River, art and activism

This is a story about the river, art and environmental activism. Norfolk’s chalk rivers became a big theme during our residency programme last summer. As we are opening up a new round of the GroundWork artists residency programme, I am looking back to think about some of last year’s results and outcomes we can reflect upon. Quite apart from the evident strong impacts on the artists personally and the development of their work, which you can read about here, there are significant things to talk about in terms of what impact on the environment we had and potentially may activate in future.

Veronica Sekules

How can art engage with the environment?

Specifically, there is much more to think about in terms of what kinds of ideas an artist engages with, and how, and how these ideas are then transformed into works of art. Then there is the subject matter and its treatment and the effect of that on the viewer to consider. Is the impact likely to be stronger if the artist takes quite a head-on literal view, or a more sideways, lateral one? How can we, as viewers reflect intelligently on the work? What kind of further transformation can happen, and more to the point, needs to happen as a result of those works coming into the public realm? We too readily leave these things unexpressed and unarticulated, and unexplored. Much is left to chance in the art-world. Reactions to works of art too often tend to be considered private, or specialist. I have to come clean here and admit that I am not of the ‘art for art’s sake’ school. There is a place for that, but, as an activist environmental organisation, I am keen for the art we show to join in with other environmental campaigns to inspire calls to action. That has to be tested constantly, and if works of art can help to effect change in attitudes, we need to articulate that in any possible way.

Here I want to look at some of the bodies of work created last summer in terms both of what the artist set out to do and to make, but also what kind of context they fit into. What do the works open up further for us to think about? And then, how can we act on it as a wider public of viewers and listeners and fellow activists?

Norfolk’s chalk rivers

An important subject emerged for us last year around Norfolk’s chalk rivers. To a large extent, this was inspired by some visits and investigations locally with the Norfolk Rivers Trust. In summer 2023, officers from the Norfolk Rivers Trust took us to see some of their river restorations for Norfolk’s rare and precious chalk streams. In one case we saw how they were re-meandering a river which had been straightened through farmland and we witnessed how the biodiversity of the banks and the clarity of the water was improving. For another, we saw some incredible natural water-scaping by beavers, who in the space of two years had improved the flow of water through a seven acre site which had previously been flooding irregularly. Also our interest was fuelled by film-maker Peter Clitheroe who had made a series of films about the river Gaywood, Norfolk’s Forgotten Chalk Stream, collaborating with the various conservation interests involved with it. His aim was to support them by highlighting its plight – for as it turned out, despite many campaigns and protests over a number of years, it is still constantly under threat.

Watery subjects have become increasingly topical, sadly, for the wrong reasons. We have just had the wettest February on record in the UK, which of course is climate change related and to do with massive and urgent global challenges. But almost as challenging, in that it involves a complex of factors which are within our control, is the publication of the National Rivers Trust report State of our Rivers that states not one single river in the UK has a clean bill of health. Every single one suffers from one or more sources of pollution, from farmland run off as a result of agrochemicals, or animal effluent, or sewage discharge by water companies, or from industrial pollution, or from domestic refuse. There is a shocking amount of work to be done to resolve all these issues.

As an artistic body, how can we address these subjects, and have any effect on them? We have the advantage of thinking and communicating visually. However art never works effectively in isolation from wider aspects of culture. Making a start by thinking across disciplines about water, and consulting the best local expertise, like the Norfolk Rivers Trust helps. But there have been many more significant encounters along the way which have had a mounting effect.

Artists’ watery interests

Four of ‘our’ artists last year – Valerie Price, Kelly Hill, Sophie Marritt and Jane Scobie arrived with, and pursued, watery interests in Norfolk’s rivers, canals and unique shore-line. Valerie Price, as part of her preparation, visited the Conservancy Board who monitor access to the King’s Lynn port and operate pilot boats for the trading ships. Her work did not crystallise during her stay and she had to leave before our next maritime encounter with the Harbour-Master at Wells, Robert Smith. His insights into the ever-changing coastline, the fact that he can wake up one morning to find the sea is completely different from the day before, and the implications for how he manages his stretch of coastline, was a revelation. This proved to be a key contact for Jane Scobie, who joined the residency with an interest in the coast and especially with its existence as a natural artefact and habitat. She has great plans for pursuing this further in relation to The Wash, which we as a wider GroundWork NetWork will pick up with her.

Sophie Marritt still

Comparative perspectives

However, it is Kelly Hill and Sophie Marritt’s works I want to concentrate on now, as they both, in quite different ways, continued to look at chalk rivers.

Both artists had in fact spent time previously in Spain, which informed their attitudes.

Taking a perspective from elsewhere can be a very fruitful way to reflect on our own locality. By making connections thematically, and looking at similarities and differences, we can learn more about phenomena we would not otherwise see so clearly. Indeed ‘Think globally, act locally’ was one of the original mantras of the environment movement. Each artist used these parallel Spanish-UK experiences in quite different ways, which in itself is an interesting testament to their working methodologies. In very different ways, their works were very powerful. I will take them one by one, as Sophie Marritt’s work held to a general, poetic and lateral perspective, whereas Kelly’s direction connected her very strongly to a particular local campaign engaged with the Gaywood river.

Sophie Marritt

Sophie Marritt set the scene in terms of climate change in her proposal:

Whist writing this proposal I am on a walking holiday in Spain, by coincidence along limestone gorges of dry chalk riverbeds. Normally at this time of year there would be some water but there has been no rain for over two months after a dry year. The chalk aquifers still hold water, however if the ground water level drops too much the water will become saline. This prompted me to wonder how the Norfolk landscape could change in a warming climate, and with a greater demand on the water supply. In my mind’s eye I am superimposing Mediterranean flora and fauna on the wetlands of Norfolk.

Sophie Marritt still 2
Sophie Marritt

Sophie made a film which picked up on her ideas about comparative landscapes in very innovative ways. She had always intended to think about connections between the built environment and the natural landscape and how roads and suburbs sear through delicate chalky riverine environments. This happens in Norwich, where she lives, and there is currently a controversial proposal, being rapidly enacted despite strong protests against it, to build a 3.9 mile by-pass link road around the western edge of the city. This will cut across the valley of the river Wensum, which is one of Norfolk’s precious chalk rivers and sites of biodiversity.

Dead-Straight Drive Thru

Quietly and subtly her film reflects on the whole phenomenon of juxtaposed landscapes. Well, in fact not literally quietly, as it has a soundtrack of bubbling water and squelching life. Called Dead-straight Drive Thru, it begins from a drive-in cafe facade in Lincolnshire, superimposed over which, flamingoes (strangely) are bathing and continues with a series of video montages, overlaying images of chalk rivers and their landscapes in different states of being. In an atmospheric and poetic way, it takes us deep into the subject, constantly shifting.

Sophie’s film is a response to her initial research questions and acts as an extension of those, enabling us as viewers to understand them, and to pose the same questions with greater intensity.

Planning permission starts with road expansion, in Norfolk the A47 dualling and the Western Link for the Northern Distributor bypass for example. But the agenda is housing. Housing estates next to Drive-in coffee and fast food chains, with a petrol station and perhaps a mini supermarket, as road junction roundabouts become Food Enterprise Zones. New housing is needed but how does the nascent network of wider faster roads and Enterprise Zone housing estates relate to the mosaic of wildlife habitats, ancient hedgerows, woodland, wetland, green lanes and public rights of way? And how does it relate to the ground underneath, the soil, bedrock, aquifers and groundwater?

Sophie Marritt

Kelly Hill

Kelly Hill was similarly making comparisons between Spain and UK. Having been in residence previously at Joya-Air in a desertified region of Spain, she had become interested there in the traces of water management, of ancient irrigation systems, now redundant and replaced by modern drainage. This is how she began:

‘During my GroundWork Residency I will be exploring possible landscape connections between Norfolk and Andalucía. Considering both loss and regeneration, the benefits of working with indigenous knowledge, natural flow and deep time. Historically agriculture in the Sierra Nevada was irrigated by acequia, a network of thousands of kilometres of channels created by Muslim peasant farmers. When Arabs and Berbers colonised Spain in the eighth century, they brought techniques in water conservation acquired over centuries in the Middle East. Farmers worked in symbiosis with the land, channelling and storing flood water and snow melt from the mountains and replenishing aquifers. As communities left the countryside these ancient systems fell into disrepair and are only now being redeveloped in small pockets.’

River art and activism Kelly Hill Spanish riverscape
Kelly Hill, Spanish Landscape with traces of rivulets (detail)

Kelly Hill arrived already as an environmental and specifically climate-change activist. She is a photographer and one of the co-founders of Culture Declares Emergency. In the course of her residency she moved from initially being explorer-researcher, to investigative reporter, as she developed her work towards environmental activism. In thinking about its impact I want to set it in a wider context in order to examine its implications, both for what it reveals about the society and culture around it and for the way we have to move forward.

Kings Lynn Historic map
Map of King’s Lynn, 1725

Her parallel study of the rivers of King’s Lynn began with a famous 18th century historical map. King’s Lynn sits alongside the Great Ouse a once great trading river which, about a century before this map was created, was enlarged and diverted to increase flow of both water and traffic to the town. However, from the middle of the 19th century the river had already declined both through industrial over-expansion and competition from the railways.

Her intention to try to parallel her Spanish experience by tracing former waterways took her on a series of walks along the tributaries to the Great Ouse as she had seen them on the map. What she saw by tracing the original rivers through the town, showed much more evidence of their decline, than of their continuing watery life. In fact, largely the town has turned its back on them.

‘During my residency I have spent days attempting to follow the Nar, Gay & Bawsey from the centre of town out to the countryside on foot as I am car free and I thought it would be straightforward. I was shocked to discover how undervalued these unique waterways were in the town and was determined to discover more.’

Kelly Hill

Changing rivers in the town

This undervaluing of King’s Lynn’s rivers has quite a long history in fact. The Great Ouse had been declining as a trading and transport route since the19th century, partly hit by the coming of the railways. As time progressed, further competition from road transport pretty much killed the tributaries and fleets flowing into the town off its main river, and they were almost all culverted. The Millfleet essentially became London Road. A local history society has published on-line the contrasts between the Millfleet as it was as river in the 19th century and as it existed afterwards as a road. That is revealing not only to show how our dependence on fossil fuel transport has altered our urban environments, but also a reminder not to romanticise the old days of the rivers too much. They too were polluted, even more heavily so than now evidently, and as records tell us, silted up and often smelly.

That said, there are many complex issues at play here about colliding built and natural environments. There is a little parallel here with Sophie’s interests in the effects of development, which through this part of the story, and via Kelly’s work, were to have dramatically different results.

Exploring the River Gaywood

Kelly’s main expedition took her along the course of the River Gaywood. This is one of Norfolk’s great treasures, a chalk stream. It rises from a chalk aquifer near Well Hall to the east of the town, beginning its journey through a very rural environment, and then traversing King’s Lynn, to meander through the Walks town park to join the Millfleet as it enters the Great Ouse.

Part of the river that runs through the town is like the Millfleet itself, culverted, making it hard to trace. Once she reached more suburbs and open country, however, Kelly began conversations with local residents and discovered that there is indeed a thriving community looking after the Gaywood River, which has been constantly under threat from development and from pollution, as we have seen above. In fact there are at least two groups, the Gaywood Valley Conservation group and the Gaywood River Revival working group and then further activists supporting them among Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups. The parish councils and the local council has repeatedly expressed concern over its condition and varying fortunes, most recently in November 2023, when Councillors declared that it should be one of the highlights of the town rather than the algae-choked embarrassment it is in parts. And then overall, there is the Environment Agency with overall jurisdiction, and as far as their increasingly limited capacity will allow, enforcing regulations to prevent polluters. Then there are the Wildlife Trusts, who have worked along this river, and campaign overall. And the Norfolk Rivers Trust keeps a watching brief and maintains many of Norfolk’s chalk rivers and streams, normally specifically in response to requests for their help, and as their funding allows.

Competing attitudes to conservation and care of rivers

Kelly was introduced to a member of the Gaywood River Revival group, Russell Biggs, who took her on an expedition along its length to witness some of the group’s successes. Together they saw abundant vegetation established along its banks, clear rippling water revealing exactly the kind of gravel bed that a healthy chalk stream likes. As further evidence of its health, they saw trout lurking at the edges. Kelly took wonderful photographs to document this landscape, and also made a film, where we see the glistening stream and hear Russell whispering to guide her eye to the trout. However, the next day, Russell rang Kelly and urged her to revisit the same site. What she saw and portrayed in her film, was shocking. The Internal Drainage Board (IDB) had come that morning with heavy digging machinery and scoured one bank of the river, leaving it as a wall of dry dust, which was leaching into the water, making what had been crystal clear, cloudy and full of mud. ‘Why would you do this?’ exclaims Russell in despair on the film. So in the end, Kelly’s film and photo-story changes from its start as a story of regeneration and restoration, to one which shows how rapidly and completely this good work can be undone.

On further investigation, it becomes apparent that the IDB’s bank-clearing practice has been long established. An ecologist’s report about the Gaywood river had been commissioned by the Water Management Alliance in 2015. That documents the fact that from the middle reach of the river, through Sugar Fen to the outskirts of town, its maintenance was the responsibility of the Kings Lynn drainage board. The ecologist recommended keeping a sensitive watching brief on the river and reducing any un-necessary maintenance regime as its health improved. It appears that this proposed regular review and reduction in maintenance was not happening and nearly ten years after the report the IDB was just doing routinely what it had always done. It clearly had been their habitual practice to cut one of the banks – and to remove all ‘in channel’ vegetation, as Kelly and Russell saw. They are blatantly ignoring the 2015 report’s recommendations. It has in fact been rumoured, and hinted at in the report itself, that any changes to the IDB’s regime were being resisted by vested interests, such as local landowners (some of whom sit on the IDB). In fact further results of damage to the river emerged via an article in the Lynn News, just as we were showing Kelly’s work. Not in this case from the IDB, but from Anglian Water, a frequent culprit – as we know are all water companies – in causing pollution through sewage discharge. They (probably along with a local developer) were found to be polluting the river in the village of Grimsthorpe. The Environment Agency is watching them.

In quite a different way from Sophie Marrit’s film, Kelly’s images and film told a very clear story of the varying fortunes of the chalk rivers of the town. Not only does the film go from the rippling clarity of a stream, lush foliage and a breeding ground for trout to a dry bank and mud-churned water devoid of life, but the still photographs especially, show other results of human lack of care. Their story begins the same way with a healthy gravel-based stream, and steadily give us a story of decline, ending with a muddy riverbed with the depressingly familiar sight of a shopping trolley, piles of litter and old shoes, and worst of all, an oil slick on the surface.


Kelly’s accompanying text for the works titled Creta, highlights the great rarity and importance of chalk rivers, the main threats to their health, and consequences to their decline. Her texts records her frustrations too, saying:

’85% of the 285 chalk-streams worldwide are in the UK. Primarily fed by spring water from the chalk aquifer which ensures a constant flow of clear, cold water. It is this stable current across flinty gravel beds that make them a perfect source of clean water – ideal for a thriving biodiverse ecosystem.
Many chalk aquifers – the source of chalk streams – are sadly polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilisers spread on farmland. The seemingly clear waters of chalk streams are often tainted with invisible contaminants as a result. As they flow downstream, water running off urban and rural areas bring pollutants, including fine sediments, pesticides and sewage.’

The natural courses taken by many chalk streams have been straightened, dredged, rerouted and rebranded as ‘drains’ to make space for agricultural, urban and industrial land uses. The rivers dwindle as water companies cynically extract water from streams and aquifers.’

A strategy for restoring England’s chalk streams recommends granting chalk streams new statutory protection that reflects their globally unique value to ecology and culture. Radical action is needed to better protect our chalk streams and ensure these ecosystems remain worthy of their iconic status.’

Kelly Hill
River art and activism, Kelly Hill, Creta
Creta, Kelly Hill 2023 Photography, 5 Fine Art Giclee prints on Hahnemühle Photo Rag

Artists’ works lead an imaginative journey

Both Sophie’ Marritt’s and Kelly Hill’s researches and the results of their work have drawn our attention to how many competing interests there are in river management and appreciation. Sophie’s work takes us on an imaginative journey to explore how contrasting and competing pressures invade a lush and healthy water-scape. Lateral comparisons between native and alien wildlife, between wet and dry riverbeds, popular culture, buildings and nature, raise questions but also offer suggestions as to where those pressures exist. Kelly’s series of works tell a strong story, immediately making evident the differences between good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. Her images highlight especially that the ‘radical action’ has to take many and complex directions, for there are many advocates for good, but also many culprits responsible for pollution and damage, some of whom, like those littering, are probably local people in denial, and operating in secret.

When the works were on display in the gallery over the summer, we had many many conversations with visitors about these issues. Chalk rivers became a strong focus for us. Showing the work and talking about it was the first stage of campaigning. What the artists have done is to make the connections visible and evidence that which may have been hidden before. Collectively we have action to take and more people to work alongside. In bringing this work into the public realm, the artists have helped to clarify how we can and need to proceed.

Veronica Sekules, February 2024