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Bishop leads chalk-river pilgrimage protest

23 September 2022

Richard Meredith-Hardy

Walkers on the protest pilgrimage along the 1.5-mile dry bed of the River Ivel, from its source to the village of Radwell

Walkers on the protest pilgrimage along the 1.5-mile dry bed of the River Ivel, from its source to the village of Radwell

A VILLAGE church that averages a congregation of seven for Sunday services attracted almost 150 people for a pilgrimage protesting at the demise of its rare chalk-stream waterway.

The River Ivel is only 16 miles long, but it is one of only 250 streams worldwide that rise from springs in underground chalk aquifers. The water is exceptionally pure and supports a rich and singular environment.

Richard Meredith-HardyThe Revd William Britt, in the hi-vis jacket, and the Bishop of Bedford, the Rt Revd Richard Atkinson, with the walkers

The upper section of the river, which rises at Baldock, in Hertfordshire, however, has dried up: a result, the local campaigners the RevIvel Association say, of increased extraction of water by boreholes.

In protest, the Bishop of Bedford, the Rt Revd Richard Atkinson, led a pilgrimage along the 1.5-mile dry bed from its source to the village of Radwell. The walk, on 11 September, was organised by the Vicar of All Saints’, Radwell, the Revd William Britt. “I have been here for about eight years, and just thought it was a little stream, but I have learned in the past year or so that it is a chalk stream,” he said.

“It once had four mills on it, and watercress farms. Within living memory, people boated on it; there were two trout fisheries. Chalk streams are home to rare plants, fish, and animals. They are England’s equivalent of Amazon rainforests or coral reefs in their rarity. There is real concern in the village.

“I wondered what the church could do to support RevIvel, and I thought of this pilgrim protest. I have discovered the idea of protest pilgrimages: the Christian arm of Extinction Rebellion walked to the COP26 summit in Glasgow, and church groups fighting poverty do walks through housing estates. I just couldn’t believe how many people came. I think it was a convergence of two trends — the concern about rivers, particularly chalk rivers, and the popularity of pilgrimage; the idea of people gathering with others, having a shared experience and a shared purpose.”

When he surveyed the route to find suitable prayer stations, total strangers approached him to express concerns for the river. “It really confirmed to me that this was what the church needs to be doing,” he said. “Lamenting with these people, praying with them, and bringing attention to the situation. One of the most amazing things about this is the way it has brought the church and the villagers together.”

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