The River Chess is a charming and precious chalk stream, with a distinctive character and a wealth of wildlife. It nestles in the soft, rolling landscape of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Its catchment includes the river and all the natural land around it that collects water.
The River Chess rises from several sources around Chesham, such as at Pednormead End, and flows for 11 miles through the Chilterns, meeting the River Colne in Rickmansworth. It has a clean gravel bed and crystal-clear, oxygenated waters. Plants like white-flowered water crowfoot grow abundantly in its fast flow, and fish, such as brown trout, lay their eggs in the riverbed. In turn, the river is strongly influenced by the habitats and species within the catchment.
Rich in wildlife – the geography and biology of the River Chess
There are a range of different habitats in the Chess catchment, all of which support specialist species:
These streams are watercourses that flow across chalk bedrock, often fed by underground or seasonal springs. They may have winterbourne headwaters, which run dry in summer. They support a range of specialist wildlife, including water crowfoot and brown trout. Learn more about the chalk streams of the Chilterns.
Lowland meadows and pastures
Shaped by traditional farming methods, such as hay-cutting and grazing, these flower-rich fields near lowland rivers have moist, deep soils that support plants like cuckooflower, oxeye daisy, meadow buttercup and great burnet. In turn, invertebrates are plentiful and wading birds flock to the fields to feed.
This type of grassland is associated with thin, base-rich soils such as those found over chalk and limestone. With a typically short turf, maintained by grazing, the grassland supports important invertebrates, such as the Adonis blue butterfly, and plants, such as orchids. Learn more about Chilterns grasslands and heaths.
Woodlands and hedgerows
Woodlands that existed before the 1600s and are still here today are considered to be ‘ancient’. These places are often carpeted with bluebells and support a range of mammals, birds and invertebrates. Traditional hedgerows were used to divide field boundaries or keep stock in or out. Now, they provide shelter for woodland and field species moving through the landscape, such as hedgehogs and finches.
Farmland and arable field margins
Many years ago, the area around farmed fields, where productivity was low, would have been used to delineate field edges and land ownership. Today, if left unsprayed and uncut, they play an important role in conserving rare arable plants, such as pheasant’s-eye and corncockle. Farmland also supports a wide range of other species, including declining farmland birds like turtle doves and skylarks.
The catchment provides a varied landscape for outdoor activities, such as hiking, fishing, horse riding and cycling.
The river and aquifer have historically provided an important source of drinking water, and supported watercress farms and milling industries.
Visit our River Chess Storymap
Explore the Chess as an environmental system – find out all about the Chess and its catchment. View realtime dashboards showing data on water quality and river flows. Learn about factors affecting the River Chess that come from outside the catchment (land use, transport links, climate change) and those that occur on a catchment scale (such as geology and hydrology).
Rich in geology – the hydrogeological setting of the River Chess
Rich in history
Humans and rivers have been inextricably linked over the millennia, and the River Chess is no exception. The River Chess catchment is strewn with reminders of past generations and their connection to the river – from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the artists of today. Find out more about the cultural heritage of the River Chess.