It’s hard to overestimate the importance of rivers. They’re a source of life: providing a breeding ground for invertebrates, food and shelter for fish, birds and small mammals, and nourishment for trees and plants.
Rivers also flow through human history. Almost every village, town and city in the world has started life along a riverbank. Today, our rivers continue to provide us with drinking water, food, sanitation, power, transportation, leisure and more.
The River Holme and its tributaries, which start life in the moorland above Holmfirth, are no different. Precipitation falling within the surrounding area, eventually drains into the River Holme, or one of its many tributaries. There’s the River Ribble that joins the Holme at Holmfirth, New Mill Dike flows through New Mill before joining the Holme beyond Thongsbridge, while Meltham Dike becomes Hall Dike and Magbrook before merging with the Holme. There are many more contributory waterways, including Dean Dike, Black Sike Dike and the curiously-named Dog Dike and Mark Bottoms Dike.
These rivers are intricately linked with the history of the Holme Valley and Huddersfield. Villages and industries grew up along their banks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the River Holme fuelled the growth of the Holme Valley’s textile industry, powering mills and washing yarn. Even today, a handful of these mills and dyehouses remain active businesses. Further downstream the river flows through Lockwood, which, in Victorian days, was hailed as a Spa Town to rival Harrogate. An echo of this forgotten time lives on through the ancient Spa Wood, through which the River Holme runs.
A turning point
Decades of exploiting the river’s resources, and unintentional neglect have taken their toll on the River Holme. By the 21st century, invasive species, litter, plastic pollution and erosion were evident throughout the catchment. Meanwhile, buildings and infrastructure had straightened the river’s course and reduced access in places.
In 2015, we established the charity, River 2015, with the aim of restoring the health of the River Holme and improving access for all. Today, using the public name River Holme Connections and with the help of dedicated volunteers, our charity is passionate about making the River Holme a better to place for people and wildlife.
One of the founding trustees, Lynva Russell, explained: “Rivers connect people and communities and nature. They’re a place people seek out to rest and relax, and the mental and physical benefits of having access to outdoor green and blue spaces, is now well-documented.
“Through River Holme Connections we want to re-establish these links. That’s why we’re improving the river environment: making it accessible for more people to enjoy, while creating a biodiverse habitat for wildlife.”
Change is already happening. With funding from Cobbett Environmental Ltd, through the Landfill Communities Fund, we’ve regenerated the Duck Feeding Area at Crown Bottom, Holmfirth, created an all-weather, accessible path at Sands recreation ground, Holmfirth and improved the path at Bottoms Mill near Hinchcliffe Mill. Path improvement work has also taken place at Meltham Pleasure Grounds and Spa Wood.
Throughout the catchment, volunteers have helped to clear Himalayan balsam. We’ve trained other volunteers, giving them nationally-recognised qualifications that enable them to control Japanese knotweed. Together with our volunteers, we’re monitoring riverfly and fish populations and regularly hold work parties to remove litter and plastic waste.
Educating the next generation
Things are getting better, but we’re aware that the clock is ticking. The need to look after our rivers is more important than ever as the consequences of climate change begin to bite. Billions of tonnes of insects are disappearing from the planet every year, butterfly and bird populations are dwindling, while flooding and drought are becoming the norm for many communities across the world.
Improving the health of our rivers is one of the first steps we can take towards healing our planet. After all, healthy river environments are the foundation for healthy ecosystems. Yet, this is not something that can happen overnight. There must be a change of attitude among all generations if we are to create, and maintain, healthy waterways that encourage native wildlife to flourish.
Education is one of the cornerstones of our work, as Lynva explained: “Educating communities, and especially young people who spend significantly less time outdoors than their parents did in childhood, is vital. After all, if people lose touch with nature how can we expect them to value wildlife and natural spaces, and to fight for them in the future?
“Over the past year, we’ve given more than 1,000 young schoolchildren the opportunity to experience the river environment, and this is work that we intend to continue. Through education, we want to give young people a lifelong love of the outdoors and encourage them to become the future custodians of our rivers.”
In October, we hosted a two-day festival at the University of Huddersfield for communities and schoolchildren. Known as Our Holme and funded through the Cummins Foundation, the festival included a series of free talks by industry-leading experts in a variety of river-related fields.
The aim was to share the wonder of our rivers with our community. We know that we’re incredibly fortunate in this catchment to have a wealth of natural beauty on our doorstep. Yet there are still many people in our local communities who do not know that river walks are within easy reach of their home.
We can also be guilty of taking our amazing rivers and countryside for granted. After decades of taking from the natural environment, it’s time for us to give something back, which is why, at River Holme Connections, we’ll continue working to restore natural habitats while improving access, so that more people can appreciate the need to care for our natural resources, today and in the future.