River Lark and Mildenhall changes and swimmers

EDIT: swimmers are to be consulted, as part of wider discussion, and in a meeting with EA 27 June. Some updates have emerged, https://www.suffolknews.co.uk/newmarket/news/flood-fix-sparks-fields-project-9251637/, more info in the minutes of the full council 31 March 2022, https://www.mildenhall-tc.gov.uk/documents.html?query=&tag=Minutes&sort=latest&submit=Filter

Changes are planned for the river Lark between Barton Mills (cut-off channel junction) and just downstream of Mildenhall, under several of the BFER projects over the next few years. These will have implications for swimmers and other recreational users of the river, and there are opportunities to ensure that our views are heard and for swimmers to get involved with the river restoration and improvement (particularly local swimmers). (This post outlines what I have read or been told, with links where possible; I have no role in the plans.)

The changes are intended to improve the river as a habitat for wildlife and its water quality and to restore it to a more natural chalk stream and end the barriers to fish traversing the river, after a long period as a river modified to be a navigation channel. The changes at Mildenhall are inevitable because the current river level and embankment is unaffordable and unsustainable to maintain. The projects aim to balance the interests of different users and those impacted by the shape of the river in the detail of how they carry out these changes.

The projects are:

1.1 River Lark Channel Restoration

1.2 Sea to Chalk: Restoring Sea Trout and Eels

1.4 Barton Mills Sluice

(details of all BFER projects here, www.brecks.org/BFER/projects/)

The changes as currently proposed as a choice of two options (with many details still to be decided and worked up in detail) are:

  • to lower the Barton Mills sluice just downstream of the A11, but not to allow access under the A11.
  • to bypass Gas Pool Sluice via the back channel (the branch of the river that goes behind the Riverside Hotel), possibly removing the structure/s
  • to put in a fish pass structure at Turf lock
  • These three changes will have the impact of lowering the water levels between Barton Mills and Gas Pool, by levels varying along the stretch, with mention of 1.5m, but less in some parts
  • to insert a large 1.3m high riffle 190 m upstream of the Mildenhall Jubilee Fields footbridge, so that there are higher water levels upstream of that point than below it
  • to carry out further river restoration measures including pools, berms and riffles
  • potentially some other improvements in Jubilee Fields and river access points, subject to landowner and project leader discussion, funding decisions, agreements.

Who is involved in this?

The Environment Agency is the main organisation that will carry this out, working with the River Lark Catchment Partnership and with the Norfolk Rivers Trust.

Stakeholder engagement

So far consulted: those specifically affected such as Parker’s Mill and the Riverside Hotel, Suffolk County Council, Suffolk Wildlife Trust (who manage the Norah Hanbury reserve), fishing groups, and others including the Town Council. There is an opportunity for swimmers and other recreational groups to become more involved and to be consulted on this.

There is also an opportunity for swimmers and other locals to get involved in organisations and activities within the River Lark Catchment Partnership (RLCP) (http://riverlark.org.uk/index.php/about/; https://www.facebook.com/River-Lark-Catchment-Partnership-165766287350215/), and as swimmers to become formally recognised as stakeholders. One of the best ways is to join the RLCP as an individual member or as a group (which is free, http://riverlark.org.uk/index.php/join-us/ – hover and download two forms from the drop down menu).

There are practical ways to get involved in the river restoration, in this area later in the projects via the Mildenhall Group of RLCP (local contact/link to follow, or join RLCP), or in Bury Water Meadows Group (https://www.burywatermeadowsgroup.org.uk/join-us/).

See information on the ecological status of the river, https://environment.data.gov.uk/catchment-planning/WaterBody/GB105033043051

The outcome of all these changes is likely to be a more natural river, which will be faster flowing, clearer with less weed and algae, with some pools, and possibly a large deeper stretch upstream of the easterly end of Jubilee Fields.

This could be beneficial for swimmers, with potentially a deeper pool for swimming, clearer and cleaner water, and a more attractive river. However some areas, particularly along the western part of Jubilee Fields and the channel towards Gas Pool (and the popular Gas Pool itself, perhaps) will become more shallow and more unsuitable for swimming. Jumping off the footbridge or sluice (a popular pastime for local young people) would no longer be possible. (This practice is neither condoned or condemned by me, though it is condemned by others, and is prevented by bylaws from any EA structure. Anyone considering jumping off a bridge or a structure must do it only if they know exactly what they are doing, have checked the depth and for obstructions, and ensured they are used to the cool water before doing so.)

Contact me if you’re interested in getting involved or hearing more.

bridge over the river, boy jumping, splash
Jubilee Fields footbridge – with jumping boy, watched by his family. He had assessed and was experienced in doing so

The Healing Waters project (dates and info) held an introduction to outdoor swimming day at Mildenhall Jubilee Fields 6 June 2021 and another on 29 May 2022, and these gave an opportunity to engage with local swimmers, connect them with the river Lark and with the organisations and changes to the river. The project is also planning to survey all the rivers in the Breckland project area, looking for suitable swimming places in 2021. For the river Lark, that survey would need to be modified to consider the future shape of the river, perhaps by repeating it later in the project.

from river looking at bank
Jubilee Fields from the river

Some information about places people could and do swim at Mildenhall and Barton Mills and at a variety of locations in Breckland, including Barton Mills upstream/east of the A11.

Some thoughts on swimming and river water quality and how to assess it, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/rivers-not-fit-to-swim-in/