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London's forgotten river and the barrister who saved it

When Paul Powlesland moored his boat on the Roding in 2017, the river was choked with slime and garbage. Now the community that sprung up around is keeping its waters clear - and Powlesland is turning to the next challenge: securing rivers their human rights. Jon Moses reports. 

November 18 2022, 12.08pm
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The Roding is London’s largest forgotten river. From its source at the perimeter of Stansted Airport, it fidgets its way south through the Essex countryside, reaching London’s outer limits just shy of Epping Forest. Here, it endures every modern indignity: scythed by motorways and concrete bridges; choked with sewage and rubbish; canalised, fly-tipped, retail-parked, thickened with the polluted slime of London clay. It is a forbidding place to call home. 

Yet on a cold winter day in 2017, that is exactly what Paul Powlesland - a boat-dwelling barrister with a penchant for trees, rivers and psychedelic cat leggings - set out to do. An ongoing dispute with the Canal and Rivers Trust (who manage 2000 miles of Britain’s waterways) left Paul looking for a fresh place to moor his narrowboat, and a dream to make the mooring matter. “I wanted to be able to have an impact on the area I’m living in” he tells me by phone call, the Roding’s huge reeds visible over his shoulder, “rather than having to ask permission all the time to do something good.” His vision was a boating community with a difference. Rather than pay dues to a landlord, marina or regulatory body, it would pay them directly toward the transformation of the river itself. 

Though some, like the Thames and the Lea, are well known, many of London’s rivers pass through the city unnoticed. As the city expanded rivers like the Fleet, Tyburn and Walbrook, were buried beneath the streets, either transformed into sewers or diverted by culverts into haunting subterranean passages. For a brief moment after the Great Fire in 1666 the notion of their restoration became fashionable, with Christopher Wren theorising a Venetian-style city criss-crossed by rivers, canals and bridges. But the idea was abandoned. Depending on what you count, up to twenty one of London's rivers have since been submerged beneath the tarmac.

Yet others, like the Roding, were hidden in plain sight, lost only to neglect. “There were a few options but the Roding was the best. It’s the third largest river in London but no one was really in charge of it.” The Thames and Lea had both seen a boom of liveaboard boaters as the city’s housing crisis deepened. But no-one had lived on the Roding in living memory – at least not above the creek which forms at its lowest reaches. To access the river, Paul would have to navigate the wide, tidal waters of the Thames: no mean feat in a 45ft narrowboat designed for the placid canal system. It was not a journey for the faint-hearted. “You don’t realise how big it is out there until you’re on it. You feel like a tiny little dot with these big clippers racing by. I was completely unprepared. My engine was not in a good state. The propeller nearly fell off during the journey. I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Five years later, the River Roding Trust, established by Paul and fellow boaters in 2019, is a celebrated charity feted with multiple awards and a litany of impressive achievements. The Trust has planted hundreds of trees, removed over a thousand bags of rubbish and hoisted precisely 75 shopping trolleys from the Roding’s clay-thick riverbed. Boxes for the river’s many avian species line its footpath, which has been extended a further two miles to Ilford (the former footpath stopped ignominiously at a railway bridge). Nesting rafts for wading birds festoon the channel, draped like bunting along the watercourse. 

When Paul arrived, shaken from a dramatic journey which had at one point seen him temporarily stranded in the middle of the Thames, such an outcome was hard to imagine. “The first months here were some of the hardest in my life,” he recollects. “There were no mooring facilities, no communal areas. It was very hard to get off and on the boat. The river itself was much more full of rubbish and dirty and dangerous. There was a lot of hostility from local kids. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a community around me.”

Bit by bit, things improved. The first local resident to introduce herself was Elaine, who lived in a tower block opposite the river. Her granddaughter had been astonished to see a narrowboat out of the window and wondered if it was pirates – perhaps a ghost of the viking raiders who once sailed down the Roding to sack Barking’s ancient abbey. Elaine promised to go and check. Paul and Elaine quickly became friends. She had the local connections Paul lacked and set about becoming the unofficial godmother of the project: warning off the local lads who threw rocks at Paul’s boat and introducing him to the neighbourhood. “She’s our oldest friend. We get stuff delivered to her house, she makes us nice food. She’s our local, land-dwelling patron!”

Despite the near-constant roar of the North Circular, the site is almost idyllic. The boaters live nestled among the reeds, supported by jetties pinioned into the riverbed.  Decades of neglect have imbued the Roding with a striking wildness at odds with its industrial setting. Strange lagoons wend their way between fly-tips and shanty encampments; host to herons, kingfishers and long-tailed tits. A community of sand martins return each year, making the most of the pockmarked concrete of the river wall to host their minute nests. For all the pollution and rubbish that cloud its waters and its banks, the river can still be beautiful.

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The Roding was once a river of eminence. Its name derives from Hroða, the Anglo-Saxon chieftain who sailed from the Thames to settle the riverside in the 6th century. In AD 666, Barking Abbey was founded next to the riverbank – becoming one of the most significant religious and political centres in Britain until its dissolution under Henry VIII. Over the following centuries, the river sustained one of the largest fishing fleets in the country.

But as the industrial revolution took hold, the river’s advantageous proximity to the Thames became its undoing. Newspapers from the late 19th century start to describe a river in ‘filthy condition’, beleaguered by effluent and chemical refuse. The fish died. Its waters, once admixed with the sacred, became a dumping ground; a place for profit to be accounted at nature’s expense.

Barking’s industry came – and then mostly went. But the attitude it afflicted on the river has persisted. It had become a forgotten back region, barely accessible by foot and mostly ignored by the bodies tasked to care for it. Even in the 19th century medical officers had regularly patrolled the river’s banks to survey, if only to denounce what they discovered. In the 21st, few authorities - from Thames Water to the Environmental Agency - even bother with that. The result, as the Essex Wildlife Trust noted, is that the Roding River Valley ‘virtually disappeared from public consciousness.’ 

Then came Paul, more boaters, and with them: the Trust. “The river needs someone to be its voice, its eyes and ears. We can say ‘we plant this many trees’ but it goes wider than that, you need a group on the ground looking out for the river and its interests in all the different forms that might take.’ 

An incident in 2021 brought this need sharply into focus. While out litter-picking on a tributary of the Roding called the Aldersbrook, volunteers from the Trust noticed a grim smell. As Paul reported at the time, “I traced the source of this to an outflow, which was clearly spewing raw sewage (visible poo, toilet paper, condoms and all) into the brook and from there directly into the Roding. From estimating the rate of flow, it would appear to be spilling potentially hundreds of thousands of litres of raw sewage into the Roding every day and appears to have been doing so for some time. This is the worst pollution event that I have ever seen.”

The Trust reported the spill. And though Thames Water came to investigate they have so far not resolved the issue. The Trust has kept up the pressure on the company, who are finally exploring various engineering solutions to prevent further discharges taking place. Unlike legal CSO discharges - which are sometimes permitted by the Environment Agency, to prevent sewage backing into people’s homes when the network is overwhelmed by heavy rainfall - what was happening at the Aldersbrook was completely illegal. “We’re unfortunately now used to non-permitted CSO discharges. But this went well beyond that. The Aldersbrook system is only supposed to deal with surface water and is not part of the sewerage system at all. It was never designed to carry human waste. The Trust is now threatening to prosecute Thames Water for failing to maintain inspection of the site (which spills every time the sewage system is blocked) until a more permanent solution can be implemented.

For Paul, it illustrates the need for a network of guardians who regularly explore their rivers and stand up for its interests: “If someone damages the river, who is speaking for it? Most regulators have completely given up. It’s shocking that it falls to a bunch of amateurs. But a bunch of amateurs is better than no one, and you can have a really big impact.”

The difficulties of managing a community while also rehabilitating an ailing river can, at times, be overwhelming. “The demands of it are going up all the time. There’s so much that needs doing. There could be, and should be, a team of dozens working to uphold the interests of the river.” The fact there isn’t stems, for Paul, from a deeper problem. Despite underpinning the viability of life itself, nature’s contributions are absent from most economic modelling. And unlike corporations, nature has no legal standing: a river can neither sue its polluters, nor charge for the many services it provides. This has allowed it to become a “free” externality: something neither capitalism or the state has to account for, or take seriously. 

“It’s effectively stealing from nature”, Paul says. “Thames Water don’t have to pay when they do an overspill into the river. The Highways authorities don’t have to pay when they discharge stormwater into the river. They don’t pay when they extract from the river.” If the full actual cost of what companies like Thames Water take from, and put back into, the Roding were actually accounted for, Paul believes “we could easily pay for dozens of people to look after the river.”

While the idea of a river being paid for its services might seem radical, it is gaining ground. Natural capital - the idea that nature provides intrinsic economic value, either through services it provides (e.g. the pollination of crops by bees) or the preservation of life (e.g. through the carbon dioxide it absorbs) is slowly becoming more normalised in policy circles. Beyond that, the concept of the rights of nature - that a river or forest ought to be treated as an entity with its own legal standing and defensible rights, regardless of economic interests - has found legislative acceptance in several countries across Latin America, as well as New Zealand. Another charity co-founded by Paul and the legal academic Brontie Ansell, called Lawyers for Nature, is pushing for such ideas to gain a hearing in the UK too.

In the meantime, simpler options are available. Paul suggests that the fines derived from enforcing existing environmental protection should go directly into the protection of rivers themselves, rather than to the treasury (as they currently do). These, he believes, could fund enforcement teams tasked with patrolling the river catchment and actually prosecuting the laws which already exist but which mostly go unenforced, creating a virtuous circle of self-funded guardianship. 

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Britain is a country of river lovers, with 88% agreeing they should be considered a ‘national treasure’. Public outcry after the government voted down an amendment to the environment bill last October, which would have penalised water companies who pumped waste into rivers spanned the political spectrum: with rebellions erupting even within the Conservative Party’s own ranks. Yet only 14% of England’s rivers are in “good ecological status”. A tiny, 3% of them are publicly accessible. The disconnect between our passion for rivers and our ability to care for them is vast. 

Paul too has come to know the Roding so intimately he can tell whether it has rained in Essex or in London just from the colour and texture of the water. “I initially chose the Roding out of practicality but I have come to genuinely love the river. It has become a deeper, more spiritual quest.” And the Trust’s clear-up operation has surfaced evidence that the river’s sacred status was, even today, still being secretly upheld, with religious votives appearing amid the piles of garbage.

Developing such connections on a broader scale will still mean challenging norms of ownership and access, and replacing them with the moral right of guardianship. “A lot of the work we’ve done on the Roding has been trespassing but ultimately it’s quite hard to challenge what you’re doing if what you’re doing is good. We need to be able to get into these cordoned off, hidden corners of our rivers because that’s often where the greatest damage is.”

Visiting the Roding offers a small glimpse of what the river, restored to its historic primacy, could again become. Its waters, reprieved of runoff from farm, sewer and road run clear, permitting gravelly shoals to be glimpsed beneath the surface. The vast reedbeds are harbouring nests for birds, some even roosting in the fenders of the narrowboats themselves. The trees, natural and freshly planted alike, bloom into life. Plans are afoot for a new riverside park, ‘The Edgelands’ turning this forgotten landscape into something loved and protected. “Even in a heavily urbanised and poor area of one of the biggest cities in the world this river could be a small slice of paradise” notes Paul wistfully. “It almost is, almost! And it could be again. That keeps you going forward.”