Our attempt to clean the River Leen

I had spent 6 weeks watching the baby water fowl grow from small balls of fluff to almost-adults. And while their size changed by the week, there remained the need to paddle furiously round beer cans, burger containers, giant clumps of foam, a huge exercise ball and anything else that ended up resting and collecting in large clumps on the river weed, making litter-islands around which the babies had to struggle.

And one day, there was a perfect Moses basket thrown in, which whilst looking momentarily Biblical, was both alarming and depressing.

I had gone past the inevitable shopping trolleys and was increasingly angered by the marring of this lovely river.  Tellingly, one of the trolleys was dumped right next to an information sign informing us of all the nature in and beside the river.  Two worlds colliding:

Part of society wanting to educate people about our natural surroundings and inculcate some appreciation of it, while others see it as a canvas for their malaise.


It was all too reminiscent of this art-reflecting-life:

My new cycle to work takes me along part of the River Leen through Bulwell. What ought to have been a bucolic start and end to my day left me increasingly sad and frustrated.  Whilst the Leen was bedecked with beautiful wild flowers, the river strewn with lush river weeds and ducklings and cygnets paddled behind their parents, too much of the waterway was cluttered and blockaded with litter.

Each day brought a new low in what humans thought fit to throw in there; if not the sheer quantity of detritus, then the alarming nature of it. Plastic bottles and bags and polystyrene seem to be a tragic ‘given’, but it was a giant jerry can with a toxic waste emblem on the side that ultimately galvanised me into action.

poison pic

For now, the Leen is a clear river; you can actually see the wildlife in it down to the river bed, in places.   My dad, years ago, once pointed to the canal in Langley Mill and recounted how he used to go swimming in it as a child, when he could see the plants at the bottom, decades ago.  We stood there, looking at the impenetrable brown that it now was.  I couldn’t imagine how it was ever once transparent.  But the Leen is, and I really don’t want that to change.  No-one should.  And yet too many people are treating it with absolute contempt.


So I called someone to find out who was responsible for cleaning the river.  I began with:

the Environment Agency who told me to call…

the River Ways who told me to call…

Nottingham City Council who told me call…

Nottingham County Council who told me to call…

Severn Trent who told me to call….

Nottingham City Council who told me to call…

Nottingham County Council.

Seven calls later and no one, it seemed, had the faintest clue who was responsible for that stretch of river.

I called Bestwood Country Park Rangers’ office and left a message, but they didn’t get back.

So I decided to try to find out myself, and on a great Government site (which I now can’t find as I didn’t realise this would all end up being a ‘thing’ for which I would need to cite sources) I discovered that part of the process of removing a shopping trolley involved a 3 month wait for someone in the chain-of-caring-enough to actually get up and do something.

But I’m impatient and think that’s pathetic and of no use to anyone. Not least the ducklings braving the Tesco barricades.

And along my searches I also found out that citizens can write to their local Magistrates courts to ask for a:

Litter Abatement Order Request

Once issued, the clean up must be completed within a specific time and that non-compliance is punishable by up to £2,500.

I typed my letter out and had it good to go, but a few days of heavy rain washed a lot of the litter away so I didn’t think it looked ‘bad enough’ (!) to warrant such a measure, so stood down.

But now you all know about it, feel free to get requesting – and they aren’t specific to the cleaning of rivers.

But what I didn’t know then but do now is that an app exists…..

To report trolleys in rivers!! 

And for each trolley recovered, a donation is made to the Trees for Cities charity (who knew this existed?)

In a Telegraph report on 23rd Feb. 2009, British Waterways said:

more than 3000 trolleys are dumped in rivers each year

That’s a lot of donated trees.

Please see these articles for details about the app…




But I didn’t know any of that then and I could stand it no longer. So I got in the river myself.


But not before asking a former pupil of mine, Sorrel (16), who I knew to be a keen naturalist and wildlife photographer, to join my mission to Clean the Leen.  She was on board at once.

Sorrel came second in the Nottingham Post Student Awards in the Environment category for her amazing wildlife photography and ecological work. Her photography is stunning and captures wildlife in their natural habitats. All of the photos on this Clean the Leen blog are by her.

This, however, is her own fabulous blog and includes examples of her art work and photography:


So on 23rd July, Sorrel and I went to the Leen, starting by the Riverside in Bulwell, to remove as much rubbish as we could and to photograph not only the mess but the beauty and the variety of the nature to be found amidst the pollution.

In only a couple of hours, this is what was pulled out:

6′ floor lamp
2 shopping trolleys
fire extinguisher
swimming pool ‘noodle’ float
an adult’s coat
rubber gloves
brand new metal mixing bowl
ceramic bowl
bike lock
mobile phone
inner tube
broken mirror
whole pint glass
plastic skirting board
rubber tubing
big  piece of polystyrene
long pole (probably a fishing net, minus the net)
petrol cap
many, many, too many to count:
beer bottles
soda cans
plastic bottles
plastic bags

The following photos show only a small portion of what we put in bins and dumpsters back in Bulwell.

DSCN5602 DSCN5639 DSCN5693

“Robin Evans, chief executive of British Waterways, said supermarkets would be shamed into action.”

Except I don’t agree with Mr Evans; I resent the glaring omission of any suggestion of personal responsibility – it’s not the supermarkets who are pushing trolleys in the rivers! His comment does nothing but deflect the focus from the perpetrators and smacks too much of blaming the householder for leaving the window open rather than the burglar who carries out the crime.

And more recently, in another report by the BBC on 15th April 2015:

150 trolleys were removed from River Avon in Bath on one day

when the river was being dredged to reduced flooding risk.

Meanwhile, back in Bulwell, as we struggled with just the 2 trolleys…..

Quotes from passers-by:

  • As Sorrel and I were watching a school of Chub, a man in his 60s commented on how there used to be Pike and Trout and many other fish in the river.  I asked why he thought their numbers had declined, to which he replied:

“Well the foreigners will eat owt.”

Me: You’re not seriously blaming foreign people for the decline in fish stocks?  You don’t think it might have anything to do with all this pollution and litter mostly British people will have chucked in?

Him:  Well the Poles are eating all the carp.  But I’d better be careful what I say.

  • Two men, late 20s:

“Well done, but it’ll all just be back again in a few days.”

  • Woman, 50s:

“I tried to call the district council about the litter, but they didn’t want to know.  There’ll be more rubbish in the river soon enough.”

  • Man, 40s:

“Are you two doing this on your own? Well done.”

  • Cyclist, 40s:

“Let me give you my number.  I work with offenders and community groups who clear up waterways.  Maybe I can help.” [He then helped me haul the second of the day’s shopping trolleys up the bank]

  • Woman, 30s, in Bulwell as we pushed the trolleys back to Tesco:

“Are they out the river?  Thank you.”


What Sorrel identified:


  • Essex SkipperNottingham river wildlife
  • Small Whiteriver leen pollution
  • Large White
  • Green-veined White
  • Comma
  • Gatekeeper
  • Meadow Brown
  • Red Admiral
  • Ringlet
  • Speckled Wood
  • Small Tortoiseshell
  • Small Blue

Other Wildlife

  • Banded Demoisellesnotts river wildlife
  • Common Carder Bee
  • White-tailed Bumblebee
  • Red-tailed Bumblebee
  • Leafcutter Bee sp.
  • Brown Rat

Best Birds

  • Dipper (1)river ecologySorrel went on to ask the Notts County bird recorder if there are many Dippers in the county, only to be told they were a major rarity and weren’t even annual. And the fledgling one she spotted reveals that breeding is taking place.  Her sighting was the first in the county in 3 years. Well done her!
  • Grey Wagtail (1)nottingham river
  • Goldfinch

George’s feelings at the end of day:

Largely emotional- as brought on by:

  • Being so exhausted from lugging such heavy and water-logged things up banks and out of the river, and pushing a trolley each a good mile, with wheels that didn’t work across footpaths and town centre.
  • Overwhelmed by the size of the haul after only a few hours and on such a small stretch of water.  It all seems so hopeless.  Nevertheless, steeled by the apathy of people effectively wondering why we’re bothering, seeing as it will be just as littered in a few days.  That doesn’t mean we all should stand by and do nothing.
  • The beautiful sight of a water rat swimming on, then under the surface, in the currently clear water, surrounded by the unforgivable mess made by man in its habitat.
  • Watching the ducklings/baby coots and moorhens paddling their hearts out round one plastic bottle then another and then trying not to get entangled in a load of plastic, in order to catch up with their mums just made me so very sad.  Despite us, nature does its best to plough on regardless.  But it’s not good enough. We’re so staggeringly selfish and unthinking of consequences.

Sorrel’s feelings at the end of the day

“I was truly shocked by the amount of litter we fished out of the river in just a couple of hours, I don’t understand how people can throw all sorts of litter into such a beautiful environment without a thought to the consequences.

However, seeing the vast array of wildlife along the river also amazed me, and gave me hope; we recorded 12 species of butterfly, 4 species of bee, and the really quite large numbers of Banded Demoiselle damselflies was impressive. The birdlife was also very interesting, a Grey Wagtail was lovely to see, but what was astonishing was that we saw a Dipper on the river, which aren’t even seen in the county on an annual basis!

Whilst there was a sense that our efforts were in vain according to onlookers, the amount of wildlife already present was a promising indication of just how the river ecosystem will thrive without the litter leaking toxic chemicals into the food chains, and greatly affecting the wildlife.”

And so, just for now, good that there will be more litter – as we will be able to document the ongoing, relentless nature of it all before we can hopefully try to make people care a little more.

And while you’re waiting for us to report on our next clear up, here’s something you can be doing:

I had no idea that so many opportunities exist to alert relevant people to problems in our communities – after a dispiriting start, it turns out there are sites like this one, where you can check out what has been reported to the council, what they have fixed and how you can report things that need fixing to make our environment better:


And here’s a site helping you to start a community river clean up of your own:


Sorrel and I are trying to be even a tiny change that we want to see in the world which now includes me going up to perfect strangers and appealing to some sense of decency…

Upon witnessing a young man launch a 2 litre plastic bottle into the lake behind my house:

“PLEASE don’t throw your stuff in the lake, please!” I implored of him.  I went on.

“Well it’s my first time to this lake,” said he; “I’ve never been here before. I didn’t know.”