Some memories of working with Nigel as ‘Rivers’ wins the 2015 Marsh Book of the Year

Just over a year since Nigel died suddenly, some great news which would have pleased him immensely. Rivers has won the much coveted ‘Marsh Book of the Year’ 2015, a prize sponsored by the Marsh Christian Trust. The British Ecological Society awards the honour annually ‘to the book published in the last two years that has had the greatest influence on the science of ecology or its application’. Nigel may even have done a cartwheel for joy, just like he did in a water meadow by the River Test back in 1994 as we embarked on a series of ‘benchmarking’ visits to the very best rivers in the country (see Chapter 4 in the book).

Over the next 15 years we visited many dozens of top-notch rivers across Britain and Europe, and some of Nigel’s wonderful photographs in the book are from that series of visits. There were usually three or four of us in the team, with botanist Hugh Dawson a regular companion.

Alp x Team PhotoThe Dawson/Holmes/Raven river survey team in snowy Austria

Each visit had a serious purpose, but there were many memorable moments and adventures along the way. Some of the more bizarre memories included: a bone-chilling overnight stay in the Highlands at Altnaharra – which must have the coldest hotel in Britain; sitting out a snow-storm on the Cairngorms plateau in early June and having to use GPS to navigate downhill safely; a nail-biting landing on the Corran Ferry as a gale battered Loch Linnhe; Mark Everard climbing though a bathroom window at midnight to let us in to our B&B hotel in Ireland; the sudden appearance of armed soldiers from dense undergrowth as we were surveying the  River Wissey in East Anglia; and a pre-supper tick-extraction session after a day on Exmoor.

The Continental trips had several special moments as well. The spectacular limestone gorges in the Cevennes (south-east France) and Picos de Europa (northern Spain); midnight sunshine illuminating the Arctic tundra; and the seasonal rivers of southern Portugal.

Or Lady's S Hugh 1A nice surprise: Lady’s slipper orchid in fine fettle

Finding Lady’s-slipper orchid (orchids were another of Nigel’s passions) in the Austrian Alps; seeing beaver dams as we canoed down the Bierbrza and Drava Rivers in Poland; fresh bear footprints and poo as we surveyed mountain streams in Slovakia.  Skinny-dipping in the freezing cold Baltic after a traditional birch thrashing in a Finnish sauna; being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Lapland (midges did the same in west Scotland); some rather disturbing murals on the bedroom walls of our hostel accommodation in Bavaria; a white knuckle ride to Lyon airport after we’d badly misjudged the time it would take to get there; getting hideously lost in the Austrian Alps after I’d famously said that the hotel was ‘just around the corner’; Nigel capsizing a canoe in Slovenia and then diving down to retrieve some very wet cameras and notes. There’s a book full of stories about the fantastic scenery we saw – in all weathers – the adventures we had and the people we encountered. Nigel’s photographic record of the trips appear in the European benchmark reports available as free pdfs downloads on website

From this you’ll probably see why Nigel’s infectious enthusiasm, practical mindset and consummate skill with a camera shine through ‘Rivers’. And how my more prosaic, academic perspective (and fascination with historical documentary records) were a perfect match for writing what we both wanted – a book that had plenty of new perspectives for all those interested in British rivers. We also had a speedy way of drafting the book. Nigel was a famously early riser, whilst I work best in the evening. I could email a draft chapter to Nigel at midnight, knowing that his comments would be waiting in the in-box at 9am the next morning. The Marsh Award is a great honour and I’m privileged to have been asked by Nigel to write the book with him.

To celebrate winning the award, British Wildlife Publishing are offering signed copies of Rivers at the special discounted price of £25 (RRP £35) – call the office on 01865 811 316 to order.
More information at

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