Watercress 43 - June 1998

From mighty Ver to a sad trickle

Sparkling, swiftly flowing

Imagine a river a quarter of a mile wide at the height of its winter flow, and deep enough in parts so that small Roman vessels can navigate half its length. A river that, even in Summer, consisted of three or four wide channels of sparkling, swiftly flowing water. A river which at the turn of the last century was promoted by the Midland and Great Northern railway companies as one of the best trout streams in the northern Home Counties.

Stinking ditch

Look instead at a river barely a metre across at the end of the winter and hardly deep enough to float a model boat. Dry for three quarters of its length between June and October, a river in which spotting a minnow or a stickleback is noteworthy.
This is our own River Ver, reduced to a trickle of its former self by human activity and, more recently, drought. The once vigorous River Ver is now, according to one correspondent to the local press, no more than a “stinking ditch”.

Mighty River Ver

In the Middle Ages the Ver retained an almost mythical reputation for having been the “mighty River Ver”. The poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) wrote of the Ver,
“Thou saw’st great burden’d ships through these thy vallies pass,
Where now sharp-edg’d scythe shears up the springing grass,
And where the seal and porpoise us’d to play,
The grasshopper and the ant now lord it all day.”


Our medieval ancestors redirected the natural water courses into single and artificially straightened channels to provide headwaters to drive the wheels and stones of the dozen or so watermills that were built up and down the River Ver. And so began the utter change in our river’s character.

Water abstraction

From the middle of the last century a more subtle change began - the large scale abstraction of water reserves held underground in the chalk aquifer, to supply the needs of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution population. Now at the end of the 20th century (and, even without the infamous Friars Wash pumping station) 30 million litres a day are pumped from the valley into our homes. Today, it seems that with the combined effects of abstraction and long-term drought there is only water enough for either humans or rivers. Not both.

Still not enough rain

Our watercress beds dried up completely in ‘97; you may have seen their plight and that of the River Ver featured in the local press last year. This winter has been a dry one also. Monitoring boreholes in the area shows that water levels in the chalk aquifer are at a twenty year low. The 6 inches of rain that fell in April has had almost no effect on long term water stocks. Unless we have six feet of gently thawing snow, or three months of heavy drizzle, all the signs point towards our water disappearing again this summer.

Saving water

Can we do anything to alleviate the shortage of water ourselves? Well, yes we can. Think before your turn on a tap. Wash your car and water your garden plants only with rainwater. (Make sure you have a number of water butts, not just one). Have a water meter installed so that you can monitor your household consumption. Fit dual flush lavatory cisterns for big jobs and little jobs, if you see what I mean!

Lifeblood of the landscape

Someone asked me last year why it mattered that the River Ver ran dry. At the time I couldn’t think of anything rational to say to her in reply. If kingfishers and swans disappear and as long as humans have enough water for our own use, so what?
Somehow, I equate rivers and streams with our own blood vessels; if they cease to flow properly something is seriously wrong. Rivers are the lifeblood of the landscape. Surely we shouldn’t let the feature that has shaped the landscape around St Albans, and the watercress beds in particular, disappear permanently?

Andy Webb

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