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Flotation of the Virgin flags up River Wye’s impurity

18 August 2022


The sculptor Philip Chatfield (right) and his friend Callum Bulmer with the statue of Our Lady of the Waters and the Wye

The sculptor Philip Chatfield (right) and his friend Callum Bulmer with the statue of Our Lady of the Waters and the Wye

A SCULPTURE of the Virgin Mary has travelled 75 miles on two canoes down the River Wye this week, to raise awareness about pollution.

The journey of Our Lady of the Waters and the Wye began on Monday, the feast of the Assumption, at Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and ends today in Monmouth. The wooden sculpture, by Philip Chatfield, is around 4 ft high. Mr Chatfield is one of the canoeists accompanying it; others include the deputy head of Monmouth School and his wife, who are both Atlantic rowers. The statue is also accompanied by wild swimmers.

The pollution crisis is considered particularly severe in the Wye, where overflow from chicken-farm slurry, sewage, excessive use of fertilisers, run-off from arable land, and soil erosion are blamed for long-term damage. The initiative aims to raise awareness and to call for concerted action to clean up the river.

The voyage was the idea of the Revd Richard Williams, Vicar of St Mary’s, Hay-on-Wye, and was launched at Hay Bridge. Services and blessings were held at churches along the river, and bells were rung.

The procession was met by trumpet and saxophone music at Bredwardine Bridge, Georgian chant by the monks of Belmont at Moccas, and choral evensong at Hereford Cathedral, where the statue stayed overnight on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Mr Chatfield described the experience of bringing Our Lady of the Waters and the Wye into the cathedral during evensong as “sublime — totally medieval”.

Fr Williams said that the Cathedral had been very welcoming. The voyage had captured the imagination of local people, he added. “It is both a spiritual act of faith and courage and also a moment of rallying for those people of goodwill and love for creation to unite together in a common purpose.

“There is so much division in the world, but this is a marvellous opportunity to celebrate something good and to help restore it to what God and nature would have it be. We cannot possibly say that we love God, who is unseen, if we fail to love that which is seen, the River Wye, a much-loved product of the Creator’s hand.”

At the end of the voyage, the sculpture will find a permanent home at a hillside shrine at Capel-y-ffin.

The Director of Vocations and Ordinands for Hereford diocese and acting Bishop’s Chaplain, the Revd Neil Patterson, who is the secretary of the River Wye Preservation Trust, said that the voyage was an “imaginative opportunity” to draw attention to the problems facing the river today.

“As Christians, we have a responsibility to receive God’s creation as a gift to be tended and not merely a resource to be exploited, and scripture abounds with the powerful symbolism of water as a source of life, renewal, and cleansing,” he said on Tuesday. “My hope is that by capturing the public imagination, the voyage helps to promote better conversation about our shared responsibility for the Wye and other ecological issues.

“If future generations are to enjoy the beauty of a clear river Wye filled with wildlife, we need to be ready to think more about how all our lifestyles impact on the earth.”

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