Walking with… Ecologist and Researcher Tim Sykes

Yesterday I took a walk with Tim Sykes along the River Kennet from Avebury. Tim, an ecologist who works for the Environment Agency, contacted me via Twitter (@RiversAndPeople) in connection with his doctoral research with Southampton University, into people’s relationship with and perceptions of chalk stream winterbournes.

‘I am especially interested in contributions to happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, sense of place, place identity and attachmentI aim to contribute to the public health, blue health and nature connectedness agenda… and inform better Governance of water resources… properly valuing the true benefits & costs of water…’

Tim Sykes

We met at the National Trust car park on the edge of Avebury village, and made our way along the Kennet to Silbury Hill, Swallowhead Spring (one of the sources of the Kennet), and West Kennet Longbarrow.

Avebury is very much a part of my local patch, but as I started this research focusing on the Avon, I hadn’t yet included it or the River Kennet within my Queer River walks. I also hadn’t throught of this stretch of the Kennet as being a winterbourne, despite the act that it disappears during the summer months.

I made my first film and audio work Walking Back to Marden in response to neolithic monuments and their relationship with rivers, and included this area in the sites that I visited, alongside Marden Henge and Durrington Walls. I was also aware from my time working at Stonehenge on various projects in the past, of the role of chalk in the creation of henges and mounds, and of the flint that forms within the chalk in the creation of flint tools, but my knowledge of chalk streams until now has been fairly limited.

I knew that both the River Kennet and the Salisbury (or Hampshire) Avon are chalkstreams, that they are camparatively rare, and often threatened by over extraction of water, and pollution from agricultural run off. I had also begun discussions with artist Jac Campbell about the relationship between our river related practices, and a possible collaboration linked to our local chalk streams (Jac makes work about/with the River Lark in Suffolk) . But I hadn’t got much further than that.

As we walkied I made notes on paper and took photographs with my phone, which I later experimeted with printed over the pages of notes and drawings. As with all my walks, it’s hard to condense all that was discussed and explored into a single post, so alongside an increased awareness of what a chalkstream is, I’ve pulled out three key subjects that we discussed, which will inform and feed into future Queer River work.

Layered notes and images from our walk

Winterbournes – I learned from Tim that a winterbourne doesn’t have a be an entirely seasonal river, i.e. a perennial river like the river Kennet can have a stretch that is a winterbourne, like at Avebury, where the position of the spring head of the river changes with the seasons and weather. I also learned that certain species are adapted to living in/at the site of Winterbournes. I feel like I’ve gone from thinking about a winterbourne as a bit of a sad thing (as if it and all its inhabitants die or fail) to being a special kind of river that I need to know more about.

Aquifers – I guess I always had an image of some kind of underground pool of water when aquifers were mentioned. To be honest I’ve never really thought about them much before, but through talking with Tim now have a much clearer understanding of what they are and how they function, and they’ve really grabbed my imagination. Because chalk is permeable, in areas like mine, much of the water sits below the surface of the land, flowing within the chalk itself.

‘ I do think, when trying to help society become cognisant of aquifers, the messaging might think how to translate these hidden waterbodies into the equivelence of lakes like Loch Ness or Windermere that many people are familiar with – we have our very own Lake District in chalk-dry Wiltshire, its just that like an iceberg we only see it when it spills out to form springs and chalk streams.’

Tim Sykes

Rivers (more specifically chalk streams), and neolithic cultural practices (earthworks, rituals etc) – I’ve not got much more to say about this at the moment, apart from the fact that my walk with Tim really helped to connect this area of my practice, which I’d kind of put on hold, with my Queer River work, and that’s exciting.

The idea that a chalkstream is just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a much larger water body is really exciting too. In the past I’ve written about the way that rivers are seen as linear, that maps with thin blue lines, and agricultural or engineering practices that restrict rivers by encroaching on them, reinforce our idea of a river as an isolated ribbon of water that runs along the surface of the land, but the idea that a river goes below the ground, as Tim said, literally adds another dimension.

So thank you to Tim for your time, knowledge, and enthusiasm. I can feel a whole new chalky, watery world opening up to me!


I’m also on the look out for funded opportunities to share my Queer River work with the LGBTQi+ community, through events and workshops that support others to have similarly creative, hands-on experiences of their own local wetlands. If you’re part of an organisation who would be interested in working together on that, or would like to help support in another way, please do get in touch.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

40 thoughts on “Walking with… Ecologist and Researcher Tim Sykes

  1. Pingback: Walking on Chalk

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