The River Wye is one of a number of important chalk streams in the Chilterns and is approximately 16km (10.5 miles) long rising in the Chalk springs to the north-west of High Wycombe falling some 60 meters to its confluence with the River Thames at Bourne End near Cookham Lock. Its principal tributaries are the Hughenden Stream and the Wycombe Marsh Brook. Agriculture, including arable farming, is the dominant land use in the area and the geology is mainly Chalk. Chalk Rivers like the River Wye are important habitats in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The source of the River Wye is Cockshot Farm to the north-west of West Wycombe, although following heavy rains it has been seen to rise beyond Radnage. It then flows down the valley for around 5.1 km (3.2 miles) through West Wycombe to the centre of High Wycombe before ultimately flowing into the Thames. The upper reaches of the river are rural in character, with open fields and hedgerows.
One major tributary, the Hughenden Stream, rises from springs in the Hughenden Valley and flows to join the Wye in the centre of High Wycombe, the town taking part of its name from the river. The character of the river now becomes more urban and confined with the watercourse being culverted running mostly underground through the town centre.
The Wye historically is very important. Its waters attracted human life into the Wye Valley and led to the development of the settlements that lie along its course. The Wye was a source of food and water and also the power that at one time drove over 30 mill wheels along its length. The date of the first mill is unknown, but by the time of the Domesday Book (1086) 20 mills are recorded. Many of the mills that initially ground corn into flour or made ‘fulling’ cloth later changed to making paper, for which the Wye Valley became a major centre. With its close proximity to the Chiltern woodlands the river also powered saw mills and other machinery that supported the local furniture industries. Pann Mill, at the eastern end of Wycombe, is the last remaining watermill on the River and kept milling corn commercially until 1967. The last paper mill, Glory Mill, ceased production in 1999. The Wye has suffered in the past from high abstraction rates for public water supply though these are now decreasing. The river has a history of being badly affected by industrial discharges and became quite polluted although conditions have improved in recent years.
The Wye has been given the Hydromorphological designation by the Environment Agency of a heavily modified river. The total catchment area of this upper section of the Wye is 68.8 km2 (26.8 miles2).
|2009 Cycle 1||2016 Cycle 2||Objectives|
|Water body status overall||Moderate||Bad||Good by 2027|
|Ecological Status||Moderate||Bad||Good by 2027|
|Chemical Status||Does not require assessment||Good||Good by 2015*|
*As reported in Environment Agency's WFD Classification Status Cycle 2 v3 data set published 18th May 2017.
As can be seen from the table above, in 2016 the Environment Agency classified the water body status overall as Bad. This is primarily due to the Ecological Status of the system being classified as Bad due to a Bad Biological Quality Component primarily related to the fish element. This results from various old mill weirs existing along the river together with the long culverted section through the centre of the town preventing the free movement of fish up the water course. The invertebrates, macrophytes and phytobenthos elements were classified as Good however. For the Physicochemical quality component Phosphate, possibly arising from sewage discharges, was the one element that stopped this achieving High status. However, the overall water body status for the upper section of the Wye is predicted to improve to Good by 2027.
You can find out more about the classification of rivers in our catchment by using the Environment Agency’s Catchment Data Explorer