University of Exeter: Sights and sounds of one of the country’s most polluted rivers on display at COP26

The Red River in West Cornwall runs from Neolithic standing stones on the moors above Camborne to Gwithian in St Ives Bay and has been described as the most ‘unnatural’ or ‘modified’ in the UK— all of its seven miles has been altered by tin-mining. While little more than a stream, it has played an important part in Cornwall’s industrial revolution and, by extension, the development of hard-rock mining around the world.

Writer and researcher Dr John Clarke, from the University of Exeter is running a major project to use the history and biology of the Red River to change people’s idea of what is considered to be beautiful, and help more people develop an emotional connection with nature.

Dr Clarke is working on a new poem about the Red River, and as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, new soundscapes and films have been made to help people listen more closely to nature, and hear what the eye can’t see. All will be presented as part of a one-off event at the COP 26 Green Zone.

Dr Clarke has been exploring what it means to restore a natural habitat, and to what state should it be restored. He has been helping local communities to think about the relationship between existing landscape aesthetics and biodiversity: paradoxically the ugly, damaged places along the banks of the Red River are the most bio-diverse.

Throughout this year Dr Clarke has been running events to help people living near the Red River to re-evaluate its importance through creative writing and walking events. He has organised walks with pupils from local schools, helping the children create a “museum of the river” with objects they have found during their strolls. The aim of the walks is to help pupils practice the art of listening, to help them discover the acoustic environment of the Red River and record them, as well as to think about which words would go with these sounds.

Dr Clarke said: “The global pandemic and climate crisis has encouraged us all to think about the importance and power of the natural world on our doorstep. Poetry and landscape can help us feel part of nature. I want to show how all landscapes are special, not just those considered to be conventionally beautiful. Using the right words to describe places can make them even more special.

“I’ve been trying to support local communities to find the right words to describe this unusual river and its rich heritage. I hope this will help them think differently about the environment. One of the most biodiverse and ugliest parts of the Red River is some sludge tanks full of bacteria which have been colonised by aquatic animals and dragonflies because the poison in the water stopped other creatures taking over this space.

“The Red River is just as much part of Cornwall as the iconic Man Engine houses or stunning coastlines.”

Today the Red River lies within a UNESCO World Heritage site, and new techniques are being used to reduce pollution along the river’s course. It has a rich and unusual ecology that has adapted to its industrial past, including a genetically-unique population of brown trout capable of surviving in its toxic water.