Nature in the city: ‘The Foss is a neglected river’

River Foss angler David Findlay. Photographs: Jane Whitworth
27 Feb 2014 @ 8.52 pm
| Environment

 

A York resident has branded the River Foss an eyesore – which came as no surprise to Christopher Backhouse. Here he recalls a walk along the river last spring


All that healing art profess
Quack, Surgeon or MD
your glasses fill with blood red wine
and quaff a toast with me.
The pestle flourish round each head
Gleam high the lancets blade
and drink to Foss, pellucid Foss
the best friend of our trade
t’would be a real dead loss
if they were to purify the Foss

These lines are the last verse of an anonymous poem published in The Yorkshireman in 1846. The remaining verses can be read on The River Foss Society website.

It doesn’t surprise me that Fishergate resident Peter Mills has complained about the state of the Foss. I spent an hour strolling along its banks looking for wildlife in early March 2013 – a walk that started in Huntington Road by the paint peeling white railings opposite the old Grange Hospital.

What a disappointment!

A half submerged shopping trolley and a bicycle just visible in the green water, the litter strewn banks and graffiti covered brickwork suggested that little has improved here since 1846.

“The Foss is a neglected river,” called a fisherman, Gary Schofield, from the far bank.

Upstream, along the footpath, birdsong lifted the spirits. On the water, half tame Canada and Greylag geese vied with mallard for scraps thrown in by passers by.

A pair of shy water hens scuttled for shelter under the willows on the further bank. Betrayed by their droppings, feral pigeons were roosting among the girders of an old railway bridge.

I met David Findlay from Haxby, fishing for roach in the traditional way with a centre pin reel and bright red float.

He had caught 15 by the time I left and told me of other fish, dace, chub, gudgeon, pike and even trout to be found along the Foss.

Their presence suggests that the water is cleaner and purer than it looks although the absence of minnows – common in the Ouse – is surprising.

Lots of bird life

The path is broader and less muddy once past Yearsley Baths where it then skirts the sports fields of York St. John University.

As it does so the birds become more evident, I counted 20 different bird species, nothing unusual, just tits, magpies, crows, wood pigeons, wrens, and (my favourite), dunnocks.

It was nonetheless good to see a small flock of starlings, less common than they were.

On the bank budding daffodils and snowdrops mingle with garden escapees such as forsythia, kerria and hebe and promise a more colourful spring as do the terraced, waterside gardens on the left bank, some with tree houses, some boats, but most fringed with willows.

A large mastiff and its bulldog companion noisily guarded his territory. I shall spend another hour on the Foss later in the year.