We've enjoyed our reasonably regular jaunts out with Sudbury Canoe Club and have had some valuable lessons and support from the members there, which were are very thankful for. But, we needed to get some more miles under our belt and get in some training before the the Sudbury-to-the-Sea event which we will be entering in September. So, after trawling the internet, some frantic bidding in eBay and a long drive in monsoonal downpours to pick it up, we are the proud owners of a double kayak.
To give us time to test it out, see if we could make some progress unaided and prove to the doubters that we wouldn't drown, we spent the weekend camping at Rushbanks Farm at Wissington with these goals in mind. It's a great site right next to the river and if you're early you can pitch your tent right next to the water, which we did. They brought round fire pits and logs so you can sit next to the river into the night, cook your meals and drink your favourite tipple with or without your friendly campsite neighbours. Its a perfect place to bring a boat as they have 5 landing stages to access the water. They also hire boats should you need one and if your not so keen to get on to the water its a lovely spot to see people paddling by.
We managed three trips in our three day stay, two to the east and one to the west. It was raining a fair bit on the Friday so we left a little late and although we made it to Nayland in time to rescue a lads fishing float, we didn't have enough time for a pint and so headed back before it got too dark. We were very happy with the boat, it was relatively comfortable, stable in the water and headed in the direction we wanted it to go ( it didn't spend the whole time going round in circles). It was our first time out unaccompanied but we so felt at home on the river and enjoying being the quiet and close to nature. We saw a beautiful kingfisher who perched on a branch for a while before flying beneath the tunnel of trees above the water and plenty of dragon flies and damselflies. Most striking though was a shower of rain whilst we were using the portage at Wiston Mill: standing alone next to the impressive, symmetrical concrete structure of the weir with bright sunlight contrasting the black clouds and heavy downpour with a large flock of jackdaws darting about and calling to each other...very magical.
The next day we headed the same way but set off earlier with the intention of grabbing some dinner and a pint at the Anchor in Nayland, which we're pleased to say all went to plan. Although we were now getting familiar with this stretch it was interesting to compare the changing light and different habitats: the openness of banks with no reeds with long views into the distance, the narrow stretches where you're amongst reeds and sedges, and the grandeur of the overhead canopy of trees.
Our trip to the west was earlier in the day and we didn't meet any boats on our outward journey, which stopped at Wormingford Weir after 1.7 miles. The stretch to here is very narrow with plenty of twists and turns and was a good test of our developing skills. After a rather clumsy five point turn the trip back, with the current, was gentle and relaxing. Ruth took the opportunity to film along the way but was a bit nervous about having her equipment out in the open on the water. There were no incidents though and she captured some footage of the different habitats and lovely reflections. Even though we haven't yet decided on the form that the film will take we will be returning to places in order to capture them throughout the different seasons and at different times of day.
The weekend passed too quickly and soon we were heaving the boat back on to the roof rack. We'll be making plans to get back in to the water as soon as possible.
It was a beautifully warm and bright day as we met in the car park of Flatford Mill NT for our fourth project walk. Simon Carter is a well known East Anglian painter who has a studio in Frinton and walks every day to gather inspiration for his paintings, so it seemed fitting that we walk with him through a landscape painted by one of England's most famous painters, John Constable. We started the walk from one of the most iconic views of the English landscape, the site of Constable's painting 'The Haywain'. The view has changed little in the nearly 200 years since, with Willy Lott's Cottage (or House as it is actually called) the mill pond and surrounding flora all looking rather familiar. Simon told us how some of the landscape has been managed to preserve some similarities to the painting, as naturally trees and plants grow and die, and even the course of the river has slightly shifted. In fact, Constable had made some adjustments himself whilst painting the scene in 1821, having truncated the building in order to better balance proportions in the image.
We stopped at the site of several other paintings, including Boat Building on the Stour, Flatford Mill and Scene on a Navigable River. Simon explained some of techniques that Constable was using and, put in the context of the time these made him rather radical and not the chocolate box painter he is often regarded as now. Constable was documenting rural life and farming practices of the time and making the landscape itself the subject of paintings was a new idea as previously it was only depicted as background. It is now considered that Constable's way of painting the landscape has coloured the way that we see the countryside today.
The walk headed east and as we continued the landscape slowly empties out with less trees and vertical objects and longer views creating wider horizontals. Simon said that he thought this reflected the change in painting fashion from the 19th Century and in to the 20th and he used Constable and Mondrian as examples of this on the way. Our last stop was at the Cattawade Bridge Sluice and here the conversation turned to Simon's painting and sketching techniques. There were a fair few painters in the group and it was interesting to hear them discussing how they approached their work, which was nicely summed up by the phrase 'the world looks more like a painting than a photograph'.
As most of our public walks have been alongside the freshwater part of the river we thought it necessary to have at least one of them next to the Stour estuary and thankfully Matthew suggested to lead his foraging walk at Wrabness (pop. 400). We met everyone at the railway station, including a chap who didn't have a computer so was unable to book online (we couldn't run him away, especially as he lived locally) and eventually set off down Black Boy Lane towards Grayson Perry's house. In the first hour we must have walked no more than 400m, stopping every few paces or so to look at a plant of some kind. Not that we minded at all, as we learned a lot of new plants and whether they could be used in cooking or medicine. We ate quite a few of them, including mushrooms (remember Matt is an expert on these things and we trusted him implicitly), seed, leaves and berries.
Matthew's knowledge was incredible and everyone was amazed at the variety of things we found, and the uses that they could be put too. The range of habitats was diverse as we progressed from town, through arable and wood to the salt marsh and estuary, each with its own distinct range of plants and trees. Everyone got involved, especially the children who were really good at discovering things, especially mushrooms. The walk took longer than the previous ones, and after three hours we decided to head back to the village where we lay out our bounty for all to see.
Darren had decided to use the Village Hall at Nayland as his starting point so we made our way to the beautiful village and found the hall, which is tucked away round the back of some other buildings. Everyone gradually arrived and after the formalities Darren spoke for a while about animals that we might see on the river and the different kinds of habitats that enabled the animals to survive. Everyone was itching to get walking and so after the presentation we headed out through the village to gather on the road bridge (Horkesley Road) above the river.
Darren then led us north along the river where we stopped at various points to look at and talk about a variety of flora and fauna. Being in the landscape with the knowledge Darren had armed us with at the beginning enabled us to connect more with it and gave us the possibility of identifying the difference between a water vole and a brown rat, should we see some. The circular route took a slight detour up across a bridge supporting the A134 so that we could look underneath the carriageway to see the problems that face otters as they move along the river and valley and how the Environment Agency are building ramps to help them travel beneath them. The circular walk finished near to where we started and also upon a bridge where someone with keen eyes spotted a large pike in the river below us. All in all it was a fascinating walk where we learned a lot of useful knowledge that will help us in our walks in the future.
After making many walks ourselves in the Stour Valley, today was the first of our public walks and so it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we met at Manningtree Station. Artist Alan Hockett, who had been supporting us on the project, was already there with his wife Mel, and we sorted some official paperwork before people started to arrive. As they did, a large black cloud also loomed close promising to add another sensory experience into the mix.
Alison's knowledge of the area, local residents who had been affected, such as Elizabeth Clarke, and the complex nature of the witch trials themselves was incredible, with so many dates, locations, theories, facts and fictitious stories. She explained how Matthew Hopkins and his deputy John Stearne, used the judicial system to prosecute and persecute ordinary people, with the help of the public, 'watching' and 'familiars'. Most of the accused were held at places like Colchester Castle and tried at Chelmsford Assizes, but a few people were hanged in Manningtree to set an example.
It took a couple of hours to walk between Manningtree Station and the Mistley Thorn, which meant that unfortunately the storm cloud caught up with us and we had to shelter beside and industrial building, but everyone was in good spirits and reasonably well prepared with umbrellas and rain coats. Some of us also managed a cup of tea and a slice of cake afterwards which helped us to dry off.
Today was a day for boats, boating and racing. In the morning we went to the Sudbury Regatta at Friar's Meadow and in the afternoon it was the Coracle Regatta at Bures that lured us further down the river.
At Sudbury, it's a highly organised, serious event with races across the whole day, 32 rowing clubs taking part and around 2000 people gathering on Friar's Meadow to watch. It was the 137th year that the event has run and the competition was strong and vocal. By comparison, the Bures event was low key, inclusive (although I didn't have a go, next time!) and a lot of fun.
I stood on the Suffolk bank to record both events and there was quite a contrast to the soundscapes. Encouragement from the banks in Sudbury included encouraging shouts from team mates and scathing commentary from the compere over the Tannoy system but in Bures was gentle advice about steering and powering the coracles. There was a sense of anticipation and tension on Friar's Meadow but at Bures recreation ground everything was relaxed, with people enjoying watching the coracles but also enjoying a picnic and watching the friendly cricket match nearby.
At the rowing regatta we were spectators who made recordings and left with some footage of the event, but at the coracle event we spoke to Steve and Dick who ran the event and were made very welcome by them. They gave us a lot of information about the history of the event and also the coracles themselves which is important research for our project. Although we didn't have a go in them we'll certainly be going back next year and will take some dry clothes to change in to should we fall in.
We met Mark Prina, reserve manager at Foxearth Meadows, on a lovely, warm summer's day and only a little bit later after misreading the directions slightly. The reserve is owned by A Rocha, which are a Christian charity working for the protection and restoration of the natural world, or who 'care for creation' as Mark put it. The land was donated to them by Maureen Morris a few years earlier, wife of Keith Morris and Mark and a few volunteers have been developing the site as a wild space with a particular focus on creating habitats for dragonflies and damsel flies. They have counted 22 different species on the site, which is about half of the amount that live in the UK. On our walk round we saw several specimens including brown hawker, common blue damsel, darter and a couple of willow emeralds which are new arrivers to Britain.
When Keith and Maureen acquired the site it mainly consisted of a couple of disused gravel pits on a flood plain adjacent to the river, but Keith dug quite a few ponds and encouraged wildlife to inhabit the area. You can see most of the ponds as you walk around on the paths and the two gravel pits now form well developed large ponds with a plethora of insects and fish to be found. It is Mark's plan to reinstate traditional grazing on the site in order to manage some of the plant growth and to keep it from reaching a successional stage. He's been talking to Essex County Council about using the Essex Legacy Grazing Service http://www.essexgrazing.org.uk/, possibly using Red Poll cattle. Recently, and rather timely, he has also reignited a previous connection with farmers who used to graze the land, so a return to traditional uses of the land looks to be achievable.
We passed through the low grassy areas to eventually reach the river and it's banks on the northern edge of the site. Mark has been using a mink raft in order to see if any are in the area, along with any other similar animals. He opened the device and it had a plethora of foot prints embedded in the clay. In fact there were too many to clearly identify many of them, but more interestingly there were discarded Signal Crayfish parts inside the raft, which suggested that a young otter had been feeding inside it. He also showed us evidence of crayfish being eaten at other locations along the river, indicating otters may well be preferring this catch over their usual choice of fish. This also ties in well with the Colchester Piscatorial Society's finds in that chub and otter seem to be living happily next door to each other.
We passed many lovely spots along the bank and eventually arrived at the old disused railway bridge, which although just outside of their land makes a great vantage point for spotting wildlife, and the occasional kingfisher, although we didn't see one this morning. Before we turned and headed for home Mark explained how a new cut in the river had been made when the railway had been built, and even though the water had been diverted through here the old river channel still existed. What's more, it was currently dry, only filling with water during floods, and we took the opportunity to stand in the bottom of the river bed, Mark in Essex and Stuart in Suffolk, as the county boundary hadn't been moved and remained here.
All in all we had a great walk and chat with Mark and we were witness to the abundance of wildlife that inhabits the area. You too can walk around the site as it is mostly made from public footpaths. Find out more about Foxearth Meadows here. Below are some of the things that you may see.
reed warbler nest
6 species of warbler
signal cray fish
purple spiked dock
great willow herb
reed canary grass
common water plantain
common club rush
black poplar (poor man's oak)