Looking for Harrestrup Å

In January and February my partner and I, accompanied by our eight month old beagle, walked the course of Harrestrup Å, a 20 km river which flows to the west of Copenhagen proper. Outputs from our 11 walks include a map, photos and Viewranger tracks, plus a lot of notes to be pulled together in some way.

The landscape to the west of Copenhagen has been transformed since the Second World War. Summerhouses dot much of the area, while the 1947 Fingerplan led to the rapid development of new towns-cum housing estates around former villages. Several motorways cut across the wetlands, with the river impassable at several points. Much of the urban stretch of the river has been confined to a narrow channel lined by paving stones, its course straightened and its waters heavily polluted by sewerage.

This makes it hard to form any kind of mental map of the river, or even to put together a route following it downstream from source to sea. Out of sight and out of mind to most, its most obvious traces are to be found in street names.

The past few years have seen sporadic attempts to bring some life back to the river, kickstarted by the imperatives of climate change. An over-arching project covers the entire 30 km regional river system, encompassing an 80 km2 area and involving 10 local councils, with a timescale of at least 20 years. When complete the region’s waterways will play a key role in rainwater drainage systems and flood risk management.

Copenhagen is going large on flood risk mitigation, which should see the river’s concrete jacket removed and a more natural course restored. Consultations are lengthy and ongoing, including on the stretch of the river which is part of our regular five walks, with several parks due to get a facelift in the form of new recreational options.

A very Danish story? Just as Harrestrup Å has its own local-scale version of the Deutsches Eck (where two streams meet) and the Danube Bend (suddenly plunging due south after gently flowing eastwards), there are cultural traces still to be found. And while Denmark’s relationship with both nature and walking could do with further exploration, the rewilding of rivers is becoming a commonplace, from Los Angeles to Denmark’s only substantial river, the Gudenå in Jutland.

How to make a start? At the source is tempting, for walking a river upstream is like reading a book backwards, but our weekly walk takes us to where the river meets the sea, so this is where we shall begin, taking a look in 500 words at a spot where there was once an inn and a toll house.

Note: How to define a river? Globally most fall at the larger end of the scale, involving substantial quantities of water. The usual English translation of å is stream. However, all things have their context, and in Denmark things tend to work to Danish scale.

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