Richard D North

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The Independent Online
Beware Englishmen who believe that they have an ancient right to defend. Watch, especially, when they are stiffened by retired SAS warriors. And prepare to run for cover when the cause is reinforced by the legal skills of a New Zealander, free of excessive respect for the British way.

All these types are in place as a group in Hereford prepares to take on the National Rivers Authority, "The Guardians of the Water Environment". The group wants to reopen the River Wye to big boats. It believes the river is dying, as abstraction by suburbanites, industry and farmers increases, and as the salmon fishermen defend their right to have the river shallow and undisturbed for their aristocratic sport.

War was, in effect, declared when a garage owner, Frank Barton (ex-SAS), made a stately progress up the Wye in his Dutch barge, whenever downpours sufficiently deepened the river, to Hereford. Mr Barton believes that with locks and weirs reinstated, such a voyage could be accomplished practically year-round. He called his boat The Wye Invader, and the mood was set: the barge remains at the Old Bridge in the city, beached but defiant.

Whatever the merits of the idea that the whole of the Wye be returned to navigation, there is at least one place where restored use by tourist boats would be wonderfully romantic. At Symonds Yat, the Wye takes hairpin bends through 400ft gorges with hanging woods and breeding peregrines. It was here in the late 18th century that William Gilpin invented the notion of the Picturesque, and brought people to see it from the water. He intended the word to convey almost the exact opposite of its present meaning. Rugged, wild loveliness, but the furnaces and factory smoke were also exciting to the tourists of the time.

Anyway, at Symonds Yat there is a boatman, Tony Gardiner, the fourth generation to have plied his trade here. At the moment his 50-seaters can do a half-hour spin on what is really the dullest mile or so of this breathtaking place. Mr Gardiner believes that the minimum of river engineering would enable him to show people a 10-mile stretch of the river's most breathtaking sights, of which he is an authoritative guide. To demonstrate that there need be no ecological damage from boat traffic, he can point to a kingfisher sitting on the bank within a couple of metres of his idling cruiser. Minutes later, a huge salmon leaped between us and a mass of gaudy canoes.

These two men are part of a group which is resuscitating the Company of Proprietors of the Rivers Wye and Lugg Navigation and Horse Towing- Path. "Established by Act of Parliament, 1662 and incorporated by Act of Parliament, 1809" runs the line at the bottom of its letters, often under the signature of the New Zealander, Victor Stockinger, who styles himself "The Governor" of the ancient entity.

Goodness knows whether these men can really inherit the Wye and Lugg Navigation, and it is even less sure what powers that ancient company might now have. Certainly, the NRA is rattled enough to be actively seeking legal authority to repel the boarders. They'll see each other in court fairly soon.

When I try to suggest that the NRA is one of our better quangos, the putative owners of the Navigation roll their eyes and insist that the public watery guardian is in bed with water companies and with the county's fishy hierarchy. For its part, the NRA can point out that the Wye is one of the most natural rivers in the civilised world. Its officials also insist they are not necessarily against increased navigation.

Any attempt to do engineering on the Wye will meet intense opposition from conservationists, who always think man's hand works against nature. For my part, I want to drink a bottle of wine on a summer's day on board a boat cruising the loveliest place in inland England. Where Nelson was rowed, I too should like to disport myself.