Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield
Right to Thrive

KINCA: "The Don is something that's going to last way beyond me – us – and that's comforting"

Kelham Island & Neespend Community Alliance's Yvonne and Rob spoke to us about the Don's industrial heritage and how we can build access, connection and understanding to the river.

Yvonne and Rob Mc Menemy

Yvonne McMenemy and Rob McMenemy next to the River Don at Kelham Island.

Yvonne McMenemy
In collaboration with River Dôn Project logo

Right to Thrive explores local people's connections to the River Don through a collection of generative interviews. In this series we encourage people to question extractive, human-centred views of nature in favour of recognising and celebrating its right to thrive.

Yvonne McMenemy and Rob McMenemy are members of Kelham Island & Neespend Community Alliance (KINCA), which exists to improve and develop those areas of the city with engagement from the community. Historically and to this day, the area is characterised by its deep association with the River Don. From their home in the city centre, Yvonne and Rob see the river every day.

Thanks for accepting the invitation to talk to us. Why is it important for you to have a conversation about the River Don? Why did you say yes?

[Yvonne] Well, we moved to Sheffield six years ago now from a village in the countryside, but very much wanted to get back to having an urban experience. So we've become involved with KINCA and we do various projects for them, including the newsletter, but I'm also a trustee and secretary for the Upper Don Trail Trust, which has the ambition to have a walk following the Don right up from the city centre to Langsett [reservoir].

[Rob] I'm also involved in similar projects in the area. It's a big part of our life now. We live in the centre of the city and the river’s running right past us. So it's something that kind of touches us all the time.

[Yvonne] We see it every day!

What drew you specifically to activity related to the Don? What was it about the river?

[Yvonne] When we moved here, we ended up living on the river, in the riverside apartments. I think the view was that we’d moved from the countryside and therefore there would be no wildlife, no anything.

It was just joyful for us to watch the river every day and to see kingfishers in closer proximity than we'd ever seen in the countryside, and to watch the ebb and flow of the river. We were there during lockdown as well. We had a balcony overlooking the river, and we spent a lot of our time just looking at and watching it. It was always different, always changing.

[Rob] It became almost a companion. A ‘friend’ might be a bit strong, but something ever-present and changing all the time, and I think that was a surprise to both of us. We didn't appreciate its presence and the impact that it would have on us.

It's interesting you say, ‘a companion, maybe a friend is going too far.’ Maybe it's not! You know, in the sense that the river is clearly giving you things and you're giving things back to the river, and that's what a relationship is, isn't it? I think that the seeds of a new way of looking at nature are in what you just described there, about the way that we look at it and the way that we characterise our relationship with it.

What does the Don give you? Another way of spinning that might be: what about the river are you most grateful for?

[Rob] I think it's that element of nature in the city that we hadn't anticipated, in all its forms. Personally it gives me a peace, and an open space within an urban environment, and a sense of calm, I think. There's a permanence about the river. Although it's changing all the time and moving, it does feel very permanent, and a sense of something that's going to last way beyond me – us – and that's comforting. To have something like that close by.

[Yvonne] Yeah, I think that sense of place and [being] ever-changing, because we see it most days. We live just beside, so we’re often toing and froing across Ball Street bridge. But it’s almost like it's going through it. It's permanent in the sense that it's there, but it's always changing. Sometimes it's huge and flowing and brown, and then other times it's babbling, it's moving along.

It often makes me want to travel along it. I get a bit frustrated when we just stand on a bridge and look at it! Because it is that sense of movement that makes it unique. It's a natural, physical space within an urban environment where everything else is pretty static.

Do you think the River Don has a right to thrive? And what could or should that look like in your eyes, if the answer is yes?

[Rob] Very simply, yes. I mean, of course, I believe it has a right to thrive, to coexist with us, to be healthy.

I guess it all comes back to this thing about nature being subordinate to man, that somehow we have the right to decide everything about nature, and about the river in this instance. It feels as though that relationship is all out of kilter, and somehow we just need to find a better balance, where we take it into consideration [that] it has a right to be there, and we have a right to coexist.

[Yvonne] We've got to learn a lot, over time, about the history of the river – why it exists – because we're not from Sheffield originally, so we were interested. And you know, that sense of being subordinate, that the river was fashioned, it was manipulated to serve industry. I don't have a problem with that, but we do have a duty, I believe, to put that right.

We came from Lincolnshire, where there's a huge amount of effort put into preserving churches. And yet, here's something that we can all share in and [that] goes through [the city]. Aesthetically often it doesn't look great, because of the stuff that's tossed in it and things like that. So that effort to preserve something that gave Sheffield, and us all, a lot. That element of coexistence I think is really important.

[Rob] I think it's worth saying the question obviously begs another question, which is: what does it mean to thrive? What does a river thriving look like? And I guess that part of this is to come to some form of agreement or discussion around what does that look like? What are we aiming for here from the river’s point of view, because it can't speak, it can't represent itself. We will have to do that on its behalf.

[Yvonne] I might be jumping around here, but it gets back to that idea of people need to be educated as to what the river looks like, you know, because often people go, ‘Oh, it's brown. It's full of stuff.’ Well, of course, it's floodwater, and it's come down from the peaks – it's not dirty. It's just part of the cycle it goes through. So yeah – better understanding about what the river gives us.

Ball Street bridge

Ball Street bridge, Kelham Island.

Yvonne McMenemy

I was down in Kelham Island this weekend and I saw the goit there. I hadn't really appreciated what that’s now become, which is effectively a nature reserve, or close to that – a waterway, channelled from the Don, which was created for industry, now having become something which is actually a sanctuary for lots of wildlife and plant life. It makes you wonder how much further we could go with that, you know?

[Rob] An interesting ending to that story – we had an ambition as a community group to bring some llamas down to Kelham, and have them on the goit as plant clearers, that could clear the foliage and keep it healthy.

Unfortunately, it didn't happen, because a vet came down from Graves Park Zoo and did some tests on the plant life, and there's still quite a lot of nasty things in the plant life that llamas wouldn't want to eat. So we've still got some connection to our industrial past that we haven't shaken off yet.

[Yvonne] So we’re going to have to do it by hand in about a month's time, with the River Stewardship Company.

One day, we'll see llamas on the Don!

A lot of the work that you're doing [with KINCA] is about pride of place, and it's about everybody having a collective ownership and a vision for how your area can be the best it can be. You could see a parallel between that and the potential for the Don’s health to improve. I'm wondering what kind of activity, what kind of ritual, could be connected to the river that might build that investment and ownership within communities?

[Rob] I think there's something around having a greater understanding of the river and the part that it plays for the whole of the area that it touches. Certainly from my point of view, there's not a good understanding. What does it actually do for us? How does it carry water from one place to another? How does it actually prevent flooding – not just bring flooding, but how does it prevent it? How does it bring wildlife to our areas? How does it sustain that wildlife, and that plant life? I don't know the answer to those questions, but I'm pretty sure quite a lot of people would be interested to understand that, and I think having a greater understanding of what it's doing for us might also aid people's attitude to it.

We have a WhatsApp group, a community group. And often, there'll be posts on there about things that are going on on the Don. In fact, quite often it's about things that are happening on the river. Someone who lives on the river posted a picture of a deer, I think it was a stag actually, that was on the weir just down from Ball Street Bridge, which was extraordinary. There's a lot of excitement about that. Someone with some knowledge of wildlife was saying, yeah, deer are great swimmers, and that was not untypical for young males [to] swim up and down the river.

There's all these great stories that are happening, but they can be lost, because it may only be a closed group, or a small number of people who are part of that story. It almost felt like, as part of that understanding, how do we capture those stories? How do we bring it to life?

[Yvonne] The other [story] is that there are some geese that come every year and nest on this little island. The word goes out, ‘The geese are back and we're watching the geese, they're hatching. Oh my god, they've got six babies. What are we going to call them?’ That’s what passes as entertainment down here! But you know, it was a connection. These geese had chosen to come back to this place. It was their home.

That's really nice. This is the most ‘out there’ question on the list, but I'm interested to hear what the response is: What do you think the River Don would say about us?

[Rob] ‘Self absorbed.’

[Yvonne] Yeah. ‘Disrespectful.’ You know, we take it for granted. We're too busy and it gets neglected. [We’re] a bit like a teenager. You know, you're too busy doing your own thing!

You both referenced greater understanding and awareness of the river, of what the river gives us. What would you like to see happen next in relation to that? How can we start to work on some of those things that you've just named?

[Rob] I think it's about having that conversation, and to literally just start to think of the river as an entity, as something with a right to exist.

In all honesty, I hadn't thought about those things until this topic was raised, and we met Alban [of the River Dôn Project] and had those conversations. I think we had been thinking very much in terms of preservation and helping with the management of the river. So it was: we're doing something to it, rather than what's our relationship? So I think it's about that conversation that these questions are starting to raise.

[Yvonne] Initially, when we read about the River Dôn Project, what we had seen was that it was taking on [work] like the New Zealand spiritual work, that physical things have a place in their culture. And I think personally I was a bit dismissive of that.

But we watched, at Christmas, the Royal Institute lectures – sorry, bear with me a minute – and it was about AI. One of the things was that they asked a member of the audience to attack or break up a toaster, and they gave her a baseball bat. And she went for it, with encouragement from the audience. There had been previously a robot dog [on stage] – but it moved like a dog and looked like a dog – and they then asked her, with encouragement from the audience, to beat it up as well. She couldn't do it. She couldn't, and the audience didn't want her to do it. And they were exploring why that was.

Taking on a persona, having a voice meant that people viewed it differently, and I think I've changed my mind. You know, that question, what would the river say about us? I think that giving it a voice, rather than it being a passive thing, is a useful way of doing it.

Ball Street bridge 2

Ball Street bridge, Kelham Island.

Yvonne McMenemy

One of the things that they are doing now is setting up these River Rangers, where people are taking a bit of ownership now. We haven't set it up on the Don yet, but that is the plan. Part of the problem, and I think some of the reasons why the Don suffers in that respect, is that we're often removed from it. We can't access it, you can't get down to it. It's constrained by its historical past and its industrial heritage. So I think also having access would make people more appreciative. It would also be easier to clean up as well.

[Rob] As you may be aware, Ball Street Bridge is now closed to traffic. This was something that happened during lockdown, but it's been transformational in terms of locals’ access to the river, because what it means now is that people can actually just stop a moment and look – and that's exactly what they do.

It was always just a thoroughfare, and it's been incredible to see how it's now become a vantage point. People stop and they look as to what is happening on the river, you know, just literally flying through feeding ducks, you know, watching what's what's going on. It’s fantastic access.

So those things that you just described – access, connection, understanding those things – what might you want or need from some communities in South Yorkshire, or specifically from your community in Kelham Island – to make those things happen?

[Rob] I think you need a framework for that conversation. You know, why might we come together to have this conversation about the river? What's the impetus for doing that? I think at the moment, we don't really have one. There may be impetus around things like flood events. That tends to get people kind of excited – rightly so. Or, of course, threats of other kinds, like the rivers dying, or something like that.

But I think it's about having that event where we can coalesce around a question. Why’s [the river] there? What's it for? What's the relationship we should have with it? At the moment, all up the Don, I'm sure there are similar communities to our own, who are interacting with the river in various shapes and forms. But perhaps we don't have a reason to come together, and we don't have that framework to have a discussion.

[Yvonne] We all have, collectively, responsibility for the river, and that's individuals and communities, but also at landowners as well – you know, this issue about riparian rights and [landowners’] responsibilities.

That sense of care and responsibility is lacking from all the frameworks. I think that's why that idea of the river having a voice – ‘what would it say?’ – is a useful way to engage, or certainly to explore that further.

[Rob] We've spoken about this with a number of our friends and colleagues, and sometimes there's a slightly negative or slightly jaundiced view that comes up. I think people are quite kind of practical. They want to see what they can do. So I think there's a good vein to be mined around an understanding of what the river’s doing for us. Because that will be quite tangible then, in terms of, well, actually, it does a lot for us!

Without trying to segue too clumsily, going back to what you said at the start of the conversation Rob – you stopped yourself mid sentence in talking about the river as a friend or a companion. And that's the separation that we put up, isn't it, between ourselves and nature? That's the thing that we're interested in challenging. Because it's a very deeply rooted way of seeing the world, isn't it?

[Rob] Yeah, it is. But I don't know whether we have the vocabulary to have that discussion, as yet. I don't know whether that vocabulary is available in other parts of the world, or in other contexts to nature, to kind of help people along.

Thank you so much for your time.

Learn more

Next from Right to Thrive

More Right to Thrive

More News & Views

More News & Views