It wasn’t the most elegant start to the day. The sculpture was trundled down to the Herefordshire riverbank on a sack truck borrowed from a builder before being bolted and strapped to a makeshift catamaran constructed out of two canoes.
But after that, it was much more graceful and serene as the peculiar vessel was pushed off into the current, and craft and carving, Our Lady of the Waters and the Wye, began to meander downstream.
The idea of the project, conceived by the artist Philip Chatfield and Fr Richard Williams, parish priest of St Mary’s church in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, is to raise awareness about the plight of the Wye, one of the most beautiful rivers in the west of Britain but suffering “heartbreaking” amounts of pollution from industrial chicken factories along its banks.
“The river is hideously polluted,” said Williams. “It’s heartbreaking to see the state it is in and the way the fish and other wildlife are being affected. Philip is a pal and we were chatting about it, trying to find a way of drawing some attention. We came up with the idea of a sculpture of Mary, who is a symbol of purity, cleanliness and fruitfulness, floating down the river.”
The Wye passes through the so-called chicken capital of the UK, where an estimated 20 million birds are farmed in the river’s catchment.
Excrement from the birds is rich in phosphates and is spread on the land as a fertiliser to encourage crop growth, but the land can no longer absorb the amount of manure being spread along the Wye, and the runoff is plaguing the river with what campaigners call “pea soup” algal blooms.
River plants are being suffocated, oxygen is taken from the water and fish such as brown trout suffer, as do kingfishers and other types of bird.
The voyage began at Hay bright and early on Monday when residents carried the sculpture down to the river and scattered rose petals over it from the bridge. Chatfield and keen local canoeist, Callum Bulmer, paddled the vessel – and pushed it through the shallowest parts.
A trumpeter and saxophonist played Bridge Over Troubled Water from a bridge as the catamaran passed and monks from Belmont Abbey performed Gregorian chants in its honor on Monday evening. During its 75-mile week-long journey to Monmouth via Hereford and Ross-on-Wye, the statue will be accompanied by riverside church bells, by canoeists and wild swimmers.
“It’s a very British sort of adventure,” said Chatfield. On Tuesday morning, he packed smoked salmon and beef sandwiches, a brolly and the lifejacket he wore when he was a crew member of the Maria Asumpta, the sailing ship that was wrecked off the coast of Cornwall in 1995. “But the message is important . It will appeal to people in different ways. Some may see something religious in it, others will focus on the environmental aspect. It was carved out of Scandinavian redwood by hand and we’re paddling by hand. I think there’s a lot of humanity in that. It can be a lot of things to a lot of people. If nothing else, it’s a nice statue floating down the river.”
He then pushed off from a pebbly beach in the Herefordshire village of Bredwardine in front of a curious crowd, among them Angela Vevers, a retired teacher. “It makes me feel emotional watching,” she said. It’s very important to draw attention to what is happening to this river. We need to take action when we can, not be afraid to speak out even if by speaking out you offend some people.”
Lyndon Eatough-Smith, the trumpeter, said he had been moved by the sight of the statue passing under the arches of the bridge at Bredwardine. “She seemed to glow.” He lives close to the Wye. “You notice when it is in flood how dark and silty it is.”
Naiya Goodwin, 13, added: “The river must be conserved. Future generations should be able to come here and swim as we have done this summer.”
Rachel Jenkins, a psychiatrist who has organized the itinerary for the expedition, grew up on the Wye and was horrified when she returned after time away to see how polluted it had become. “I was shocked by the collapse in fish stocks and insect life,” she said.
“Governments and agencies don’t seem to be able to get their act together and bring the farmers who are pouring stuff into the river to account. This may be a bonkers event but it is bringing people together. And it’s making people smile.”