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Musicians and speakers delight hundreds at Jesus Green midsummer celebration of the River Cam





The Celebration of the Rights of the River Cam is an upbeat midsummer event on Jesus Green, now in its fourth year, which brings together people concerned about the now-endangered river which had sewage dumped into it for 4,400 hours in 2023.

The river that has been enjoyed by swimmers including Lord Byron, Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf is looking increasingly forlorn as the pollution from sewage joins phosphate and nitrate discharges from farmland. Dangerous levels of the E coli bacteria have been found in the River Cam just weeks after it was declared an official bathing site for wild swimmers.

Friends of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom
Friends of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom

But it would be wide of the mark to suggest that this event - which brought hundreds of people out to picnic, talk, listen and sing - is anything other than a celebration of life and the possibility of renewal. The Friends of the Cam, who host the occasion, put together an incredibly varied programme starting mid-afternoon on the longest day of the year. Local campaigners including from Save Honey Hill shared their stories, cajoled the audience into singing, listened to The Lefty Men and Honey Hill choirs, and delighted in the shifts in mood and tone.

The awesome Lila Shaw-Mitchell sang Rabindranath Tagore poems arranged in Gaelic, followed by music from Kelly and Woolley, Mulberry Klezmer, 4Tunes Friends, Ki Luna & Mousey and the Frida-Violetta Band. ReSound, Pomegranate Multinational Choir and Cambridge Voices of Anatolia gave their all.

Tony Booth of Friends of the Cam listens to Liz Cotton of Save Honey Hill at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom
Tony Booth of Friends of the Cam listens to Liz Cotton of Save Honey Hill at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom

Among the high spots was Clara Todd’s poem, ‘Dear Spring: Nine Wells’, which describes how the water has been a constant for Cambridge from the days of “humans, hunched napping flints for the hunt” to today when “disrupted and disconnected, Hobson’s Brook no longer meets the Cam”. The reading concluded: “As kin, we acknowledge our grief, our guilt, and love”.

These feelings - grief, guilt and love - are the connecting themes linking this Cambridge campaign with other, similar, groups across the world. Every year the Friends of the Cam organisers offer a platform to a global speaker who inspires and informs the audience about the need to see water as sacred.

The gathering for the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom
The gathering for the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom

One year it was James Boyce, who lives in Tasmania: James connected the aboriginal struggle to continue their right to exist in their forebears’ land and culture with the eviction of people from the Fens at the start of the industrial age.

Last year it was Martin Hultman, the Swedish campaigner, academic and author, who asserts that toxic masculinity is preventing humanity from fully accepting the accelerating impact of climate change.

Clara Todd of Water Sensitive Cambridge at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom
Clara Todd of Water Sensitive Cambridge at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom

This year, after the audience had participated in the annual ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Cam’ reading, it was Paccha Turner Chuji, an Indigenous Kichwa from the Ecuadorian Amazon and a student at the University of Cambridge.

“Last year I swam in the river Cam near Grantchester Meadow,” she told the audience near Jesus Lock footbridge, “and it made me realise how ill and how wounded the river is.

“This pain and the state of health is also a reflection of the state of the wider land, of our society, of our planet. The pain of the river is not disconnected from the pain that all of us experience - the pain of indigenous peoples, of Palestinians, of refugees, of the homeless, of those who are dehumanised, objectified, forgotten…. The pain that all of us feel.

Indigenous Ecuadorian Paccha Turner Chuji speaks at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom
Indigenous Ecuadorian Paccha Turner Chuji speaks at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom

“The pollution, the destruction of the land, the displacement, the murder, the criminalisation of people in the name of modernity - and even today the so-called green transition - is carried by a system that does not care, feel or understand life, yet seeks to control and own it.”

She concluded: “Protecting, defending and healing life is an inherently relational act of resistance. Nothing more powerful than the power of life itself exists, and this holds love at its heart and essence. So let’s continue weaving and rekindle, reawaken our souls with hope and conscience, so we come to realise that we have the collective duty to protect the Fens and heal life, heal our rivers and all life on Earth so we can strive for and weave a free and just world. Solidarity to all of you, and my heart is with you.”

Tony Booth of Friends of the Cam at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom
Tony Booth of Friends of the Cam at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green, 21 June 2024. Picture: Mike Scialom

Afterwards, Paccha said that as a native Amazonian she "belongs to the collective and historical struggle of indigenous peoples, who hold a deep and millenary connection to our territories and have been defending, for centuries, our lands from extractive and colonial frontiers”.

“There is a present movement and a growing movement [in Cambridge] and organisations which focus on different types of struggle, so the community seems well-knitted,” she said.

“The music was really top notch this year,” said Clara Todd. “Lila Shaw-Mitchell was astounding. I love seeing how the event is growing every year. It was very well organised. We were lucky with the weather weren't we?”



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