The writer Richard Mabey suggests that our sense of locality, our sense of being, perhaps belonging here, is as much to do with our feeling territorial, as it is to do with the landscape and what’s on it, writes Richard Hollingum.
Possibly I paraphrase a bit too much, but essentially, we feel we belong not just because of the external things, the open fields, the shaded woodland or the historic buildings, but also because we have a sense of ‘this is ours’.
Often this sense of locality extends only a short distance from our door but more and more we are, quite rightly, being encouraged to expand our horizons and our responsibilities that come with being territorial.
The topography is important here. Worcestershire has its Malverns, Cumbria its Lakes and Devon its moors. Northamptonshire?
Northamptonshire is very lucky. It has a thread that runs a good length of its strange shape, a thread that pulls the territory together but also influences the area where it touches. This is of course The Nene. At this point I will say that the advantage of writing this is that it is up to the reader to pronounce the name in the way that they see fit.
The Nene, rising from a hill near Daventry, gathers itself across the lands to Northampton by which time it has already become a force to be reckoned with.
On it then flows, eastwards, past new housing estates, shopping destinations, reclaimed gravel pits and out of the county, into Peterborough and on to The Wash. Follow its journey and you follow the journey of the county, the people, the agriculture and the industry and all that that has led to what was, is, and will be. Bound by this common thread, the Nene valley and its tributaries give us a unique sense of place and one that is worth celebrating.
One of the organisations that is helping us to explore the Nene, its valley and surrounding area, is the Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme.
Ali Brand-Barker, the Interpretation and Community Engagement Officer, explains that Nenescape is a partnership of 12 organisations which work together to a shared vision, “a vision of a healthy and resilient River Nene, where the local wildlife prospers alongside agricultural and recreational activities”.
This £2.6million project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is working to explore and use the history of the landscape, its industrial, cultural and archaeological legacies. “Through 16 projects,” Ali explains “we will use the history of the landscape to shape our future work, encourage the exploration of the Nene Valley and secure its resilience in the face of increasing pressures.”
These projects are divided in to three main themes, though of course there is much cross-over.
Listen To The Past explores all aspects of the historical importance of the river, across 5000 years of settlement, through creating a heritage trail to using new technologies so that todays visitors can be in touch with yesterdays.
The theme of Explore the Now looks at the very recent history of the Nene and the changing landscapes of the valley.
The third theme, Secure the Future, works with landowners, users and volunteers to provide the right skills in order to maintain the health of the river into the future so that it can continue to be enjoyed by subsequent generations.
The projects are leading to lots of good work and are helped or even led by partner organisations including the Rockingham Forest Trust, the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, and East Northamptonshire District Council.
Looking after the river itself is of course important and in the week that I write this, the chief executive of the Environment Agency says that England could run short of water within 25 years. Never has there been such a time when we have to look after our water resources.
The three-year Resilient River, run by the River Nene Regional Park (RNRP), is possibly one of its most important projects in Nenescape. The aim is to restore altered or neglected backchannels to the Nene, improving biodiversity, heritage features and the resilience of the water quality and supply. Work is taking place on 11 sites including Stanwick Lakes, Whitemills and Ashton Lock.
Another project directly relating to the water itself is the restoration of meadows. Under the banner of Bringing Nature Closer, work has started at Ferry Meadows, Peterborough as part of the Farming for the Future project.
Helena Darragh, Nene Valley Land Adviser at the Wild Life Trust, explains: “last summer a great deal of work was done to improve the floodplain meadows to the eastern edge of the country park. This habitat improvement work was to create and restore scrapes in the meadows to enable water to be held on the land for longer through the winter so as to encourage breeding waders and overwintering birds.”
The retention and storage of water is important and luckily the RSPB have just the kit, a rotary ditcher.
Helena explains: “This is effectively a large sharp spinning wheel which scrapes shallow dips and foot drains. It does not create deep ditches, but shallow channels which means that the field remains farmable”.
These scrapes are now filled with water and the aim is to replicate this work at a number of sites along the Nene Valley this year, including Upton Fields in Northampton. At the moment the Wild Life Trust are working with other landowners and farmers to identify spots where scrape creation would deliver great environmental benefits for bird life.
“We have also provided grant funding to two SSSI* sites” Helena continued “at Aldwincle Marsh and Bulwick Meadows, and to a couple of landowners to improve habitat and to prevent diffuse pollution entering the Nene. We will be working with a lot more landowners over the duration of the project to create and restore wildflower meadows and wetland habitat on farmland.”
The Nenescape projects are not just about improving the land and the water but are also about how we interact with the Nene. Memories of living, working or playing by the Nene, how it features in our lives, and what it means to people, is being captured in 900 Voices.
Part of the Peterborough Celebrates 900 anniversary, the project is a growing online archive of stories, images, music, poems and films, all relating to the river. As you explore the website you may come across an account from the annals of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society from May 1935, or a memory of ice on the river at Becket’s Park in 1947.
900 Voices also includes an ambitious digital installation created by One to One Development Trust. This is a remarkable virtual River Nene where you can explore the banks, watch paper boats float by, or even dive in and swim under water.
Yet another project comes from ScreeenNorthants. Their latest film, simply called ‘Nene’, is currently in post-production and due out in the summer. It is a story of a young boy who runs away from home to find his father, using the River Nene to make his way to Northampton. A teaser trailer is already available on YouTube.
The funding for Nenescape runs out after five years and I asked Ali what was going to be its legacy?
“There will be physical things such as maintenance agreements so that all the work that has been carried out will be maintained by the landowners” she says “ and we will also have trained a large number of volunteers and staff members, in conjunction with our various partners, in a variety of skills such as species identification, and research techniques.”
It is good to know that all these projects are being taken up along the length of the Nene and involves anybody and everybody with a connection. Making the Nene Valley fit for the future is about prompting the communities along the river to understand their territory, expand that sense of locality and be responsible for it. Go and visit your bit of the Nene, rejoice and get involved.
*SSSI – Sites of Special Scientific Interest
To find out more:
Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme: www.nenescape.org
River Nene Regional Park: www.riverneneregionalpark.org
Wild Life Trust: www.wildlifebcn.org
900 Voices: 900voicesofthenene.co.uk