We met Adam Gretton on a mini bus (as you do) whilst travelling to the Dedham Vale Vineyard as part of the Dedham Vale AONB AGM earlier in the year. We chatted about the project and he was telling us how is is a keen birder (and member of Suffolk Ornithology Group http://www.sogonline.org.uk/) and that we would be welcome to come and visit him for a walk around his patch at Cosford Hall, and to also take a closer look at the River Brett, a tributary of the Stour that we haven't spent much time on. It took a while to organise, but eventually we drove over to meet him on a rainy afternoon in early September.
After the rain had subsided during a cup of tea in the kitchen of lovely old Cosford Hall, a building which belonged to his grandmother, we set off on a stroll around the grounds which border the river and take in a variety of terrains. Adam showed us the old water course, which is still the parish boundary, the route the main river used to take before a canal cut was put in for Kersey Mill, which milled flour until the 1950's. He grows cricket bat willow trees here for Wright's as it has the perfect conditions for them. It takes 17 to 18 years for them to get to the right size before they are harvested, and more are planted in their place. There is a steep bank here and after crossing a bridge made with old railway sleepers we clambered up to the top, admiring many trees, some blown over in the great storm of 1987, on the way up. All of his fields have interesting names: Brass Button, Marsh Field, Noll's Yard, Home Meadow, and the fields beyond the bank used to be arable until around 30 years ago they were 'set-aside' and are now managed through the Higher Level Stewardship scheme. Adam's family have just let these fields naturally develop over the years and slowly plants and shrubs have gained a foothold to transform the area. Rabbits and roe deer graze the plants in one field which is evidenced by its openness and short coverage, but nothing grazes in the next field which is much more taken over by thick masses of plants.
Over the years things change and there are a few species of bird that Adam doesn't see any more, such as lesser spotted woodpecker and willow tits but these have been replaced by sightings of buzzards and little egrets. There are a lot more things that he has seen recently such as the following: bee orchids, wild hops, small teasel, dodder, common hounds tongue, spindle, black poplar, rabbits, muntjac and roe deer, hares, bullfinch, long tail tit and blue tit. As we headed back towards the hall, we saw planted a lot of wild cherry trees but as they developed they noticed that some of the trees were different, and actually turned out to be edible black cherries, sourced during a lean year from Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree. There are also some Ash trees that seem resistant to the ash dieback that is currently affecting the area and a few young elm trees which is encouraging.
All in all it was a lovely stroll with someone who was very connected to and passionate about his landscape and an important addition to our project in an area we hadn't spent any time in.
Today was the fifth of our organised public walks. We'd been hoping that the wind would drop as it had been pretty gusty overnight, and even though it was a bit blustery this morning most people found their way to Wiston (an abbreviation of Wissington, as per local custom) Church through the fallen branches and pseudo roadworks.
Dr. James Canton leads the Wild Writing MA course at Essex University and has written the books Out of Essex: Re-imagining a Literary Landscape and more recently Ancient Wonderings, but today he was leading us around the Stour Valley in search of stories, in the form of local myths and legends. He started with the tale of the dragon, or serpent, that has been connected with the town of Wormingford for centuries. Many versions of the story exist and we talked about how they could have manifested themselves and what evidence might exist to support any of them. The reason for coming to Wiston Church is that there is a large mid 15th Century painting of a dragon on the wall inside. Nearer Wormingford village there is also a large dragon carved into the side of a hill, and even the village name suggests a snake or serpent, 'worm' being used in mediaeval times for such creatures. Alan Hockett and I did a project in 2015 (#Essexmeme) where we discovered a similar version of the story in Tilbury in the south of Essex. We also discussed the Wild Man of Orford and Green Children of Woolpit, both being local legends shrouded in the mists of time.
It was with these in our head that we set off walking through the landscape, firstly over the very low bridge that we had passed underneath just a few days ago, then through a low lying field full of cricket bat willows, a great local export. We rose up the hill, along School Lane and School Road, before taking to footpaths once again to approach somewhere familiar to us, but from a new direction: Bottengoms Farm.
Ronald Blythe's cottage, once home to John and Christine Nash, nestles gently in a cluster of trees and looks idyllic from this angle on top of Pea Hill. We found our way down inside the cluster to gather on the path in front of the house (we didn't want to disturb Ronald) and were treated to a local love story about a giant which was told to us by Peter Smith, a local man from Great Horkesley who was walking with us. Ronald's importance to the development of nature writing cannot be understated, so is important that James brings us here to talk about his life's work and contributions to literature. He is seen as a major father figure to writers like Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, and not to mention James himself.
After a bite to eat we started the return journey toward Wiston, heading back another way to take in some different angles of the same place and continue the great conversations we were having with all of the people who had joined us.
We had arranged to meet up with Ken because of his excellent books Stour Secrets and Stour Odyssey, two of many books he has written about rivers in Essex and East Anglia. He has been on the river since he was a boy, and has travelled all the rivers of Essex, by boat, bike or boot. Ken loves to have a project on the go and has recently written a book on The Colne and is currently writing about the Blackwater.
People are naturally drawn to water but feel a greater connection to salt water than to fresh. Even though we are trying not to see the river as a boundary, the Stour (which either rhymes with sour or sore) has been a border as long ago as the Angles and Saxons. But it’s curious how none of the towns along it, (except for Sudbury who moved the administrative border) are actually ‘on’ the river but either of it. Bures is actually Bures Hamlet on the Essex side, and Bures St. Mary on the other, with road signs to both on the bridge. We recently saw a parish notice board which states the ‘Joint Parish Councils’ which means that whilst they are distinctly different that they can and do cooperate with each other.
According to Ken, incomers are more interested than the locals, and I can certainly agree with that, myself currently having far more interest in the north of Essex than I do in the south where I grew up. Over the years Ken has set himself a challenge to visiting as much of the river as possible, even if it means walking. He’s adapted his rowing boat to attach a special set of wheels to help him when it becomes too shallow to row. The river us ‘un-navigable’ north of Brundon Mill but Ken made it as far as Kedington before having to stop. Ken is nothing but persistent though and has discovered many things along the way. He has a keen interest in ‘riparian rights’ and discussed with us how over time things have changed. Much of the river used to have fords in order for people to cross, but eventually bridges were built to make it easier. For a long time the bridges and fords used to coexist alongside each other but gradually over time, the land beside the bridges became incorporated into the surrounding properties, and thus the rights and ownership have also changed. In fact now, the landowners either side of the river own the land beneath the river, but not the water in it, so legally you’re allowed to be on the river, but as soon as you step off of your boat, things change and you may need to have ‘permission’ to be there. The bridges themselves have also altered, being smoothed out from hump back bridges into very flat ones, so much so that sometimes you don’t even know you’re crossing a river.
The health of the river has changed a lot in Ken’s time. As a boy he used to fish on the marshes using a trammel net, and sometimes a spear to catch bass and mullet. But now you wouldn’t be able to do that as you’d probably get ½ a dozen fish a year instead of ½ dozen per visit. One reason for this is that there is not enough eel grass to form fish nurseries. The water quality has changed a lot with much more nitrogen in the water from agricultural run off, which is why the algae on the mud at Manningtree does so well. They also pump a lot of fresh water from the river into Abberton reservoir which affects the proportions of fresh and salty water in the brackish water where the river and estuary meet. There are however many signs that the river is healthy (we saw three kingfishers and a heron on one stretch of water near Henny) and many people are working to improve this now and in to the future.
We heartily recommend Ken’s books and you can find out more about them here.
Stuart will be posting regular updates about the project research, events and partners here.