The River Monnow
I’ve spent most of my life next to this river and yet in some ways I barely know it. That’s because, for most of its watercourse, lawful access is non-existent. It’s a situation which isn’t unique to the Monnow: across England 97% of rivers are off-limits to the public. In Wales the picture is much the same. The Monnow bisects both. But what would happen if I tried anyway? I spent a day following the Monnow as closely as I could to find out, heading upstream from its meeting point with the Wye.
Before the dual carriageway was built in the 1960s the town was much better integrated with both its rivers. Here’s how things stood towards the end of the 19th century, when Monmouth’s riverside racecourse was apparently considered “one of the prettiest” in the country.
Then came the dual carriageway, scything through the Monnow and cutting the town off from the Wye.
Over the footbridge, the picturesque contributions of landowners continue. As a teenager I used to slip under the rail here to wander the river on my way back from school. Now, pedestrians are obliged to walk a barbed wire gauntlet instead. We pass council signs encouraging us not to drop litter but the eyesore of barbed wire is almost never questioned.
Perception is often about power: what we register as out-of-place is also an expression of who is perceived as out-of-place.
At the river, barbed wire has been strung right across the water straight in front of the viewpoint from the bridge. A picturesque moment, open to hundreds of people every day, has been vandalised without a single question being asked.
This section of the route, coursing the river with the church spire rising behind, should be one of the town’s most beautiful green spaces.
The town currently has one lacklustre park sandwiched between the dual carriageway and a car park. For the cost of one field, Monmouth could have this riverine meadow as its green heart instead. Access would replace a barbed-wire trudge into town with uplifting moments of wonder.
We’re often told the reason the public can’t have access to such spaces is that they’ll spoil them. And it’s true, there is sometimes disregard. Just as often though, with no eyes to witness and no passers-by to care, the denial of access leads to even worse results.
On the Monnow there is, sadly, lots of litter festering along the banks. Its source is not the public, but agricultural waste washed downstream when the river is in spate. Neglect leads to more neglect, and those who follow repeat what they see.
Here’s me earlier in the year with my best Daily Mail ‘ASDA-OVERCHARGED-ME-FOR-PEANUTS’ litter pick face, doing what I can to clear up my local weir, which is just upstream on the Monnow. I had to hop a locked gate and pass two security cameras to do it.
Further along the river we enter deep agricultural country where there is no precedent even for informal access. We slog along fringe after fringe of wheat fields, picking our way through hedge holes and jumping over drainage ditches.
But among them we discover idyllic patches of riverbank. Here, a hazy wildflower meadow is filled with crickets, broken by small copses of woodland. Had the Ministry of Defence land not obstructed it, this is where the footpath would naturally arrive. The stress of transgression leaves us, and we can’t help but douse our feet in the water.
Then: nirvana. The wheat fields end and the wildflower meadow returns – along with one of the most picturesque swim spots I’ve ever found on the river. These shelving beaches are characteristic of the Monnow, and make brilliant places to bathe – if only you can get to them.
Should beautiful chunks of river like this really have no public right of access? It seems a basic, fundamental truth to me that rivers belong to everyone, or, better: to no one except themselves.
Stretches of the Monnow like this one are thirty minutes from my house, but in twenty years I’ve never known they were here. I wonder at the difference it might make to my mental health to be able to stroll here every day, to swim in this river and daydream on its bank.
To paraphrase the writer Robert Macfarlane: there are things I can know in a place like this I can know no-where else; and things it knows about me I cannot know myself. To live with a river is to live with an alterity which expands consciousness as wide as its course, and as deep as its source.
The route continues to get easier, with footpaths already in place through the private woodlands. It strikes me that much of a prototype ‘Monnow Way’ is already here. All it would take is a few stiles and a bit of wheat shaving. And, crucially – political will.
Think of all the land like this in Britain: secreted behind fences, almost never used by its owners; empty while the rest of us are obliged to trundle along busy roads and dangerous lanes; stuffed into a few honeypot sites we’re subject to moral panics for enjoying.
We haven’t come far – just over four miles – but the difficulty of circumnavigating the many obstacles has made the journey take a long time.
The right of a single wealthy family to roam freely from their door comes at the expense of thousands of others to do the same.
But it also comes at public expense. Monmouth council recently spent £7.4 million refurbishing its leisure centre and installing a new pool. That’s great, but it’s also a product of our alienation that the free, natural leisure on our doorstep – the original public luxury – remains off limits.
Belonging is the first stage in the journey to protecting. Our rivers are in a dire state. The current state of the Wye, which is dying from pollution and eutrophication, is testament to the fact that the official bodies tasked with their protection are up to the job.
Fences are a spell propping up an illusion: that the world around us is a prison; that the beauty which surrounds us is not a collective inheritance; that we have no right to live free and rich with the natural world.
The power of that spell diminishes with every transgression. Our daily trespasses are not to be forgiven but celebrated. We only live the reality our mind has been trained to inhabit: the more you act as though the world is already free, the more it is.