|FRIENDS OF THE CHELMER & BACKWATER NAVIGATION NEWSLETTER,||June 2000,||Issue 13|
John MarriageMany years ago I was camping beside the Chelmer, just below Stonham Lock, when I was awakened by a steady roaring sound, rather like that of a grounded aero engine, seemingly coming from the direction of Little Baddow. Puzzled, I got climbed of my tent and looked around, but there was no sign of a plane passing overhead, nor indeed was there any vehicle or other machine to be seen. I proceeded to prepare my breakfast, still looking for the source of the noise, which seemed to be getting steadily closer.
The water on the camping gaz stove having boiled, I sat by the bank with a mug of tea, contemplating the normally stationary water. Why was it beginning to move downstream towards Little Baddow with the water lilies and rushes all bending in that direction?
The noise continued to increase and there, at last, in the distance, I could see, just above the line of rushes, a low, flat black object moving steadily towards me, with two tall figures projecting above on the level surface.
The object rounded a distant bend and at last I could see that it was a heavily laden motor barge, deep in the water and loaded well above the gunnels with sawn timber, partially protected by a black tarpaulin and complete with crew of two standing stationary on the stern .
The water movement was still increasing and now twigs and loose debris were rushing past me. As the boat grew level (by then I had taken the precaution of beaching my canoe) I could see that the water was being sucked passed the barge on either side into a heaving, foaming maelstrom at the stern.
I was witnessing the passage of one of Brown & Sons new steel barges, built to replace the old wooden horsedrawn lighters which had operated on the navigation between Chelmsford and Heybridge Basin since the waterway had opened in 1797. Browns had just commissioned 4 or 5 of these steel boats and were designed to carry some 40 tons of timber instead of 25 tons on the horse-boats, as well as reducing the travelling time. They were powered by a huge outboard engine made by Harbourmaster of Harlow, who used a Ford diesel engine as the power unit.
Browns had been experimenting with motor barges for several years. First, they built Susan, a wooden boat constructed to the traditional 18th century design, but with the addition of an inboard engine. Its operation was not totally successful owing to weed becoming entangled with the propeller, necessitating periodic stops to open the weed hatch and remove the debris. Next, they built another wooden boat, Jimmy, (of particular fame as it was initially made too large to pass through the locks !). This boat was fitted with a harbourmaster outboard engine at the stern and, after modifications were made to the boat, made a series of successful trial journeys along the canal. Pleased with the success of the trials, Browns then proceeded to commission the construction of a small fleet of welded steel barges. At the same time Heybridge Basin lock was lengthened so that modern timber coasters could enter the enclosed water rather than offload near Osea.
Susan was transferred to the navigation company, who used her as a maintenance boat. The new boats operated successfully for nearly 20 years, carrying thousands of tons of Baltic timber up the navigation. A useful spin-off was the regular scouring of the entire waterway, resulting in excellent conditions for canoeing and fishing, of the like not seen since (particularly since the introduction of pennywort). In 1970, following a change of ownership of Brown & Son, the carriage of timber by barges was discontinued and the trade transferred to articulated lorrys.
The Navigation Company acquired Julie, named after the daughter of the managing director of Browns, as a replacement for Susan. The other boats sailed off in convoy to the wharves of a lighterage company in Barking Creek Later enquiries made by me suggested that the boats were used by contractors engaged in the construction of the Thames Barrier, but what happened afterwards is a mystery, although I did have a report that one was seen moored near Hammersmith Bridge, with Chelmsford still shown as its home port.!
Today, Julie is the only remaining steel barge still operating on the navigation. Susan is now owned by the Chelmsford Borough Museum Service and both boats can be seen from time to time traversing the canal. Sadly of Jimmy there is no trace.
It would be interesting to know the fate of the other vessels.
We all know of the serried ranks of trees of all heights that line the edge of the towpath of the canal: they have been part of the natural landscape for several generations. Or so we supposed. For these willows are un-naturally selected and planted by man, nature has been "engineered" in the cause of cricket.
The life of a cricket bat starts with the selection of a branch from a wild willow, which is cut to fence post size and plunged into soft ground near a water supply, during the months of December to February. Sprouts appear and grow into a mass of thin branches which, when they attain about 12 feet, are cut for planting out well into the soil to reach the water table. These spindly poles can always be seen at some point along the towpath, usually where mature trees have been felled. For the first few years the side shoots are removed: then they are left to the beneficence of nature foe about 15 years, when their circumference above the ground reaches 56''. After felling and cross cutting at 2-4" intervals they are ready for clearing. Nick Wright showed us a family photo showing three generations carrying eight crosscuts on their shoulders to the waiting truck.
Band saws, circular saws, drying sheds complete the process, although some eight weeks must elapse before a cleft is ready for the bat-maker to begin his part.
To speed up the whole process the clefts can be dried artificially in controlled conditions instead of drying naturally, after first having been waxed at the ends to prevent splitting. Before drying the "green" blade is much heavier than after the drying process when all the moisture has evaporated.
And then top the grading process: where subjective judgements abound. It's not just a case of a "good second" but thirds, "fourths" and even "fifths", form some manufacturers will only buy the cheapest in the hope of enhancing the appearance themselves.
A spin off from making cricket bats is making rounders bats, stumps, bails rolling pins and balls for throwing at coconuts, although these are made of ash. The weight of the former are so light that there would be no danger of the coconut falling, indeed some of the nuts are replaced by replica's of wood thus making them unbudgable.
The evening was greatly enjoyed by over 50 members whose interest was captivated by Nick and his colleagues. Our grateful thanks to all of them for giving up their time and making it a memorable visit, not to mention the magnificent and generous refreshments laid on at The Square and Compasses, Fuller Street.
Many local people know something about the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation: they have either travelled or strolled along it, or played or picnicked beside it, or fished or swam in it, or at some time worked on it or for the Canal Company. All would have enjoyed and admired its delights; there must be a fund of experiences, of stories and pictures stored away in peoples' memories and drawers. Now is the time to revisit them and bring them to life for mutual enjoyment and for the benefit of the generations of the second millennium.
You are invited to share your personal story by sending your recollections or photographs for inclusion in a millennium book, which will be produced by the Friends of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation at the end of the year.
If you are happy to have your personal memory included in the millennium book, no matter how modest, please send your contribution to the Secretary of the Friends of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation at 16 Roots Lane, Wickham Bishops, CM8 3LS
So here is a chance to become a part of our wonderful heritage and send in anything that would show why the canal can be such an attractive and interesting part of our lives.
All photos, sketches and original material will be returned. If you send a picture don't forget to explain why it is special to you and include the date and place and, if possible, the names of the people involved.
It is assumed that its spread is aided by its sale at garden centres and that there is no legislation in place at present to stop this; one can only rely on the goodwill of the nursery and horticultural industry. The only way to influence the Government to take action is if specific cost implications can be identified for its efficient removal: not an easy matter as there is no compelling research to show that it is causing major damage to the freshwater habitats; also you need funding to provide research and development: so it seems like a "chicken and egg" situation. The prevention of navigation, flood control measures, and the danger it poses for unwary walkers, are possible means of attracting funding for eradication measures.
On the Chelmer it is thought that April to May are the best months to attack the weed, that is to say when it is at its weakest point after the winter, for as soon as the air temperature increases it grows quickly. In the short term the Canal Company and the Environment Agency will continue their removal operations to keep the channel open but the most effective remedy would be the use of selective herbicides; research is being carried out to identify these in consultation with all the appropriate agencies.
If you walk the towpath now in July from Chelmsford to Heybridge you will find patches of pennywort at the bank edge all the way down, even in Springfield Basin where it is growing in the feeder ditch as well. It prefers still sites like lock cuts or overhanging vegetation where the current is slack.
On the recent exploration of the lower Blackwater at Beeleigh by the Friends quite a number of patches were seen, presumably washed from the Chelmer in times of spate. It is hoped to have a battle plan prepared for 2001 and to be ready for a three to four year campaign!
One of our Canadian correspondents, Martin Hatfield, has reported that they are suffering from similar intrusive weeds on the Pacific coast; the asian millfoyle that is choking the lakes and purple loosestrife is taking over all the marshes and wetlands. The latter grows along the Chelmer; its distribution is controlled by competition from other native plants. One wonders how it found its way to Vancouver?
The river beyond Barnes Lock is impassable. An intrepid boater commented to us (Ron/Judith Abbott) while we were at Sandford Lock that he had tried to get into Springfield Basin. He had so much weed wrapped around the propeller on his outboard, he cut the engine and used his anchor to pull himself along with by throwing it ahead and bow hauling his boat through the dense weed. After all that effort got to the junction just before the lock and finally admitted defeat. He was not impressed with our lovely waterway or the locks. He asked why the lock at Springfield was left empty as the lock instructions stated "locks must be left full". Ron explained it was that the bottom gates leaked so the lock would not stay full and it would be dangerous to leave the bottom gates closed on an empty lock. He also commented on Sandford Lock as well! - (the holes in the top gates are getting quite big and if any more water pours through while the lock is emptying it will soon become a "mission impossible").
We have invited the Wilderness Boats to join us for the Springfield event, let's hope the state of the locks at the top end of the navigation does not put them off as there has been no change to these since the last time they visited us. These visitors travel around to quite a few canals, wouldn't it be nice if they could go away with a favourable report on the state of "our"waterway.
There is a bird That soars so high To fling its song To the boundaries Of the universe, Above the never ending Meadow green And the slow winding Reeded, water lillied stream; Above the bright red Of bridges, Humped tunnels Of a forgotten past, Above weirs and locks The mills and pools, Above the mead Stretched tight and flattened Out of view And the springs Seeping unseen From distant valley sides. Above all this it soars and sings And sings; It sings all summer long. Don McCort
Some useful phone numbers:
Friends of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation 01621 892231
Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Company 01245 222025
Ron and Judith, Blackwater Boats 01206-853282
Environment Agency 01376-572095