This is part 2 of my description of an exploration of the River Chess in Buckinghamshire, from its confluence with the River Colne at Rickmansworth to its head waters in Chesham in the Chiltern Hills. The first part explored the river as far as Latimer, up to which point it is a continuous medium-sized chalk stream, interrupted by a number of small weirs. However, upstream from the road bridge below the village of Latimer, the Chess has been altered dramatically by dams to create lakes to benefit the landscape and also fishing, and further upstream by channelling, culverts and by urban problems and neglect. That being said, the stretch of the Chess Valley around Latimer Park is the loveliest part of the entire river.
The river was dammed in the 18th century as part of a landscaping project by Capability Brown, and also to create trout fishing lakes: the Latimer Park Trout Fishery remains active today. The first dam (shown in the photo) is at the Latimer road bridge causing it to widen into a narrow lake for 500 metres. A small stream can be seen joining the river at the weir which is part of the River Chess, but it bypasses the lakes and weirs, enabling fish to swim up and downstream. Behind the dams, the river broadens to about 10 metres in width and is much deeper than downstream with a slow flow, enabling silt and detritus to collect on the bottom and giving it a character quite different from a typical chalk stream.
I strike up conversation with a couple who were curious about my photographing the river bed. They live nearby, he plays golf and they walk along the river quite regularly. He asked why they don’t dredge the river to make it flow better and get rid of the over-abundance of reeds, in response to which I explained about nutrient levels in the water and the value of riverfly and other invertebrates in the stream bed. I also mentioned the over-extraction of water by Affinity for domestic and business use, and he thought this was very poor and said that they should get their water from elsewhere. When I explained that domestic use per head in the Chiltern area was one of the highest in all Europe, he expressed surprise, but his wife challenged him to waste less water himself.
The paucity of knowledge among educated people about their local river and about the water that they rely upon is disappointing but, perhaps, not surprising. Affinity Water Ltd. have put resources into educating the public over the years, but a great deal more is needed apparently, which might come from government and voluntary bodies as well.
Above the dam, the little lake (photo at the top of this post) looks serene in the winter sun, with mallard ducks and few moorhens dabbling and squabbling on its surface.
I soon reach the bridge that carries the lane to Latimer House from which you can see the much larger dam that creates a second, longer, lake known prosaically enough as “Great Water”.
I take the lane up the hill and branch off on the footpath that runs along the top of a field, immediately below the grounds of Latimer House. This elevated route offers great views up the Chess Valley over the grassy meadows and the lake to the wooded hills beyond. There are geese, swans and ducks on the water along with two boats containing anglers.
After a kilometre, the path descends steeply to where the river winds through damp meadows dotted with trees: the spot feels quite remote, although the sprawl of Amersham and the Metropolitan railway line lie only a few hundred metres away up the hill.
At this point, the River Chess looks more the way that a chalk stream should, although it is rather shallower than it might be. Water is no longer abstracted from the upper Chess but, like all the Chiltern chalk streams, the way that water moves within the chalk aquifer is very complex and the reasons for lack of water in the streams are seldom readily understood.
The path crosses Blackwell Farm after which the scene begins to change dramatically as Chesham approaches. The river is now channelled between built-up banks and the large Chesham sewage treatment works can be seen rising up on the south side, imposing a rather nasty niff on the air. This works was upgraded following disastrous pollution in 2013 which resulted from a period of severe neglect across the entire upper Thames and Chilterns area by Thames Water Utilities Ltd. who were fined £20 million. These days the effluent which leaves the plant enters the river a shot way down stream and is pretty clean and well monitored for pollutants; however it is essential that the local community keeps being vigilant for pollution.
A culvert takes the river under Latimer Road, after which it follows a channel beside a road. The water is still clear and the stream bed looks fairly clean with water plants trailing in the current, but it is prone to a lot of run-off from the Chesham roads and buildings a mile upstream.
On the final leg to Chesham, the river is bracketed by housing developments set back from either bank, and the river and its valley have been channelled, altered, exploited and manipulated over the decades and centuries. However, these days it looks neglected. The footpath follows the stream faithfully through scrubby woods cloaked in ivy and rank vegetation, with fallen trees and thickets of bramble.
There are defunct weirs, ponds and walls, and an entire industrial site surrounded by 3 metre-high wire fences but seemingly devoid of activity. Alarmingly, there are pallets of agricultural materials, including weed killer, left in the open that are beginning to split and spill their contents on the ground.
The obvious danger is that these will be washed into the river whenever it rains, so on my return I reported the situation to the Environment Agency. Once upon a time there were watercress beds at this point on the River Chess and there are signs that the area was once more park-like, but not today: it is a mess.
The stream then flows through more neglected woodland, where it runs clear with an often pebbly bed before the houses close in, and it forms the foot of peoples’ gardens at Waterside. From here it is an urban stream that has been dammed at various points to retain the water and create small ponds, separated mostly by culverts. There are even reed beds in and around the Chess Valley Recreation Area where mallards dabble happily.
The water is very low in the stream bed as I cross over the A416 roundabout and enter the Meades Water Gardens. Again, the area looks very neglected and there is almost no water to be seen among the rampant vegetation. A water mill and watercress beds have stood here, then the area was dredged to form a lake in the late 20th century. However this work did not take account of the large amount of silt that flows into it, principally carried by the Vale Brook, particularly after heavy rain. This is mostly run-off from roads and buildings so is polluted with whatever the water picks up.
It is a rather sad end to my walk up this Chiltern chalk stream, but Chesham Town Council and the River Chess Association and others have put money and effort into improving matters. However restoring a clear-running chalk stream that is a delight to the eye will be an expensive and complex process that will need the involvement of a wider public who care enough to see it through.
Like all of the Chiltern chalk streams, the River Chess runs through a highly developed and urbanised countryside with towns crowding in, and growing on all sides. The good news is that there is a will among the residents to restore and protect them. If water companies, councils, housing developers and farmers follow the rules and are careful in what they plan and develop, the Chess Valley will be a beauty spot to enjoy and be proud of, centred around a healthy chalk stream. However, the pressures are great and money is always short, so the local community has to care enough to take an interest, to help with restoration projects and let the authorities know that it matters to them.