Everyday natural wonders.
By Paul Halas
ON THE TOWPATH of the Stroudwater Canal a curious woman stopped and asked what I was staring at so intently. Across the water from us, perched on a twig, scanning the shallow water margin for tiddlers and tadpoles, was a kingfisher. Suddenly aware of our presence it flew off, a flash of blue, quickly disappearing upstream. The woman was amazed. She explained she had walked along the canal for a number of years but that was the first time she had ever seen a kingfisher. It occurred to me that a great many people have little awareness of the wonderful habitat on their doorstep.
The Stroudwater Canal, otherwise known as the Severn and Thames Canal, was completed in the late Eighteenth Century, and as the name illustrates formed a link between the country’s two main rivers. It was an impressive feat of engineering, involving what was at the time the longest ever canal tunnel, under the Cotswold escarpment, at a little over two miles in length. There were always issues with the water supply for the canal. Its lower sections were fed at its western end by the river Frome and in the east by the rivers Churn and Coln, but the main problem was at its summit stretch (which encompassed the tunnel), where the springs at Thames Head proved inadequate for the task – with much of the water seeping into the porous Cotswold rock. A number of ingenious pumping schemes were tried, with none really solving the problem satisfactorily.
The canal was never the success its designers and backers anticipated. As well as the problems with water supply, the River Severn at its western end was prey to unpredictable and often treacherous currents while the Thames to the east was difficult to navigate due to the narrow and bendy nature of the river’s upper reaches. The canal suffered a gradual decline, which was exacerbated by the spread of the railway network. The eastern section of the canal was closed in the 1920s and the rest of it abandoned by 1941. A couple rock-falls in the tunnel only served as a gratuitous coup-de-grace.
For some years now there has been an ambitious scheme to restore the canal – which deserves an entire article to itself. In short, however, the good folk at the Cotswold Canal Trust are working wonders to revive the waterway, with the backing of the Lottery Fund, Stroud District Council, the Canal and River Trust, Gloucestershire County Council and many other organisations. While to the east of the tunnel the task of restoration remains dauntingly vast – much of the old canal course has been obliterated – work to reconnect Brimscombe and Stroud with the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal at Saul Junction is well underway.
In the next few years Stroud, a smallish market town that nestles into the side of the Cotswolds, will be back on the national waterways network, which will certainly boost the local economy. As things stand around five miles of canal are now functional, with Stroud at its centre. The old towpath has been restored, and serves as both as a useful link for pedestrians, joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists – and a wonderful resource for nature spotters.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Stroudwater Canal is a magnet for all sorts plants and animals – far more than at first meets the eye, but you have to look out for it. It is possible to spot a kingfisher on most days, but they tend not to show if the towpath is busy. Seeing one actually fishing is a rare treat, so cold, wet, beastly days are best.
Dippers and wagtails have an affinity with moving water, and are often seen that the canal’s weirs and water spills. Along the reedy margins it is quite common to see a statuesque heron waiting to skewer some unwitting prey: small fish, frogs, and the odd duckling at this time of year. Swans, moorhens, coots and mallard are plentiful, along with occasional visitors mandarin ducks, all playing out their quotidian dramas oblivious to the passing humans.
Coots are known for their feistiness, moorhens can be vicious to one another, while serene and disdainful swans can have what in human terms would be described as a distinctly nasty streak. I have seen swans trying to kill ducklings and young Canada geese, and on one occasion, in the stretch of the canal at Stonehouse, a fight to the death between two young cobs in front of a horrified collection of onlookers.
In the trees and shrubs that line some sections of the canal one spots bullfinches, tits, wrens and treecreepers, along with the blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows and robins you see in most gardens.
At this time of year the waterside vegetation is growing at full throttle. The bullrushes and reedmace in the margins are shooting up with the speed of tropical bamboos, the weeping willows cascade magnificently, and below the surface patches of water lily leaves, looking like shimmering cabbages, are reaching for the air.
The different varieties of waterweed, which have never really died back due to the absence of harsh winters in recent years, are motoring: milfoil, mare’s tail, the ubiquitous Canadian pondweed and, in the faster stretches, streamer weed – all providing cover for emerging insect life and shelter for fish. Back on the verges, nettles and cow-parsley are taking over, along with patches of wild garlic, while soon flag-irises will produce spectacular clumps of yellow. Later, when summer is past its prime, the campions will will turn the bank-sides crimson.
Many varieties of insects are now hatching out, but what the canal does best – damsel- and many varieties of dragonflies – await the warmer weather before showing. Hot sun, vivid red and blue dragonflies, the sound of miniature buzz-saws as they zigzag past. Magic.
Aquatic mammals seem to be something of a rarity in the Stroudwater. I would love to have spotted water-voles but I haven’t (however they can be found in the River Frome, which dovetails with the canal). I have seen otters on a couple of occasions. I expect they were in transit, as the canal probably doesn’t contain an adequate head of large fish to sustain resident otters. With insufficient fish to feed on they turn to wildfowl, eggs and any other available sources of food. I have yet to see any mink – but I would be surprised if they were not present.
Being a lifelong fisherman, I’ve saved what I consider the best until last. The canal is full of fish – or rather there are fish in most sections of the canal, and loads of them in some. But I am pretty sure that most people seldom notice them, if ever. You have to look, and be practised at looking. Polarising sunglasses are very useful as they can cut through the water’s surface glare. Be still, no sudden movements, and look very hard. If you see no fish move on a little and repeat – until you do. You will be surprised.
The canal abounds with tiddlers – minnows and sticklebacks. But the most common fish you are likely to spot is the roach, the most common fish in English waters (not so widespread in Wales and Scotland), and certainly the most common fish in the Stroudwater Canal. When the water is clear – and it often is in warmer weather, due to the very low volume of boat traffic – they can be seen in their thousands, mostly fish in the three to six inch bracket, with a few bigger ones, up to around eight or ten inches maximum. A handsome, silvery fish, with reddish fins – but mostly they appear grey in the water. They grow bigger in other waters, as do all the species found in the canal: the size of fish is mostly determined by the size of their watercourses and availability of food.
Those great shoals of roach will be whittled right down over the course of the coming year. Spawning fish will each release many tens of thousands of eggs, filling the canal with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of fish fry, 99.9% of which will meet a violent end. Under the surface it is the law of the jungle – squared. Poor roach: pike, perch, herons, cormorants, grebe, otters, mink, the whole damn lot have it in for them. Nature is not cruel – that is a human construct – but it is highly brutal.
Apart from roach you may be lucky enough to spot some rudd. They look very like roach but are rarer, a little bigger, their fins are ruddier and they are a gorgeous burnished golden colour. Stripy perch are quite common. They hunt in packs and eat bugs, worms and smaller fish. They in turn are likely to be eaten by pike, which have the deserved reputation of being freshwater sharks. (There was rumoured to be an outsized pike of twenty-seven pounds resident at the Ryeford Basin of the canal. How anyone knew it weighted twenty-seven pounds is a mystery as no one ever caught it, but of course it was just another of those fisherman’s tales – no fish of that size would be possible is such a small, shallow canal. Most waters have their own bit of folklore, and the twenty-seven pounder is far from the most outrageous I have heard.)
Another opportunist predator in the canal is the eel. I’ve only ever seen one in the Stroudwater, quite a big one, but then eels are expert at not being seen. As are tench: laconic, olive/bronze flanked, paddle-finned, with tiny red eyes, bottom feeders, which none-the-less show in late spring and summer by the weed-beds and lily-patches (I have a very soft spot for tench. So do most anglers).
Last in the fish parade is the brown trout. Not a species associated with canals, but several streams feed into the Stroudwater, and it is connected to the River Frome via several small weirs and a convenient fish ladder. Some sections of the canal look more like a river, with water flowing at a moderate pace over streamer-weed, and that’s where you see the trout rising.
I am always drawn to any water, be it canal, beck, creek, river, pond, lake or sea, and each habitat is populated by wonderful animal and plant life – where humankind has not completely screwed it up. But I count myself as very lucky to have the Stroudwater Canal a very short walk from my door. These places are sheer magic when you take the time to look.
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.