Precious chalk stream in Bexley gets health boost

Press Release 23 February 20

Bexley residents and local wildlife can now enjoy a healthier river Cray where it flows through Foots Cray Meadows, Bexley.

Thames21 carried out work on an 800m stretch of the river downstream of Five Arches Bridge, to help it to flow more naturally and create more opportunities for plants, fish, and birds such as kingfishers and grey wagtails, to thrive. The work, which began in October and is scheduled to complete in March, involved adding small trees and large, twiggy branches to the water. This has the effect of encouraging the river to flow in a more ‘wiggly’ way, with faster, shallow areas and deeper, slower areas, which is what a river does naturally when not artificially straightened. Sourcing the wood on site and sensitively cutting back some of the smaller bankside trees will allow more sunlight to reach the riverbanks, helping plants to grow along the riverbank which is an important part of a healthy river system.

‘The Cray is a chalk stream and there’s only 200 or so of these in the world,’ said Clare Smith, Thames21 River Cray & Thamesmead Project Officer. ‘We’re really lucky to have such a special river right in the heart of Bexley. This project aims to re-wild this stretch of river and kickstart natural processes to make it healthier. By creating some quieter, less disturbed areas, we hope to enable fish to spawn more easily and make more space for wildlife like birds and fish. Working on this project has been really rewarding; we have worked closely with Bexley Council, the Environment Agency and local Friends groups from the early stages which has helped everything to run smoothly.’  

Completing these works during the pandemic was challenging, with restrictions meaning many of the volunteer events planned to help complete the work could not go ahead. When restrictions were eased, Thames21 ran popular socially-distanced walking tours for local residents so they could follow the progression of the works.

Brian Knights, a local resident and citizen scientist volunteer who helped with the project, said: ‘It’s wonderful that we have one of the few chalk streams in the world on our city doorstep and that such strenuous efforts are being made to improve its health and biodiversity whilst keeping it available for all of us to see and enjoy.’ 

The river Cray, as an urban chalk stream, faces many pressures. These include litter, plastic pollution and toxic chemicals from roads, and invasive species which spread across the riverbank and squeeze out other plants.  Manmade structures such as weirs and bridges have interrupted the natural flow of the river and blocked fish from being able to migrate upstream. All these pressures make it harder for wildlife such as birds, fish and the small creatures they depend on for food, to live there.

Foots Cray Meadows is a busy open space and the stretch of river being restored had become over-wide, over-shaded by trees and its riverbanks eroded by walkers and dogs. ‘Over-wide areas reduce the self-cleaning ability of the river and limit the range of species it can support,’ explained Ben Lord, Environment Agency Catchment Coordinator for the Medway catchments, North Kent, Darent & Cray, one of the project partners. ‘Adding woody debris into the river helps to resolve this, providing valuable habitat for a wide range of fish and insects to forage and feel protected, which will support other wildlife such as kingfishers.’  

He added: ‘Where we can, we should look to naturalise our waterways – it’s best for our wildlife and we can all benefit from what that offers us in return.’

 The project has also trained local people to carry out surveys on the river’s health, to help measure the impacts of the river restoration work.

‘We’ll monitor the changes in the river and look forward to seeing how it develops. We hope park users enjoy the rewilded river and spotting the wildlife!’ said Clare Smith.

This project, which aims to strengthen the relationships between the local community and their river, received funding from Enovert Community Trust, London Borough of Bexley and the Environment Agency. The works were done under a flood risk permit, and in consultation with the Darent and Cray Catchment Partnership.

Notes for editors

About Thames21

Thames21 connects people with rivers by putting healthy rivers back at the heart of everyday life. We improve and restore rivers, educate and empower the community and campaign for positive change for the good of people and the environment. | Registered Charity No. 1103997

Media Contact

Kirsten Downer

Communications Officer at Thames21

07711 701 696

020 7248 7171