I’d driven past Old Hall in East Bergholt many a time, and not much could be gleaned from the glimpses beyond the large walls that separate them from the road. All I had to go on was some recollections that Ruth had about the place which added to the intrigue. Ruth also knew Dave Hodgson, a long time resident, and so arranged a meeting with him one afternoon in April to discuss some potential events for The River Stour Festival in 2019 and to see how things were going in general.
Upon arrival we met a man clad in an oily boiler suit stuck under the bonnet of an ailing car, but he kindly showed us the way into the labyrinth of buildings where we met Dave. He took us through the kitchen area and outside to a picnic bench before setting off to make us a cup of tea. Upon his return he apologised for the state of the building, which had a fair amount of scaffolding on it. Quite a bit of work was being done to replace the sewers which meant that there was no water supply in that end end of the building. They were also installing new flues in some of the chimneys and open fires.
Dave has been at Old Hall for nearly 30 years and seems very settled and totally integrated with the activities and people there. After chatting about potential festival events, and finishing our cups of tea, he took us on a tour of the building so we could look at the spaces we could use for the events. First we went to the library (a listed room) which was very comfortable, well used, full of books and perfect for a small writing workshop. After passing through a small kitchen area we found ourselves in the large Queen Anne Room, a space with wooden floors and lots of light which they regularly use for talks and yoga, and would be great for a day of talks.
The hall was originally built as a private residence but in the 1850’s it was taken over by an order of Catholic Carmelite nuns and a Chapel and other buildings were added. In May 1909 one of the nuns, a Margaret Mary Moult, jumped over the wall and ran away. Her book 'The Escaped Nun' captivated London society and led to the government introducing a statute which required all institutions to open their doors for inspection. That statute remains to this day. The nuns finally moved out in 1939 when it was procured by the army for the war effort. After the war monks lived there until 1970. In 1974 the building and land was purchased by the current owners and Old Hall Community was formed.
Ruth was particularly interested in visiting the chapel as Jules Pretty (who led one of our walks last year) had informed her that one of the stained glass panels, from 1853, features Hildegard of Bingen (founder of scientific natural history in Germany, amongst other things). Although Ruth couldn’t identify her specifically she did take photographs from all of the windows which were all in good condition. The Chapel also features an organ, but unfortunately it is not in a working state after the manufacturers bought it to salvage parts for other working organs. The chapel isn’t now used for any religious activities but is the perfect size for badminton court. The Chapter Room has a large glass ceiling and a pool table.
After a good walk around the inside it was time to head outside and wander around the grounds, which number 70 acres, and in some parts afford views of the river and its valley, especially Park Field where we discussed a potential outdoor food event. Dave brought our attention to two large trees in the middle of it, one of which had been blown over in a storm during 2017. ‘It’s a shame it fell over as Constable painted it.’ He showed us a large workshop which has just received a donation of lots of woodworking tools from someone who was a resident in the past. A huge cedar tree had also recently blown over and they were making good use of the wood. A large piece of the trunk has been earmarked to be sent to a mill to be turned in to more manageable sizes and shapes
As luck would have it lunch time arrived whilst we were there and we joined Dave, and some of the other residents in the fantastic kitchen where Charlie had spent several hours preparing the food for everyone. Everyone was friendly and welcoming of the new faces and we enjoyed our meal whilst chatting with Dave about the hall and other communities around the world.
The community are almost completely self sufficient and grow all manner of vegetables, keep a variety of livestock, generate solar power, get their water from a bore hole and all share the jobs that need doing throughout the year. There also seemed to be a good balance of social activity and solitude to cater for everyone, as well as a good diversity of people and skills, age ranges, families and individual people.
It had been a while since we had met someone on the river for a chat, but Ben Norrington had been on our list since the very beginning of the project nearly a year ago. According to many, Ben was the ‘eel man’, and someone we had to chat to about this interesting animal that calls the Stour its home.
After spotting his Environment Agency van we found Ben on the footpath near Flatford Mill on a warm and sunny March morning and walked with him down to the Judas Gap, the old limit of the tidal Stour before the Cattawade Barrage was put in place. You could immediately see why the eels, and many other species have trouble migrating as the structure is formidable, which of course it had to be in order to hold back the tide. Whilst we we there a duck was the only thing that we saw traverse the barrier, and it only did so by taking off from the lower reaches to fly over the top and land on the upper part of the river a few seconds later.
Ben explained how the Environment Agency has been trying to reintroduce places where eels and fish can live, including off channel refuges, the reconnecting of decoy ponds and various scrapes at points along the river bank. They also aim to help others with this task through the Fisheries Improvement Fund which provides funding for a variety of projects connected with this. The EA have been conducting fish surveys for 12 years, and 10 years at the Judas Gap, which take place during the summer to monitor migratory fish, and during this time eel numbers have been declining in the river, which mirrors the global trend. The main contributors to this are parasites, overfishing and of course barriers that prevent fish and eels from travelling along rivers to and from the sea. In fact eels trapped in bodies of water with no access to the river, and therefore the sea, can morph themselves considerably as they feel the pull to migrate but cannot travel, and this increase stress can itself result in greater risk of disease. At the Judas Gap the EA have installed a ‘fish pass’ which helps eels to navigate up the steep incline of the structure into a tank at the top. Ben has to check this every two days and monitors any activity that he finds.
Eels undertake a remarkable journey to spawn and lay eggs in the Sargasso Sea (part of the Atlantic near Bermuda) before returning to the rivers where they spend the rest of their time. Although there are around 800 species world wide, only one lives in the River Stour, the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) which goes through several stages in its life: glass eel, elver, yellow and then silver, as it matures. Female eels grow three times larger than males.
Most eels stay in the river once they have arrived (Anadromous) with only some 15-30% migrating (Catadromous). You can determine the age of fish by looking at growth rings on their scales (as you would a tree) under a microscope and also analyse the otilith (middle ear bone) in a similar way. On the Stour though the EA measure length and weight of the eels. The oldest eel they have found is 70 years old and perhaps would have stayed in the River since it was 3 years old. There is a fish survey in Bures during July if you’d like to pop down and have a look to see what happens.
To try and understand eel migration two different types of tracking devices have been used: acoustic and pit tags. The former uses hydrophones in the water to detect audio pulses emitted by the tags to track the eels progress, and the latter use passive integrated transponders (PIT) with static RFID receivers in the river, triggered as the eels pass by. Japanese scientists have also been DNA testing water samples from the ocean to determine where and when eels are present.
In the river the eels migrate upstream using a variety of techniques. They follow the flow of water, detect differences in salinity and heat to head towards fresh or sea water depending on which way they are traveling. Eels provide a huge food source for birds, otters and other predators. Victorians had eel traps along the river, but now eel fishing is banned in the UK. Ben said that generally fish stocks aren’t too bad, with the channel near Dedham Mill Pond being the place with the most concentration of fish on the whole river.
It was great to be out on the river with Ben on such a sunny March day and gain a real insight into the life of the eel. To find out more join Ben on the Fish Migration Day event at Flatford Mill on 20th April.
Since part of the River Stour is tidal a river barrage or barrier, a sea wall and associated gates, is crucial to the control and management of water in the valley and the protection of properties and people who live there. Up until the 1970’s the Stour barrier was at Judas Gap near Flatford and you can see the remains of it if you walk south on the footpath from Flatford Lock. But in the 1970’s it was decided that all of the sea defences in East Anglia needed an overhaul so a new barrage was built at Cattawade two miles to the east. It is managed by the Environment Agency and on a damp November Monday morning Christine Dulake and Ben Grant who work at the barrier agreed to meet us and show us around.
Christine and Ben explained that the The EA are government funded (and Natural England?) and that their role is to carry out asset inspections and maintenance of flood defences and other assets including 123 sluices that control land drainage in order to protect domestic properties and local residents. 40 floodgates have to be closed with the prediction of a tidal surge, which are calculated from measurements at Harwich. Most recently the gates were used during a 1.5m surge on a high tide in 2013, but thankfully all of them held and the sea walls were not breached. The areas along the Suffolk and Essex coast have been divided up and theEA at Cattawade are responsible for the coastline and sea wall between Erwarton and Walton. Other catchments extend between Walton and Mersea, Mersea and the Dengie, Dengie to the Thames. Future proofing all of the assets is a big concern and repairing and refurbishing infrastructure with this in mind is paramount. Currently there is a 6 year programme to replace the large flood gates at Bures and Cornard which date from 1920’s and work on a float system which often traps trees and requires a large amount of effort in order to remove them. Another large system that needs careful management is the water transfer system, the Ely Ouse Essex water transfer scheme, which aims to keep water levels at sustainable levels across East Anglia. There is also a flood warning system for 33,000 properties across the area which alerts local residents to potential warnings via free text/email, and they work closely with the government, emergency services and even the army in case of any potential flood, weather or nuclear incidents.
Whilst tides can be prepared for, fluvial (river) floods are harder to predict but there are structures and systems in place, such as the large flood storage area near Haverhill. Recent legislation has placed more of an onus on landowners regarding riparian responsibilities and the EA try to work closely with as many people as possible along the valley to develop natural solutions to manage the wellbeing of the river. Pluvial (surface) flooding is the responsibility of local authorities and the Partnership and Strategic Overview Team (PSO) deal with housing permits.
Maintenance of the sea wall is very important and they use a radio controlled cutter to keep grass and certain plants from developing too much, especially Alexanders which shades out a lot of other plants. Certain plants are encouraged to grow, especially hogs fennel on which the larvae of the very rare Fisher’s Estuarine Moth depends. Cutting vegetation helps develop roots which in turn help strengthen the fabric of the wall and also enables close monitoring of rabbits and badgers whose actions can undermine the structures. No work is undertaken during bird nesting season however. Some plants have to be monitored and managed such as floating pennywort, which is a huge problem at the Parkstone Pumping Station, Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed, all of which we have seen along the river.
As well as working along the estuary they also work up stream, above the barrier in the brackish and freshwater areas, surveying the river using hydromorphology techniques and telemetry stations along the waterways. River management ideals are constantly evolving and the aim now is to leave land more natural, with flood plains taking up water overflow, leaving and introducing water deflectors, and the removal of weirs to let rivers respond to climatic change in accordance with the Water Framework Directive. The EA also work with angling clubs to monitor fish and eel numbers using counters. Eels in particular have problems with obstructions on their extraordinary journey, annually migrating from their permanent home in the river to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic to spawn, so brush like eel passes have been installed to help them on their way.
All in all it was a very informative conversation and interesting to hear about the wider landscape and how so much is being done to protect it. Ben and Christine then took us outside and to explain how the barrier is constructed and operates. It provides a great vantage point for the surrounding area and you can certainly see why it is located there in such a critical spot. We made a few recordings and took a few photos before heading off to our other assignments for the day.
Earlier in the year when we first discussed with Kevin of the Dedham River Swimmers, good dates for a project swim, September was decided on as we’d still be in the throes of an Indian summer and water would have had all year to warm up and be at its peak before cooling down through autumn and in to winter. Kevin swims all year round so certainly has experience of swimming in all weather conditions and at many varied places, and after the solstice swim that we did with him in June and a few swims in the Stour of our own in July and August, we felt full of enthusiasm the project swim. That was until the week before as summer seemed to disappear and the temperatures came tumbling down. Then came a few emails and text messages from ticket holders saying that other things had cropped up and that they wouldn’t be able to attend. We were the first to admit it, the weather forecast was certainly making us think that we should have maybe chosen a date earlier in the year.
But the date was set and most people were still remaining positive and so we arrived early at the meet point to greet James Ravinet, who filming the event for us. Kevin was already there and keen to get going, and as we talked through tech with James everyone else arrived and prepared themselves to get into the water. Though we have tried to have a gender balance throughout the project most of the people we have spoken to have been male, so we were pleased to note that most of the swimmers were women. Some were seasoned swimmers, having completed long distance swims around the country and some were novices at wild swimming and Kevin is very mindful of accommodating everyone in his events. In fact, the group as a whole were positive and supportive and before long we were heading into the water.
The best way for me to enter the river is to get the initial shock of it over quickly so I usually get under the water as quickly as possibly. I find the longer that I think about it the more time I have to resist and develop thoughts of backing out. Ruth on the other hand usually gets in to the water slowly, acclimatising more gradually. The temperature of the water in June was 22°C but today it was 12, and that certainly gets your attention. I have recently bought a wetsuit, but it is more suitable for surfing than swimming and I think I certainly would have benefitted from the correct kit. Two of the more experienced ladies set out at a fast pace ahead whilst most of us progressed more slowly. A lady who had never swum in the river was really affected by the temperature and even though Rachel from the Dedham River Swimmers stayed and helped her she decided to get out and get back into some warm clothes.
Even though I was a strong swimmer at school, and have done a bit of scuba diving over the years, I am currently pretty unfit. In the past year or so I’ve also had a few issues which affect my energy levels which vary quite erratically. The faster swimmers would shoot off and then stop to let us catch up. Ruth and another lady are slow-but-steady swimmers and made good progress along the river at their own speed. I would start to swim but run out of energy pretty quickly and have to stop, resting by standing or supporting my weight on the bottom of the shallow river. I was wearing gloves but these quickly became heavy and burdensome and I threw them off on to the bank. Ruth, who usually has a lot of stamina was affected by the temperature and found her breathing getting rather shallow so decided to get out after around 15 minutes. I pushed on for a few minutes more but in the end the cold and tiredness became too much and I too climbed up on the bank and jogged back to the car in order to get dry and dressed.
At around the half mile point, the others split up with Kevin and Rachel continuing a fair way further before turning round and the faster ladies swam back at their own speed. Everyone made it back safe and sound and after drying and getting in to some warm, wintery clothes and big coats we all came back together to share some lovely pear cake that Rachel had cooked and brought along and have a chat about the swim. As with all of the walks there is something primal and fulfilling about people sharing time and experiences with other people. There is always something to be learned about a way of life, someone else, oneself or a place. That connectivity and sharing recognises, reaffirms and reassures us of who and where we are, and does this in a way much more nourishing and wholesome than any virtual version could. Yes, we have used social media in this project as a way to spread the word, document and connect, but it’s those real life connections with people and place that mean so much to us and form the basis of our very existence as artists and human beings.
Whilst on our trip to record the Colchester Piscatorial Fishing Match a while back, we found Dave hunkered under a bivvy waiting for chub to take his bait. He hadn't had a bite all morning though, so had a chat with us instead about the river, fishing and the water itself. We swapped contact details and arranged to meet up at Cuckoo Farm Studios where Ruth has a studio, as it wasn't too far from where Dave now lives in Great Horkesley.
He was early and on good form which was more than we were. It didn't take long for Dave to reveal that he has been busy writing some poems for this very meeting and took great enthusiasm in reciting them for us (see attached images). We certainly weren't expecting to have verse written for the project, and especially ourselves, so it was a pleasant surprise and addition to the things we have been collecting from along the river. Dave explained to us that sometimes he wakes up with words in his head and quickly writes them down before he forgets. Poems often come fully formed and sometimes don't need many alterations or changes. I have been working on a piece involving poetry myself and whilst talking to people up and down the river I have been collecting words and phrases for a new project called River of Words so it was interesting to talk with him about the writing process.
It is clear that he has a great attachment to the environment as he is a keen fisherman and archaeologist and over the past few years he has been helping with digs in the area such as those at Court Knoll and Fordham, which he can spend more time on since his retirement. During his working life he'd studied Biochemistry which led him to gain a job as the first Chemical Bacteriologist at Hanningfield Reservoir. He then worked as the Chief Chemist at Ardleigh Reservoir before setting up a lab for Anglian Water and Tendring Council to run audits and quality control tests on bacterial, chemical and biological samples from all of the reservoirs in the area. I imagine him analysing the water as he sits on the river bank waiting for the fish to bite. Unfortunately, as he informed us, he didn't get a single bite during the match and so the trophy went to someone else (possibly Gareth, as we saw him catch three fish within ten minutes). Well, at least he can use that time to formulate new poems.
Additional: 01/12/2017 - Text versions of the poems from Dave.
THE RIVER RUNS THROUGH ME.
THE RIVER RUNS THROUGH US
GIVING LIFE IN ALL ITS FORMS
LIKE LIFE AND THE BLOOD IN OUR VEINS
PEAKS AND TROUGHS,HIGHS AND LOWS,OCCASIONAL STORMS.
WE SHOULD ONLY SEE THE GOOD
THERE IS,IN FACT,VERY LITTLE BAD
IN AND ON THE RIVER STOUR SUCH DIVERSITY
THAT SHOULD REALLY MAKE EVERYBODY GLAD.
EVERYTHING CAN HAPPEN IN A RIVER CONTEXT
WALKS AND TALKS AND EDUCATION FOR ONE AND ALL
YOU ARE NEVER LONELY NEAR THE RIVER
THERE IS SO MUCH TO ENJOY AND ENTHRAL.
WHAT ALWAYS FASCINATES ME IS WINTER TREES(COUNTLESS
SEEING THROUGH THE WILLOWS,MISTY AUTUMN DAYS
CHURCH BELLS TELLING EVERY QUARTER HOUR
WHAT IS THERE NOT TO ADMIRE AND PRAISE.
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE REFLECTIONS IN THE WATER
AND WATCHING THE AUTUMN LEAVES FLOATING DOWN
THINK ABOUT ALL THE DIFFERENT COLOUR GREENS
ANNOUNCING A RIVER OF GREAT RENOWN
FOR ME THE GREATEST JOY APART FROM FISHING
SLICING JUST ABOVE THE WATER LIKE A KNIFE
ON EVERY VISIT ,MULTIPLE KINGFISHER SIGHTINGS
THE RIVER STOUR IS TRULY A RIVER OF LIFE!
RUTH'S RIVER RUNS.
REVEALS RURAL RAPPORT.
REAL RELENTLESS RESEARCHER
RIVERAIN REEDY REFLECTIONS REVEAL RARE RESOURCES.
REVIEWING,REPORTING RAISES REAL REMEMBRANCES.
REGISTER RETRACES REMINDED RALLIES.
REMARKABLE RARE RESEARCH.
STUART SEARCHES SCENIC STOUR SURROUNDINGS
SCOPING SUBTLE STORIES.
SUNSHINE,SHADOWS,SPIRES,SKILFULLY SHARED SOUNDWISE.
SERIATE SUBJECTS SCREENED.
SALIENT STREAM SETTINGS SHOWN.
STRESSFREE STEADY SHOOTING.SUPERB.
We've driven past the Lamarsh Lion many times during the course of this project, and even more prior to that, but It has always been closed. A few weeks back however we drove past and we could see that the door was open and that there were people inside. After some (not terribly difficult) investigative work we found that the pub had in fact been bought by a consortium of local people and was being restored as a Community Pub, and that the main person to speak to was a chap by the name of Robert Erith. We'd seen Robert at the AONB AGM earlier in the year, the event held at Shrubs Farm where Robert lives, nearby. So we tracked him down and he kindly agreed to give us a tour.
We met Robert outside at the agreed time and he let us into the building via the front door. The floor had been freshly varnished so we took off our shoes and proceeded inside in our socks. The Lion had shut its doors in May of 2016 and plans by the previous owners had been to turn it into residential dwellings. There were 129 objections to the plans submitted to Braintree District Council, which eventually were withdrawn, and such was the local enthusiasm to keep it as a pub, the people of the tiny village of Lamarsh (pop 198 including children) have got together to restore the building to much more than a traditional pub that will be an asset for the whole community. The Society eventually secured some funding from the Plunkett Foundation, and support from Greene King Brewery to refurbish the cellar, to help them achieve their goal.
The new floor was the main job that has been completed so far, and there is a lot more work to do, but there is a sense of purpose and achievement in Robert that we're sure resonates throughout the community. Robert's wife Sara, the committee and many other local people have also dedicated their skills and labour to the venture in creating a 'destination pub' to welcome people to the Stour Valley. They hope to be open by Easter 2018 and even though they won't have finished all of the work, they will at least be able to start pouring pints again. The Green Man in Toppesfield is also a community pub so there are people not too far away to consult about how to proceed with the venture should they need to.
Robert showed us throughout the building, from the old accommodation block which has now been opened out into one large space, the dining room, kitchen, the flat upstairs and of course the main bar area, with the bar itself made from wood rescued from an old church. It's a fantastic building with probably one of the best views in the whole valley and it's been serving the community as a pub since 1305 so it make sense to restore it and bring it back into service doing what it was meant to do. Robert is also seemingly the right person to lead the project, as he's been living in Lamarsh, and a regular at the pub for 50 years … the fields opposite are also farmed by him so he really is a embedded in the community. If you'd like to contribute to the cause, shares are still available in the project, so head on over to their website https://www.lamarshlion.co.uk/ for more details.
Today we finally caught up with Neil Catchpole, someone who knows an enormous amount about the River and the Valley and in fact has spent nearly his whole life here. He was born in Marks Tey and moved to Wormingford when he was 12 and every year would do bob-a-job, visiting Paul and Christine Nash at Bottengoms Farm. They were both interesting characters, and Neil said that he cleaned what he thought were the same pair of shoes every year, as they showed no signs of wear but were just covered in dust. He has fond memories of Christine who would pick up his mother and take her to the WI but as she didn't ever reverse her car she would drive a long route round the village. Neil recalls that John was not run-of-the-mill and that he would think long and hard before he spoke. Through the Nash's he got to know Ronald Blythe, a gentle and generous man who over the years has made very little changes to Bottengoms, continuing the tradition there.
He reminisced about farming life in the valley, remembering his father buying a wagon and two tumbrels from John Stuck who lived at Coppins Farm in Alphamstone after finding them abandoned in a barn. They had been left there since the 1940's, along with the harnesses and were bought and eventually restored by his father. These early experiences of farming people and equipment, and this way of life have stayed with him and led him to save a shepherds hut from a building which he now aims to renovate.
Neil's father, Peter Catchpole, had been manager of the Marks Tey brickworks and he talked about brick workers being seasonal workers who would make kilns on farm sites and make enough bricks for the year. He recommends The Brickmaker's Tale by Peter Minter (of Bulmer Brick and Tile Co.) as a good read if you're interested in this subject.
Neil has worked with the countryside all of his life, specialising in tree work and forestry as a contractor but has also worked as a Landscape and Biodiversity Officer at the AONB and now works part time at Clare Country Park. He started work on the land in 1969 and remembers conservation organisations starting in the 1970, one in particular called 'Plant A Tree In 1973', which supported publications such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. He feels that nowadays people have spent too long away from the landscape, mobility and cars take them elsewhere, and that the whole pattern of rural employment has changed. In the past there would be 4 – 6 workers on a farm, but now one man, with occasional contractors can run 1000 acres. There are no Saturday jobs for young people and the employment rules are too tight which means no one takes any risks.
There have also been a lot of changes in farming since the 1970's with the grubbing up of hedgerows, the increase in the size of tractors and the dying out of the use of horses and steam threshing. As well as for ploughing, farms often had a yard horse for odd jobs. Perhaps one of the biggest things though has been the otters going and returning. The last meet of the Eastern Counties Otter Hounds was in the 1970. There was a large increase in spraying crops with insecticides but the tide turned in the 1980's and 90's with the tighter control of sprays. Also at that time the Otter Trust began to reintroduce otters that they had bred and he has now seen otters at Wormingford, often at dawn or dusk. The otter's habitat has also improved as they have also stopped the dredging of the river and approach things differently in management of the waterways for wildlife.
More recently Neil has helped with the pollarding and repollarding at Flatford and Stratford St.Mary and also in controlling non-native invasive species such as Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed, but perhaps his favourite work is that with Barn Owls. For this he has a disturbance licence and can ring and monitor the owls and over the years he's noticed a significant increase in the owl population locally.
Neil counts himself as an enthusiast but his knowledge runs deep and he is very connected to way of life that has existed in the valley for generations. He has photographs of six generations of his family (see photograph) and you can feel that this is very important to him. The oral tradition and the passing down of stories is a big inspiration to him and has led to him writing character sketches such as the Gamekeepers Tale and singing folk songs at harvest suppers and at events. He also passes on his knowledge through running courses on the river and the countryside at the Field Study Centre in Flatford. We're definitely going to invite him to perform at one of the event on the River Stour Festival next year so we look forward to that a lot.
When we were at the Coracle Regatta in Bures earlier in the year Steve and Dick said that we'd just missed one of their friends Quentin Page, and that he was a font of wisdom on all things to do with coracles. So, we eventually got his email and dropped him a line and there were a fair number of emails exchanged before Quentin agreed to meet with us. We looked up his address on Google Street View before we set out and we could immediately tell which house was his without even looking at the numbers. We arrived in good time and he came out to greet us before inviting us round the back of his house to the workshop where all of the coracle magic happens.
Like all good storytellers, Quentin started at the beginning and tells us that he started fishing as a boy of five and coracling from the age of 8. He watched the fisherman in their coracles on the Stour at Harwich and this inspired him to learn and get out onto the water. Most of his family members worked on the railways but it was his Grandfather, who was a cabinet maker, who eventually taught him the skills to make his own coracle when he was in his early twenties. Quentin has now been making them for fifty years and they certainly are a sight to behold. He explained with great enthusiasm how he sources the wood, which must be from a suitable ash tree, from local land owners and takes it to be cut on a bench saw to a specific size. Then he stacks the lathes with air in between them, and allows them to season for just the right amount of time, leaving them still pliable enough to make into the shape of the hull. The size of the hull varies on the type of coracle and the amount of people or equipment it should carry. Fishing boats are a different shape to pleasure boats, the former have a straight front side to help with hauling fish and nets into the boat, whereas pleasure boats are more circular. It takes a week to mould to the frame into the correct shape.
The ash is also the perfect wood for making the paddles and he brought a great selection of different types out for us to see. Each paddle has different characteristics: shorter and wider for use on the river, longer and thinner for the estuary, and with a hooked end for river keeping activities. There is even a paddle for poaching which is made for silent paddling to help evade the game keeper. Each of them were beautifully carved by hand following the grain of the wood, expertly chosen by Quentin for the particular type. He'd even sanded one down using dried dogfish skin.
Most of the boats we saw at the coracle regatta in Bures were made with canvas but Quentin's are made with cow hides and so are furry on the inside, with the different types of cow such as Belgian Blue or Belted Galloway determining the colour of the fur inside. The tail is left attached and used to form the painter on the front (the rope to pull the boat), some of which were still a full length of hair. He sources the hides from a local abattoir and goes to inspect them for size and quality as they are removed from the animal and they'll only be large enough if the cow or bull is over around 5 years old. Once he has selected a suitable hide, he drags it into his pickup and drives it home. He has a curing shed out the back and puts them into a large vat with gallons of water, salt and alum (quantities are a trade secret) which cures the hide to prevent rotting and remove any moisture. This process takes five hours as when he applies the hide to the frame he folds the corners, and moulds in drainage points before it dries solid. One of Quentin's favourite sayings is 'the hide I need is walking about eating grass'.
They are very stable and Quentin says that his boats have never capsized and that you can stand on the seat and still not go in over the side. The boat can carry one hundredweight, which equates to 2 people, a large dog, nets and a catch of fish. See the picture above for how big they are. The net he uses is a 50' trawl net which he had specially made by a man in Clacton from a from 2000 year old design that he sketched on a piece of paper.
He catches a lot of different fish in the river estuary including dabs, sole, herring, three type of mullet, garfish and bass, although there are no plaice or flounders to be caught nowadays. When he's caught some fish he'll fly a special flag to inform his neighbours of the catch and they'll all share in the bounty when he returns to shore … mullet steaks for all!
After chatting about the boats we were invited inside his house for a quick look at the the makes from horsehair, on contraptions that he's made himself from wood. First he drops the individual fibres on to the floor and gathers them up in a particular way to create a rollag. The next stage is to wind them together into plys which are then in turn wound into string, then cord and finally rope. He had examples of each of these which were all light and very strong. Whilst there we noticed a cauldron that he had on his open fire, which was mounted on a crane so that it could be moved into and out of the fireplace whilst full. There ensued a great story about how he'd acquired the pot from a gypsy, who also gave him a recipe for cooking hedgehog. So armed with the knowledge and the pot Quentin returned home with his dog. The lurcher was adept at catching hedgehog, especially from the nearby churchyard, and caught two of them on the way home. He prepared them and cooked them in the pot before making a pie. He invited the gypsy over to try the pie, and after tasting it gave it a full seal of approval. The dog would catch lots of 'fur and feather' and kept the family fed for fifteen years. They even made a special coat in which you could conceal two pheasants.
Time came for us to leave and we bid a farewell to Mr. Page. He has become known far and wide for his coracle building and was even asked to make 15 coracles for Ridley Scott as well as to appear in the Film Robin Hood, something that brought him quite a lot of enjoyment. He had plenty more stories to tell, and a great enthusiasm for them, so we're sure we'll be able to catch up with him soon for some more tales of life as a coracle builder in the Stour Valley.
I’ve know Mervyn for many years, ever since I met him at a Southend Poetry Group Meeting but the last time I’d met him was in 2014 when Alan Hockett and I interviewed him for the #essexmeme project. Back then he lived right next to the River Stour, with a view of the water from most of the windows in his Sudbury accommodation, but now he lives slightly further north in Lavenham, so we went to visit him for a chat about the river and how it has influenced his writing.
Mervyn was on much better form than previously and seemed very settled and happy in his new digs. After making us a cup of tea and marvelling at his tractor braces we explained about the project and how we’d been meeting people along the river. He’s spent much of his 71 years by the Stour and other rivers in East Anglia as a keen angler and regaled many a story of the fish he’d caught in places on the water. Even as a boy, whilst living in Basildon, he’d go on fishing trips with his father to the Stour and other places around the county, including Holehaven Creek, the Maplin Sands and the pier at Southend.
He’s caught a lot of fish in his time, including just one turbot, and many of them on cold icy days in the depths of winter. His knowledge of good fishing spots, and the people and clubs that manage them is rich and varied, even if the defining factor of a particular trip was a couple of tiddlers. When we visited Foxearth Meadows earlier in the years we were near a large fishery but neither of us saw the large henronry in the trees above that Mervyn spoke of, the tall lanky birds apparently look rather incongruous balancing high in the branches. The conversation often veered off course and took to more philosophical and scientific territory, themes that permeate much of his poetry and prose.
Mervyn runs the Littoral Press which has published many books by other authors as well as himself, and he has been a keen performer on the Essex poetry scene for a long time and one of the feature poets at this years Essex Poetry Festival. He revealed that he’d also written a book about the Stour, as yet unpublished, and showed us some of the photographs he’d used in it. Writers block is frightening and to combat this he just keeps writing, any time of day or night, whenever the ideas come to him, working through it. Notes books are everywhere, in the every room of the house, the car, by the bed. Writing is written and only later are the good bits kept and rest got rid of.
His poetic manner, quick wit and sense of humour add a thoughtful depth to the conversation whilst never being far from a laugh or a smile. He likened fishing to a zen practice, waiting, focusing intently on the float as the rest of the world faded away, leaving time to think and process ideas. It helps him to clear his head and let words come in. As well as writers such as RS Thomas, Edward Thomas, Ronald Blythe, Richard Mabey, Ted Hughes and Walt Whitman, nature and spirituality are a big inspiration to much of his work and he’d rather be immersed in nature to write it than be indoors. He’s well aware that farming is very industrialised ‘It’s a green factory out there’ but this helps him tune in to the wildlife around him. As well as seeing many birds, deer and badgers near his home he regularly drives to favourite spots in Suffolk and Essex by the river to observe, think and write. He’s seen otters, which have been known to eat just the brain and liver of large carp caught from a well stocked 'carp puddle', much to the annoyance of fishing society members. The Thames and Stour estuaries were also places he’s visited many times, often to dig for lugworm to use as bait. Mervyn called them the 'powerhouses of evolution', where sea creatures would have first hauled themselves out of the mud to become land dwellers. He informed us that the coast is slightly warmer than inland regions and that he loves icy weather...there are several snowy scenes in paintings around his front room to attest to that.
All in all, we found Mervyn to be a warm, friendly and generous person with a wealth of knowledge and rich personal experiences. He has a real way with words and definitely speaks like a writer. If you get the chance to hear one of his talks, poetry performances or many books we'd recommend it.
It was lovely and sunny today, but the first day that it felt like autumn has arrived with a distinct chill on the breeze and the big coat out of the wardrobe. We met Will Akast, Catchment Delivery Manager-Suffolk, with the Environment Agency, standing on the sea wall at Manningtree. After exchanging introductions and admiring the view for a few minutes we head into town to find a cafe, which didn't take too long.
We'd seen Environment Agency signs and heard about their work from others all along the river so it was good to speak to Will and find out what their role is in the management of the waterways and surrounding countryside. In fact, it turns out that they do quite a lot. The hydrological year runs from October to October so we're just embarking on a new year, with a chance to assess what has happened in the year before and to take stock of the year ahead. It's a time when water usage is at its lowest, crops have been harvested and rain fall is starting to increase after the summer. The aquifer needs this time to replenish and keep at a sustainable level as its estimated that if there were just two dry winters in a row it would get to a critical level and water security would get to a dangerous level. In the east of the country we have relatively low rain fall, which together with high population and increasing agricultural demand could pose a significant problem. A solution to manage water security in the east of the country has been in place since the 1970's. It's called the Ely Ouse to Essex Transfer Scheme and can transfer as much as 48 million litres of water per day between The Ely Ouse in Norfolk and The Stour, Colne and Blackwater Rivers in Essex. These in turn can supply the Essex reservoirs at Hanningfield, Abberton and Ardleigh, on which the inhabitants of Essex rely for their every day water consumption.
The EA have lots of other tasks to undertake to maintain the waterways of Essex. They check water quality for levels of nitrates, phosphates and other chemical, particularly those used in agriculture. They work continuously with farmers to maintain good soil quality, install buffer strips (areas of wild plants left in arable areas) and encourage the planting of cover crops (such as clover) during times when crops aren't being grown. They try to find ways that run off from the agricultural land is kept to a manageable level, particularly during stormy or wet weather conditions. Flood risk management is key and small as well as large infrastructure is implemented and maintained in preparation for times when water levels can get very high. Examples of this are grass verges at Stratford St.Mary and the Nayland flood channel. Regular inspection and maintenance of the sea walls along the estuary are essential as are other structures like the Cattawade Flood Barrier. Another important role is clearing up after chemical spills, taking readings of contaminated areas and preparing evidence in order to prosecute polluters.
Will described to us how a healthy river should be, how gravelly river beds benefit fish and invertibrates and the impact that sediment has on the survival of these river dwellers. As well as covering up much needed spawning grounds amongst the stones the sediment encourages nutrient loading which influences organisms in different ways, from altering the rate of plant growth to changing reproduction patterns. This is turn can lead to a smaller variety of plants and animals that can survive, and to algal blooms which reduce the oxygen levels in the water, which again affects the remaining inhabitants. To combat this the EA encourage the use of de-silting, rather than dredging, as the latter removes almost everything in the river and its banks.
The migration of species has been a big problem since the river was made navigable, with many impassable obstructions in the way of all manner of fish, eels and otters, solutions to which are being installed at many places along the river. Invasive species are another problem that affect the river. Himalayan Balsam is a beautiful plant that we saw in many places whilst we were kayaking this year. But left to its own devices it will start to take over so a biological control in the form of a rust fungus is being developed to counteract its spread. Japanese knotweed and Giant Hogweed are other plants that need to be controlled and whilst the EA support the clearing of these plants the responsibility for control lies with the landowner.
When we did Sudbury-to-the-Sea earlier in the year we were among the first groups of people to use the newly restored Stratford St Mary lock. The River Stour Trust had secured funding and put in many hours to return the lock to its former working glory, which many people can now enjoy. The RST had to obtain a permit from the EA to carry out the work, and also to operate it. This indicates a recent shift in legislation, where the onus to maintain and operate locks now lies with the owners. Whilst the EA grants the permits and has an overall view of the owners and users of the river, tax payers money won't now be used to maintain private property and owners will have to pay for this themselves. Operation of the locks has to be regulated as if the lock are opened too often water levels may fall too low and impact on the river's health, wildlife and many other users of the waterways. The River Stour Trust in particular are fiercely defensive of the river as a navigable waterway, having successfully fought in parliament 50 years ago to keep it open to the public and throughout this project we have met many people who feel passionately about the keeping the river as a beautiful place for all to enjoy.
It was good to meet up with Will and find out what the Environment Agency does and what roles they perform in managing the river. He certainly shares that same passion for the river and is working hard to preserve the valley for the people and wildlife that live there.