River Stour: Dragons, aliens and a princess

IT’S the kind of wheeze that would likely appeal to famous adopted East Anglians, such as Griff Rhys Jones and Paul Heiney, who appreciate life afloat: tracking one of the region’s longest rivers from estuary to source. By rowing boat. It’s been done by two friends. Their little triumph might have been achieved without TV crews recording every oarstroke, but it has produced a fascinating book. Ken Rickwood’s commentary – part travelogue, part history book – will teach most of us more about the Stour than we knew before. We’ll never again take it for granted.

The Stour’s story features alien invaders, a village that got its name because of a dragon in its mere, an exiled princess working as a railway gatekeeper, the hill where Edmund was crowned King of the East Angles, a man on whom Shakespeare based his character Falstaff, and the largest coconut mat carpet ever made. There are also links with Sainsbury’s and WH Smith.

Phew.

Stour Odyssey is the natural sequel to Ken’s 2008 volume Stour Secrets, in which he explored the river from the coast to Cattawade. Another 12 months-plus of endeavour and research has completed the quest, ending at a source in neither Suffolk nor Essex.

Ken embarked upon his expedition with David Cleveland, who lives at Manningtree and is well known as the founding director of the East Anglian Film Archive and the preservation and restoration of old film. David has published Stour Odyssey but is keen to point out it’s his friend’s book. So apart from flagging Ken’s observation that David lent crucial encouragement and companionship – and did most of the rowing – we’ll let the publisher slip away into the background, where he’d prefer to be.


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The Stour – 47 or so miles long – has been an important waterway for thousands of years, Ken points out, and has been used for commercial traffic for hundreds of years. However, by the outbreak of the Second World War all had stopped on the upper reaches. In his freshly-painted eight-feet-long dinghy – stern modified so it can take a pair of wheels for when it needs to be pulled along – Ken sets off upstream from a spot near the three-arch bridge at Cattawade. Here are a few selected highlights from a journey full of intrigue. It isn’t long before he reaches the site of the former Brantham Mill – a tidal mill rebuilt in 1778 and then run by tenant Golding Constable, father of artist John Constable. Mills will feature regularly on his adventure. Beyond Flatford, where water meadows form the backdrop to a “quintessential English pastoral scene of cattle grazing, occasional trees and glimpses of a distant church tower”, Ken finds himself firmly in Constable Country. “For many years I thought that this label had been dreamt up by the bourgeoning 20th century tourist industry, but I was wrong,” he admits. “If legend is to be believed the name goes back to the great artist’s lifetime.

“The story goes something like this. John was returning home from London in a stagecoach. As it neared Stratford (St Mary) he overheard a fellow passenger ask of her companion if she knew where they were. ‘Constable Country’ came the reply. John did not reveal his identity to his fellow travellers, but, on his return to London, related the story to his friends.”

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At Dedham, the first written record of a mill comes in the Domesday Book, says Ken.

“In the mid 15th century the mill was rebuilt by Sir John Falstaff. This was the man on whom Shakespeare based his self-indulgent, jovial and dissolute braggart; companion to Prince Hal.

“Sir John even displayed these characteristics here, as not only did he rebuild the mill . . . he could not resist placing swans on the millpool. All this activity excited the envy of Parson Buck of Stratford St Mary, who, with an accomplice, raided the fishponds and also carried off twenty-four swans and cygnets.”

Further on comes . . . whispers of an alien invader.

The Chinese Mitten Crab was first recorded in England in the Thames in 1935 – probably brought here in the ballast tanks of ships. “They are now present in all of the estuaries between the Thames and the Humber in their millions,” reports Ken. “Those in the Stour may have arrived by an overland route or via the ballast tanks of ships arriving at Harwich or Felixstowe. Their large size and ferocious behaviour make them very successful invaders by out-competing native species. “Also, their burrowing behaviour causes considerable damage to riverbanks, to the extent that they have become a hazard to river engineering projects. All this has earned the Chinese Mitten Crab a place in the top one hundred of the world’s worst alien species list.”

Onward. Early in the 20th Century, the Salvation Army bought about 400 acres in the Boxted area to put “landless people on peopleless land”. Folk were given five-acre plots and semi-detached houses.

“Despite subsidised rent and the provision of free implements and seed, most of the newcomers, many from the East End of London, failed to make the enterprise work,” reports Ken. “The scheme was wound up in 1916 and the units taken over by Essex County Council, who used some of the houses to settle men returning from the First World War.”

At the foot of the grassy slopes rising to Wormingford church is a small wood – home to a mere. “This mysterious sheet of water is the source of many myths and legends and is said, by the villagers, to be bottomless, haunted, and to be a dragon’s lair . . . The legend is that a returning Crusader brought a dragon, possibly a crocodile, to Bures. It escaped into the Stour and then took refuge in the mere.

“The mediaeval name for a serpent or dragon is ‘worm’ . . . the mere was now referred to as the dragon’s home, and Widemondeford became Wormingford.”

At Bures, there’s a hill. “It was on this hill, overlooking the Stour, in the royal vill of Burva [a vill is a collection of homesteads], on Christmas Day 855, that Edmund was crowned King of the East Angles,” says Ken.

At Rodbridge, north of Sudbury and on the way to Long Melford, nothing remains of the level-crossing keeper’s house that was for several years home to a princess.

“From 1958 the crossing gates were opened and closed by Her Royal Highness Princess Madeleine von Dembrinska,” explains our intrepid rower. “Descended from Polish royalty, the princess operated the gates every day from the first train to the last. That is apart from her holidays, when she took advantage of her travel concessions as a railway employee to travel to Poland to pursue her right to the inheritance that her mother had been fighting for since 1918.”

Glemsford’s an interesting place: formerly home to both a horsehair industry and the manufacture of coconut matting. “The Victorians used a great deal of horsehair for making, amongst other things, brushes, violin bows, textiles and upholstery.”

Meanwhile, during the 1870s, large quantities of the outer coating of coconuts – or coir – was imported into England as mattress-filling or for making mats. Mat weaving was centred on Suffolk and at its peak there were 10 factories in the village. “The largest coconut mat carpet ever made was woven in Glemsford. It was made in 1906 and covered the great arena at Olympia in London, an area of 63,000 square feet (5860 sq m). This mat required a special train to deliver it to London, where it was met by a fleet of 37 Harrod’s pantechnicons.”

Milling at Baythorne End Mill, first recorded at the site in Domesday, finished in the early 1900s, with the buildings converted into a holiday home. This was lived in by two ladies, Miss Cody and Miss Bowes-Lyon. The latter was a cousin of the future Queen Mother. “The pair caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood because they wore trouser suits and trilbies. It is said that every Sunday morning about noon they walked up to Stoke Lion, where they drank with the farm workers in the tap room, and when it was time to leave they invariably went home, one with a bottle of whisky and the other with a siphon of soda.”

At Little Wratting, outside Haverhill, there’s a big factory complex – and a link with a household name.

The story begins in London’s Drury Lane in 1869, where John James Sainsbury opens a small grocery shop. He and wife Mary Ann are determined to offer fresh-quality food at affordable prices. Their strategy is a great success and the enterprise expands.

Two sons go into the business, but third boy Frank does not take to retailing “and in fact was dismissed from his position as manager of the Holloway shop after his father caught him riding around the shop on a bicycle.

“The recalcitrant Frank was sent to work on the farm of a family friend. This proved so much more to his liking and led to his father establishing Frank on his own farm at Blunts Hall in 1902.

“Here he had 2,000 acres on which he grew crops and raised sheep and pigs. Also, in association with other local farmers, he ran an egg collection and packaging scheme. And in line with the family philosophy he provided Sainsbury’s with the best-quality meat and eggs available.

“Needless to say, the business expanded and soon became the principal supplier of meat and eggs to the family business.

“Later, an abattoir was built on the site and then, in the 1950s, a plant was built on the farm for the production of pre-packed bacon. The meat packing factory supplied the ever-expanding Sainsbury empire until the 1980s.”

The parish church of St Mary at Great Wratting, meanwhile, evokes another high street name: W.H. Smith.

In 1792 Henry Walton Smith and wife Anna opened a small news-vendors in Little Grosvenor Street, London.

The business was inherited by their sons. One, William Henry, changed the name of the successful newsagents and stationers to W.H. Smith.

“Later, when his son, also William Henry, reached the age of 21, it became W.H. Smith & Son. In 1848 the firm opened its first bookstall on Euston Station; soon to be followed by similar outlets on railway stations throughout the land.

“Then in 1868 William Henry II, who was running an extremely successful business, became an MP. He also took possession of Thurlow Hall (near Haverhill) and began his local philanthropic works, including the restoration of St Mary’s Church.”

The Stour heads north (well, it does when you’re heading upriver!) and curves west over the border with Cambridgeshire. The end – or, rather, the beginning – is in sight . . .

“I was surprised to find that there is no universally agreed definition for determining the source of a river,” admits Ken. “When determining the length of a river, one definition is to measure the distance from the mouth to the most distant headwater, irrespective of the name.

“For example, the Nile ends at Lake Victoria, but this is not its source as the lake is fed by a number of rivers, the longest of which is the Kagera. Using this definition the Nile becomes the longest river in the world, rather than the fourth or fifth.

“What it comes down to is that geographers seldom pinpoint a river source. Sometimes it is an area of marsh, sometimes the position of melting glaciers and sometimes, as in the case of the Stour, an area near a watershed. In our case it is Wratting Common and what looks like the longest stream from which water could flow.”

Closer, closer . . .

“Somewhere in this field lies the source of the Stour and, on days when it rains here, some of the water in the raindrops will find its way down the river to sea-level at Cattawade.”

So, the end of the line . . .

“My idea was to make this a journey of adventure and discovery,” reflects Ken. “It might not be the Amazon or the Nile, but to me the Stour was an unknown and unexplored river . . .”

From salt to source: Ken Rickwood

Ken has been fascinated by the River Stour since childhood

He’d cycle there from his home in Chelmsford

He’s lived in the Colchester area since the 1960s and worked as a technician in the physics department of the University of Essex

It’s there he met David Cleveland

David had a boat on the Stour and the two friends would spend hours fishing and exploring creeks

In 1978, when he had a young family, Ken bought a beach hut and many summers were spent at Wrabness

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