Part of the PECT Collection

Thoughts on the River Nene

Contributor: Harry Machin
Owner: Thorpe Gate RiverCare Group
Type: Image or Photograph
Location: Peterborough
Recorded: July 2018

For me it's a green space and a wildlife sanctuary. I like the walk from home into town which is much nicer than the walk along the roads. It's cleaner and the air is fresher.

The river changes a lot over a short distance. You go from a big public park East of the town bridge, past the Key Theatre, under the bridge, past the floating restaurant, past some blocks of flats, under 4 different railway bridges and foot bridges, out of town along a wide cycle path, through some water meadows along a narrow track, past a marina, past a golf course, through Ferry Meadows country park and out through the wooded tranquillity of the Lynch Wood - all in about 3 miles.

The two banks of the river are very different. Our bank, the North side, is relatively safe to litter pick and has been adopted by RiverCare. The South side has quite heavy drug use and is currently considered too unsafe, and probably too expensive to get insurance cover for litter pickers. Their drunks and drug users are more aggressive than ours!

The Council could do more with the river. Parts of it are cut off from the town and it isn't used enough. Somewhere like Bedford, the river is absolutely integral to the town, in Peterborough less so. When you see how they transformed the canals in places like Leeds, Birmingham and London, you think they could do something similar with the Nene at Peterborough.

The swans are amazing - earlier this year I counted almost 100 between the town bridge and my home. People are always down at the steps behind Asda, feeding them mainly bread. It's supposed to be bad for them but they seem to be doing all right. Every year you can watch the cygnets turning from grey to white so quickly.

There are other birds as well. Coots and moorhens nest along the bank and sometimes flap across the river when people go by. Ducks are everywhere (feeding on bread along with the swans), and increasingly seagulls and terns - time was that you had to go to the seaside to find sea birds, but no longer. Also herons, egrets, green woodpeckers, magpies to name but a few. There's a long straight stretch of embankment on the way into town. Five or six years ago it was just bare concrete, then someone had the bright idea of planting some reeds, lilies etc along the bank and it has all grown from there and looks beautiful now. It's also somewhere for the fish to lay their eggs so they don't get washed away by the currents. Apparently the Nene used to meander more than it does today, which made it easier for fish to find places to spawn.

Speaking of currents, the Nene is a slow-moving river going through such a flat landscape. I sometimes wonder how it flows at all. Not exactly white water rapids.

Not so long ago (about 1997 I think), heavy rains combined with a spring tide which prevented the river draining out into the Wash. Some gardens were flooded in my street, and the flats at Water End were flooded, after which a retaining wall was built to hold back any future floods. They also improved the drainage channels down to the river and improved the locks at the Dog in a Doublet as well. We haven't had any floods since, it drains much better now..

Though nobody seems to have told the insurance companies. Some of them still refuse to insure local properties because they are in an area that has previously been flooded.

Back in the days of the floods, we used to watch the river levels upstream at Wansford - if they were rising there, we could be in trouble in a few hours' time.

There's a cycle path running along that straight stretch of the river into town, which is well used by all sorts of people. Walkers and cyclists going to and from town, some carrying shopping bags. People feeding the ducks and swans. Local shop employees on their lunch breaks. Dossers drinking under the railway bridge. Residents from the flats overlooking the river near the town bridge.

A friend who lives in Hull sees those flats when he travels to and from London on the train. He asked how much it costs to get a view like that. He guessed £250k+ and was amazed when I told him you could get one for just over £100,000.

Anyway, all those people who use the cycle path - we pick up their litter. It's particularly heavy in the summer months and especially in this hot weather we've been having. Last week we picked up 30 bags of litter which had accumulated in just 4 weeks since our previous litter pick. In Summer it's out there in the public eye, around the footpaths and marinas. In winter we collect more litter from where the undergrowth has died back. I didn't mention the marina. There's an inlet from the river to the Boathouse pub and some nice expensive houses at Thorpe Meadows, where each house has its own private mooring. Boats tie up at the marina - they don't tend to stay long, they come and go, but they enjoy themselves in the nice weather. I was talking to the manageress at the Boathouse, who watches people diving off those boats into the shallow water. She's sure that someone will injure themselves because people have been known to dispose of bicycle frames, wheelchairs and random metal things into the marina, as well as into the river itself. On the other hand I haven't heard of any major injuries yet.

Speaking of boats you get all sorts - the little house boats that moor along the banks, rowers from the Peterborough Rowing Club, canal boats, canoes. Very occasionally you get someone in a fast boat causing a big wash along the banks, but most people go really slowly.

Our litter picking group has a grappling hook which we use to pull heavy stuff out of the river. It's like an anchor with four prongs, attached to a long thick rope. One day we pulled out three shopping trollies from the river close to Asda, all encrusted with algae - they must have been there for a long time. There was also a time when the Council widened the cycle path and, as usual, the contractors didn't bother to remove their barriers and they were thrown into the river. We pulled out a mixture of the 6 foot metal ones (heavy!) and the lighter red plastic ones.

Something else we do is to collect litter that's floating near the river bank. It's amazing how far you can reach into the river with a long litter picking stick. So far nobody has fallen in.

Some litter you can't reach with a litter picking stick, especially where the path is fenced off from the river near the town. Last week we saw a canoeist paddling by and asked him if he would like to pick some litter. He agreed, we gave him a bag and he filled it up - a really skilful bit of canoeing. The hardest part was him keeping the canoe steady enough to pass the full bag up to me on the river bank.

If you don't pick up litter it just accumulates and that encourages people to throw more. At least people know that someone cares about keeping the river bank looking clean. A lot of people stop and thank us, and quite a few end up joining in future litter picks.

All this litter that we pick up, we leave it by the bins along the path and tell the contractors employed by the Council and they come and move it. The trouble with contractors is that they work to the letter of the contract. So if the contract says they empty bins once a week, that's what they do - never mind if the bin is full again 24 hours later. Some people try really hard to force their litter into bins that are full to overflowing, whereas of course some people wouldn't get off a bench to put their litter in a bin that's 2 yards away.

Well over half of the litter we pick up is drinks containers. Soft drinks (mainly plastic), beer cans, and quite a few wine and spirits bottles. You get to know the Polish beers pretty well, especially Zywiec, Tyskie and Lech.

The river attracts rough sleepers, many of whom are East European. The area is well planted with trees which provide deep cover for tents, many of which have been there for a long time. Most of them hide themselves away and you wouldn't know they were rough sleeping except when you see them walking back into the woods with shopping bags. Whenever we find a tent we report it to the Council. The first people to be involved are the Housing Officers who have a duty to re-home anyone who is living in the tents. The trouble is that a lot of people don't want to be rehomed - it's a lot nicer living outdoors than in a grotty hostel where you can't get drugs or alcohol, especially in the summer.

The nicest rough sleepers were a family - man, woman and toddler - who camped right by the wooden path that runs through the Boardwalks, a water meadows area close to the river. They were really well organised with two tents, a cooking area, a washing line, a pushchair and other mod cons. People used to stop and have long chats with them When the site flooded, as it regularly does in Winter, they cleared all their litter into bags and moved out. Unfortunately the litter was so well hidden that the Council's contractors couldn't find it and it flooded out all over the abandoned site, but it was a nice thought.

It isn't easy for the Council to rehome people, given the shortage of available housing - I sometimes wonder if they use the river area as a sort of temporary housing overflow. Once they have rehomed people the site can be cleared - usually by the contractors because there's so much rubbish around most of the sites. Often they can't locate the site - there are sites that we told them about months ago that they still haven't manged to find. Sometimes we clear them ourselves, though that's not always the greatest or the wisest thing to do. Some things can be too heavy for us to move, for example a sofa and a park bench that had been unscrewed from its original site near the river bank. Another hazard is needles - we don't see many, but they are around. I have one of those secure containers and I place any used needles in there very, very carefully. What we see most of is silver or aluminium foil (used to heat drugs and inhale the fumes, I'm told), and an awful lot of empty blister packs for various tablets. Also rough sleepers have to relieve themselves somewhere, but lets not go there.

We advise litter pickers to wear sturdy shoes - going anywhere off the beaten track in sandals of flip flops would really be asking for trouble.

Hold and drag to see more detail in the image

Click on images to view them in detail