River Cam – from filthy ditch to Bathing Water status?

Whist slightly outside our territory, there is plenty of local concern about water quality in our city’s river and keen interest in our local Cam/Granta tributary, Cherry Hinton Brook.

Index:

Cam Valley Forum has a tentative proposal to designate formally a stretch of the River Cam in Cambridge as a ‘bathing water’.

However, not everyone is in agreement, that this is the best route to cleaning the Cam…

At this initial informal consultation stage, Cam Valley Forum are inviting comments from local interests directly concerned with the River in the City. The proposal cannot proceed without the benefit of widespread support and agreement.

The area tentatively proposed for the designated ‘bathing water’ is indicated by the red line along the riverbank on the map and satellite images above (Source: Google Earth).

In the Victorian era, all rubbish and waste of every kind was disposed of directly into the river Cam, or into King’s Ditch, right near Market Square.

According to legend, Queen Victoria herself came to visit Cambridge early in her reign.  While she was here, she looked at the river, and found it so filthy that she couldn’t even identify all the kinds of rubbish that were floating in the water.  She asked, “What are those pieces of paper floating in the river?” Rather than saying they were book and newspaper pages used as toilet paper, the tactful answer was, “Those Ma’am are notices that bathing is forbidden!”.

Eglantyne Jebb was a campaigner for improved living conditions. She wrote an important policy report advocating proper piping from toilets to sewage pipes, and a sewage treatment facility. Her work resulted in the pumping station built on Riverside in 1894, now the Cambridge Museum of Technology.

Quayside from Magdalene Bridge, 1910, showing pumping station chimney downstream, from Tower Project Blog

Index

The Cam has been used for bathing for over four centuries. Traditionally men and boys from the town swam from the banks of Sheep’s Green, whereas those from the University swam a little further upstream. By the early nineteenth century, at least, both sites had become official bathing places known as the Town Sheds and the University Sheds. In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, swimming in the river was immensely popular, and both sites had steps into the river, spring-boards, slides and diving platforms.

The Town Sheds were more lavishly equipped. They were managed by a custodian who, amongst other duties, taught boys to swim in Snobs’ Stream (the Millstream that branches from the Cam just south of Hodson’s Folly to serve Newnham Mill). The Town Sheds were a male preserve until, in 1896, the corporation opened the Ladies’ Bathing Place at the southern tip of Sheep’s Green where Snobs’ Stream leaves the river. In 1962 the Ladies’ Bathing Place was closed and mixed bathing was allowed at the Town Sheds.

In the 1970s, concerns about the health risks of polluted river water led to the closure of the Town Sheds and, by 1980, the site had become the base for the Cambridge Canoe Club. In the following decades swimming in rivers was discouraged and the Cam Conservancy, whose remit as the navigation authority includes the upper river, forbade swimming in daylight hours except at designated bathing places. By the beginning of this century there were no such designated places.

However, people continued to swim from the area of the Town Sheds. Jumping off the bridge remained popular. The secluded site of the University Sheds, by then renamed the Newnham Riverbank Club, provides simple wild swimming facilities for paying members. In recent years, people have increasingly enjoyed swimming from Sheep’s Green and Grantchester Meadows, and membership of the Newnham Riverbank Club is over-subscribed. Now, the Cam Conservancy allows swimming in the whole upper river from Byron’s Pool, above Grantchester, down to the King’s Mill Weir in Cambridge.

Cam Valley Forum
Swimming in the river in the 1970s. The Learner Pool, behind the honeycomb block enclosure, was built in 1972 – Cam Valley Forum


Read/download the whole of the Cam Valley Forum informal consultation paper on this tentative proposal, here.

You may send any comments to Cam Valley Forum at info@camvalleyforum.uk. If you would like to have a meeting to discuss the proposals, please mention this in your email. You may also leave (polite) comments on this website, below.

Index


Elsewhere…

Campaigns to use Bathing Water Status to improve river quality are now taking place across the country. One of the latest is in Bath…
One man’s fight to get bathing water status for a stretch of river near Bath

Johnny Palmer was so determined to tackle water quality at an island beauty spot near Bath that he bought the land. He now hopes to make Warleigh Weir the first area of river in the UK to be given bathing water status to spearhead a national campaign to clean up inland waterways.

Palmer, a property investor who has swum with his family at Warleigh Weir for many years, was shocked to find out that Wessex Water is allowed to discharge untreated sewage into the River Avon around the beauty spot.

“When I was told, I was like, ‘Woah, hold on. Back up a second. Seriously?’ I didn’t realise storm water mixed with untreated sewage flowed into our river.”

Sandra Laville, The Guardian, Wed 1 Jul 2020
Read the full article, here.

Index

River Wharfe, Ilkley

Perhaps the most persistent campaigners have been Becky Malby and her fellow advocates from the Ilkley Clean River Group.

Swimming, paddling and playing in Wharfe at Ilkley – Ilkley Clean River Group

Here is a flavour of the unfolding unfolding story…

Local people in a Yorkshire town are pressing for their river to become the first in the UK to be designated as a bathing area to force the authorities to clean up the water they say is being used as an open sewer.

In the spa town of Ilkley a grassroots campaign has uncovered the regular and routine dumping of untreated sewage by Yorkshire Water – with the approval of the Environment Agency – into the River Wharfe.

Growing pressure to clean up Britain’s rivers to meet bathing water quality is a “game changer” that will require more government funding as the public embrace the outdoors, the head of the Environment Agency has said.

A growing number of river users are calling for action to tackle the routine and legal discharge of untreated sewage into Britain’s waterways, which they say amounts to treating them like an open sewer.

The Environment Agency says nothing will be done to stem the flow of sewage into a Yorkshire river popular with swimmers and families until at least 2030.

Despite acknowledging that the level of sewage discharges into the River Wharfe at Ilkley – which have been admitted by Yorkshire Water – should trigger an investigation, the EA told campaigners nothing will happen for 10 years.

Campaigners seeking to make a river in Yorkshire the UK’s first to be designated a bathing area have accused environment ministers of blocking their application.

In the spa town of Ilkley, river users and residents submitted a 65-page application to turn part of the River Wharfe in the town into a bathing water area last October.

Ilkley’s three Bradford district councillors have expressed concern that the ongoing campaign to get the Wharfe designated for ‘safe swimming’ fails to acknowledge the river’s poor safety record.

Part of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, which is a popular swimming and paddling spot, is to be added to the list of bathing waters next year, after months of campaigning.

A stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley will have its pollution levels monitored by the Environment Agency to ensure it is safe for swimming.

The move follows a campaign by local residents who said they had seen “human solid waste” on the river bank.

Becky Malby, from the Ilkley Clean River Group, said she was “absolutely over the moon” at the news.

Selected paragraphs from news reports on the Guardian, Yorkshire Post and BBC websites. Click on each to read more details.

For full details of correspondence and more, head to the Ilkley Clean River Group website.

Index


Are we all agreed?

Just as there were multiple issues over the Ilkley River Wharfe proposals, not all Cambridge people are sure that this is the best way forward…

This is the response from Newnham Croft Residents’ Association to Stephen Tomkins and Cam Valley Forum.

Dear Stephen and CVF

I am writing on behalf of Newnham Croft Residents Association in regard to your proposals for Sheeps Green.

The state of the river, as you show, is indeed shocking, and we all want to see water quality improved. However, we have concerns about designation of this small area as a bathing place for the following reasons:

 1. Safety 

There are major safety issues:

  • Scudamores now have many more punts, which come along this part of the river
  • There is now a canoe club on the site with 500 members situated next to the Learner pool, with canoes launching along the area in front of it.  They are aware of the hazard this poses, and are suggesting that the bathing place should be at the former Ladies bathing place. This is adjacent to the Nature Reserve however, and increased noise and disturbance would be very detrimental to the wildlife there.
  • Even if lifeguards were provided, with so much activity in this part of the river it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to supervise swimming safely here, and there are real dangers – a child drowned here only a couple of years ago.
2. Environmental Impact

As your photos show, Sheeps Green used to be a popular bathing place with people from across the city, and many of us have very happy memories of swimming there in the 1970s. However, there was no car park then and although it was very busy on fine days, most of us walked or cycled. 

There would now be serious issues of environmental capacity – Sheeps Green and Coe Fen are both protected green spaces, and Paradise, which was like a jungle in the 1970s is now a very popular city nature reserve. 

The pressure on all these places and Lammas Land has grown enormously over the past year, and it seems that this will continue to increase as Cambridge expands and people are prepared to travel long distances by car to enjoy the places they have heard about on ‘what’s app’ and Facebook.There would need to be an environmental impact assessment as this proposal is likely to lead to a large increase in noise and disturbance that would be to be harmful to the wildlife and biodiversity, which should be given priority here. 

3. Access

The only access  for cars is down the Driftway, which leads off a rather hazardous junction. It is a narrow lane shared with pedestrians and cycles, and the small car park is used by shoppers, visitors to Lammas Land, Sheeps Green and Paradise as well as members of the Canoe Club. It is usually completely full already in the summer, with people parking (illegally) along the lane as well.

4. Facilities

The information given regarding the facilities available on site is rather misleading.

  • There are no changing facilities – the Canoe Club now occupies the site of the former bathing sheds and the couple of small rooms at the Learner Pool are only for children.
  • The 6 toilets at Lammas Land are not adequate for people using the park in the summer, let alone additional people coming to swim at a bathing place on the river.
  • There is no café, only a small kiosk serving drinks and ice- cream.

This is a small, environmentally sensitive area, and not suitable for building these facilities to meet the needs of visitors at a designated bathing place. We allwant to get the water quality in the Cam and its chalk streams improved, but a focus on this one small area could cause unintended harm.

 As Stephen wrote to me, ‘Wearing my ecology/wildlife hat I am not so keen on expanding the use of that area for people in high summer, but it is unquestionably a gambit that will force the hand of Anglian Water to really make a much bigger effort to raise the water quality’

It should not be necessary to risk irreparable harm to a protected green space and nature reserve to get Anglian Water to improve water quality along the whole river, and I hope we will be able to work with you to achieve this .

We would be happy to attend a meeting to discuss it with you further.

Kind Regards
Jean Glasberg
Chair Newnham Croft Residents Association

Index


And the views of Friends of the Cam*

*Friends of the River Cam was initiated by Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Cambs and Peterborough, Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, Cambridge Friends of the Earth, Cambridge Schools Eco-Council and Cambridge Labour Party Environment Forum.

Tony Booth started this petition – Save the Cam – on behalf of the Friends of the River Cam, are asking individuals and organisations to put pressure on local government, water companies and the Environment Agency in the Cambridge area to Save the River Cam and its tributaries by signing up to support the Cam River Charter.

Friends of the Cam letter to Cam Valley Forum

The Friends of the Cam have given consideration to the CVF proposal to apply for bathing quality status for the Cam at Sheep’s Green.

While we are eager to explore ways of restoring the health of the river, we are deeply concerned that choosing one small point on the river could, paradoxically, do more harm than good.

DEFRA requires that a bathing area on the river should provide adequate parking, toilet facilities, a cafe and lifeguards

These facilities are currently either inadequate or would need to be provided, and this would have a hugely detrimental effect on this delicate nature reserve.
Cambridge has doubled in size since Sheep’s Green was last a popular swimming location. 50 years ago locals would have travelled there by bike or walked. Today, however, official designation would draw people in from a much larger city, and from a further afield too, bringing traffic and related air pollution.

Sheep’s Green would become a huge draw, attracting far larger crowds than at any time in the past, to what is an environmentally sensitive water meadow, grazed by cows which, as Kim Wilkie pointed out in his talk to Friends of the Cam, have been a critical part of this finely balanced ecosystem for centuries. The cows kick up ground which allows wildflowers to seed, prevent larger plants from establishing and fertilise the soil. This ecology is also described here, in the Eastern Daily Press.

It is extremely likely that authorities would decide that the cows should be removed.

It is also a sad reality that large crowds would leave litter, which is harmful to the cows and wildlife. Last year a young heffer died after swallowing a plastic bag in the river

We urge CVF to explore alternative ways to improve water quality in the Cam and alternative sites for swimming. River campaigners in Oxford are demanding that a whole stretch of the Thames have bathing quality status

We would urge CVF to explore a similar approach in Cambridge.

Friends of the Cam

Index


And the views of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations

Dear Cam Valley Forum,

Cam Valley Swimming Proposal

Lots of residents have contacted Federation of FeCRA committee members about the Forum’s application to make the area adjacent to the Canoe Club into a Designated Bathing Area. We are hearing citywide concern that this will endanger unique medieval green spaces, described by the landscape architect Tom Turner as equivalent to the best art in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

If the intention is to put pressure on Anglian Water residents wonder why Cam Valley Forum isn’t asking for a much bigger stretch of the river to be clean. Anglian Water’s track record on pollution is bad and yet despite that it is receiving substantial government funding from Homes England to relocate the sewage works.

This Ends Report article states that the Environment Agency will no longer be monitoring pollution incidents. Residents ask if this is why the Environment Agency are keen to support small designated clean bathing areas in rivers.  

We have previously flagged concerns [To the Cambridge City Council Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee. Click to read/download the PDF.] about what appears to be a well orchestrated lobby against cows grazing on the commons. There are concerns that a bathing place at Sheeps Green could lead to the loss of the cows which are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem there. This was raised again in our question to the Scrutiny Committee about the council’s support for plastic cows on the commons but not the real cows. 

Cambridge commons losing their cows and, with that, their status as commons goes completely against all that the landscape architect Kim Wilkie said at the recent Friends of the Cam talk about a river landscape strategy and the role of grazed meadows in flood management.

Other concerns people have shared with us include the impact on biodiversity and on much loved city nature reserves and the big impact on local wildlife and nature large numbers of bathers, picknickers and sunbathers on the edge of Paradise Nature Reserve is likely to have. 

Safety is another issue that has been raised. The punting route to Grantchester Meadows is very popular and the proximity of the very popular canoe club with a membership of 500, drawn from a wide catchment, makes this unsuitable for a designated swimming area. Wild swimming is also very popular and people are likely to come from miles. The car park is already full in the summer months, more people driving over for a swim would soon cause overflow.

Has there been any health and safety assessment about the likely number of users and congestion on the river ? Any traffic impact assessment ? 

The recent report commissioned by the City Council and Cambridge Water included no impact assessment of river areas and/or river green spaces at risk or threatened by development.

Residents are asking if this bathing initiative relates to Natural Cambridgeshire’s plans for a Cam River Park corridor, the proposals  for Accelerator Parks and the Wider Cambridge Visitors Project.

The lack of changing cabins and public toilets will require infrastructure which would not be acceptable to people in a protected green space. People have highlighted that Cambridge’s famously rus in urbe style of cows on the meadows is admired all over the world. This New York Times article was widely syndicated.

Allan Brigham, Cambridge’s champion of the commons, wrote :

“Whichever way you approach Cambridge, you see grass, trees and lots of sky. The college gardens, parks and commons bring nature right into the town. Cows graze on Midsummer Common just five minutes’ walk from Marks & Spencer – and in the summer office workers and students eat their lunch beneath the willows trees that line the river at Coe Fen. At weekends Jesus Green becomes a giant playing field with games of every kind – from skateboarding to lacrosse. These spaces are vital to people’s wellbeing,” 

“It’s easy to take Cambridge’s open spaces for granted. But … the protection of these spaces is, to my mind, just as important as the preservation of Cambridge’s iconic buildings.”

For all these reasons the FeCRA committee cannot support this application. As we have said before, it would be great if Cam Valley Forum can work with FeCRA and Friends of the River Cam so that together we can urge the City Council to use its powers and that of the Environment Agency to be much more ambitious, ensure that the green spaces of the Cam are protected, that water quality along the whole river is improved and that the river is safe for all users. 

Best wishes,
Wendy Blythe, Chair
For the FeCRA Committee

Index

Further links and resources

Let it Flow!
Proposals from the Cam Valley Forum for an Integrated Water Resource Management Plan for the Cam Valley
(PDF)

CAM VALLEY MATTERS No. 64 22 February 2021 The Occasional Newsletter of the Cam Valley Forum (PDF)

Index


What are your views on this tentative proposal? You may send any comments to Cam Valley Forum at info@camvalleyforum.uk. If you would like to have a meeting to discuss the proposals, please mention this in your email. You may also leave (polite) comments on this website, below.

guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments (Don't forget to scroll down to subscribe to website updates.)
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments