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.