Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The life-blood of the town

To suggest that a river is the lifeblood of an urban landscape is something of an overused metaphor. Nevertheless, the way in which it pulls life into the heart of the town suggests that this is an appropriate acknowledgment of its pivotal role in shaping urban biodiversity. The river is a corridor, one along which creatures can move into the town, cutting through the barrier of suburban gardens, ring roads and fringing industrial units with their superstores and retail parks. Along much of its urban length it is corralled by concrete, its flow controlled by weirs, gates and pumps, but there are places where it retains a more natural character.

Thetford’s lifeblood comes in the form of the Little Ouse and the Thet, both slipping silently in from the east through the old part of town and skirting what was once the town’s economic heart. It is this first stretch that most often holds the interest of the local otters, one of which now seems oblivious to the passing humans and their four-legged or four-wheeled companions. From the Nun’s Bridges, which mark the ancient crossing point, it is possible to watch pike hang almost motionless in the current or the dark forms of chub that jostle in loose shoals. At this time of the year the surface dances with drake mackerel mayflies, the males swarming through until dusk, the lazy fish rising to gulp down those that tire and drop to the grasping surface film.

Despite the beauty of the river and its valuable role, we treat it badly. The combination of fine weather and a school holiday leave a myriad of coloured debris in the form of drinks cans, crisp packets and discarded clothing. From time to time the appearance of a bicycle, television set or cd player hints at the discarded trophy of a burglary, or the waste of someone too lazy to visit the recycling centre.

Perhaps the worst treatment is meted out through the subterranean pipes that drain into the river along its length. Some of these catch surface run-off from the roads, silently flushing salt and various chemicals into the water, where they mix with nitrates from farmland and who knows what else. More obvious than these invisible additions is the occasional discharge of oil, a black slick of which was seen entering the river just the other week close to the Nun’s bridges. The quantity involved suggested that it was a deliberate act, the oil tipped into a drain that ultimately led to the river. It is incredibly frustrating that people seem to care so little, that they remain oblivious to the damage they inflict on a living system that brings life to their town.

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