the world-famous Hay Festival, which has grown from being the UK’s foremost book festival to become a worldwide forum for readers, writers, thinkers, and leaders. Speakers at this year’s festival ranged from BBC Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet to singer-songwriter Craig David.
Our two events brought together voices from the water and environment sector to explore the challenges facing Britain’s rivers today, as well as celebrating how special and beautiful they are. On Tuesday 30th May our Director of Advocacy & Communications Tessa Wardley was onstage to introduce and interview the writer Patrick Barkham. Patrick has written a definitive biography of the naturalist and polymath Roger Deakin, the man widely credited with popularising wild swimming in the UK. On Wednesday 31st May, Tessa was back as part of a Panel with Jyoti Bannerjee (Co-founder of North Star Transition) and Simon Evans (CEO of Wye & Usk Foundation), chaired by journalist Nicola Cutcher. Titled “The Battle for Britain’s Rivers”, the discussion addressed the key issues affecting river health and, more importantly, the potential solutions to them. We also got to celebrate Tessa’s career as an author, as she participated in a river-themed local bookshop event alongside journalist George Monbiot and Save the Wye campaigner Angela Jones.
Being at Hay felt like a natural fit for us, and not just because we are bookworms ourselves. Hay is a coliseum of public thinking and engagement, and it’s absolutely right for rivers to be at the heart of those conversations. The festival itself has also become an industry leader in its genuine commitment to being a sustainable event.
As its official name of Hay-on-Wye suggests, the festival is situated near the banks of an iconic river which is sadly now described by locals as dying. The Wye even had its health status downgraded by Natural England while we were at the festival. Despite having several official environmental protections such as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it is now classed as “unfavourable-declining”. Indeed, the main glimmer of hope for the Wye is that so many locals in the catchment are fiercely committed to saving it – we were even lucky enough to be staying with some of them!
All of this and more made us incredibly excited to be in South Wales for the events. As we arrived at the festival site on Tuesday, fuelled by the buffet breakfast laid on by our generous hosts, the anticipation increased.
It was an honour for The Rivers Trust to be onstage with Patrick Barkham to talk about The Swimmer, his new biography of Roger Deakin. Patrick is a leading natural history writer, and someone in whom Roger Deakin’s legacy is evident. After a whistlestop tour of Deakin’s life and work, Patrick and Tessa discussed what he might think of the current state of Britain’s rivers and the huge boom in wild swimming. The packed-out audience left the event hall with a call to action – we must all be river guardians.
Out and about at the festival
After making the most of our time onsite at book events, musical performances, and of course in the bookshop, we returned on Wednesday morning to attend the Planet Assembly. This was a workshop series led by Andy Middleton, a self-described Sustainability Catalyst, looking at a different aspect of sustainability each day and encouraging participants to consider what they will do to enact change. Fittingly, Wednesday’s theme was water, and we contributed to conversations including governance, finance and resources, and information and data. Nicola Cutcher, chair of our later panel, was writing summaries of each Planet Assembly session, and you can read those here.
The Battle for Britain’s Rivers
Wednesday evening brought another change of tone as we turned attention specifically to the state of our rivers and how they can be restored. Pollution sources including sewage, chemicals, road runoff, and agriculture were discussed, with agriculture having particularly devastating impacts on the Wye. It was also pointed out that one of the biggest reasons for so few rivers in Britain not achieving good ecological status is because of physical modifications, such as river barriers or artificial straightening. The speakers reflected on the current state of regulation and enforcement, agreeing that recent government plans and announcements are encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether those in power will really seize the moment and restore rivers to good health. Another non-negotiable is that we take an integrated, catchment-based approach to rivers and the wider environment. We must work together in collaboration, using creative and efficient measures to integrate policies which impact on our environment.
Across our two-day trip, we loved speaking with so many people who care deeply about rivers and appreciate the work we’re doing to make them thrive again. From Australian backpackers to the Women’s Institute, rivers have truly become one of the foremost topics of our time. We’re extremely grateful to the Hay Festival for the opportunity to show this for us and everyone who is committed to keeping up the fight.