Memories of the River Kennet

Some memories from Ron and Les Emberlin of West Overton……
All the young uns used to learn to swim in the six foot deep pools by the hatches of the water meadow and we’d all build dams to make them even deeper.
The stream was full of fish, Sticklebacks, crested newts, frogspawn and once even a 10lb trout! Kingfishers too were a familiar sight. You could tickle trout  fingers under the belly, moving them gradually up until fingers in the gills and whip them out onto the bank.
About nine years ago the Water Board cleared all the weed from Winterbourne to Marlborough. Herons took all the fish; it was like a silent spring, a dead river with no cover for wild life. Then the water dried up.
Three years ago I was astounded to see a four or five pound trout splashing by the Bell Inn at West Overton; trapped by the weed on either side of the bridge. It was the first I’d seen for decades.
The withy beds were managed to make hurdles and thatching sticks. You would poke another stick back in the ground to take root, by the time you had worked your way to the end, the new sticks had grown and were ready for cutting.
Once a canoe was built and it was being paddled down to West Overton when a barbed wire fence was found right across the river. There was nothing for it but to jump in the water and haul the canoe over.
Sometimes the river ran full and fast. Once a girl in a tin bath had to be rescued by Walter Southam as she was being swept away by the current.he was a local hero in the paper!
In 42 a poor woman who was depressed, was seen to stop on the bridge and put something down on the rail. She’d put her hat on the stone bridge and jumped in. She’s buried in the churchyard.
In the 50’s there was so much flooding that Ron had to ferry people by tractor to the bus stop on the Bath Road as the lane was under water’..61, 62, the deepest flooding was when the snow thawed and the water came right over the bridge. Only happened half a dozen times in my life. Harry Green walked through on stilts to get to the Bell.
Now so many wells and boreholes have been sunk. There’s one halfway between the river and the road near The Bell.
In the 50’s or 60’s the Clatford borehole was sunk and thousands of gallons of water began to be abstracted.
In the 70’s the river was rerouted to cut off the oxbow in the West Overton water meadow. There’s a borehole in Fyfield near the church, lots of old wells and a sumphole to collect rainwater’.

Ray Godwin told me about his work from 1955 to ’73 as a gardener at Lockeridge House.
Sir Christopher Peto managed the river from Clatford to the Bell at Overton. Sections of the stream would be attached with scythes to clear it for fishing. All the weed would be dragged out for 30 metre stretches and trout from the Hungerford Trout Farm would be put in in April. They never had to feed the fish; there was so much natural food like molluscs, leeches, insect larva and so on. There would be some wonderful fishing such as at Stanley Wood. You could catch trout up to four and a half pounds.
The water always dried up around July. The trout would be left in little pools. They’d be collected up and returned to Hungerford Trout Farm!
Below the petrol station always used to be a wonderful place for fishing. There’s a fork in the river where the old hatches used to be a small island, marvellous fishing there, very deep. Always had water from there to Marlborough. Only dried up once.

Always interesting to see the remains of old sluices, in the meadow behind the Downs and in the West Overton water meadow. There are pretty stone bridges behind Yardacre and the church at Fyfield, beautifully built with hand hewn sarsen stones, and in the withy bed at West Overton.
There was a field near Lockeridge House which was full of sarsens. They were all hauled out by machine and laid along the bank of the river.
There were lots of watervoles, Canada geese and swans. I asked if the river had always dried up. It’s said that the borehole at Cannings Hill was sunk or deepened in the 20’s and that the Kennet dried up after that.
In 1976 wells were sunk deeper than the usual 12 feet, they went down to about 25 feet that dry summer.
Warm winds pull the springs in February. The water clears and the flood waters give way to the fast-flowing crystal clear waters that chalk streams are famous for.

Action For The River Kennet asserts that:-
River flows and aquifers are near record low levels, yet the five Kennet catchment pumping stations have supplied the formal 18,500 cubic metres of water per day. The Kennet is not in good shape and the questions must be asked, what is being done to remedy this and what are the plans for the future?

Let us hope that something will be done to save our river and to maintain one of the beautiful features of our villages.