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How the Cam's new river manager is aiming to make the most of the waterway

Trip down the Cam with River Manager Tom Larnach from Waterbeach office Cam Conservancy, Clayhithe Office, Clayhithe Road, Waterbeach, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell
Trip down the Cam with River Manager Tom Larnach from Waterbeach office Cam Conservancy, Clayhithe Office, Clayhithe Road, Waterbeach, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell

Cutting through the heart of Cambridge, the River Cam is as integral to the city's character as any of its most renowned buildings or quirky traditions.

Between Mill Pit in the centre of Cambridge and Bottisham Lock north of Waterbeach, it’s managed by the Conservators of the River Cam (where the bank isn’t privately owned).

It’s a mammoth job, but the Conservator’s new river manager, Tom Larnach, is determined to help residents make the most of the waterway.

An engineer who joins the Conservators from the oil industry, Tom told the Cambridge Independent: “The Conservancy realises that the river is changing, the needs of the people on the river have changed. We’re hoping to work together and do some good.”

Tom says it might be the busiest stretch of river in the country, and the number of different groups who use the river have historically made the job a challenge.

“Conflict of interest causes the greatest amount of issues on the river. Different groups have different priorities. At the moment it’s a difficult situation but I like to think of myself as a people person and I’m happy to engage with all users of the river to help resolve conflict where it may arise within our remit.”

These different groups have been known to get under each other’s skin, jostling for space in busier stretches of the water, and while Tom says a new rowing lake, as is proposed by Milton Country Park Trust, would relieve some of the congestion, the best way to resolve conflict is to improve communication.

“My aim is that everybody enjoys the river and does so safely and has a good time,” Tom continued. “It’s a beautiful place and it should be enjoyed by everybody. For me it’s getting everybody to work together and understand each other’s needs, and to recognise and respect other people on the river. It’s about mutual respect, and when people start engaging things will change. It would be great to have an event to get people who use the river all together.”

Despite how busy the river is, it’s remarkably healthy thanks to decades of care on its banks. Biodiversity is flourishing, Tom says, and while there are threats from invasive species such as pennywort there are hidden gems along the length of the towpath that few people venture out to enjoy.

Rowers and riverboaters are by no means the only groups who make the most of the river, and the Conservators are making moves to encourage more people to explore it.

A team of three operational staff have been protecting the banks and creating new habitats along the river, and the success of their work has been proven by the Cam’s thriving inhabitants. Signs of water voles are present in multiple locations and the Conservancy is also providing habitats for owls, long-eared bats and kingfishers.

“Just the towpath alone is fantastic,” Tom said, “From the humdrum of the city, which can be quite a chaotic place, you can travel just half an hour down this path and you’re into beautiful countryside.

“We maintain the banks and the towpath, we cut the grass, we trim the hedges so that cyclists and runners can come down here. In the summer people bring their families for a walk, there are fishermen in the fishing season and there are benches here so you can sit for a picnic.”

Fishing platforms made from a recycled plastic composite have been installed along sections of the bank, and pilings to protect the towpath in areas that won’t disturb the river’s fauna.

Tom says it’s this kind of work that will help protect the amenity of the river for generations to come, and in these cases providing space for recreation can do much to help protect the river’s habitats.

“We’re really encouraging people to get out on the river and enjoy it,” Tom said.

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