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Posted: Thursday 16th January 2014 by Living Rivers

DitchWoe-water, drainage ditch or winterbourne?

I've always been fascinated by history, mythology and folklore, especially that relating to the natural world. I've been exploring some of the stories and beliefs surrounding Hertfordshire's chalk rivers, especially those around the county's 'woe-waters'.

I was recently invited to give a talk to Cheshunt Natural History Society. A few days after that talk I received a letter from two of their members, containing some fascinating articles on Hertfordshire’s chalk rivers (thank you!). They came from archive copies of ‘The Hertfordshire Countryside’ journal, dating back to the late 1960s.

One of the articles discusses the phenomenon of ‘woe-water’. With the Christmas flooding fresh in my mind, my first thought was that ‘woe-water’ must refer to floodwater and the subsequent misery it can bring. I was wrong! The term ‘woe-water’ dates back centuries, and refers to the occasional and unexpected flowing of winterbourne sections of chalk river. The sudden flooding of upper river valleys, or the unexpected flowing of springs which had been dry for years, was considered to be a herald of forthcoming disaster – or ‘woe’.  Hence 'woe-water'.

In particular, the upper Ver is singled out as one of these ‘woe-waters'. According to one fifteenth century chronicler, a ‘stream near Markyate’ acted as one of these ‘wo-meres’, a watercourse whose flow ‘presaged sorrow to come’. When the stream ran, as it did in 1472, you could be sure that ‘woo was comynge to Englonde’.

One of the things that made these occurrences so mysterious for our ancestors was the fact that they seemed to bear little relation to the recent rainfall. Springs suddenly burst forth after weeks of dry weather, and woe-waters were often dry even after long periods of rainfall. As we now know, this is because of the time it takes for rainfall to percolate down through the chalk to the groundwater, and the complex patterns of this groundwater’s underground flow.

However, this time lag between heavy rainfall and high river flows is being lost. Our chalk rivers are being fed less and less by springs, and more and more by surface run-off.  Our obsessive desire to pave over urban areas with tarmac and concrete increases the speed and amount of run-off after rainfall, meaning more water ends up in gutters, drainage systems and, eventually, rivers.  This urban run-off brings with it heavy metals, silt, bacteria, and all sorts of other nasties that accumulate on our roads and pavements.

Similarly, patterns of tillage and the drive towards intensive agriculture mean there are fewer ‘wild’ areas on farms – fewer boggy corners, marshy areas and ponds to store rainwater, and fewer hedgerows and field margins to intercept it. So rain falling on rural areas also results in more water running into in our rivers, and bringing with it herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that, soon after a downpour, our chalk rivers are full of murky, milky water. But it’s not all bad news.  Despite their poor water quality, these high flows can have some physical benefits for the rivers, such as scouring out the bed and clearing accumulated silt.  In an era when ‘normal’ flows are quite low due to ongoing groundwater abstraction, such storm peaks can have a silver lining.

Maybe the answer lies in Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDs) or more ‘back to nature’ flood prevention schemes, both of which have been in the news lately. But taking the catchment-wide approach, and considering the downstream and wider impacts of all of actions, will be key to sorting out these problems.


What’s in a name?

Another of the articles was all about a famous Hertfordshire chalk stream called the Maran.  Cue a moment of panic, when I thought that maybe I’d completely failed to notice one of Hertfordshire’s rivers in the (nearly) two years I’ve been in post!  But the article was soon revealed to be about the ‘River Maran, also called the Mimram’. I’ve never heard the Mimram referred to as this, despite collecting as much information as I could about the river in the production of the Mimram Catchment Plan last year. Strange how quickly things move on – in the 60s the ‘Maran’ seemed to be the go-to name for this river, with the ‘Mimram’ an alternate, lesser-used name.

River MimramThe article describes, in evocative language, the beauty of the river from its source down to its confluence with the Lea in Hertford. However, it also describes it as a ‘threatened waterway’:

‘The head waters of rivers frequently suffer when water is pumped out of the ground faster than nature is putting it in. In this respect the Maran is a threatened waterway. It formerly rose considerably higher up the valley than it does now. For a number of years it has been insidiously slipping away, damaging the livelihood of those who depend on the river’s flow…’

Interesting to note that, in the late 60s, there were clearly enough people still making a living from the river for this to be a strong argument to preserve it. More recently, arguments to save our chalk streams have tended to focus on the aesthetic and ecological value of such rivers, rather than the economic benefits they bring. The current focus on ecosystem services has striven to address this, highlighting the value, in monetary terms, of services the rivers provide – mental and physical health benefits resulting from recreation, income from angling, flood prevention etc.

There were also some tantalising glimpses of the past riches of Hertfordshire’s countryside. Describing the wildlife of the Mimram valley, the author states that ‘the birds seen are those common to many of Hertfordshire’s vales, the ubiquitous gulls, lapwings, thrushes and blackbirds’. If only birds such as the lapwing could be described as ‘common’ and ‘ubiquitous’ to Hertfordshire’s river valleys in 2014!

The article ends in pessimistic tone. ‘Perhaps the headwaters of the Maran are running dry, and it is highly probable that the river will disappear completely one day’. Without getting too existential or evoking Professor Brian Cox’s discussions of entropy (!), I’d like to think the future is a little brighter than that. Affinity’s plans to substantially reduce abstraction in the Mimram valley will have a huge effect on the river. The passion of local river groups, and the fact that chalk rivers are now definitely on the agenda in Hertfordshire, will hopefully mean that our stewardship of these special rivers will not be neglected in the future.


Catchment plan updates

Following the success of the Beane & Mimram and Stort Catchment Management Plans last year (all still very much ongoing and active), HMWT has been appointed as catchment hosts for the entirety of the upper Lea catchment. So it’s now full steam ahead with planning for the Lea, Rib, Ash and Quin catchment partnerships. The first workshops for each river (Rib and Quin will be combined) will go ahead in March. So if you have an interest, or ‘stake’ in these rivers, or know anyone who does, please let me know! We’re hoping to get riparian landowners, land managers, farmers, statutory bodies, local volunteers, and parish councillors along to discuss aims and aspirations for the river.


That's all for this time - thanks for reading.


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