It was a shame we couldn't meet up with John yesterday, but it did mean that we got to spend another afternoon wandering around Wivenhoe. We met him in the cafe and proceeded to explore the narrow and sometimes unmade streets of the town, which were full of all kinds of interesting houses and residents, quite a few of whom John knew and he waved or said hello as we passed them in the street. You could tell John was connected to the landscape just by the way that he spoke about the layout of the town and the language he used. He too is a member of Living Maps and has a lot of technical and IT knowledge which was a great help in adding to what we learned from Phil the previous day. He is helping us look at a way of making a digital map that everyone can contribute their knowledge and experiences of the River Stour to, so that we can share this fascinating and many layered information and access it whilst out in the landscape.
We finished the walk with a pint in the Black Buoy and joined some of John's family for a friendly chat in the pub garden.
We were invited over to Wivenhoe today for lunch, and a possible sail, with Phil Cohen and Jean McNeil to discuss the project and ideas of mapping which we could possibly use for the project. We've been exploring ways to bring all of the strands of documentation together, and to make all of the information accessible during and after the project. Phil is a member of the Living Maps Network and it was great to chat with him about potential solutions.
After a fantastic lunch we went for a stroll through the town to the Wivenhoe Sailing Club pontoon to prepare his boat 'Gimble', a 14 foot gaff rigged tideway, in readiness for a trip up the River Colne. Yes, it's not connected to the Stour, but it was great to spend some time on the water testing my sea legs (which were fine) and reacquainting myself with all the necessary techniques. We even had time for a cup of tea and a slice of cake on the shore near Alresford Creek.
We convened for breakfast at 4am (ouch!) in order to get out in the field and make some recordings on International Dawn Chorus Day, and even though I was really sleepy (it always takes me ages to wake up!) I was looking forward to getting out and about early. After our porridge, and listening to some advice from Darren Tansley about good locations we drove out towards Thorrington Street, which we thought would be a good spot: near the river, near some woods and a fair way from big roads and potential traffic. It was also somewhere we hadn’t been before so ticked a lot of boxes. But when we arrived, after having narrowly missed a muntjac deer who hadn’t learned the green cross code, we couldn’t actually access the river and it was hard to park, so it took us a bit of driving up and down to find somewhere. We did however stop and walk into a field towards the woods. There were a few birds but nowhere near as many as we heard a month ago at Stoke-by-Clare, but I set the mic up under some dense trees in order to hide from any birds that were there and to cause as little disturbance as possible. But after the first recording, in which I got one very close bird (unidentified) and several more further away, the audio recorder started to play up with an error code and wouldn’t record any more. We were feeling a little bit underwhelmed so after Ruth had filmed some cows in the neighbouring field, and seeing a large greylag goose running up the lane, we decided to go and find somewhere else.
We found a place on the OS map and parked as near as we could, and then took a few footpaths around a farm and down a lovely estate road to a very tranquil lake. I had a spare CF card so formatted it which seemed to sort out the recorder problem, but I’ll need to check that when I get back to the studio. There was an abundance of water birds which made for a contrast to the woodland birds we’d heard previously. I got a couple of good recordings here with no traffic noise, aircraft or other human made interference, but managed to capture a rather spectacular coot running along the water at high speed. There were also plenty of geese, swans and an egret all going about their early morning business. We left them in peace and headed back home for a second breakfast.
Audio recording will follow soon x
We’d been wanting to get onto the river, as opposed to always being beside or above it, for quite some time, but today we eventually managed to attend the Sudbury Canoe Club weekly meet up on the Stour. Neither of us had been in a kayak or canoe since we were kids, Ruth at the Welland Yacht Club in Spalding, Lincs when she was 13, and Stuart in the Lee Valley when he was in the cub scouts. We were going to be rusty to say the least, but the members of the club were very patient and helpful in sorting us out a boat each, and offering some kit and guidance on safety and good practice on the river.
We started from Katherine Quay in Sudbury and headed down the short stretch leading to the main body of the river. In that short distance I managed to crash into the side of a stationary boat moored alongside The Granary building, which prompted a few shouts of ‘Careful please’ from the guys on board, and a ‘Sorry!’ from me. There were quite a few other users of the river, and we had to stop twice to let through a couple of sculls going to the Sudbury Rowing Club. We did however make it to the river proper and after waiting for another scull to pass, we were all heading eastward, downstream towards the sea.
I struggled a fair bit with direction, strokes tending to overcompensate for the previous ones, resulting in plenty of zigzagging and loop-the-loops. But it was good to chat with some of the club members and also see the river from a new perspective. We made it as far as the Cornard Weir and Lock, and whilst most of the competent members took the adventurous route of heading over the weir we skirted round the edge and used the portage points to exit and reenter the river at the lower level below the weir. It was here that regulars practiced their moves, rolls and other techniques. Meanwhile Fred gave me a 1-2-1 lesson on how to control the boat using different strokes and body angles. After 20 minutes or so of practicing in controlled circles, figure-of-eights and even some reasonably straight lines I was getting used to the boat and how to make it go in the direction I wanted it to go in.
My wrists were starting to ache a bit so I got out and had a chat with Ruth and a few of the others beside the lock, having a good laugh with two boats of pirates that had arrived on their yearly trip along the river. Eventually though it was time to head back and it was here that I really struggled as everyone else steamed off back up the river whilst I just performed pirouettes most of the way back, as trying to go at a faster speed was much more difficult than on the gentle practice slopes earlier.
Darren Tansley was one of the first people that we contacted when we started on the project. He works for the Essex Wildlife Trust, as well as being involved with many other projects, and has had a keen interest in nature since he was a boy hiding out in the woods at Arger Fen to watch the badgers, which is exactly where we met him on this bank holiday morning.
His knowledge of the terrain, trees, plants and wildlife was fascinating and we spent a good few hours walking around the woods and open scrubland in search of interesting finds. One of the main topics of conversation was deer, and even though we didn't see any we did see evidence of their having been around: the 'munterway' paths that the Muntjac deer make in the undergrowth by following regular routes through the woods, nibbled bluebells, and sometimes a 'browsing line' if a lot of deer eat everything within their reach.
Darren pointed out lots of tree varieties, how you could tell if a tree grew in a dense or thin area even if that area was different now and trees that were healthier as they were growing on the site of an old ditch. There was also a lot of ash dieback in an area that was previously agricultural land, but not present in the more mature woodland. The difference between habitats was quite markedly different in areas within close proximity and even though the areas are managed a reasonable level of natural redevelopment has been encouraged.
The area was popular today with many families going for a walk on their bank holiday, and to get a few pictures of the abundance of bluebells, but Darren took us down into the darker, more secluded areas of the wood where he used to roam as a boy and you could tell he was at home there. He took us to the badger setts and explained about them having many bedroom chambers, the problem the badgers have with parasites, the line made by excavated materials and dung pits away from the setts.
Ruth and Darren identified and discussed many local plants such as stitchwort, campion, dogs mercury, British bluebells (as opposed to Spanish ones people sometimes plant there), lords and ladies, horsetails, yellow archangel, wood sorrel, ramsoms (the leaves of which we ate), and bracket fungus (which we didn't). We also heard many birds including a cuckoo, chiffchaffs, yellow hammer and a woodpecker.
All in all it was a very informative and personal walk and we look forward to Darren's walk-and-talk during the summer (details of that soon).
Ruth had only heard about Mushroom Matt (botanist Matthew Rooney) on the Friday but managed to arrange a walk with him on the Monday. He had agreed to meet us at the car park in Dedham at 2 o'clock and even though we didn't know what he looked like we soon found him, and on time.
Matt is known for his foraging workshops with Carl Shillingford around Essex and Suffolk, all of which were fully booked, so we were very happy he'd agreed to meet us on Bank Holiday Monday between his busy schedule as a full time mushroom farmer and forager. Even though we both had some knowledge and experience of foraging, in various locations, we were looking forward to sharing someone else's in a new place.
We hadn't even left the car park and Matt had already seen a few things we could eat. But soon we were on our way and walked west from Dedham along the Suffolk side of the river until we hit the A12, which took about an hour. It takes a lifetime to really get to know somewhere and Matt was certainly tuned in to his environment and he spotted many things along the way. Not only did we pick, smell and eat, but he knew where and when to find certain plants, which parts to eat, how to prepare them and how they could be used, ie as a garnish, as salad leaves, in soups and even as a chicken substitute. Matt also told us things we definitely shouldn't eat, about hallucinogenic plants and about the complex life-cycle of a fluke and what it will do to your liver should you ingest it.
There is much of the rivers length that we haven't covered so any chance to explore a new section, we had to take, and a small window of time appeared this evening. We drove out to Bures and parked up near Water Lane, where last year on another project I had lost my microphone connector from the tripod. Learning our lesson from last time, we were properly prepared with an Ordnance Survey map so quickly found the path heading north along the river valley. First thing we noticed was a man walking his dog who bid us good evening, before continuing along the well-defined path. We quickly came upon a willow plantation, some of which had recently been harvested. It was interesting to see it being farmed in this way with various areas at different stages of cultivation. We passed the man with the dog again and he stopped for a chat to tell us about the process and more about the local area. He was very friendly, and wanted to appear in our film, although he said he had no special talents. His dog, who was also very friendly, was called Socks. As we were talking a very large bird flew overhead which to me looked like a swan, but he said it was a stork. The wings made a beautiful soft sound as it passed directly over us... such a shame that we weren't recording.
We continued along the path and were struck by how lush and green all the new growth was. A huge hawthorn bush full of flowers filled the air with its heady scent. Ruth found a few oak trees which were adorned by oak apples (oak galls), we thought, but need to check it out to be sure (they were). It wasn't a sunset, as such, but the light was slowly fading, the air slowly cooling, and as it did so became slightly damp and chilly on my face. This just added to the sensations the whole environment provided as we walked along.
The oak and hawthorn gave way to a long line of pine trees which made us feel like we are suddenly in a different place. The terrain quickly changed again as we passed through a thicket, over a style, and emerged into yet another place with steep banks on the Essex side, a swan (the swan?) rummaging in the grass and lots of midges above our heads. We stopped to record here as it was very tranquil and a place that invited time to be spent in it. As we approached the rail crossing the train to Sudbury passed through, and even though this large machine carving its way through the countryside was quite a contrast to the surroundings its size, speed and trajectory somehow reflected the sedate, gently curving nature of the river.
The path became an incline passing in front of an old house which had just one light on outside. There was an old garage which looked like it hadn't been opened for years and we speculated as to what forgotten treasures lay inside. Further along the track was a pristine house with a thatched roof and a paddock in the back garden leading out towards the river. At the end of the lane (actually the beginning) was Chestnut House which had an amazing wisteria in full bloom covering much of its frontage.
Although we had nearly made it to Lamarsh the light was fading faster now so we turned round and headed back to Bures, seeing things from the opposite angle and noticing things that we hadn't seen on the outward trip. There were plenty of pheasants calling and moths emerging. The flowers in the half-light somehow still bright, their luminosity working hard to be seen. We noticed the moon, a slight crescent between the clouds.