Ipswich Icons: The River Deben is not very Ipswich but it is a true icon

Taken on a stroll by the river Deben at Woodbridge. Picture: STEVE COATES

Taken on a stroll by the river Deben at Woodbridge. Picture: STEVE COATES - Credit: Steve Coates

Amongst the previous articles to feature under the banner headline Ipswich Icons John Norman, of the Ipswich Society, has written about the River Orwell (possibly the most beautiful commercial river in the country), the River Gipping and the Alderman Canal, and following the publication of each it has been suggested I should write about Woodbridge’s River, the Deben.

the steam driven chain ferry crossing the Deben at Felixstowe Ferry. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

the steam driven chain ferry crossing the Deben at Felixstowe Ferry. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

Given that it rises in high Suffolk close to Mendlesham Mast, flows through Debenham, Wickham Market and Woodbridge before discharging into the sea at Felixstowe Ferry it is hardly an Ipswich Icon. But here goes.

Given that most users of the river, particularly those persuading me to write, are sailors I’ll start in the sea off Felixstowe and explore as we sail upstream. And here we find the first difficulty, a sand bar that is ever shifting. A trap for the unwary sailor who attempts to make the passage at anything other than high tide.

The second major difficulty is the speed of flow through the narrows between Felixstowe Ferry and Bawdsey Quay, as the tide ebbs it can reach 5 knots, faster than small yachts can achieve using their inboard engine. Struggling against this force of water would be difficult enough but to micro navigate between the moorings and the Horse Shoal is doubly difficult. I’m told there is deeper water on the starboard side.

There is still a ferry across the Deben, albeit limited to passengers, dogs and bicycles. When William Cuthbert Quilter was resident in the Manor House (built 1886) there was a steam powered chain ferry across the river, large enough to take a horse and carriage. A chain ferry drags itself across the river by pulling on a chain, each end of which is firmly fixed to each bank. This particular ferry operated from 1884 until 1934, initially transporting building materials for the new hose. In 1936 Bawdsey Manor was commandeered by the RAF and became the home of Radar.

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Upstream from the Ferry there are nine miles of delightful river, navigable as far as Wilford Bridge, for the first two of those miles there is nothing much to see, the flood walls hiding the low lying land. Beyond the mud banks and tidal creeks the arable fields of fine light soil produce an abundance of crops. Kings Fleet was formerly a tidal creek, today protected by the river wall and sluice it is where King Edward III gathered his fleet prior to sailing to Flanders. This probably happened a number of times between 1337 and 1343 during the 100 years war with France.

Kings Fleet was almost certainly the port of Goseford (Goose Ford), an important shelter from storms on the east coast. Goseford slipped into disuse as ships got larger and required the deeper water of the Orwell, there is little reference to it after the late 1400s.

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The scenery changes as we approach Ramsholt with pine trees and a cliff (of sorts) on the east bank. The barge quay allows us to visit the Ramsholt Arms, an inn with one of the most delightful settings on the east coast. The quay was used to load barges with grain which were taken up river to the Tide Mill at Woodbridge although probably more frequently by barges sailing down river and waiting for the ebb to get them through the mouth and down the coast.

The major industry on the river was the cement works at Waldringfield which was operational between 1865 and 1907, by 1912 the site had been cleared and houses were being erected.

George Mason had been making Roman Cement (crushed septaria, a soft rock found on the shore) but the shortage of stone caused him to shift production to Portland cement, a mix of chalk and clay. The chalk came from the Thames estuary (by barge), the clay was river mud dug from the side of the Deben. The same barges that had brought chalk from the Thames returned to London loaded with clinker (cement).

Today Waldringfield is an important sailing centre with a boat yard, a pub (the May Bush) and numerous yachts at swing moorings in the river. The tide is still swift flowing off Waldringfield and between the pub and Stonner Point is a tidal island with shallow water, even at high tide close to the east bank.

Just up river from Stonner Point are The Tips, a site where Robert Cobbold attempted to reclaim 150 acres of land from the river. He was prevented from doing this by Trinity House who claimed that the scheme would alter the course of the river and thus dramatically change the navigation.

Martlesham Creek meets the Deben at Kyson Point and for those unable to sail in the river I recommend the walk, along the river wall from Woodbridge returning over the National Trust’s Kyson Hill. The various vestiges of the river are all visible from the bank and it is a simple, delightful walk.

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