charles rangeley-wilson – writing about fishing, travel, rivers, conservation

All the futures we have wished for


The River Wye at the site Ash Mill where it falls into the culvert that runs under High Wycombe

Some of you might be interested in the letter I have written in reply to a (very nice) letter from a member of Wycombe Council’s projects department. The letter sent to me gave the reasons why the River Wye has not been de-culverted or “brought back to the surface of the town” to use the words of John Scruton who over forty years ago founded a society to save the buried Wye. There is a shopping centre on top of the culverted river leased for 150 years to an investor, a flyover on top of that. In addition the buried river lies deep underground: it has always been thought that opening it to the sky would involve a large loss of land in order to achieve a slope (or terraces) that would run down to how deep the river is, or if not then sheer walls in an open culvert: one would be expensive, the other soulless.

Dear Sir,

many thanks for your letter.

I did know about the difficulties involved in de-culverting the river. I have thought about them carefully and as you’ll see below I believe there are ways around them. What we really need is a determination to solve the problem. Perhaps one reason why a solution has not been found before is because the course and depth of the river have mistakenly been seen as permanent and unalterable. But neither of the objections to de-culverting the river are insurmountable once the history of these chalk streams is understood. That is partly why Silt Road was such a eclectic ramble: mills, water-meadows etc. I wanted to understand every step which lead to the culverting of the river … and knowing all these imagine a day when it would become possible to de-culvert it.

The two main objections – which you mention in your letter – are:

• What lies on top of the river. As I quoted one council planning officer in my book: “There’s just so much stuff on top of it”. Specifically there is a fly-over and shopping centre.

• How deep it lies underground. This is often cited as a problem because of the land-take involved in doing anything other than having the river lie at the base of a walled-in but open culvert.

But both of the above relate to what happened to the river long before it was buried.

The Wye is a fast-flowing chalk stream with good gradient. So it supported many mills. There are three that relate to the buried part of the Wye: Ash Mill stood where the river now vanishes into the ground. Temple Mill was under the roundabout at the edge of the Eden Centre and Bridge Mill was under the site of the British Legion where the river re-emerges into daylight.

Each of these mills needed a mill leat: a straightened section of river that stored water to power the mill. You can only build a leat and create the head of water you need for your mill by diverting the water along a man-made channel and most often these followed a contour line at the edge of the flood-plain, until by the time the leat reached the mill it was running several feet higher than the natural stream. The original course of the river was retained as the “relief channel” meandering along the lowest part of the valley.

The course of the culverted Wye is not the course of the natural river, it is the course of the mill-leats. That is why the river lies so far underground.

This means that there is a natural course much closer to ground level: and that course may well have much less “stuff on top of it”.

But even if the natural course was not suitable, what the above also shows us is that we can put the river more or less where we want to, just like the milling engineers did when they built their leats. It should be possible, in other words, to find a new course for the river that snakes between all the stuff currently on top of it. And it is also possible to lift the bed of the stream up so that there would be no land take. Falls in gradient could be accommodated with cascades if need be, which whilst not ideal in a chalk stream, would be better than no river at all. In fact the public would find cascades attractive.

The long and short of all this is that it is possible for High Wycombe to get its river back and the reasons cited why it is impossible are not good reasons once we understand past histories and possible futures.

What is needed is an understanding of how rivers work and how they got to be how they are, so that we can then make them how we want them to be.

I’d be delighted to help the Council with its plans



3 Responses to “All the futures we have wished for”

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