Discovering Walton’s Secret Water
- Credit: Archant
Film maker David Webb has explored the Backwaters of Essex for a fascinating new dvd. Lynne Mortimer talks to David and finds out more.
Children’s author Arthur Ransome wrote of a summer adventures, capturing the imaginations of generations of young people.
A number of his books are inspired by the rivers and waterways of East Anglia, where Ransome himself sailed. He shared his fictional tales with children who would treasure those innocent stories.
Today, they are a part of East Anglia’s heritage, being set variously in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.
When actor and film-maker David Webb, together with broadcaster and Backwaters enthusiast, developed this latest project it neatly dovetailed with Ransome’s eighth book, Secret Water and so his new dvd is titled Walton’s Secret Water, exploring the Backwaters of Essex; 7,000 acres of inlets, streams, navigable water and parcels of land.
The film was shot over the last two years and incorporates both The Beast from the East (the bitter cold and snow) and the glorious summer of 2018.
“I had the idea and remembered Chris Opperman having been involved with the Backwaters.” The two men are friends and former colleagues at BBC Radio Suffolk.
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“I grew up in Mistley and Manningtree and wanted to find out more about my county. This was a voyage of discovery.”
David, famously one half of the Webb twins who were among the regular cast of hit sitcom Hi-De-Hi, has had a long career in showbiz and broadcasting.
He and his brother, Tony, began their career as singers and they were a cut above your average variety chanteurs, having performed Nessun Dorma with an orchestra for a radio broadcast from Hilversum, in The Netherlands. Tony took the top line and David, the harmony.
Hi-De-Hi proved to be a boon as it was filmed in Dovercourt, just a short hop from David’s home, near Manningtree. This meant that when filming went on late into the evening and the cast was doomed to spend the night in the disused holiday camp chalets, David could go home.
He would later become a popular broadcaster on BBC Radio Suffolk and, in recent years, as well as being a popular speaker, has concentrated on filming the East Anglian landscapes he loves, telling the stories that make them unique.
Walton’s Secret Water is a beautifully shot, one-hour documentary, presented by Chris Opperman, who was one of the original presenters at BBC Suffolk. What has happened to those trademark sideburns? Well, they are bigger than ever.
The Backwaters film is a happy marriage of Chris’s passion for the area and David’s quest find out more about the county he lives in. Not undiscovered but relatively secret, The Backwaters nestle behind the southern reaches of the East Anglian coast, a labyrinth of inlets and roadways ruled by the tides. The people who live there are familiar with its ways. One young farmer talks about his less-than-perfect school attendance record, which was dictated by the tides as he was sometimes cut off from the mainland.
As Chris Opperman introduces us to the local character of the landscape he also references Arthur Ransome’s life and work, including the author’s second marriage to Evgenia, whom he met when he worked as a journalist and did the odd bit of information-gathering for MI5, in Russia. Evgenia was Leon Trotsky’s secretary.
The Backwaters’ wildlife is abundant and fascinating. There is sea holly, golden samphire and sea lavender. Leon Woodrow is Tendring council’s warden of the Backwaters and is fiercely protective of the flora and fauna that make them unique. One unusual sight is red-backed seals... not a different species but stained to a rusty colour by the iron oxide in the mud.
Leon puts out ridge tiles as shelters to protect the eggs of birds, such as little terns, that nest in the open.
Kiln Quay is Arthur Ransome’s Witch’s Quay in Secret Water and, still here, is the peaceful, picture-book cottage that features in the story.
Sally lives there. “The only way I can work in London is knowing I’m coming back here.” The house belonged to her grandmother. “She met Arthur Ransome... and she was the witch,” says Sally with a smile. The witch is described by Ransome as having “wrinkles as deep as ditches”.
She tells us of the time a party of around 30 American tourists visited the cottage, who had been erroneously assured by their tour operator that cream teas were served in Sally’s garden. “It didn’t happen,” Sally says, amused.
Chris Opperman meets artist Dawn Hall, who is out there painting in all weathers ? on this day, observes Opperman, it is “blowing a hoolie”. But Dawn is unwilling to let an interesting sky go unrecorded. She paints, she says “Constable clouds” because they are blown in from Suffolk.
Artist Steve Henderson has a workshop where he carves wooden sculptures of the animals and birds who inhabit the Backwaters ? his regard for his subjects born of wildfowling as a child.
As Chris traverses the Backwaters, there is something to fascinate at every turn ? the last lime kiln remaining in Essex; a repair shop for classic cars; a row of stones from the original London Bridge.
A foray into Suffolk brings Chris to Pin Mill, one of Ransome’s favourite spots and the birthplace of two of his boats. Here, Chris observes, is “safe anchorage, skilled boat builders and a first class pub (The Butt and Oyster).”
• Walton’s Secret Water is being launched on Friday, November 16, at McGrigor Hall, Frinton on Sea with showings at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. The dvd is available at Co-op stores in Dovercourt, the Triangle at Frinton on Sea; Townsends in Manningtree; Caxton Books in Fronton on Sea; Parkers Garden Centre at Kirby Cross and by mail from David Webb: email him at firstname.lastname@example.org