The Waterlight Project

The Waterlight Project — inspired by the River Mel, a chalk stream in Cambridgeshire — began as a film collaboration between two ClimateCultures Members: poet Clare Crossman and filmmaker James Murray-White, with a website developed by ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe. The project team has since grown to include local expert Bruce Huett and another filmmaker, Nigel Kinnings.

‘crossings’ by Clare Crossman from Waterlight Project on Vimeo.

Although the full project film has not yet been released online, the site includes a number of short films.

Exploring a chalk stream

The project’s 40-minute film, Waterlight, is based on a sequence of nine poems first published by Clare in her collection The Blue Hour (Shoestring Press, 2017). The poems themselves are a response to this small chalk stream, which runs for only 12 miles from its source, through the villages of Melbourn and Meldreth — close to where Clare lives — to its confluence with the Rhee, which then flows into the Cam.

Showing fishing in the Mel in past years - from Pictorial Melbourn
Fishing in the Mel
Pictorial Melbourn
The Melbourn Village History Group

Clare, James, Bruce and Nigel share an interest in the local communities, people and places along the Mel. While their project has centred on the creation of the film, this has been completed after many sessions with local school children, poets, experts and other residents, and this wealth of material is reflected in the project website. The site showcases information gathered from local social and natural histories, along with brand new river stories and poems created by local people taking part in the project’s special events. As well as interviews with river dwellers, there is also music — composed for the project by folk singers and musicians Penni Mclaren Walker and Bryan Causton — as performed at a Waterlight event in Melbourn to celebrate the river Mel. 

Waterlight tune – Penni Mclaren Walker and Bryan Causton from Waterlight Project on Vimeo.

And the film itself, though starting life as a poem film, has broadened its scope to include conservation issues, and the music of Vaughan Williams who collected songs in the area in 1906. The film follows the river, its mill ponds, mills, ditches, and risings and is a hymn to water and the potential lack of it.

A small bridge on a chalk stream Photograph by Bruce Huett
Small bridge on a chalk stream
Photograph: Bruce Huett © 2019

Creativity in place

This project shows the power of bringing a creative focus to a particular place and involving the local community. It’s been collecting much praise from people and organisations — local and far afield — as well as approaches from local reporters and queries from others thinking about developing similar projects in their areas.

“Your poetry and the Waterlight film were greatly enjoyed by everyone. I thought the eclectic mix of genres in the film was so special and genuinely unique in my experience. It was a wonderful word and picture image of ‘place’ and human belonging, of local history, social history, natural history and much more. The weave of the stream’s images and sounds with your descriptive poetry was technically excellent and deeply memorable. I can’t wait to see it again.”

Stephen Tompkins
hairman of Cam Valley Forum (supporting river conservation in the Cam Valley), Fellow and former Head of Science at Homerton College, Cambridge

“Very positive screening here this afternoon at Expressing the Earth, with the Scottish Geopoetics Institute here in the Borders… Most folk loved the range of ways we covered the river, and the organiser raved about it showing off the best of British folklore culture, something he craves as a Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Luing. And one of the participants, a film-poet, was in tears: turns out she grew up in Melbourn and it took her right back to a happy childhood in the Mel! She’d love to join us for a screening some time, when she’s back in Cambridge.”

James Murray-White
feedback from viewers of a Waterlight screening at a conference in Scotland

Clare says that “the ultimate outcome is to provide a focus on chalk streams, their heritage and conservation — but also to be involved in film poetry events and collaborate with others who have made films, written music, taken photographs, drawn pictures or written poems about rivers. It’s about creating a meeting point of ideas about the natural world, the communities who live there and the water in it, whether this be at arts centres, galleries or festivals — literary or green!”

And James says “Waterlight has been a tremendous project to work on — a synergy between the written and spoken word, the medium of film, and the active doing of river conservation and engagement. I’ve been actively setting up future screenings on my travels over the summer. We are hoping that venues and festivals from Ashburton in Devon, Priston Festival outside Bath, and venues in Cumbria will screen the film in the autumn, during special events where our humble river Mel meets creativity inspired by their own local rivers! And I’m actively talking with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the David Attenborough building here in Cambridge about a special screening soon. We hope all the project’s friends and supporters can attend. Details to be announced on our website shortly. Here’s to river conservation and engagement! In fact, I’ve spent so much time promoting the project this summer I’ve spent little time on any rivers, kayaking — but I have had some special wild swims up and down the breadth of Albion!” 

See The Waterlight Project website for further information and developments, as well as film clips, poems, stories, project diary and blog.