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You are in: Suffolk > Places > Places features > Stories from the Stour

The River Stour from the stern of Rosette

The River Stour from Rosette

Stories from the Stour

Since becoming a navigable, commercial waterway in 1705 the River Stour has taken on a number of life forms, transporting goods, inspiring artists and offering a home for a range of wildlife.

In 2008 the river is in the midst of a new phase of life as the River Stour Trust is working to restore it and maximise the potential of the area.

"The River Stour Trust was formed in 1968 so we are 40 years old this September," said Peter Hesketh, who's Chairman of Council of the Trust.

Peter Hesketh and Brian Cornell

Peter Hesketh and Brian Cornell

"Its purpose is to maintain and restore the navigation of the River Stour, which runs right the way from Sudbury down to the sea at Brantham and on to Manningtree.

"It has been a navigation for some 300 years since 1705, so it's quite an important feature to the local area and we think it's really worthwhile endeavouring to keep it open as a navigation."

Since its development the River Stour Trust has grown in numbers and now has a 500 strong team, some of whom devote their time to crewing the two boats that are used on the river, and to helping with the labour-intensive tasks such as dredging.

Although the restoration of the navigation is still in progress the river itself is well used by various groups including the sea scouts, The Sudbury Rowing Club and many people who take rowing boats and canoes onto the route.

Opening of the Cornard Lock

Opening of the Cornard Lock

"The long-term goal is to have the locks available, so that people can use them and take boats through to the sea.

"There is a bit of a political issue there, because the Environment Agency, which is the river authority, is not allowing us to have many boats on the river.

"Having said that canoes and non-powered craft are welcome on the whole stretch, even now."

History of the Stour

Historically, the Stour was a major commercial route into London which provided Suffolk and Essex businesses, such as the Ballingdon Brick Works, with a way of transporting goods into the capital.

"The Ballingdon Brick Works is no longer there, it's back in Sudbury, but they made two different types of bricks, the reds and the whites.

"A lot of the reds in particular were used in buildings in Kensington and at St Pancras Station, which recently had a refurbishment.

Ballingdon brick

An original Ballingdon brick at Cornard Lock

"Although the Ballingdon Brick Works is no longer there the seam of clay from which those bricks were drawn still exists.

"Bulmer brick and tile company at Bulmer have that same clay and they still make handmade bricks.

"Peter Minter who runs the company was able to source the clay and make the bricks that went into St Pancras station, so not only was it a 150 year old story it brings it right up to date."

Defence of the region

Aside from the River Stour's commercial activities the route was also used as a second line of defence if an invasion from German forces got through the coastal defences of Suffolk and Essex, during World War Two.

Today pill boxes are often converted into bat retreats, with a conversion project taking place on the Stour in 2006.

A pill box on the banks of the Stour

A pill box on the banks of the Stour

"Pill boxes are a feature of this river on the Essex side.

"The thinking, so I'm told, is that the attack from Germany would come across the North Sea and they would land in Suffolk, then they would work their way south.

"The line of pill boxes on the Essex side would form this defensive line making it difficult for them to get across.

"I know that as you go further into London there were row upon row of pill boxes and some of them had anti-aircraft guns mounted on the roof, but they were principally for soldiers to fight from."

The Heart of Constable Country

The River Stour owes a lot of its fame to Suffolk based artists such as Gainsborough and Nash, though it is John Constable whose work is most often associated with the area.

Lighter on the River Stour

Lighter on the River Stour (c 1900)

The artist grew up beside the river in Flatford, where his father owned a mill, and he was often inspired by the activity on the Stour.

"The main way that goods were transported was by close coupled lighters, two very large lighters drawn by a horse and often operated by a man and a boy.

"The man stood on a flying bridge on the front lighter and steered the rear lighter using a huge bulk of wood which came out from the second lighter.

"He pushed that piece of wood so in effect he made the second lighter a tiller. It must have been extremely hard work.

A tiller is a lever attached to the rudder stock of a boat which provides the leverage for the captain, or this case the lighter man, to turn the rudder.

"What made it worse was that the riparian owners, the people that owned the river, couldn't agree the side of the river that the horse should actually tow the boat on.

"Consequently if the barge came across a riperian owner who refused them access to their land they would have to put the horse on the barge and poll it across the the other side.

"It's that putting the horse onto the barge which Constable saw and painted and it looks extremely odd to see a heavy horse standing on top of a barge but in fact it was reality."

Residents of the river

Today the riverside is the site of much activity with new houses and flats under construction.

A swan on the River Stour

A swan on the River Stour

The river is also home to a range of wildlife, including swans, kingfishers and a wide variety of fish.

"When Bakers Dog Food was open we used to get a lot of swans on the river because they would through food out" said Brian Cornell who's Chair of the Sudbury Boating Club.

"We have one very special thing and that's a terrapin, that's been with us about seven years.

"I can remember him in the early days when he was about as big as a saucer but now he's about as big as a dinner plate.

"Also further down the river we have an otter holt which was built around five or six years ago, but we've never ever seen anything go in it because they're such shy creatures.

"They possibly only come out at night or when there's absolutely no-one around."

Today and into the future

In July 2008, the river was only suitable for small manually-propelled boats, such as The Rosette and The Francis J, which are used by the Trust. This is because powered craft are only permitted between Ballingdon Bridge and Henny.

in 1998, with the help of lottery funding, the River Stour Trust were able to restore the Cornard Lock.

The lock chamber is 50 feet long by 14 feet wide and is the appropriate size to enable traditional-sized Stour craft to pass through.

This lock has particular significance because it is the first lock on the River Stour in 200 years of its history as a navigation.

Stratford Lock

Stratford Lock (c 1900)

"We're currently working to restore Stratford Lock, and that work started in ernest about two years ago," said Peter.

Stratford Lock is on the edge of the parish of Stratford St Mary and fell into disrepair by the end of the 20th Century.

The Trust organise regular working parties in which volunteers can get involved with the restoration.

"Stratford Lock is the one that's really on the boil at the moment. There was a lot of work undertaken last year, and we had lots of volunteers and even some inmates came along from Hollesley Bay Prison on a daily basis. Their help really was invaluable.

"We need another £4-5,000. We've got enough to start but we do need that bit more."

As well as the restoration work on the river itself, the River Stour Trust has developed the granary building in Sudbury, to be used for weddings and civil ceremonies.

The river is also used for a range of popular annual events.

Woman on a coracle

A coracle (photo: Richard Hammerton)

"We have the coracle regatta in August and we were delighted recently to be featured in The Times' 'Best 12 things to do in Britain'.

"A coracle is like a large upturned shell which is generally for one person, it's round and shallow drafted and looks for all the world as though it's impossible to steer.

"There is a chap that comes along the river in a coracle collecting rubbish that has been discarded by passers-by.

"If it's windy he just uses an umbrella and lets the wind pull him along. It's quite a sight.

"The other thing we have is Sudbury to the Sea, where people canoe from Sudbury down to the sea and stay overnight at Wissington.

"In 2007 we had over 300 people take part in that and it's become very popular."

Awareness of the River Stour Trust, its work and the river itself continues to grow as more people recognise the different ways the area can be used for leisure and education.

In 2006 the trust opened its new visitor centre adjacent to Cornard Lock, to offer a place for visiting schools and groups to learn more about the area.

Peter hopes the trust can continue to work towards getting as many people out on the Stour as possible and is happy to speak with anyone that wishes to get involved.

"People can come and enjoy the boats and hire out the boats. People can join us as  members or they can make donations. If we could have some donations towards Stratford Lock that would be great.

"We've had a company that are interested in letting us have a digger, but we'd like to hear from anyone really who has an interest in this beautiful river and restoring it for the public at large.

"It's not a private-club - the outcome and the purpose of doing it is for the public."

last updated: 03/07/2008 at 15:08
created: 03/07/2008

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