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THE HISTORIC RIVER. 1991. Cobden of Cambridge Press, Cambridge. Illustrated by Y. Bower. 332 pp. ISBN 0-9517963-0-5.

Available from: Amolibros


This book is about the wealth of heritage around our rivers, that which has been transmitted from our ancestors, from past ages. Rivers have been used by man since time immemorial, and much still remains, of the use of the past few centuries at least. Much of this past is unrecognised – so is liable to unnecessary destruction.

This is a European book. Quite as fascinating material is surely found elsewhere (the author has seen some, in USA). Fieldwork has been principally in Belgium, Britain, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Gozo, Guernsey, Luxembourg, Madeira, Mallorca, Malta, Menorca and The Netherlands. It is a book to interpret and, it is hoped, illuminate the rivers as they can now be seen. It is not a book on deep history; it gives only as much past history as is needed to appreciate the present rivers. Here pictures are quite as important as written records: illuminations, principally from the fifteenth and sixteen centuries, woodcuts, principally from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, paintings from the seventeenth century and photographs from the nineteenth century. Anyone can start studying with a visit to the local river and local art gallery. It is not a subject restricted to specialists or experts, it is an awareness of the human environment of rivers. Anyone becoming interested in pollution and vegetation aspects of rivers may wish to read the other books by the author cited in the Bibliography (n.b., River Plants of Western Europe (Haslam, 1987) is a very academic text!).

Dividing the material into chapters has proved exceptionally difficult – one man’s transport is another man’s invasion, a riverside garden may be an ornament and a health hazard. I apologise to all who disagree with my solutions to these knotty problems.

The book is not a full and final treatise on navigation, drainage, wells, floods or whatever. These are individually covered in many books. It is, rather, an introduction to the general historic environment of the river.

The text refers to the Domesday Book. For non-English readers, in 1066 Duke William of Normandy conquered England, and became King William I, William the Conqueror. To determine the resources of the kingdom, he instituted a survey – described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1086, as surveying the country so carefully that there was not a hide (a measure of land) in England of which he did not know who held it and how much it was worth. This was used as the ultimate reference for centuries and soon became known as Domesday Book. A doom was a decree, a judgement, and the book judged all impartially, as the Lord will on Judgement Day. There was no appeal against the Book.

The author recommends that, after reaching the end of the book, readers return to Chapter 2 and see, in particular, the illustrations: which will then be more illuminating.

Preface and Acknowledgements
Chapter 1 Water: an essential element
Chapter 2 The past in the present
Chapter 3 Water supply
Chapter 4 To feed the nation and supply materials
Chapter 5 The source of power and site of industry
Chapter 6 Transport by land and water
Chapter 7 Crossing the river
Chapter 8 How river towns grow
Chapter 9 The placing and purpose of settlements
Chapter 10 River-farms and villages
Chapter 11 Waste disposal: pollution
Chapter 12 Threats from the river
Chapter 13 For ornament and recreation
Chapter 14 Holy and healing waters
Chapter 15 Conclusions
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