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Ouse Valley Catchment Project with Matthew Bird
Matthew spoke at the Lewes Greens AGM, to an audience in the hall and online, about the communities vulnerable to flooding along the Ouse and the creation of an illustrated ‘fly by’ from the coast to Lewes showing the extent of potential flooding which became the inspiration of projects that have developed since.
The desire has been to come up with practical ways to do something to address the many problems that have been identified. It has taken several years to bring many disparate groups together. Eventually ten key partners came together including the South Downs National Park, Greenhaven, Ovesco, Transition Lewes, Sussex Community and Sussex Wildlife Trust along with 60 or more organisations.
In the first instance £150,000 of development money was secured to run a year of events which engaged with 110 groups from Barcombe to Newhaven, Peacehaven to Seaford.
More recently £2.5m has been awarded, one of only 16 projects in the country to be selected, which will seek to develop climate resilience, and knowledge of nature and skills, nature based responses to flooding by creating leaky dams and scrapes to hold water.
There are also a number of specific projects such as: the Cockshut alignment scheme, community scheme on the Neville, the zero carbon Barcombe scheme and climate hubs – a charter of ‘rights of the river’; working with the Ouse and Adur River Trust and Love Our Ouse to promote a passion for our rivers and One Planet Living – a framework for measuring sustainability.
The Winterbourne from source to the Ouse, Lewes, East Sussex
The Winterbourne is a fascinating seasonal stream cum ditch, often in a culvert which runs through Lewes from a little East of the town out along the A27 Brighton Road to West, entering the River Ouse next to the Linklater Pavilion. Its history and geography were explained in an illustrated talk by Marcus Taylor, who has lived in Lewes since the late 1960s, taught Geography for 35 years and was a trustee of Friends of Lewes for a decade.
The word ‘Winterbourne’, we learn, describes what is, for much of the year. A dry channel most of the year. It is a stream or brook that is literally ‘born again’ in the winter once the water table has risen high enough – though it failed for two years in the late 1980s and some years will be late to run, and early to run dry. Living close by for the last 15 years I can record that the Winterbourne has run, even flooded occasionally, though never earlier than December and then sometimes lasting in flow through to early May before drying out completely for the rest of spring, summer and autumn.
The source of the Winterbourne is somewhere west of the Newmarket Inn. The spring is illusive – it is somewhere in a ditch between the A27 and the railway in the lowest lying land that drops down from the Downs north and south. It is only obvious when the water table is high.
Anyone travelling regularly on the A27 will be familiar with flooding between the Ashcombe Roundabout and Newmarket Inn, for short spells these days after intense rainfall (early September 2022) or every five or so years in December after a longer period of rain when the water table has been saturated.
In the 1960s water flooded the Brighton Road and was photographed flooding off the Downs in a torrent.
From an inauspicious start in a hard-to-find spring, followed by a short section of ditch, the Winterbourne, in short order, somewhere around Ashcombe Hollow, is channelled under the A27 dual-carriageway, the roundabout and Bright to Lewes rail line, only to reappear intermittently (if at all) as a stream or ditch between the Brighton Road into Lewes and Hamsey Riding Stables. It finally emerges from a large drainage pipe or tunnel next to Houndean Allotments.
The banks of the Winterbourne are dark and damp enough to favour ferns. On the right the oh too close A27 dual-carriageway thunders by; at one spot (there must be others unless everything is funneled in through this one spot) the A27 run-off drains into the Winterbourne.
On the opposite side are Houndean Allotments. This year there was some water flow along the higher reaches of the Winterbourne from 17th October.
Onwards under a canopy of leaves in summer you might spot the four strange sculptures before you get to a patch of lawn and Lewes Pigeon fanciers.
Once again, the Winterbourne is channelled under the Brighton to Eastbourne rail line, only to emerge close to the detached houses along Glebe Close, running in a ditch by the road opposite the WInterbourne Stores and over the back garden fences of houses along Winterbourne Close.
The Winterbourne then runs along Winterbourne Lane, close to the road and verges on its northern bank and abuts to the rear gardens of Winterbourn Close to the south. At the foot of Delaware Road there is a measurement station.
The Winterbourne then runs under Bell Lane and along Winterbourne Mews.
Sadly there is an issue with garden and household waste being dumped over the back of garden fences here and fly tipping from the lane.
This is another stretch of road often prone to flooding with rainwater quickly pooling in the south-westerly corner of Bell Lane Park exactly where there is a pedestrian crossing.
The Winterbourne is culverted on two sides by concrete and walls behind the stone or flint walls of the Cemetery on one side and Bell Lane on the other.
Historically Bell Lane has flooded, turning it into an impromptu lake on one occasion in the late 1960s. There were floods the length of the Winterbourne through to St Pancras Stores and beyond in October 2000, and before that in 1915 and 1911.
There is another measuring station where the Winterbourne leaves Bell Lane Park where these ia an impressively old pollarded willow bricked into a garden wall.
As it passes through the south of the town the Winterbourne is either culverted or covered. Grills at various places where the Winterbourne enters a tunnel collect flotsam and jetsam and are from time to time cleared by the Environment Agency.
The Winterbourne is culverted for the last stretch of Bell Lane, going under the houses at St. Pancras, emerging for a short section by St Pancras Stores, then disappearing under St Pancras Road. This is site of some historic photographs of flooding at the beginning of the 20th century.
It then passes under The Course, under Southover and Western Roads Schools and sports fields only to re-emerge in Southover Gardens where it is a feature of Grange Gardens.
It then passes out of sight once more …
… passing under Gardens Street, the houses of Tanners Brook and the old Market, then under the Railway Station and lines to London/Eastbourne only to re-emerge just north of the rail line to Eastbourne, in an area that once included a manor house and formal gardens, the line to Uckfield with numerous sidings – it is now collectively the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Nature Reserve, which includes the former gardens and pond of Leighside House.
The Reserve consists of five distinct sections: a wet wood (former Leighhouse Gardens), the Heart of Reeds, the developing meadow created where the railway sidings were most densely packed, the former allotments, the river bank and the water meadow.
The Winterbourne passes through the former gardens of Leighside House with its restored pond and viewing platform to the north by the entrance from Court Road and then winds its way towards the River Ouse which it enters via a sluice just to the south east of the Linklater Pavilion.
In March each year grey mullet can sometimes be seen in. a large shole by the spot where the Winterbourne joins the River Ouse.
And so, for now, ends my story of the Winterbourne, which can only be followed by adding stories of these who lived beside it: those keeping horses in the fields alongside the A27, people who have an allotment in Houndean, the pigeon fanciers and sculptor, the dog walkers and runners, those with gardens abutting the Winterbourne, use Bell Lane (recreation ground), living on Rotten Row, St Pancras and the Grange, along to Southover Gardens – its house, cafe, Sussex Arts & Crafts gallery and annual skittles show, to the station and beyond to the stream’s terminus in the Railway Land Nature Reserve with its hub, the history of the old railway sidings and Leighside House and gardens, the Linklater Pavilion and the constant activity it attracts.
You Can’t Cuddle a Fish
Peter King of the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust is an enthusiast for rivers and their landscape, the Adur and Ouse in Sussex in particular. At the River Summit held in the Pavilion as part of the River Festival hosted by the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Trust and Love Our Ouse. He gave a fascinating talk on the work that is required, the work that has been done and the work that needs to be undertaken to improve the Ouse , to help return some of it to the way it was naturally, centuries ago – before people came along to exploit it, tame it and pollute it.
“You can’t cuddle a fish”
“You can’t cuddle a fish”, he said, apologising that trout and eels may not have the appeal of otters or behaviours, but their health is a good indicator of a healthy river system.
We have made a mess of our rivers across the British Isles over the centuries and the Ouse is no exception.
- 85% of all UK rivers are failing to achieve a ‘Good Ecological Status’.
- Only 19% of water bodies are good for fish …
Human pressures: exploitation, containment, extraction and discharges have all caused problems. There has been an impact on the landscape and ecosystems affecting, resulting in damaging invasive species and the ability of native species to survive.
Peter made a compelling case for our doing far more to address the problems and improve the condition of our rivers.
Regarding the single issue of discharges, he persuaded us that whilst Southern Water has 123 discharge points, and is clearly responsible for sewage discharge, that there are over 1,200 discharge points in the River Ouse catchment, and that as well as legal trade waste there are too many illegal discharges and therefore an urgent need to review permits.
“Put the wiggles back”
Having gone through the science, indicated the level of detail of surveys, worried us about multiple historic and ongoing problems, Peter also proposed fixes, showed how much has been done, how much more there is to do and tried to end on a positive note. That we can ‘put the wiggles back’, mitigate against flooding, improve habits and ecosystems, work with farmers and other businesses and landowners.
Lots can be done, he explained, and illustrated some of the initiatives taken from the grandest engineering works to put meanders and pools back where straightening and canalising has occurred and removing locks where the river had been contained to form a lake for shooting ducks, to smaller, more modest improvements like adding logs and gravel to slow the flow, or putting in groynes and branches where sediments can collect. A visit to the higher reaches of the River Ouse downstream from the Ouse Valley Viaduct showed where this kind of work had been undertaken.
We can all do our bit too. “The first flush of rain creates 80% of the pollution” – we can slow this run off with rain plainters, or with more space, a rain garden.
Peter concluded on an upbeat note convincing us that it is not all bad news, there are plenty of stunning bits of the Ouse to enjoy.
He invited us to volunteer with the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust; tasks include: tree planting and river clean ups, river maintenance, monitoring and much more.
We realised there were gaps in the information available for certain Natural Flood Management techniques and measures. With the help of our partners we have produced a range of nationally available, printed and online materials which will help others to deliver NFM with more confidence.
These include :-
Focusing on Flow in Sussex – A Woodland Trust case study and related reading.
Sussex Wildlife Trust > ‘How you can help with flood management’
Rewilding Britain on How Rewilding Reduces Flood Risk
Rain Garden Planters from East of Eden
Stormwater or ‘SuDS’ Planter