Get Back Great Britain: The best way to go against the flow

Join Rob Cowan and Leo Critchley as they reconnect with the wonders of the British countryside.

Rarely nowadays do we encounter water that isn't chlorinated, filtered, distilled or vitamin-filled. Building a dam brings us back into contact with our wild streams and rivers, and their myriad inhabitants. It is a childhood joy worth resurrecting and returns us to what author John Cheever called "our natural condition".

With the possible exception of a bucket, everything needed to build a dam can be found in and around most streams. Small tributaries to bigger rivers are best; choose a quiet, free-flowing, pebbly stream between one and three metres wide and not more than half a metre deep. Look for narrow points where the water weaves around rocks or through protruding tree roots. Any dam must always have an alternative discharge route for the water to flow through; damming is about slowing, diverting and controlling the flow rather than stopping it. A good ratio is three-quarters of the stream for the dam and one quarter for the channel.

Lay down sturdy branches across the dam site to provide structural strength, bracing them against rocks at either end so the force of the stream holds them stationary. Next, prop broad, flat stones vertically against this frame to fill the cross section as quickly as possible. Now, pick smaller pebbles from the upstream side of the dam and place them between and against your larger rocks. The final layer is made of tiny pebbles, sand and silt applied to the upstream side and top. Make sure you cover any holes. Where the river previously ran at an even pace, the dam should hold back a still pool – the current being diverted down the channel to the side.

The first dam either of us had built for decades was an impromptu feat of engineering. We set out on a summer stroll along a brimming tributary of the river Teifi in Wales. Each step seemed to drive the temperature up a degree and after a few miles of draining our water supplies we took shelter under a weeping willow.

Eager to cool down in the water, we struck on the idea of building a dam and off came boots and socks. Fallen branches provided a good initial brace propped between the shore-bound and mid-stream rocks. We concentrated on taking the filler material from just upstream of the dam, helping to deepen the rising pool already forming. Eventually, nearly four-fifths of the stream's breadth was stilled. The pool was six or seven centimetres higher than downstream, more than 20cm deeper overall. In the calm pool we had created a small bath and with all hope of keeping our trousers dry abandoned, we took turns to luxuriate in the cool Welsh water.

Gerald of Wales wrote of seeing beaver dams on the Teifi in the 12th century, but our dam drew more piscatorial pioneers. No sooner had we left the water than minnows began to explore. A torpedo-shaped male stickleback followed, its red belly adorned for the spawning season.

In the interests of averting floods, all dams should be deconstructed at the end of the day. As the shadows lengthened we dismantled ours. On our walk back we felt restored too; by calming a stretch of water, we had also calmed ourselves.

'Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild' by Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley is out now (Hodder/Coronet, £14.99). Follow them on Twitter @robandleo

Some dam fine places

The Wye (England and Wales) Little tributaries all along this beautiful river run clean and clear, with abundant wildlife and plenty of damming materials, all in a tranquil setting.

The Dart, Devon Between its rapid rise in Dartmoor and where it turns tidal, below Totnes, it is branched with little rivers that are perfect for damming.

Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire Secret springs feed streams that streak across the heathery tops. From the iconic Cow and Calf Rocks, follow the tracks west to find hidden gorges and narrow becks.

River Dove, Peak District Arguably the most beautiful river in England, popularised by Izaac Walton's The Compleat Angler.

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific