Written by Oonagh French, Water Guardians Project Officer

As I meander through urban streets of Chippenham trying to find where I had organised to meet Alex and Lily, I imagined the brook that we were about to walk along. I knew there was a park on its banks from the map but in this central urban location I hadn’t imagined much more than a well mowed grass bank rolling down to the stream with a few intervals of willows, reeds and possibly some plastic bottles for us to tut at! I knew that I had recruited some enthusiastic and diligent volunteers in Alex and Lily from our email exchanges but what I had not banked on was the little gem of a brook I was about to be shown.

Photo of the hardenhuish brookImage caption: A photo of the Hardenhuish Brook

The Hardenhuish Brook in the middle of residential area close to two secondary schools, took me by surprise. As Alex and Lily guided me along their well-worn route, which they monitor weekly, I took in this beautiful habitat. It was mostly wooded along the banks of the brook but with some unusual geology, that meant it had cut some dramatic high banks. You could walk along the bank gaining access easily to the water in some areas but a few metres downstream you would be high above the brook on a earthy root compacted bank, under some beautiful trees. It was incredible inviting for a paddle, even in March, so it didn’t surprise me when Alex and Lily told me they had advised children to stop playing in the water in this area……..Ah yes not as idyllic as I had painted it to be! This is why I had recruited the fabulous Lily and her dad Alex. Our rivers are in trouble!

There are three main river catchments across Wiltshire; the Hampshire Avon, Bristol Avon and Upper Thames. All are failing to meet good ecological status under the 2019 cycle of the Water Framework Directive for reasons including diffuse & point source pollution, fish barriers and physical modification. Rivers are good indicators of the health of our environment and right now they need serious attention, care and close monitoring.

Alex and Lily had got in touch last year looking for ways to volunteer to help improve their local environment. When they read about Wessex Water Guardians on the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust website, the flexible nature of this volunteering role and doing something that would benefit a habitat right on their door step, attracted them. 

Photo of Alex and LilyImage caption: A photo of Alex and Lily

This project is funded by Wessex Water and run by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Water Guardians like Alex and Lily across Wiltshire are our eyes and ears on the ground, looking out for signs of pollution that can come from various sources. They monitor river and streams, identify possible pollution incidents and report them. They also litter pick along the bank to prevent it entering the river and monitor wildlife along the river as they walk. Alex and Lily have collected many bags of rubbish and as I walked with them along the Hardenhuish Brook they were discussing the strategy for their next area to litter pick. Sadly it seemed to be a continuous job, once they have tackled all the areas along the bank that they monitor, they will be back to the start again, hopefully finding less and less litter over time. But their spirits are high and they are proud of the difference they are making. We discuss planning a wider community litter pick and raising awareness of the impact litter has on the brook. 

Alex and Lily have reported an area in the river they have been concerned is polluted, upstream from where the children had been playing in the river. Wessex Water had sent out a team to investigate and test the water in liaison with the Environment Agency, who are responsible for managing watercourses. Thankfully no contamination was found but they thanked Alex and Lily for reporting it and asked them to continue keeping a close eye and report anything they were concerned about. 

As we wander back to where we started, I tell them how impressed I am with this beautiful brook but agree that it needs more attention to ensure this habitat is there in the future to continue to support biodiversity, wider ecosystems and for residents to enjoy. I thank them for the time they put into the project as Water Guardians and for showing me their local river. I head home with a little buzz having been out in the fresh air all morning in this urban gem and having spent the morning with some lovely Chippenham residents who are actively working to enhance their local environment. Thank you Alex and Lily and to all our Water Guardians across Wiltshire for helping to protect our rivers!

If you would like to become a Wessex Water Guardian for your local river please get in touch.

Oonagh French – Water Guardians Project Officer with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

[email protected] 

More about the Wessex Water Guardians Project