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In your field: Tom Clarke - 'It’s hard to imagine any claim for the public good from straightening a river'

For farmers it’s a novelty to have your hometown in the news. Even rarer to see bits of your farm in the papers.

With the announcement that next year’s University Boat Race will be held on the Great Ouse at Ely, I find myself proud and excited.

 

Next year the crews of blues will be vying for victory within sight of some of our fields. The only other time the race has been run here was in 1944, during World War II; a slightly worrying precedent.

 

I’ve been chuckling at the vivid descriptions of our stretch of the river: in the Daily Telegraph, former Olympic rower James Cracknell recollects training here as ‘brutal’, with the course being ‘bleak, barren and incredibly windy’.

 

It’s true there are very few trees, and likely to be even fewer crowds.

 

We’re hosting because Cambridge University has traditionally trained on this particularly straight section of river.

 

Why is the river so straight? Because it’s not a river. Well, not in the natural sense. The clue is in the name – Ouse. The course of the slick and slow-moving Great Ouse through the flat fenland delta has shifted continuously throughout history.

 

At one time it literally ran through my farmyard, which was built upon the resulting bank of silt.


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But, in 1827, under a special Act of Parliament, the South Level Commissioners decided to take out that huge meander and cut a new, straight, 4.5-mile channel. It took them three years, mainly using manual labour, and cost £70,000 (about £5 million today).

 

The straighter river meant better drainage for the Fens and an improved navigation. In the words of the time, the cut ‘increased the velocity and scouring power’ of the river.

 

That sounds impressive until you realise the same could be said of giving a zimmer frame to an arthritic goat. Still, it did the job; 4,000 low-lying fenland farms have stayed dry and productive, and the river and Ely have thrived.

 

Until 1959, the old Ely sugar beet factory, where the starting gun will be fired, was supplied by a fleet of seven tugs and more than 100 barges brimming with freshly-harvested beet from farms far and wide (see photo).

 

As the furore over the vandalism of the River Lugg in Herefordshire attests, today it’s hard to imagine any claim for the public good from straightening a river, let alone moving it to a more convenient place.

 

This shows the importance of judging everything in its own context. As we approach a new year, we farmers face yet another change of course.

 

Whether the unseen waters which lie ahead prove turbulent or stately, I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2021.

Final column

This is Tom Clarke’s final In Your Field article and, from February, he will be a regular contributor to Farming Matters on our back page.

 

Our new In Your Field writer in January will be James Lacey, a Lincolnshire potato, cereal and flower grower.

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