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Urbantrout Diaries 5: Wet Weather in Wincanton

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"Something really should be done about the River Cale..." And now it is! "Something really should be done about the River Cale..." And now it is!

This time out our intrepid urban angler and conservationist is on the trail of an exciting ‘Trout in the Town’ project







A few weeks ago I finally managed something I’ve been meaning to do for months: visit an exciting new community river project a couple of miles from my in-laws’ in the little Somerset town of Wincanton.

Community Action to Transform the Cale Habitat (CATCH for short: never underestimate the value of a finely crafted acronym!) has enjoyed the same meteoric rise as many urban river restoration groups in recent years. From the founding fathers’ first thoughts – apparently over a can of something cold in the garage – that something really should be done about the tiny River Cale which sidles through Wincanton’s valley bottom, it’s taken just a few months to bring a whole new Trout in the Town project to life.

Via phone calls, emails, Facebook pages and what may have been the very first Wild Trout Trust Advisory Visit completely filmed on an iPhone, I’ve taken great pleasure in watching this project go viral: galvanising other local people, getting the council and Environment Agency on side, developing partnerships with local businesses like Partridge Hooks, running a stand at the new Wincanton street market.

Even more recent initiatives include organising a jumble sale to help fund future cleanups, and a three-school Mayfly in the Classroom project has just been announced to start reconnecting local kids to the intricate web of their local environment.

However many urban river restoration projects you get to know (and I got very familiar with a large number of them in the course of researching and writing Trout in Dirty Places), there’s something about meeting new people on the banks of their once-dirty-and-forgotten river that never gets old. So it was a particular pleasure to meet Gary, Steve, Matt and other members of the CATCH committee for our inevitable wet-weather walk… and see what they’ve achieved right there on the bankside.

Wincanton’s original name, Wyn-cale-tun, probably translated as pleasant town on the Cale, and the stream’s steep gradient off the Selwood escarpment must have always meant lots of potential for milling and hydropower. Locally holy springs with names like St Chad’s Well were valued for their mineral-rich healing properties, but the town probably never threatened the spa-town dominance of Cheltenham and Bath.

Before the disastrous 1970s dredging operation that left most of the Dorset Stour devoid of gravels, it’s likely that the Cale was one of the prime spawning streams for the catchment’s famous run of salmon.

Today, the south-western edge of Wincanton is still dominated by industrial estates where the old Cow & Gate plant once stood, and at Hawker’s Bridge there’s a redundant weir with stop plates begging to be lifted, restoring fish passage and this stretch of stream’s natural gradient at a single stroke.

Further into town Gary demonstrated how some of the most straightforward measures can make an immediate difference: for instance, the simple but muscle-straining task of moving a big concrete litter bin to a spot beside the smoker’s shelter means that rubbish thrown towards the bin now actually ends up in it, rather than cascading down the bank and into the river. We also spent at least 15 minutes speculating about the design of a large Sustainable Urban Drainage wetland below a new housing development, before coming to the conclusion that it was probably designed to prioritise filling and soaking away into the local groundwater before overspilling into the river (if so, a great-looking design!)

This afternoon, the Cale stayed obstinately muddy with runoff from its clay and limestone catchment, but the sheer volume of surface water pouring off the surrounding landscape gave us lots of opportunities to spot potential pollution pathways, including a fully-armoured roadside ditch which may have channelled contaminated fire-water demand directly into the river during when a huge blaze destroyed the local cheese-packing plant in 2011. At the top of the town, we ended our walk at Shatterwell Shoots, a massive weir to rival any I’ve seen in the Grim Oop North, yet still showing clear potential for a well-placed pool-and-traverse fish pass.

Best of all, the local kingfisher gave us the full benefit of a slow-speed, low-level flypast as we stood discussing tree cover, flow deflectors and invasive Japanese knotweed at the deep S-bend beside the skate park: a hint that the ecosystem is recovering after a disastrous slurry spill in 2000 which reportedly killed up to 50,000 fish, a true catastrophe for such a tiny river.

These are early days for the CATCH project, but it’s impossible to overstate the passion and energy in this exciting new project. If you live anywhere near Wincanton, and you’d like to get involved in the most south-westerly Trout in the Town project yet, check out their Facebook page HERE and their full website HERE 

All images courtesy of Steve Lee, CATCH



Theo PikeTheo is a freelance marketing, fly-fishing and environmental writer. He’s also Chairman of Trustees of the Wandle Trust, and founding editor of Urbantrout.net a website and eco-brand dedicated to urban fly-fishing and river restoration improvements.


Theo’s trailblazing book Trout in Dirty Places: 50 rivers to fly-fish for trout and grayling in the UK’s town and city centres was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2012. His new book on invasive non-native species is due in May 2014.  

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