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)
We've yet to start creating the film that this project will culminate in, but we have been filming and recording sound in the field, collecting footage, cultivating ideas and discussing themes as to what form the finished piece will take. As well as filming from the river bank, from bridges, and even underwater, there is one angle that we can't manage by ourselves, and that is from the air.
A few months back Ruth bumped in to Nick Allen (of Allen Aerial) as he was flying his drone on the riverside whilst filming Sudbury to the Sea in 2016, and asked him if had the capability of filming, to which he said yes. He was also interesting in capturing some images for us, so today he popped round with his business partner, and father, Phil, to show us how the drone worked and what kind of angles and quality was possible. It certainly was impressive kit and their knowledge and experience gave us confidence that they can contribute a unique perspective to the film.
After a cup of tea and a good look at the Ordnance Survey map to discuss where in the valley would offer great views (there is a lot of it!) we're all set to go and can't wait to see what they get.
Today we met with Mick, Angela, Barry and Simon, all committee members of the Colchester Piscatorial Society (est. 1924) who manage and fish many waters around north Essex, including a 3 mile stretch of the River Stour near Langham. They have an agreement with the Tolhurst family to maintain and use the land for fishing and were keen to show us the work that they have been doing recently to provide better access to the river and more suitable places for anglers.
We met at the Lowlift Bridge next to Langham Pumping Station, which Mick informed us used to be a Mill. In fact, lots of the pumping stations exist on sites of old mills, such as those at Stratford St Mary and Boxted. The bridge itself is relatively new (40 years old) having replaced the old brick built bridge that was destroyed when it was hit by lightning. Mick's knowledge of the area goes back a long way as he began fishing the river in 1958 and remembers that night well, having been on the river bank during that particular storm, in which he said that the rain came down 'like the sea in strips'.
We then walked along the river bank, at their invitation as the lands are private and open to members only (see http://www.cpsangling.co.uk/ to join), and conversations immediately began, which is of course why walking is such a good vehicle for learning. Simon and Barry have been hard at work clearing certain parts of the bank to make 'swims' for the anglers to fish from. They've also been making a consistent path as most of the area was inaccessible for many years.
In recent years work by the Environment Agency has done a lot to help improve water quality, and we could see evidence of structures that the EA had built a few years previous which have provided calm areas and sanctuary for fish to hide and mate. The anglers were aware of lots of different fish in the waters but in particular told us about trout, roach, chub, bream, gudgeon, perch and pike. Eel populations have also been climbing in recent years, which should help the small numbers of otters on the river. We also saw a fair amount of wildlife too including several large chub, lots of damsel flies, a dragon fly laying eggs in the river, moor hens, lots of butterflies, grasshoppers and a Kingfisher, albeit rather fleetingly.
There are lots of Cricket Bat Willows growing along the banks and Mick gave us an in depth explanation of the process used to grow wood to make cricket bats, which is evident along a lot of the river we have walked for this project. As we progressed the landscape became more flat and open and was referred to as the Higham Prairie, and the names of the swims reflected this. Here, the River Box, that we had been walking along yesterday, joins the Stour in an area that Barry said used to have a Trout Farm, which during floods added to the river fish stocks. The terrain here was also more gravelly, meaning different plants such as Burdock were growing here, where nearer the bridge there were more ferns and moss. Next, opposite a house on the river, the River Brett also joins the Stour behind a rather understated reed bed.
Further along, and after passing a small gate that we stepped over Langham Hall came in to view. The great great great (?) grandson of John Constable, also called John Constable once commissioned some aerial photographs from the Hall. Mick said that a huge crane was brought in to the grounds and from the top of it were taken a lot of photographs in order to understand where certain trees were in the landscape in comparison to trees in some early sketches made by the famous painter.
As we made our way back along the farm tracks from the Black Barn to where we began, a man in a car stopped to have a friendly chat with Mick, which turned out to be the tenant farmer on his way to check the combine harvester that we had just passed. It was evident that they had a good relationship, but this extended past a personal level. The society has had a long relationship with the various landowners and farmers, and by working together they all help to manage and conserve the varying aspects of the land and its wildlife enabling a very positive symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial.
We met with Rowena Macaulay in Manningtree to chat about accessibility in the landscape, which is something we are aware of in our project walks as we're only able to announce one of the six as accessible to wheel chair users. Rowena is the organiser of Jane's Walk in Colchester and Walk Colchester https://walkcolchester.wordpress.com a group dedicated to promoting safe and enjoyable walking, provide information about walking access and to aid protection of our green open spaces.
She met us outside the North House Gallery in her day wheelchair, but we helped her to fit a third powered wheel to the front turning it into a trike that could be driven along. It is always a trade off between manoeuvrability and stability, she said in regard to wheel chairs, but the combination she was using today certainly did a great job on the pavements of Manningtree and Mistley, as we proceeded along The Walls, which is a greensward alongside the River Stour. We discussed the project at some length, our backgrounds and history and what had led us to this place in time.
It was certainly a fragrant walk with the smell of malt permeating all of Mistley, and the high temperature of 29 degrees somehow helped to heighten the senses as we walked along. We passed an allotment, or so it seemed, perched on the railway embankment, and Rowena's wheelchair brushed against the lavender to release its scent to mingle with that of the sweet peas and fennel.
It was narrow here but the path was just wide enough for us to pass by. For a wheel chair user, or anyone with some kind of impairment, information is key. Each person's needs are very different so it is important to have enough information on as many aspects of the terrain, gradients, surfaces and barriers as possible, so that people can make up their own assessments.
So, we'll endeavour to supply this for our walk on 23rd July, and others as we walk in the areas ourselves, in order to help people decide whether they can attend the walk, which we certainly hope that they can. And of course, we'll try to answer any questions that you may have about the routes and paths that we will use in our events.
We arrived back opposite the gallery all too soon, but we did manage to plot our walk on a map using View Ranger, with some embedded live Tweets, which you can view here.
We gathered in Dedham Mill Pond car park to meet the Dedham River Swimmers for a Solstice Swim on Saturday 24 June at 8pm. It had been a warm day and the sun was going down, it felt exciting to see who would be joining us? We met Kevin Sheath who was leading the swim and several swimmers who had travelled quite a distance, one lady all the way from Norfolk. There were questions about suitable clothing and temperature and people were clothed in everything from simple bathing costumes to swimmer’s wet suits, so it was a relief when Kevin tested the water with his thermometer and proclaimed it 22 deg C, bathwater temperature! We put on swimming caps, mainly to be seen, so that Kevin could do a quick head count and make sure none of us had got into difficulty, and I think all of us were wearing some kind of shoe too.
After some discussion about whether to swim upriver or downriver, we decided to head towards Flatford where the river was shallower (in most places here you can put your feet on the bottom), and also where there were more places to get out. There was a friendly group of 8 swimmers and it was good to take to the water at this time of evening with the sun setting. We waded in and amazingly it was like bathwater! The light over the landscape and on the water was beautiful, warm and soft – it made this feel a very special and memorable occasion. Finally taking the plunge, there was no cold shock and our eyes adjusted to the new viewpoint, with crowds of flies and mosquitos just a few inches above the river, which were a fascinating sight and no problem at all. As we swam, people began to spread out and different conversations struck up, some people regularly swim in this water all year round, yes even in January, whilst some of us are complete beginners, the last time we swam in rivers was as children. Kevin says he often gets adults talking to him from boats as he’s swimming, asking if the weed will drown him or if he’ll catch Weil’s disease (usually only found in stagnant waters, but best to protect any cuts if you have any) whilst children look on enthusiastically! Have we lost our relationship to landscape and water, do we need to be braver and re-wild ourselves?
The experience of this midsummer swim in the evening with the sun going down was rich, luxuriant and life affirming. Yes, we met and saw or nearly saw very interesting wildlife – a kingfisher darted across the river, we swam head to head with a family of swans and their signets and managed to avoid eye contact and let each other pass without incident and towards the end of the swim was an egret. But really the most beautiful thing was to be out in the water, appreciating the landscape from a new level, hearing the sound of moving water, noticing the light and its effects as the sun set, being with friends and new acquaintances and simply luxuriating in a very large bath of a river at an optimum temperature – this celebration of the solstice will remain in our memory for many years to come.
Afterwards we gathered, shivering a little and wrapped in towels, to share our thoughts and eat cake, yes cake! We’d not thought of cake, but what a treat and thank you to Rachel aka Sirbalius Caticus for bringing it, providing energy to replenish our supplies. We think we’ve caught the bug, no not Weil’s disease but wild swimming – take us to the river!
Thanks to John Milne for lending moral support and taking some fantastic photographs.
On Thursday we returned to Bottengoms Farm to talk with Ronald about his book Akenfield, as we are hoping to start the new River Stour Festival in 2018 with a screening of Akenfield at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury. It had been a busy week for him as he was awarded a well deserved CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours and had had lots of visitors to talk about this.
Akenfield was published in 1969, the title derives from acre field, as most villages started as a clearing in the trees of an acre field. It paints a fascinating portrait of a Suffolk village at a point in history and already reading it one senses how much village life and agriculture have changed since the 1960's. In 1974 it was made into a film by Peter Hall, we asked Ronald about how it translated into this medium and amusingly he said that as a book it was 'impossible to translate it into a film'. However, the film works successfully and again paints a very interesting picture of the life of a Suffolk Village
Ronald has continued to write in the same vein for most of his life with his Word from Wormingford series which he began as a weekly piece for the Church Times Letter from Wormingford on 19 November 1993 and continued until a few weeks ago. I have enjoyed reading these over the years, they paint a fascinating history of life in the English countryside on the Essex – Suffolk border, the effects of the seasons, changing agriculture, the localpeople and village life, together with the area's wildlife and traditions.
The recording that Stuart and I made we hope to include as introduction to the screening of Akenfield in January 2018. We will post more news about it here in due course. Meanwhile you can sign up for updates on the new River Stour Festival at this address
We were very happy that Ranger for Sudbury Common Lands, Adrian Walters, gave up a few hours of his precious time to come for a walk with us around the landscape that he manages, and discuss the work that they do there as well as a great history of the area.
As is evident from our time there, most people use the lands for their own purpose, which nowadays mostly consists of dog walking, and the occasional angler. Adrian has noticed that some people don’t take much notice of their surroundings especially when they are listening to headphones and looking at mobile phone screens. This relatively modern behaviour will have a detrimental effect upon the passing on of information to the next generation and will eventually result in lost knowledge and people becoming progressively more disconnected to the land. Adrian said that 2012 was the best year in a long time as as it rained for a large proportion of the summer which meant dog walkers spent less time with their animals on the common lands. In that year the ground nesting Skylarks reappeared...it’s a very simple indicator of the impact people have on the environment.
However, there are lots of positives and encouraging signs however, and in no small part to the ongoing management of the land. The charity took over by Sudbury Common Lands in 1987 and employ Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) to maintain the health of whole area. This includes the grazing of 175 Red Devon cows, with steers/heffers in one field, cows with calves (which he called followers) in another, and occasionally a bull. Sometimes bulls from another farm escape into the common and have to be taken away before they cause havoc. The Ranger is responsible for dealing with the day-to-day management of the herd, including dealing with the public, as a way to encourage the herd owner to graze his cattle there. There is a Quinquennial pageant (2005, 2010 etc) to celebrate the letting of the cattle on to the lands in the spring, which is much easier than getting them off in the autumn, which takes 6 weeks of bribery with apples in buckets to get them into the corral. That number of cattle is very specific as it is just enough to maintain the level grass and other plants to a arrested stage without letting them develop to successional stage. This enables a much more balanced state for all of the plants and wildlife there. The ditches and culverts were reinstated when the charity began work here and have to regularly maintained as the cattle ‘poach’ the edges when they go down to the water to drink and if this was left the ditches would eventually become filled and dry out. The level and cleanliness of the water is carefully controlled by clever arrangement and connections to the river near to the mill. Their health is easily monitored by the presence of plants that grow there, which include Common stonewort and the rare tubular water dropwort. The water in the river is eutrophic (containing nitrogen, metaldehyde, phosphates etc) which is mainly from slug pellets and other farming chemicals, and also the sewage works. But, when yearly counts on rare pyramidal orchids started they found 18, and recently only stopped the year they found 2500 specimens.
Adrian also told us about the history of the land here which has been used for grazing for thousands of years. The Ranger of these lands used to be called the Hayward until 17th century, but was still the main person to manage livestock and look after the habitats. Oryx bones were found during some excavations near Ballingdon Bridge to confirm this fact. It has never been ploughed which means that it has a very special balance for all of the things that live here. Land that is returned from arable land to grazing land can take hundreds of years to become as suitable. Legislation can also cause havoc, as was seen with the field amalgamation of 1966 which saw lots of ditches filled in, land drained, hedgerows pulled up and huge piles of uprooted ancient oak trees burned. Mixed farming which used to be practiced accounted for the inclusion of wildlife, but modern monoculture farming doesn’t. Things are slowly changing and now small spaces, including roadside verges are being left for native plants to grow, which in turn supports lots of insects and birds. Gardeners too can help by having less manicured gardens. Entry Level Stewardship is now being considered for many more smaller areas.
Elizabeth de Clare, who once owned the nearby mill, lined the mill pond with clay so they could treat woven cloth, which was stretched on ‘tenter hooks’, in order to make clothes. The mill was also owned by the Clover family. The railway was built in 1865 but closed in 1967 and is now the Valley Trail, and you might be lucky and spot the rare Deptford Pink if you look closely enough. The old Bathing Place was open 1894 but closed in 1938, and people were scared with stories about typhoid in the water to encourage them to use the newly built Bellevue pool. Boys had to wear pink swimming trunks until they were competent swimmers, and then they could wear blue ones and be allowed from the shallows into the main body of the river. There used to be shackage rights on plot lands between August and February.
What we saw and heard:
Meadow and creeping buttercup
Meadow brown butterfly
Tubular water dropwort
Banded agrian and Four spotted chaser dragon flies
What you could see and hear if you visit:
Early march orchids
Reptiles on Cornard Riverside Meadow
20+ species of damsel and dragon fly
AONB Conference, Shrubs Farm 16/06/17
We had been looking forward to the 2017 AONB Annual Forum Conference, as not only was it a chance for me to meet some of the people who had made this project possible, and to get to hear some great speakers on relevant subjects, but it was also an opportunity to explore some new areas of the Stour Valley. The conference was held at Shrubs Farm in Lamarsh, by invitation of Robert and Sara Erith, in their fantastic barn, a venue that not only inspired us but also kept us cool in the heat of the hot summery spell that we've been having. There was an abundance of refreshments and everyone was made to feel very welcome, and even the dogs made you feel like you were at a friends house.
After an introduction by Robert, there were 6 speakers to lead us through some interesting and though provoking topics, including Cllr Nigel Chapman, Chairman of the Joint Advisory Committee, Simon Amstutz, AONB Manager who spoke of the excellent work that all of the AONB organisations do and Tracey Brinkley, Tourism Development Officer at Babergh District Council, who also gave our project a welcome mention.
This prompted some great conversations during the break with quite a lot of enthusiastic people and groups wishing to be a part of the project, which we were very grateful for. The networking window wasn't really long enough but we did manage to get in a cup of tea and a scone before heading back for the second round of presentations.
Howard Davies' talk on how AONBs benefit society was very illuminating about how the geology of the landscape is essential to its character, buildings and elements that make it special. Jules Pretty, who will be leading one of our walks later in the year, provided us with real evidence on how the environment and good health are so deeply linked and the concept of the natural health service, before Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DEFRA answered some questions on policy and the way forward for environmental matters during and after Brexit.
After lunch and another networking session, we then boarded a minibus and headed off for an informative guided tour of Dedham Vale Vineyard and a very enjoyable wine tasting! Although just a smallish party we had some great conversations on the bus and have swapped details with several people in order to meet up with them at a later date and learn about their connections with the river. More on those experiences as they happen.
All in all it was a very positive and productive day and we can't wait to follow up on the discussions we had with people.
It was a shame we couldn't meet up with John yesterday, but it did mean that we got to spend another afternoon wandering around Wivenhoe. We met him in the cafe and proceeded to explore the narrow and sometimes unmade streets of the town, which were full of all kinds of interesting houses and residents, quite a few of whom John knew and he waved or said hello as we passed them in the street. You could tell John was connected to the landscape just by the way that he spoke about the layout of the town and the language he used. He too is a member of Living Maps and has a lot of technical and IT knowledge which was a great help in adding to what we learned from Phil the previous day. He is helping us look at a way of making a digital map that everyone can contribute their knowledge and experiences of the River Stour to, so that we can share this fascinating and many layered information and access it whilst out in the landscape.
We finished the walk with a pint in the Black Buoy and joined some of John's family for a friendly chat in the pub garden.