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).
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.
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.