Jeremy Paxman: The happiest days of my life have been spent in rivers

Rivers built Britain, so get out there and enjoy them

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Many of the happiest days of my life have been spent in, or on the banks of, rivers. I long ago gave up trying to put people right about fishing and their dreary put-down “Oh, I haven’t got the patience for that”, as if it is an occupation only for cud-chewers. The truth is that total absorption in trying to deceive a creature from an alien element requires no patience at all. Even if it may have a brain the size of a pea.

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If you told me it was a silly thing for a grown man to do, I’d have to agree with you, of course. It’s absurd. But consider the benefits. It gives you a reason to be in some of the most beautiful landscapes in Britain and to experience the watercourses that are our are nation’s arteries. While you’re trying to hide in the natural world, the natural world turns about you – wagtails pick for insects at the shoreline. An otter skitters along the riverbank. A grass snake swims across the current. A kingfisher flashes its iridescent blue shoulders above the stream. These things come to the quiet person and you do not see them by blundering about. That is why they say that time spent fishing isn’t counted in the audit of life.

Britain may be cursed by rainfall. But as a result we are blessed by rivers. We have more than 6,000 of them, 30 of which are at least 70 miles long – longer than many of our motorways.

Nothing could be more unlike a river than a motorway. Modern highways are brutalist impositions on the landscape, noisy, smelly and packed with people in a pointless rush. Rivers are part of the scenery, sometimes bustling, sometimes meandering, all of them making their way to the sea in their own sweet time.

And as they did so, rivers made this country. Try to imagine London without the Thames; Glasgow without the Clyde; Liverpool without the Mersey. You can’t, can you? Newcastle upon Nowhere, anyone? If you’ve ever wondered why Oxford is where it is, the clue is in the name: it was a place where oxen could ford the river. Cambridge is pretty well self-explanatory, too.

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Cod fishing at Fort Perch Rock, River Mersey

The towns grew here because the rivers provided food (famously, the rules of the London Watermen forbade them feeding their apprentices wild salmon “more than three times each week”) and waterpower drove the mills for grinding corn for bread making. The current allowed you to take essentials like stone, salt, wool, grain, meat and timber great distances with much less effort than loading a wagon and hitching bullocks. When Britain became the first country in the world to industrialise, the revolution was made possible by water power.

Something very similar to the American Gold Rush occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries, as men with ingenious ideas dashed to the rivers to harness river water in newfangled mills for spinning and weaving wool and cotton. Great numbers of labourers followed them, to find work in the factories they built. My own illiterate great-great-great-grandfather was an economic migrant, shipped by canal from a workhouse in Suffolk to the cotton mills of Manchester.

The towns that grew around these mills may look quaint to 21st-century eyes. But at the time they were tawdry, damp places with terrible sanitation. The town of New Mills, for example, advertises itself as “a Peak District heritage centre” on the banks of the main tributary of the river Mersey. In the 19th century it housed thousands of labourers working in over a dozen factories processing cotton.

A few miles north west of New Mills, the town of Stockport used the river in the manufacture of hats. Part of the process involved separating animal fur from the creatures’ skin, by the use of mercuric nitrate. Workers exposed to the fumes from the mercury frequently found their brains affected, sending them “mad as hatters” – a recognised medical condition. Below Stockport, the Mersey was said to run every colour of the rainbow from the chemicals discharged into the river.

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At the source of the River Severn

I suppose you can’t blame industrialists for thinking that running water took a problem out of sight and therefore out of mind. Something similar happened in London with human waste from the city sewers. During filming we were lucky enough to be allowed into one of the great Victorian sewers built by Joseph Bazalgette. There we saw the sad fate of the River Fleet, once one of the Thames’s tributaries. The AngloSaxons had maintained a dock there. In the 18th century Jonathan Swift delighted in its “dung, guts and blood, drowned puppies, stinking sprats… dead cats and turnip-tops”. In the 21st century it just gurgles turds.

The Thames is clean because it has been saved from the consequences of human behaviour. But it is not unique. The Thames is certainly the most gentrified of Britain’s rivers: the railways, which made it redundant for transport, enabled families, rowers, punters and dirty-weekenders to use it for entertainment. I regularly swim in it. But the clean-up is happening everywhere. Stand in in the middle of Stockport now and you can see trout and chub sipping flies off the surface of the water. The Severn roils brown beneath the motorway bridge, but that is just because of the vast quantities of silt it carries. They may still make tweed on the Tweed, but the river is the foremost salmon river in Britain.

Britain’s rivers are cleaner now than they have been for hundreds of years – one of the few beneficial consequences of the collapse of British industry. We have still to find a way of replacing the jobs and productivity that our rivers made possible. But, for the first time in generations, we are free to enjoy them.

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Rivers with Jeremy Paxman is on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm