Chelmer Canal Trust, formerly the Friends of the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation

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Coates' Cuttings

The Chelmer Canal Trust's Newsletter February 2004 Issue 25
Registered Charity No 1086112.


In This Issue

Water Treatment at Langford - Nick Ridgway
A Priceless Ring - Peter Clapp
Pennywort Weed - Work Party - Ian Petchey
Notice Board
Celebrating Susan's Construction 50 years ago - John Marriage
The Water Mill - Sarah Doudney
Chelmer Mills - Dudley Courtman
The Baddow Meads - John Woods
Moulsham Mill - Henry Marriage
Nature Notes
Ivan David Stebbens - 1929- 2003
Darby Stebbens (Part 2) - Dudley Courtman
Pennywort - the Wider Picture - Ian Petchey

We welcome members' photos, articles & contributions to Coates' Cuttings. Please e-mail them to Mike Lewis before 31st March for the May 2004 issue or post them to 16 Roots Lane, Wickham Bishops, Essex, CM8 3LS.

A Water Treatment Development at Langford

by Nick Ridgway

Chelmer Canal Trust member, Nick Ridgway, is a chartered chemical engineer specializing in process control and instrumentation. He spent 35 weeks as part of a small team commissioning the new water treatment plant at Langford, before handing it over to Essex & Suffolk Water. Here he gives us the benefit of his inside knowledge in a (not too technical!) description of how it works.

Just what happens when we 'pull the chain'? Where does this water come from and go to?

Most of us never give these things a second thought. Mankind takes clean water, uses it and makes it dirty, then throws it away. Every drop of dirty water we get rid of has to be made up by a drop of clean water from somewhere else. The environment tries to cope with this and where it can't the results can be devastating.

Essex is one of the driest counties in the UK. It also has one of the fastest growing populations and, like everywhere else across the globe, the consumption of clean water per person is increasing. These factors can pose a serious medium- to long-term threat to watercourses and the wildlife that they contain.

Essex & Suffolk Water has just brought a new processing plant on-stream at Langford. It is a multi-million pound investment designed to recycle the water that the local population has already used and send it back for re-use. This new plant is probably unique in Europe in its concept.

The treated effluent from the Chelmsford area, though good enough to put into the Blackwater estuary as at present, needs further treatment to remove nutrient materials from it before it is good enough to use as the feed for a drinking water plant. This is where the Langford recycling plant comes in. The Langford plant treats part of it and puts it into the Navigation upstream near Hoe Mill, where it blends with the water already there. Some distance downstream the blended water is pumped out of the river and passed to Hanningfield Reservoir for turning into drinking water.

The new plant is mostly automatic and it works like this:

Chelmsford's treated effluent passes through a screen that removes particles larger than 2mm in diameter - most of these objects are insects that are trying to eke out an existence in this stream. They are destined for a different existence in landfill.

The stream is then pumped into a reaction chamber where iron compounds are added. A reaction that takes place removes materials called phosphates that, although present in soap powders (and beneficial for removing grime from clothes in one's domestic washing machine), were they to be in the river would enhance the growth of algae and a reduction in sunlight within the watercourse. Iron phosphates are insoluble and are removed from the works as a solid for sending to landfill.

The next stage in the process sees the stream pass through a special type of filter bed where certain micro-organisms, already present in the stream, are encouraged to adhere to the filter medium and grow. These special micro-organisms remove another type of nutrient, the nitrates, which are converted to the gases oxygen and nitrogen, the main components of this planet's atmosphere, and bubble away into it.

The fourth stage sees the stream pass through another style of filter bed, where a different type of micro-organism is retained. While air bubbles pass them they convert ammonia, always present in domestic wastewater, into nitrate, reducing 'offensiveness'.

Being filters, these beds are intended to capture remaining solids and they block up from time to time. At intervals the filter beds are washed with water and air at high rates, and the resulting dirty water generated is de-watered to make a sludge, which is sent to landfill. The water removed from the sludge is itself recycled through the plant!

The final stage sees the stream pass a bank of high-intensity ultraviolet light bulbs, which kill any residual bacteria and disable any active viruses remaining in the stream. It then passes into the Navigation at rates up to 40,000 tonnes every day.

All measurements indicate that the outgoing stream from the Langford plant is cleaner than the water already in the Navigation.

Down-river, the existing pumping station abstracts the additional water from the Navigation, now blended with the water passing ordinarily along it, and transfers it to Hanningfield for further blending with other water sources. Now ready for further treatment for drinking, a day or two later it comes out of our taps.

So what does this mean for Essex and the Navigation?

The new plant was opened with due ceremony on 16th October 2003 by Jonathan Porritt, chairman of the government's UK Sustainable Development Commission.

Essex & Suffolk Water deserves applause for its ingenuity, its courage and its determination in pursuing such an environmentally and socially sensitive development to completion.

A Priceless Ring - Lost and Found

by Peter Clapp

The Fairplay Outdoor Education Centre canoeists have recently moved to Sandford Lock. Peter Clapp, who now lives in the Lock Cottage, tells a dramatic story with a happy ending.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon, just perfect for our house warming BBQ, so warm in fact that some our guests decided to take a little dip in the lock to cool off.

Unfortunately, as one of the guys, Tom (Head of PE at a local school), attempted to get out, his wedding ring caught, slipped from his shrunken finger and spun its way into the gloomy depths of the lock. It was one of those moments when time stands awkwardly still and furtive looks of disbelief are passed silently between the crowd.

Now losing a wedding ring is an upsetting event regardless but losing it in front of your newly wed wife is potentially life threatening. To top the icing on the cake, the ring was no ordinary token of love but an amalgamation of their parents' rings, melted down and moulded especially for Tom and his partner Sarah's fingers.

Despite our hopeful glances, the ring was out of sight but not out of mind. I felt so awful that I donned my mask and snorkel and launched the first of the hunts for the lost ring. What with too much weed, the flow of the water and an aching ice-cream head, the visibility was poor. Although manful, the newly-weds slipped away from the party somewhat sombre and subdued.

The remainder of the evening saw groups either hatching a variety of plans (some almost James Bondish) in an attempt to return the ring to whence it came, or reluctantly dubious of any rescue attempt to be made. Hope was almost lost, but for the knowledge that the lock was to be drained the following week, so that repairs could be made to the lock gates.

By chance that night, we were graced with the presence of the 5th emergency service, also known as Kevin the AA man, who offered to return with his scuba kit and make a dive into the black pit.

Although several boats had slipped through the gates we were sure that, when Kevin launched himself the next day, the ring was still within our grasp.

Tom waited patiently, gnawing on his nails, watching the bubbles rise to the surface of the lock when suddenly Kevin's hand emerged like the Lady of the Lake, bearing one very special golden wedding ring. Within two minutes of torchlit searching, Kevin had spied the ring and reversed the unfortunate events of the previous day.

Eternally grateful, Tom frantically punched his home number into the phone and announced to Sarah, 'We're married again!'.

Pennywort Weed - Work Party Update

Over the past four months the Chelmer Canal Trust has organized 8 work parties, the majority of which have been primarily focused on the removal of the alien floating Pennywort weed from the canal, between Sandford lock and Cuton lock. In total around 728 man (and women) hours have been put into removing the pennywort weed and clearing up along the canal. On January 3rd around 15 volunteers helped clear up the small remnants of weed left behind during previous weed-clearing work parties. The group split into two, one party working from the bank with rakes, the other from rafted canoes. The amount of weed removed was small in comparison to all the previous work parties, but none the less we felt it important to go over this mile-plus stretch again. And although the quantity was relatively small, it still amounted to around 100 piles of weed at the side of the tow path, each averaging around 10 square feet across and a couple of feet high. Not bad considering the temperature was just above freezing, and parts of the canal were completely frozen over when we started.

The December work party saw some 20 volunteers participate in the pennywort weed removal, and a very large quantity of the weed was removed, just up-stream from Cuton Lock. We seem to be increasing our effectiveness of the bulk removal every time we meet. There are a few photos, taken over the last few months, on the CCT web site then click on 'Working Parties'.

We have now cleared all the large clumps of pennywort weed between Sandford Mill Lock and Cuton Lock, and nearly completed a fine pick of the remnants along this mile-plus stretch. In February we will work down stream from Cuton Lock towards Stoneham Lock. Goodness knows how many tons we have removed, but it is a significant amount.

We now have the use of around 10 'cromes'. They are great, the most effective tool we have found so far in removing the large clumps of weed. They are like a garden fork, bent at 90 deg. from their 8ft long handle. With these we probably increased our efficiency four fold.... Or was it because of the CCT complimentary tea, coffee and biscuit refreshments!!!!. We will do the same for the next work parties on Saturday 7th February, Saturday 6th March and the first Saturday of the month onwards. Meet 9:30am at Sandford Lock.

If you have email and would like to be sent a reminder a few days before each work party, just send an email to Ian and you will be added to the distribution list. The reminder will also confirm meeting location and give directions etc.

A big thanks to all those who have volunteered over the last 4 months.

Ian Petchey

(More about the Pennywort problem on here)

Notice Board

Meeting on Navigation's Future

After a preliminary meeting of river users and statutory bodies organised by the Navigation Company on the 10th November 2003 at the Miami Grill it was decided to set up a steering group from amongst the delegates to meet again on January 16th. The Company is searching for some organisational arrangement with other bodies whereby the future of the waterway is put onto a secure footing. The difficulties which the Trust faced in trying to assist a private company have emerged as the crux of any future arrangement. The Chelmer Canal Trust has committed itself to enter the talks with a view to finding a satisfactory solution. Although some proposals have been put forward, the matter is still very much fluid and some substantive proposals might emerge in time for our spring edition.

Landing Stages

Having completed the landing stages for Stonehams, Hoe Mill and Ricketts with the assistance of grants from the Chelmsford Jubilee Fund and Essex Environment Trust, work has started on the next stage to be built below Sandford Lock. This area has always been treacherous underfoot for all boaters and the new stage is a welcome addition.

Sandford landing stage Sandford landing stage

Information Boards.

Orders have been placed for the provision of information boards at the head of the Feeder Ditch close to the Tesco roundabout in Chelmsford; at Springfield Lock, and at Barnes Lock. All of these will be erected in the spring.

Bundock's Bridge Steps

The Trust intends to construct some steps leading from the road which crosses Bundock's Bridge at Sandford to the towpath. The route will be from the road down the north bank of the bridge to the towpath; this will greatly improve the existing route which is steep and hazardous.

John Edward Marriage

Readers may already know about the sudden death on 17 December 2003 of John Marriage, one of our trustees and a regular contributor to Coates' Cuttings.

John had been a central figure in waterway preservation and the development of water-based activities, in Essex and further afield, for more than fifty years. Active to the end, his last article for Coates' Cuttings appears on the following pages.

A full tribute to John's life and achievements will appear in our next issue.

Celebrating Susan's Construction 50 years ago.

by John Marriage

On Sunday November 22nd the 50th anniversary of the construction of Susan, the last wooden barge on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, was celebrated at its moorings at the Sandford Mill Museum when representatives of the Chelmer Canal Trust, Friends of Chelmsford Museums and museum staff joined the organisers of the event, the Chelmer Lighter Preservation Society, in toasting the grand old lady.

Many of those present had been involved in assisting in maintenance and crewing the 55 foot long vessel for over 25 years, right through its transfer of ownership from the Preservation Society to the Passmore Edwards Museum at Stratford and finally to Chelmsford Museum Services. Although the old vessel is currently not permitted to leave its moorings, the old engine was started without difficulty and its roar made a dramatic background sound to the event. Some of the assembled party, who braved the pouring rain to commemorate this unique occasion were pictured on its open deck.

(John Marriage is on the left of the picture.)

Speaking for the Chelmer Canal Trust, its chairman, Dudley Courtman, spoke of the importance of the Navigation to Chelmsford, both in the past when it enabled bulk cargoes to be brought into the town and so started its change from a minor market town to the present dynamic community, and now when its value as an important amenity to the town is increasingly realised.

Deputy Mayor and President of the Chelmer Lighter Preservation Society, Councillor Mrs Freda Mountain said;
  "Susan is the very last of the old wooden barges which once existed on the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation and so represents a long line of vessels which, by providing a transport link between Chelmsford and the estuary from 1797, started to bring about Chelmsford's change from a small market town to its present status as a prosperous Mid Essex. community. It therefore represents an important part of the town's heritage at least equal to the later works of Marconi and Crompton

Although only 50 years old she was built to the traditional Chelmer barge design which is unique among English inland waterways, being designed both to float in shallow water and to carry a substantial load. The sole change in the vessel from the earlier horse drawn vessels is the inclusion of an inboard engine.

It is thought that the design of Chelmer barges closely followed that of lighters which were being used on the Blackwater estuary from early mediaeval times, taking cargoes up to places like Beeleigh Abbey and Beeleigh Mills. As none of these vessels now exist it is therefore also of outstanding maritime interest.

If the barge is to remain a splendid and evocative reminder of the past importance of barge traffic to and from Chelmsford, it is important that she is retained as a floating exhibit, able to make educational demonstrative cruises."

It is understood that the vessel is now on the national register of National Maritime vessels of historic interest and therefore in the future will be eligible for grants from the National Lottery Fund

The Water Mill

Listen to the water mill through the livelong day;
                How the clicking of the wheel wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind stirs the withered leaves;
                On the field the reapers sing, binding up the sheaves;
And a proverb haunts my mind, and as a spell is cast,
                'The mill will never grind with the water that has passed.'

 Autumn winds revive no more leaves strewn o'er earth and main.
               The sickle never more shall reap the yellow, garnered grain;
And the rippling stream flows on - tranquil, deep and still,
                Never gliding back again to the water mill.
Truly speaks the proverb old, with a meaning vast;
                'The mill will never grind with the water that has passed.'

O, the wasted hours of life that has swiftly drifted 
                O, the good we might have done - gone, lost without a sigh
Love that we might once have saved by a single kindly word
                Thoughts conceived, but ne'er expressed- perishing unpenned,
Take the proverb to thy soul - take and clasp it fast:
                'The mill will never grind again with the water that has passed.'

O, love thy God and fellow man, thyself consider last;
For come it will when thou must scan dark errors of the past.
And when the fight of life is o'er and earth recedes from view
And heaven in all its glories shines
'Midst the good, the pure, the true,'
Then you will see more clearly the proverb, deep and vast:
'The mill will never grind with the water that has passed.'

Sarah Doudney (1843-1923)

Chelmer Mills Never to Grind Again

In this edition of Coates Cuttings we are lucky enough to have stories from three local people who have fond memories of Chelmer water mills. The meads, river and mills have made a lasting impression on them and they all look back affectionately at the days of their youth.

Henry Marriage spent much time helping his father in the mills of the upper Chelmer before eventually taking over the running of Moulsham Mill in Chelmsford himself. He deeply regrets its eventual demise when it was overtaken by the new technologies but knows that his life has been greatly enriched by all his mill experiences and is pleased to be able to share a few of them with us. (Page 17)

Similarly, John Woods, who has already told us about his early life in Springfield and how he once worked at Browns, the timber merchant, reflects on his rapturous boyhood days as a member of the sea scouts who were based at Barnes Mill. The cover photograph shows him and his friends at work on their canoes outside their cabin beside the mill.

Lastly we have the vivid recollection by a near centenarian who as a young woman used to walk the towpath from Chelmsford to Barnes Mill in the summer for paddling in the mill pool and picnics; her abiding memory of the mill is reading a proverb displayed high on its wall, and how sad it made her feel: 'The mill will never grind with the water that has passed.'As you might imagine it has been difficult to corroborate her story but we can all share her feelings by reading Sarah Doudney's classic poem (Page 12). One wonders who was responsible for posting the proverb in such a prominent place. A text is shown on the wall in the photograph (front cover) but whether it is the proverb that Dorothy remembers we cannot be sure.

The Baddow Meads

by John Woods

A passage in an article by John Marriage in the May 2003 issue of Coates' Cuttings, concerning the proposal to dig a gravel pit in the Baddow Meads struck a chord. He says 'Older people will remember the Meads as they were 50 years or so ago when the whole area was unfenced from the By-pass to Sandford Mill - - -'. As I definitely come into that category, I thought I would record some reminiscences.

My own memories go back to the 1940's and 50's but the Baddow Meads was an area of recreation and picnicking for people from Springfield and Great Baddow well before that. I have photographs of my parents taken there in the 1920's, and even one of myself as a toddler eating an ice-cream, taken in the 1930's.

We lived at Springfield Park, about 200 yards from the By-pass, so we were less than a mile to the meads which, to me as a boy, meant Barnes Mill, the boathouse, boats and swimming.

During the war and immediately after, nobody went away on holiday. Very few people had cars, even if you could get the petrol to run them, so on summer weekends Barnes Mill Road would be full of people on foot or bicycle, some parents with prams and pushchairs making their way to the meads. People sat on the grass, mostly on the north side of the river near the boathouse, which hired out deckchairs and sold teas, ice-creams and sweets. (This must have been before and after 'rationing'.) Parents would enjoy a rest on the grass or deckchairs whilst keeping an eye on the children, who would be swimming in favoured places.

The mill pond was mostly shallow and this was where toddlers would be taken to paddle. Young children would swim on the upstream side of the bridge near the boathouse and it was here that I took my first strokes, helped by my older sister, and then finally made it across the river - all of 20 feet, a great adventure.

Older boys swam in the lock, known as the 'sixteener' or jumped from the footbridge into the river below the lock, known as the 'sixer'. As teenagers, we would sometimes go further downstream to 'the bend'.

Boats could be hired from the boathouse, including canoes, rowing boats and skiffs. These last were long, shallow and fast and required more skill than the heavier rowing boats. I was taken for my first ever ride in a boat (a skiff) by my Uncle Bill who lived in Mill Vue Road. Bill was a foreman at Brown's timber merchants but used to help with the boats in the evenings and weekends and used to keep an eye on the boaters. It is interesting to recall that in those days the boats could be left tied to the landing stage all through the summer without fear of vandalism. On busy summer Sundays there were often queues for the boats. It certainly made a pleasant prospect for those sitting on the grass to see the parade of boats and the children bathing and playing games on the grass.

At quieter times, quite a lot of fishing was done, a much less complicated pastime in those days. I was never interested enough to go fishing myself but I knew roach and gudgeon were taken and occasionally pike (great excitement!). Also eels, which anyone could catch with a suitable line - no rod required. On the rare occasions when the canal and locks were dredged, plenty of eels could be seen, and freshwater crayfish occasionally.

There was more life in the river in those days and I am ashamed to say that, as boys, we threw stones at water voles (or water rats as we called them) although I never recall anyone hitting one. There were swans, moorhens and coots and water lilies that clung to your legs in some places when swimming.

During the school holidays there was always great excitement if a canal barge came along, in those days pulled by a mighty horse. Depending on how many children were about and on the mood of the barge men, we would sometimes be allowed to ride for a short distance.

Also, in the mid-forties, Barnes Mill itself would be operating, with a horse and cart to take the bags away. Again, if the men working in the mill were in the right mood, we would occasionally be allowed inside. To see all that great machinery working was really exciting for small boys.

As soon as I was old enough, I joined the cubs and then the scouts of the 12th Chelmsford Sea Scout Group which had its headquarters next to Barnes Mill. We also had boats; two canoes of very different design and two rowing boats that we also used to sail, in a limited fashion, bearing in mind the narrowness of the canal. For some years, we also had an ex-navy whaler that was only rarely taken out as, with the oars fully extended, you were almost touching both banks and were a menace to any other boats.

There is not room for the story of the sea scouts here. Suffice it to say that over a period of several years we got to know the river in all the seasons, not just in summer when all the people were there but also in the winter when floods covered the fields.

One final image comes to mind, of a scorching Sunday in the 1940's with the Baddow Meads full of people enjoying themselves, when the clouds started to blacken with thunder and lightning rapidly heading our way. Everyone gathered up their towels and baskets and streamed away up the road to Springfield and across the fields to Baddow. We didn't make it and all got soaked but who cared? This was just after the war and we were all glad just to be alive and free.

Moulsham Mill

by Henry Marriage

I believe that Moulsham Mill was one of only a few mills which could draw water from two rivers at the will of the miller.

The water was controlled by Taverner's Gates, a set of flood gates on Kings Head Meadow. By working its gates, water could be drawn from both the River Chelmer and the combined streams of the Rivers Wid and Can. (I cannot personally recall seeing Taverner's gates; they were demolished by Chelmsford's 1960's flood relief scheme.) This meant that the miller - if short of power - could call on extra water from another source. If the Can and Wid were failing in flow, he could call on extra water from the Chelmer. Here is the rub! If he drew an excess of flow from the Chelmer, the water level fell at the intake of the Feeder Ditch to the Springfield Basin and water was drawn (in reverse) up the ditch to the River Chelmer. A desperate cry went out from the timber barges unloading in Springfield Basin - 'We are aground!' The remedy was to fit a non-return flap on the inlet in Wharf Road. (It can still be seen and will be featured on the new 'Feeder Ditch'information board. Ed) Many a heated conversation between Marriage's and Brown's ensued. We were totally within our rights!

Our right of access to Taverner's Gates for anything other than control of the gates was through the site now occupied by Woolworths Shop. My father instructed me that if we needed materials for repairs, we could run them through the shop on a wheelbarrow!

The channel between the rivers in Springfield had a bridge - Old Horse Pond Bridge. This had a limited load, so when the circus or fair came to Kings Head Meadow, the showman's engines - often 20 tons or more - had to drag their loads through the horse watering ford. It was usually arranged for the water level to be lowered but I recall seeing engines fording the ford in two to three feet of water - with the small boys splashing alongside. Great fun!

When the mill was being worked by water wheel only, there was considerable vibration throughout the old (wooden) sides of the mill. Farmers' incoming cereals were 'bushelled'. This means that the cereals were tipped one at a time into a bushel measure which was 'struck' by pulling a 'strike' across the top of the bushel - thus ensuring a full measure and no more. Not weighed - measured. The tale goes that a farmer, watching his goods being measured thus, noticed the vibration of the wooden floor under the bushel and demanded that the mill be stopped whilst his cereal was being measured. I feel sure he got his own way (Miller's Thumb?!)

This same vibration - most noticeable when the mill started up on Monday morning - meant that the resident rats were uncomfortable and ran down the stairs to hide away, where they were met by the staff with big sticks at the bottom step. Modern pest control - take note!

There was a member of staff who was either inadequate or just lazy. For years I was told we had an employee who was seen to pick up an empty sack, or put one down, whenever, 'The Guvnor', Mr Marriage, appeared!

The sacks of corn were pulled up to the lucum by water power on a chain. The wagon and horses stood patiently under the chain as each sack was pulled up. On one occasion a farmer's man got in a muddle and passed the empty chain through the open raves of the wagon and onto his next sack. 'Hoist away'he said and the power pulled the buck off his wagon! That farmer did not deal with us for many years because his claim for damage was refused! (His family still farms in Essex.)

Our farms bred horse cart foals every year. They spent their summers as two and three-year olds on the Baddow Meads, where they came under the management of the miller. On one occasion a thirsty and adventurous colt fell in the river, trying to get a drink. Passers-by rushed up to the mill and told our manager. He phoned my cousin at Broomfield who tore down to the mill and equipped the gathered crowd of onlookers with two ropes; these were put round the horse's neck and the crowd urged to pull in unison. This they did and landed a muddy, tired and woebegone young horse on the bank. My cousin went up to the office, emptied the bowl of petty cash of coins and rewarded the locals for saving our stock. I still have the bowl.

The mill survived all the floods which sometimes caused damage in Chelmsford. Seldom did we suffer flood damage to stocks, due to the extraordinary ability of the old men who built the mill; they knew how to choose the right level.

Then there was 'Tiggy'. Tiggy was a dwarfish, dirty old waif who lived in a pollarded willow tree on our property! He was a drover in the cattle market. River-side willows were pollarded to provide sets for growing on for cricket bats. This would not be approved of today but it was cheap! As the willow trees got older and bigger they became hollow until (I am told) it provided shelter for a person - not to say human! Nuff said!

As a small boy (around 1932), when the Princes Road by-pass was opened, the Marriages were ensconced on a mill cart complete with horse to cheer the Prince of Wales as he went by. I remember it well. He landed in an aeroplane at Broomfield Air Strip at Hooks and Turns at Partridge Green.

The Princes Road viaduct which crosses the Baddow Meads and Chelmer above flood level was built on Marriage's land which was bought from us by Chelmsford Council, so we had the original A12 through our land. The piling necessary on the River Chelmer bank was fraught with difficulty. .

I was only 10 years old at the time and used to go everywhere with my father, Llewellyn, and have vivid memories of those days. If you care to visit Marriages Mill today you will find the basic carcass of the building almost exactly as it was in the days mentioned here.

Henry Marriage

Moulsham Mill in the early 60's,
when it was still connected to the river.
(John Marriage in the canoe!)

Nature Notes

Swan Watch

Our winter visitors from the north have started to return to the canal. On Nov 26th, or 27th, the first nine arrivals including two cygnets were spotted at dusk above Ricketts Lock. They were easily frightened on approach and took avoiding action; three took to the air although the light was poor. The new arrivals made for the company and protection of the resident gaggle of geese that were grazing the meadow. Our resident swans have a much more laid back 'I've seen it all before'attitude towards humans.

It was coincidental, just as we were congratulating ourselves on being home to an over wintering Whooper, that BBC Radio 4 in conjunction with the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust sent a team of scientists to record the return flight of Bewick's and Whoopers from their summer nesting grounds in Northern Russia( type 'Radio 4 swan migrations'into your search engine). 110 birds were ringed and some have been spotted at the W W Trust site at Welney in Norfolk, a distance of 3500km. Several birds were fitted with satellite transmitter packs so that their progress could be plotted. So far some of these have reached the Netherlands. If the weather gets colder they may even head for the Blackwater. We will be keeping our eyes open and our computers turned on although one assumes that our recent swan arrivals have come from Icelandic regions.

To help you distinguish the visitors if you should be lucky enough to see some; the Whooper is much the same in size and shape as our local Mute Swans, except that it does not have a 'knob' above its beak and, of course, it makes a 'whooping' call. The Bewick's variant is quite a bit smaller than the other two. Also, curiously, both the visiting species fly without any sound from the flapping of their wings.


A story in the Financial Times records that eels are an important economic indicator. It seems that the Japanese regard the eel as a great delicacy. The Kiyokawa eel restaurant in Tokyo's business district has been going strong for over 130 years. Unigi keibayaki (soy-glazed broiled eel) is highly prized and is served by women in kimonos and costs '90 a portion.

Perhaps there's a message here for a new local entrepreneur to renew Heybridge Basin's long association with eels and start up an eel farm. 'Unigi keibayali' could feature as a luxury addition to the menu at The Old Ship?

Alien invaders

Mink alert: these voracious destroyers of wild life are still present at Heybridge Basin. Advice is being sought on how they can be safely removed from the area. They have been largely responsible for the huge decline in water vole numbers country wide.

As if we haven't got enough to cope with news comes of another unwelcome plant, Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, an attractive plant which produces purple pink flowers in the shape of a slipper between June and August - indeed we remarked on their presence along the canal in the summer issue of Coates' Cuttings. It is one of the UK's fastest growing herbaceous plants, reaching heights of more than three metres in a year. It colonises new places and then out-competes less vigorous native flora- sounds familiar? It is spreading to many new river catchment areas.

Hopefully it is not too late to restrict its spread on the navigation by pulling it out by hand before it seeds. (It's an annual which grows from seeds) Anotherb constructive activity for towpath walks in the summer? The first step will be to identify its locations. Any volunteers?

Crucian carp. A study commissioned by the Environment Agency has revealed that escaped goldfish are making the best of life in our rivers and lakes and are threatening the future of a close relative, the native crucian carp. Once free they breed with the wild carp putting the future of the latter at risk. Have any examples of this phenomenon been noted on the navigation by our member anglers?

Ivan David Stebbens - 1929- 2003

It is with great sadness that I have to report that 'Darby'died suddenly at his home in Heybridge Basin on November 1st. The first part of the story of his life and his long association with the Navigation, was featured in our last issue. It is concluded below. In many ways the article is a tribute to him but I would like to add a little more about Darby the man.

He grew up in the small isolated marsh community of Heybridge Basin - a place where everyone was bound together against the hardships of the times and looked to one another for neighbourly support. Everyone there always had a kind word to say about Darby who was forever amongst them working and playing hard whenever he could.

He came from a long line of seafarers: his father (and his father before him) was the River Blackwater's Trinity House Pilot. Darby was a very skilled boatman, with years of experience of the estuary's tides and weather conditions, eventually becoming a pilot himself.

The only times that he wandered far from the Basin were when he was conscripted into the army and when he ventured to Harwich or Southend to drive his father to ships that needed a pilot, or to pick him up from one.

As a boy he took part in all the local sailing events; he proudly showed me the fragile newspaper reports of his exploits, now brown with age, which he had kept safe for many years in old tobacco tins. In later years he raced the traditional east coast sailing barges and fishing smacks - he loved the fun of the competition and trying to out-manoeuvre the rival crews from Maldon and Tollesbury in the yearly regattas. He earned all their respect for his skill and good humour and was once invited by the Thames Barge Sailing Club to their annual dinner.

When I came to work on the waterfront in the Basin in the 60's, I met Darby frequently when he was coming ashore from one of his missions. He was always cheerful and ready for a friendly chat, usually laced with good salty advice. You always felt immediately relaxed with him: as with a true friend he inspired the feeling that he was on your side.

In recent years, when I have been writing about the Basin he has shown me the same generosity of spirit: no one could have been more helpful in placing a fascinating (and slighted battered) collection of photos and other memorabilia completely at my disposal. He talked about all the boats and their owners for whom he and his father worked in the 30's as if it were yesterday. He spoke admiringly of them and of their exploits, so obviously sharing their love of boats and the sea.

It is so sad to reflect that Darby was one of the last of a long line of the great legendary boatmen of the Basin. He always appeared a contented man: able to accept life's setbacks and rise to its challenges. His nature was moulded by the wild isolation of the marshes and the treacherous winds and seaways which somehow imbued him with a humility that was loved by everyone.

It would have been a great joy for both us if I could have given him the published account of his life story, but it wasn't to be. He would have been so pleased to have known that his story would live on. I like to feel that he knew 'in his heart'that, by entrusting it to me, it would.

Our deepest sympathies and kindest thoughts are with Janet, his wife, and his family on the tragic loss of their loved one.

Dudley Courtman

Darby Stebbens of Heybridge Basin (Part 2)

The first part of Darby Stebbens' life story, as told to Dudley Courtman, appeared in our last issue. It covered his childhood in and around Heybridge Basin, up to the end of the second world war. After the war, he continued to support and eventually take over from his father, in a lifetime of service to the commercial and recreational life of the Basin..

My father told me about the barge skipper, Joe Mumford, known locally as 'Holy Joe'because he read the Bible a lot. One day, when he was carrying a very heavy cargo of timber with the Lady Helen, he came to the sea lock still carrying his topsail in an easterly wind, expecting the gates to be open. My dad, realising that he wouldn't be able to stop, threw the skipper a rope so that he could make a spring and break the barge's way. The thick hemp rope took the strain at first but soon started to smoke as the friction built up. The rope broke, and there was a huge crash as he rammed the gates. The gate's king post was bent beyond repair. Francis Stunt, the Company Secretary, was called. When he saw the damage he charged the barge's skipper for a replacement. The cost was so great that he had to sell his bungalow at Brightlingsea to pay for it.

In 1946 I had to go into the army to do my National Service and my dad was forced to choose between his two jobs of lock keeper and river pilot, as he relied on me to cover for him when he was away. He chose to be the river pilot while I went to Gibraltar in the Royal Army Catering Corps. They were very happy days for me, such a nice part of the world. I wouldn't mind going back there now.

A lot of local skippers went to help with the East Coast Floods in 1953. My brother Cecil, and "Darky" Everitt, Don Pratt and "Daddy" HedgecockDudley Courtman sailed out of Maldon with 'Daddy'Hedgecock and Tadgell Sadd aboard the gaff-cutter Ripple in 1950. from Maldon, took the Lady Barbara, Sadd's tug, to Canvey Island. The canal bank was overtopped on the north side and the south bank gave way next to Daisy Meadow car park flooding many of the Basin houses.

When I came back from the army I spent most of my time helping father.

Using our little dinghy with its Seagull outboard motor I would ferry him to and from the large timber coasters that came up the river. As dad was a Trinity House pilot he worked mainly out of Harwich down to London. I took him out to the vessels or fetched him from them in all weathers and seas- you had to know what you were doing. Sometimes dad who, was 'getting on a bit'had to climb a bucking 30ft rope ladder flung down the ship's side. At the bottom we were a moving target as the swell pitched us around: sometimes it was dark and it took a lot of guts and a brave jump to catch the rope ladder. There was one time, just as he got over the rail, he looked back to see that the ladder was nearly worn completely through! I used to drive all over Essex either to meet him or drop him off. It wasn't easy, we hadn't got mobile phones in those days, and I would have to drive many miles and sometimes find the ship had been delayed or even diverted to another port. It could be very annoying having to wait not knowing what to do for the best. I remember the time when I was sent to Harwich to find out that he been dropped off at Southend Pier- I wasn't very pleased. To make matters worse by the time I got there he was into his third pint!

I remember when dad piloted the Royal Gothic into the River Blackwater in 1955. She was the Shaw Saville liner which the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had used on their New Zealand and Australian tour. After the tour Dad sailed with the vessel from Liverpool to the Blackwater for reconversion work. He took over full command of the vessel at the Gunfleet Sands and piloted her into the river. It was quite an event which was reported in the local papers at the time. I still have the details. All the family went down for the day to see the ship. She had already been painted black over the white which had been used for the Royal Tour.

When father was only 21 he saved the life of his uncle, James Stebbens, in a storm in the Channel. In December 1924 they were both part of the salvage team towing the old wooden battleship HMS Marlborough from Portsmouth to Osea Island for breaking up by the Heybridge Basin ship breakers, Arthur Butcher& Sons. In a gale off the Owers lightship on the Sussex coast the towing cable had to be released and the ship broke up in heavy seas. Four local men, including one from the Basin, were drowned. The citation says that Cecil Stebbens, my father, displayed an act of bravery worthy of the best traditions of the sea.A full report on the heroism of the ex Basin lock keeper will be reported in a future edition of Coates Cuttings

Apart from helping my father I did other jobs from time to time. When my wife worked at Hoffman's in Chelmsford I tried working in Brown's yard at Springfield Basin so that I could see more of her but left after a week because the wages, '6, were 'chicken feed'and not worth the bus fare. I preferred working on sorting the eels in the Basin with Dutchman, Hans Kuijten and Basiner, George Clarke. That could be pretty cold on the hands in the winter, alright when you were working but you froze when you stopped. We all used to go into The Old Ship on Saturday morning and spend some of our '12 a week.

One of the best jobs I had was unloading timber for Brown's at Stansgate off Osea Island. The deep draughted Baltic boats couldn't get any further than that and had to offload into barges. One or two boats came each summer month, mostly from Finland, Sweden, Russia, Germany and Poland, carrying between 500 to 1000 standards of timber. It was very hard work but a well paid summer job and certainly better than pea picking. Brown's lorry would pick me up at four in the morning in Heybridge Square and drive me to Maylandsea to join the ships, stopping to pick up others on the way, usually Maldon fishermen. Every sawn plank had to be man-handled from the hold of one boat into another. We used the ship's derrick cranes to swing parcels of wood up and over to the other. It sounds a bit dangerous but there were few accidents; it was very hard work though and if you were in the bunker close to the ships steam boilers it was a very hot one as well! We used to stop for half an hour breakfast at half past eight and for dinner at midday: work finished at half past four. By them you felt worn out and ready for a meal and then bed. Mr. Frost, the Brown's shipping agent, used to count out the timber. I got on well with him and preferred working for him than for Claude Moss of Sadd's.

Being always on the spot in the Basin I was often asked to ferry people around. One day I was asked to row Sir Norman AngelSir Norman Angel 1869-1967, the celebrated economist, a worker for international peace, and author of The Great Illusion, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1933. to his house on Northey Island. In those days he lived there but now the island has been taken over by the National Trust. When we were boys we used to row over to his barge which was moored next to the house. It was a quiet spot where he wrote his books -there were always papers everywhere.

Another famous man who I helped was the artist Peter Scott. I took him on a duck shoot down the river with his guns and dog. I rowed and he sat in the back but he didn't have a lot of luck! I had a punt gun myself and once got twenty five widgeon with one shot just off Osea in the morning mist. You went out in the winter just before dawn, or at dusk, lying flat in the bottom of the punt and paddling gently with paddles no larger than your hand - you had to keep as low as you could. I sold the birds around the Basin houses at three shillings a brace. I sometimes went 'winkling'along the shore below Osea Pier with my dinghy and sold them to Brooks's fish shop in Maldon. At other times I would go fishing in my boat for herring, plaice, skate, soles or mullet.

Working on the river all my life I knew every little hump and spit. At a very early age I could name every creek from Bradwell to Maldon quay. My dad taught us all the names so he knew if ever we boys were in trouble, he would know where to come to find us. Following in my dad's footsteps I eventually turned my hand to pilotage. It started when sailing barge skippers, who met up with me off Osea Island, would ask me to bring their boats into port. I sailed the Kitty in and Captain Bob Roberts' Cambria. When the Heybridge sea lock was enlarged I brought the first timber ship in. I have a photo of me on the bridge of the Gratia, from Poland. It could be tricky at times getting heavily laden boats alongside Sadd's quay in Maldon. These boats did more than 25 trips each and were regular visitors. I got to know the skippers well. Captain Schultz on the Jane was a good friend. There were some awkward humps in the river there. If you made a mistake you could cause damage to the boat or the quay or be left stuck high and dry for many days when the tides were falling off.

One time the Borsfleth from Finland couldn't land because of low tides at Maldon so we had to unload some of the timber at the Basin

The timber trade stopped in the 1970's when they started to use bigger boats and containers. The Basin's eel business stopped around the same time. The Solglimpt was the last eel boat to visit the Basin in 1968 and I brought her into the lock - once the cargo was discharged I backed her out into Colliers Reach and we headed for London. I remember the day well. All the foreign boats carried plenty of schnapps and they always gave me some. I was on board the Gloria when the skipper received the news of the birth of my first son. It was drinks all round on board and when we went ashore. My memories of that day are not quite so good!

Recorded by Dudley Courtman

Pennywort - the Wider Picture

by Ian Petchey

Apart from the work parties, the Trust is still seeking other ways of removing the alien pennywort weed, especially from the Long Pond at Heybridge. Ian Petchey has summarised some of the Trust's involvements over the last few weeks:-

Meeting with the Environment Agency

On December 12th, Chelmer Canal Trust Chairman, Dudley Courtman and trustee, Ian Petchey met with Chris Adams from the Environment Agency (EA) on the subject of Pennywort removal from the canal. Chris explained that the EA and BW (British Waterways) have been successful in the containment of pennywort along the River Lee in Essex, where EA employees now hand pick a few times per year, and that they would like to implement a similar 'process of achievement' along the Chelmer. But the severity of the weed (especially along the long pond at Heybridge) necessitates a mechanical removal method prior to a hand picking process.

The impression given by Chris Adams is that the EA is keen to find a solution to the pennywort weed invasion problem along the canal and that the EA is a willing partner within the 'canal users' group. Chris is putting together a strategy plan for the pennywort weed containment, including necessary funding level requirements, which will need senior EA management approval prior to commencement of work. The Trust agreed to work with the EA in a combined effort to find a solution to the pennywort problem.

I do believe Chris Adams and the EA are committed to finding a solution to the Pennywort weed issue along the canal, and our meeting has increased the level of hope that the weed will be cleared, but I fear the process and procedures involved will result in a slow progress, so we are going to have to be patient.

Using Weed killers on Pennywort

With the success of our volunteer work party and the completion of stage 1 (bulk removal) and stage 2 (hand pick remnants) of the pennywort weed along the mile-plus stretch of canal between Sandford Lock and Cuton Lock, I started to think of stage 3 (complete eradication!).

Because the pennywort weed will grow from the tiniest remnant remaining, it is likely impossible to eradicate it completely by hand picking, as some will get caught up amongst other weeds etc. My 'simple' solution, I thought, would be to spray any small remnants with a 'weed killer'. Was there a weed killer effective at killing pennywort, could it be hand sprayed in small doses, in garden type hand guns / atomizers?

Dudley suggested I write to Dr Jonathan Newman, Director of Government Centre for Aquatic Plants. I did so, and received a nice reply. Yes there are a couple of weed killers that may be effective, but one will not work in January or February, and has not proved very effective in later trials, requiring repeated applications. The other (Glyphosate) requires specialist spraying equipment but has shown some promise. Also, there are a number of statutory requirements relating to the application of herbicides in water, the most important being the requirement to hold an NPTC pesticide application certificate.

Jonathan's reply was copied on to the EA. The EA added that they have been working on a strategy for the use of herbicides to finish off Floating Pennywort once hand clearance shows the spots where it is persistent, and are hopeful that they can demonstrate to the water company, that it will not reach maximum permitted levels at their intake, but still some way away from being able to use it.

.....And the best time to remove the Pennywort?

Dr Newman added 'I think you will be surprised how effective removal of fragments is early in the season. The plant does not reproduce by seed, so effectively what you see is what you will get if it not removed. The benefits of removing the plant before April are huge, and your best efforts should be concentrated on this time interval. I emphasise that you cannot underestimate the value of early season removal.
The advantage of this is that less grows in the summer, and your limited manpower resources can be directed to the areas where Pennywort still thrives. Because the mass of weed is so much lower in early spring, you will find that much longer lengths can be covered, further increasing the benefit derived from the activity'.

Dr Newman replied.....'If you leave the watercress there, the pennywort will use it as nutrient when it dies down. Basically, if there is any pennywort anywhere, then it should be removed'. Dr Newman replied.....'The new patches have undoubtedly grown from fragments'.

Weed Cutting Boat

Dr Newman also reported that a weed cutting boat is for sale in March, Cambridgeshire for '1,800, which would be very useful in the fight against the Pennywort weed. Although in need of some long term maintenance work, it would be capable of doing odd jobs for three to 5 years as it stands. We have passed details on to C&BN and the EA. The EA seem interested and are currently establishing suitability and checking funding possibilities; at the same time the Trust are also looking into the possibility of obtaining grants to fund such a boat. The two existing C&BNC weed cutting boats have both been out of service, one of them being badly vandalized at Heybridge, resulting in it sinking on its mooring, however they are now back in service and have recently been used by the Company in their continuing efforts to remove the weed at Heybridge.


We are informed that the C&BN dredger / crane / pile driver is now completely out of service (old and irreparable), this has caused delays and difficulties on many maintenance jobs (including the removal of pennywort weed along the long pond). However the company have informed us that, even though in administration, they are looking to procure a replacement, and have an ex BW dredger in mind. Lets hope they are successful in negotiating its transfer to the Chelmer in the near future. It is very badly needed.

Other weed removal methods

Are there any other, better ways at removing the pennywort weed? You may see this being tried out along the canal. It is around 8 feet long, 2 feet wide, wood construction. Built from two separate frames with angled spikes protruding from the framework. The idea is that the exterior (outer) frame is secured to the canal bank, with the interior frame sliding up and down, elevating the weed onto the bank. The interior frame has two handles at the top and a rope to assist pulling the weed up the elevator. When the interior frame is pushed back down, the weed is caught on the external outer frame spikes stopping it from falling back into the water'.. does it work? Needs some further refining!!! But you never know, not many things work first time out, and it has led to a few more ideas, like using a long sled with angled spikes on top, that can be slid under the weed and pulled up the bank!!!.... Still under development.

CCT Rolling Calendar

Closure dates for submission of articles for the newsletter:

31st March for the May issue
30th June for the August issue

Please send any contributions to Mike Lewis
or post to 16 Roots Lane, Wickham Bishops, Essex, CM8 3LS

Please note that if articles for inclusion are not received by the dates listed above they will be held over for the next publication.

Some useful phone numbers:

Chelmer Canal Trust - 01621 892231
Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Company - 01245 222025
Ron and Judith, Blackwater Boats - 01206-853282
Environment Agency - 01376 572095

No articles may be copied or reprinted without the author's consent. The Chelmer Canal Trust may not agree with opinions expressed in this newsletter. Nothing printed may be construed as policy or an official announcement unless stated otherwise and no liability can be accepted for any matter in the newsletter

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