The Wid is an unassuming little river flowing along a shallow Essex valley. It rises in the village of Blackmore, flows south and under the A12, and curves eastward and then northward, not far from the suburbs of Billericay. It passes under the road between Ingatestone and the neighbouring village of Stock, then proceeds in a generally north-eastern direction parallel to the A12 and the railway line connecting London with East Anglia. It doesn’t pass through any large or famous towns, and it disappears from the map after converging with the river Can between Writtle and Chelmsford. Unless you’re a local, you’ve probably never heard of it.
But the Wid has a certain charm. In most seasons it meanders gently through the landscape, flanked by grasses and sedges, stands of willow, and dense thickets of blackthorn. Once or twice a year, maybe more, it changes character when a few days of rain transform it into a fierce, brown torrent. This winter has been particularly wet, and the traces are still apparent: flood-flattened vegetation stained with mud; bare, newly scoured sections of riverbank. For the time being, though, the river is placid again. Soon the blackthorn, now covered in tiny buds, will burst into bloom. Green fields dotted with sheep and cattle, white blossom, birdsong: a walk along the Wid will be an absolute delight.
Except that it won’t, because at some point this winter someone has tipped a lorry-load of rubbish into a ditch by the roadside, near the picturesque bridge linking Stock Lane with Ingatestone Road. That ditch has flooded, and hundreds of black plastic bin liners stuffed with rubbish have been swept into the River Wid. There they’ve been snagged by submerged or overhanging branches, and many have ripped open, spilling all manner of waste into the river. The predominant item seems to be plastic bottles, but there are also tyres, textiles, and other random objects. A spray bottle of blue cleaning agent hangs from a branch. A pink plastic trug with one handle missing sits incongruously on the footpath beside the river. Stray bottles litter the adjoining field, where cows and their calves are grazing. In the river, every twig and stem seems to be festooned with some item of waste. Shreds of black bin liner and other unidentifiable plastics hang from the trees, clusters of bottles and other rubbish have gathered in eddies. It’s an incredibly distressing sight.
I’ve reported this to the Environment Agency and sincerely hope they’ll sort it out. It won’t be easy, though. This isn’t something an enthusiastic band of volunteers could sort out on a Sunday afternoon. The river isn’t navigable with any kind of boat, it may be too deep for wading, its banks are steep and heavily vegetated, and above all, there are tangles of blackthorn and willow in and above the water which make it extremely difficult to move in any direction. There may even be hazardous waste – whoever dumped this rubbish probably wasn’t too concerned about oil or chemicals finding their way into the environment. So the clean-up will require time, agility, and the right equipment. And even if the worst section is cleaned up, some of the waste is bound to have escaped: some of those bottles will have bobbed down the Wid into the Can, then down the Can into the Chelmer, and from there into the Blackwater Estuary and eventually the North Sea.
Presumably whoever dumped this waste didn’t intend to have it spread down a quarter of a mile of river and riverbank. But what did they intend? Did they think a concerned member of the public would see the rubbish near the roadside and report it to the council, and that the council would clean it up? Or, given that it was most likely on private land, did they think the landowner would deal with it? Perhaps this would have happened if nature hadn’t intervened with a catastrophic flood. On the whole, though, we have to assume that people who illegally dump waste by the roadside don’t really care what happens to it, because even if the public is quick to report things and councils and landowners are quick to act, there’s always a chance that the waste will be dispersed by wind, traffic, or animals, and that some of it will remain in the environment.
Can anything be done to prevent this kind of thing happening? An individuals, all we can do (apart from reporting fly-tipping if we see it) is dispose of our own waste responsibly. In the UK (or in Chelmsford at least) we’re lucky to have effective kerbside rubbish collection and recycling services and free municipal recycling centres where there’s an appropriate place for everything. If we can’t take our rubbish to the tip ourselves, then we need to double-check the credentials of anyone removing it for us. If we’ve accumulated a front yard full of waste from a building project or a house clear-out, and a friendly passer-by offers to dispose of it for fifty quid, we should almost certainly say no.
Sadly, however, there will always be people who don’t care where their waste goes, as long as it doesn’t cost too much. In those cases we probably have to rely on councils and landowners to put up cameras in popular fly-tipping spots so the culprits can be caught and prosecuted. You never know, it might deter others.
One thing that might have helped in this particular case would have been the existence of a deposit scheme for plastic bottles. My theory is that the rubbish currently clogging the Wid was dumped by (or on behalf of) a dodgy landlord, clearing up after an untidy tenant. The tenant had a fondness for fizzy drinks, and left hundreds of plastic bottles in the house. Now if each of those bottles were worth twenty pence or more, what are the chances that they would have been allowed to accumulate for so long? Isn’t there someone in every family who needs a bit of extra cash for chocolate or cigarettes or hair dye or fake eyelashes? I’m thinking children and teenagers whose pocket money doesn’t quite go far enough – wouldn’t they be willing to scramble around gathering up bottles, and take them to the local shop to collect the deposit? If empty coke bottles were worth something, I’m certain that fewer would end up on roadsides and in rivers.
As for the Wid, I’ll be going back there over the next few weeks to check whether the Environmental Agency or the local council has leapt into action – and to see if the blackthorn is in bloom.