We gathered in Dedham Mill Pond car park to meet the Dedham River Swimmers for a Solstice Swim on Saturday 24 June at 8pm. It had been a warm day and the sun was going down, it felt exciting to see who would be joining us? We met Kevin Sheath who was leading the swim and several swimmers who had travelled quite a distance, one lady all the way from Norfolk. There were questions about suitable clothing and temperature and people were clothed in everything from simple bathing costumes to swimmer’s wet suits, so it was a relief when Kevin tested the water with his thermometer and proclaimed it 22 deg C, bathwater temperature! We put on swimming caps, mainly to be seen, so that Kevin could do a quick head count and make sure none of us had got into difficulty, and I think all of us were wearing some kind of shoe too.
After some discussion about whether to swim upriver or downriver, we decided to head towards Flatford where the river was shallower (in most places here you can put your feet on the bottom), and also where there were more places to get out. There was a friendly group of 8 swimmers and it was good to take to the water at this time of evening with the sun setting. We waded in and amazingly it was like bathwater! The light over the landscape and on the water was beautiful, warm and soft – it made this feel a very special and memorable occasion. Finally taking the plunge, there was no cold shock and our eyes adjusted to the new viewpoint, with crowds of flies and mosquitos just a few inches above the river, which were a fascinating sight and no problem at all. As we swam, people began to spread out and different conversations struck up, some people regularly swim in this water all year round, yes even in January, whilst some of us are complete beginners, the last time we swam in rivers was as children. Kevin says he often gets adults talking to him from boats as he’s swimming, asking if the weed will drown him or if he’ll catch Weil’s disease (usually only found in stagnant waters, but best to protect any cuts if you have any) whilst children look on enthusiastically! Have we lost our relationship to landscape and water, do we need to be braver and re-wild ourselves?
The experience of this midsummer swim in the evening with the sun going down was rich, luxuriant and life affirming. Yes, we met and saw or nearly saw very interesting wildlife – a kingfisher darted across the river, we swam head to head with a family of swans and their signets and managed to avoid eye contact and let each other pass without incident and towards the end of the swim was an egret. But really the most beautiful thing was to be out in the water, appreciating the landscape from a new level, hearing the sound of moving water, noticing the light and its effects as the sun set, being with friends and new acquaintances and simply luxuriating in a very large bath of a river at an optimum temperature – this celebration of the solstice will remain in our memory for many years to come.
Afterwards we gathered, shivering a little and wrapped in towels, to share our thoughts and eat cake, yes cake! We’d not thought of cake, but what a treat and thank you to Rachel aka Sirbalius Caticus for bringing it, providing energy to replenish our supplies. We think we’ve caught the bug, no not Weil’s disease but wild swimming – take us to the river!
Thanks to John Milne for lending moral support and taking some fantastic photographs.
On Thursday we returned to Bottengoms Farm to talk with Ronald about his book Akenfield, as we are hoping to start the new River Stour Festival in 2018 with a screening of Akenfield at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury. It had been a busy week for him as he was awarded a well deserved CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours and had had lots of visitors to talk about this.
Akenfield was published in 1969, the title derives from acre field, as most villages started as a clearing in the trees of an acre field. It paints a fascinating portrait of a Suffolk village at a point in history and already reading it one senses how much village life and agriculture have changed since the 1960's. In 1974 it was made into a film by Peter Hall, we asked Ronald about how it translated into this medium and amusingly he said that as a book it was 'impossible to translate it into a film'. However, the film works successfully and again paints a very interesting picture of the life of a Suffolk Village
Ronald has continued to write in the same vein for most of his life with his Word from Wormingford series which he began as a weekly piece for the Church Times Letter from Wormingford on 19 November 1993 and continued until a few weeks ago. I have enjoyed reading these over the years, they paint a fascinating history of life in the English countryside on the Essex – Suffolk border, the effects of the seasons, changing agriculture, the localpeople and village life, together with the area's wildlife and traditions.
The recording that Stuart and I made we hope to include as introduction to the screening of Akenfield in January 2018. We will post more news about it here in due course. Meanwhile you can sign up for updates on the new River Stour Festival at this address
We were very happy that Ranger for Sudbury Common Lands, Adrian Walters, gave up a few hours of his precious time to come for a walk with us around the landscape that he manages, and discuss the work that they do there as well as a great history of the area.
As is evident from our time there, most people use the lands for their own purpose, which nowadays mostly consists of dog walking, and the occasional angler. Adrian has noticed that some people don’t take much notice of their surroundings especially when they are listening to headphones and looking at mobile phone screens. This relatively modern behaviour will have a detrimental effect upon the passing on of information to the next generation and will eventually result in lost knowledge and people becoming progressively more disconnected to the land. Adrian said that 2012 was the best year in a long time as as it rained for a large proportion of the summer which meant dog walkers spent less time with their animals on the common lands. In that year the ground nesting Skylarks reappeared...it’s a very simple indicator of the impact people have on the environment.
However, there are lots of positives and encouraging signs however, and in no small part to the ongoing management of the land. The charity took over by Sudbury Common Lands in 1987 and employ Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) to maintain the health of whole area. This includes the grazing of 175 Red Devon cows, with steers/heffers in one field, cows with calves (which he called followers) in another, and occasionally a bull. Sometimes bulls from another farm escape into the common and have to be taken away before they cause havoc. The Ranger is responsible for dealing with the day-to-day management of the herd, including dealing with the public, as a way to encourage the herd owner to graze his cattle there. There is a Quinquennial pageant (2005, 2010 etc) to celebrate the letting of the cattle on to the lands in the spring, which is much easier than getting them off in the autumn, which takes 6 weeks of bribery with apples in buckets to get them into the corral. That number of cattle is very specific as it is just enough to maintain the level grass and other plants to a arrested stage without letting them develop to successional stage. This enables a much more balanced state for all of the plants and wildlife there. The ditches and culverts were reinstated when the charity began work here and have to regularly maintained as the cattle ‘poach’ the edges when they go down to the water to drink and if this was left the ditches would eventually become filled and dry out. The level and cleanliness of the water is carefully controlled by clever arrangement and connections to the river near to the mill. Their health is easily monitored by the presence of plants that grow there, which include Common stonewort and the rare tubular water dropwort. The water in the river is eutrophic (containing nitrogen, metaldehyde, phosphates etc) which is mainly from slug pellets and other farming chemicals, and also the sewage works. But, when yearly counts on rare pyramidal orchids started they found 18, and recently only stopped the year they found 2500 specimens.
Adrian also told us about the history of the land here which has been used for grazing for thousands of years. The Ranger of these lands used to be called the Hayward until 17th century, but was still the main person to manage livestock and look after the habitats. Oryx bones were found during some excavations near Ballingdon Bridge to confirm this fact. It has never been ploughed which means that it has a very special balance for all of the things that live here. Land that is returned from arable land to grazing land can take hundreds of years to become as suitable. Legislation can also cause havoc, as was seen with the field amalgamation of 1966 which saw lots of ditches filled in, land drained, hedgerows pulled up and huge piles of uprooted ancient oak trees burned. Mixed farming which used to be practiced accounted for the inclusion of wildlife, but modern monoculture farming doesn’t. Things are slowly changing and now small spaces, including roadside verges are being left for native plants to grow, which in turn supports lots of insects and birds. Gardeners too can help by having less manicured gardens. Entry Level Stewardship is now being considered for many more smaller areas.
Elizabeth de Clare, who once owned the nearby mill, lined the mill pond with clay so they could treat woven cloth, which was stretched on ‘tenter hooks’, in order to make clothes. The mill was also owned by the Clover family. The railway was built in 1865 but closed in 1967 and is now the Valley Trail, and you might be lucky and spot the rare Deptford Pink if you look closely enough. The old Bathing Place was open 1894 but closed in 1938, and people were scared with stories about typhoid in the water to encourage them to use the newly built Bellevue pool. Boys had to wear pink swimming trunks until they were competent swimmers, and then they could wear blue ones and be allowed from the shallows into the main body of the river. There used to be shackage rights on plot lands between August and February.
What we saw and heard:
Meadow and creeping buttercup
Meadow brown butterfly
Tubular water dropwort
Banded agrian and Four spotted chaser dragon flies
What you could see and hear if you visit:
Early march orchids
Reptiles on Cornard Riverside Meadow
20+ species of damsel and dragon fly
AONB Conference, Shrubs Farm 16/06/17
We had been looking forward to the 2017 AONB Annual Forum Conference, as not only was it a chance for me to meet some of the people who had made this project possible, and to get to hear some great speakers on relevant subjects, but it was also an opportunity to explore some new areas of the Stour Valley. The conference was held at Shrubs Farm in Lamarsh, by invitation of Robert and Sara Erith, in their fantastic barn, a venue that not only inspired us but also kept us cool in the heat of the hot summery spell that we've been having. There was an abundance of refreshments and everyone was made to feel very welcome, and even the dogs made you feel like you were at a friends house.
After an introduction by Robert, there were 6 speakers to lead us through some interesting and though provoking topics, including Cllr Nigel Chapman, Chairman of the Joint Advisory Committee, Simon Amstutz, AONB Manager who spoke of the excellent work that all of the AONB organisations do and Tracey Brinkley, Tourism Development Officer at Babergh District Council, who also gave our project a welcome mention.
This prompted some great conversations during the break with quite a lot of enthusiastic people and groups wishing to be a part of the project, which we were very grateful for. The networking window wasn't really long enough but we did manage to get in a cup of tea and a scone before heading back for the second round of presentations.
Howard Davies' talk on how AONBs benefit society was very illuminating about how the geology of the landscape is essential to its character, buildings and elements that make it special. Jules Pretty, who will be leading one of our walks later in the year, provided us with real evidence on how the environment and good health are so deeply linked and the concept of the natural health service, before Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DEFRA answered some questions on policy and the way forward for environmental matters during and after Brexit.
After lunch and another networking session, we then boarded a minibus and headed off for an informative guided tour of Dedham Vale Vineyard and a very enjoyable wine tasting! Although just a smallish party we had some great conversations on the bus and have swapped details with several people in order to meet up with them at a later date and learn about their connections with the river. More on those experiences as they happen.
All in all it was a very positive and productive day and we can't wait to follow up on the discussions we had with people.