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 He revealed that he’d also written a book about the Stour, as yet unpublished, and showed us some of the photographs he’d used in it.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.
It has been a long time since we’d first envisaged doing the walks as a way to engage with people along the river and today was the last time we would deliver one for this project ... where has the time gone? Jules Pretty had been one of the first people we’d thought of when making our wishlist of speakers and we have been looking forward to his walk, especially since his topic for today was the local myths and legends of dragons. We had seen the dragon on the wall of Wiston Church but the large dragon carved into the side of a hill nearby had still eluded us.
Before setting off from Arger Fen Jules filled our heads with tales and sightings of creatures unknown, including something he’d seen himself: a deer carcass whose ribs had been snipped by a large cat. With these images in our head we set off across The East Country, the title of Jules' newly published book, from which he read excerpts along the way, not knowing what lay in store for us. The answer was in fact lots of gently rolling hills with lovely views across the valley, which provided the perfect accompaniment to conversations with friends new and old. It wasn’t long though before we spotted something strange ... some markings on a hill yonder. Large ones at that. Curious, but definitely man made. The more we walked the more it became recognisable, as a dragon. It’s what we’d been hoping to see for months, but still it didn’t look quite right, so we walked on further until we reached a farm track leading to St Stephen’s Chapel. Standing outside was Geoffrey Probert, as if on cue, to greet us.
As the story goes, an ancestor of Geoffrey’s acquired the surrounding land, and then derelict chapel, which remained in use as a cattle shelter, until another family member Biz Badcock (one of the first female students at the Slade) decided to restore it in a faux medieval style. We were invited inside the very quiet and beautiful space, which was somewhat dominated by three tombs which had been rescued from somewhere in the reformation, stored in the parish church and eventually moved here. There was also a fair selection of medieval graffiti on display which provided some photo opportunities. We then headed out the opposite door, and finally the big reveal ... the Wormingford Dragon. Geoffrey explained how and why had created the dragon in 2012, with some help from his sons whilst we all marvelled at it and the gliders above used it as a landmark.
After spending some time here we carried on over Cuckoo Hill, Clickett Hill, and down into the valley to cross the river at Bures Mill which has to be one of the most beautiful buildings and setting on the river. The moment was made even more beautiful as the clouds parted and the sun shone down upon us for the rest of the walk. We stood here a while listening to the Buzzards calling from high above us, until they started fighting with a Red Kite, which was rather spectacular. There was also a huge gathering of ink cap mushrooms which inspired a few more photographs. As we headest east across the fields we spoke about migrating blackbirds fighting with resident ones, why donkeys are kept with horses, skylarks, rooks and jackdaws, indigenous trees such as ash, elm, oak and black poplar, the water transfer system moving water between Anglian rivers and reservoirs, and dragon’s eggs. We also passed the fascinating Wormingford Mere, the depths of which have apparently still not been mapped even with high tech modern technology, before passing through a small wood and arriving at St.Andrew’s Church, Wormingford our final destination.
All in all we had a great walk through beautiful landscape and some rich conversations on the way. Hmmm, now we need to organise some more.
Autumn has certainly arrived and that was made even more apparent by returning to the river near Langham to visit the Colchester Piscatorial Society, and comparing how it looked this morning with how it looked just a few months ago at the height of summer. Using some elaborate directions we found our way to the blackberry bush at Black Barn, next to which we were to park our car, and proceeded through a small wooded area to the river where we could see a few fishermen quietly and intently watching the river.
Today was the second round of the W Tolhurst Memorial Charity Match and several members of the club were bidding to become this year’s champion whilst also raising money for the East Anglian Children’s Hospice We took a leisurely stroll along the bank, filming and recording at certain points to collect some more footage for the film. We haven’t started editing yet, but we certainly need to make a start soon so that we can complete the film over the winter to have it ready for the spring. We chatted to some of the contenders as we went. Some seemed to be doing much better than others and we took news of catches, or lack of, with us along the bank. Some anglers were happy to share with us information about their equipment and techniques or encounters with the one that got away whilst others were happy to keep their focus forward and let us pass by.
One person who was happy to have a chat was Mick (who was fishing with Angela) who is always happy to spin you a yarn or two. Today he reminisced about his acting days of yonder on the sets of Lovejoy and The Chief. The former in particular was shot at many locations around Sudbury and Mick happily recalled his time trudging around the countryside to various sets and having to play a myriad of characters, mostly covered in mud and driving Bentley’s.
Having recently kayaked from Sudbury to the Sea and seen 25 miles of river along the way we can say that it’s certainly one of the loveliest stretches along here and we can see why the anglers love to spend time here, even if they don’t catch anything.
List of fish caught:
Pike (one of which had been trying to take caught fish from the line as they were landed, was landed itself, taken a fair way up the bank and put back into the river, only to swim back down to where it had been taken from and carry on being a nuisance).