Book review: Taming the Flood

John Gummer applauds an updated edition of this environmental classic, which is both a lyrical natural history and a campaigning tract.

Taming the Flood by Jeremy Purseglove (William Collins, £25 *£20)

From the long, culverted Fleet in London to the ancient loops of the Severn at Shrewsbury, the rivers of England hold so much of our history and continue to enthral us today. The wetlands, water meadows, marshes and fenlands play a central part in our nation’s history and literature.

There’s Hereward the Wake, secure in the East Anglian fens; King John’s jewels, lost in the Wash; Robert Stevenson building his rail-way across the terrible Chat Moss; Dickens’s unforgettable depiction of Cooling Marshes; and Kenneth Grahame’s iconic riverside scene populated by Mole and Ratty. It is impossible to think of England without thinking of its rivers.

If this book were just a history, telling the tale of inland water, it would be fascinating enough, but it’s so much more. Taming the Flood is both a love story and a campaigning tract, a natural history and a technical manual. It’s the product of deep knowledge, abiding fascination and genuine anger.

It was first written nearly 30 years ago, when the Environment Agency was being created and the water industry privatised. Now, with the original text fully preserved, Jeremy Purseglove has brought the story right up to date and annotated the historical chapters with the incisive comments that hindsight has made possible.

His original determination remains the driving force of this compelling book. Mr Purseglove’s mission was to show why rivers really matter to England and how our wetlands are a vital part of the natural scene. His descriptions are wonderfully accurate, his writing captivating and his enthusiasm catching. On any level, it’s a good read, but, as a call to action, it’s outstanding.

There’s nothing brash or vulgar about it, just the patient recounting of the wonders of our rivers and streams and the constant efforts of human beings to tame and civilise them, often to their detriment and our loss.

The gentleness with which he deals with the crude, profit-driven approaches of many water engineers and farmers and the damage they have wrought makes his case even more decisive. There’s no hectoring, but it is his love of the subject, his deep knowledge and poetic insight that wins us from the very first page.

The case is put simply: ‘River versus drain. This book is about that conflict of values.’ What are rivers for? In answering that question, the author immerses us in the history, geography and biology even the poetry and art of the river, its banks and its wetlands. We begin to understand the changing farming practices over 1,000 years and we sympathise with both sides: the old and the new, the conservationist and the progressive, the food producer and the environmentalist not just as they stand now, but in medieval times, in the days of the Dutch engineers, during the Agricultural Revolution and among the mighty Victorians.

The sweep of this narrative is remarkable, but it’s so easy to read. The anecdotes and the personalities, the plants and animals, the arguments and the very human predicaments carry readers along and it’s only afterwards that we realise just how much we’ve learned.

Taming the Flood provides an effective tutorial on what is really at risk. It entrances, educates and demands we act. The cry is simple: we must work with Nature, not against it. We must go with the flow of the water and the run of the rivers and protect and enhance the wetlands if we are to have any chance of winning our centuries old battle against flooding.

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