|The Chelmer Canal Trust's Newsletter||February 2005||Issue 28|
The current situation is that a small maintenance team of three to four people has been retained, who will report to Colin Edmond, who also retains his role as manager of Heybridge Basin. Hugh Turner has taken on the role of Moorings Manager for the rest of the navigation. These two senior staff members will report directly to the board of directors.
The future: it is anticipated that revenues from boat licences and willows will pay for the staff and for the day-to-day maintenance work to be carried out. It is hoped that this slimmed down operation will have a modest annual financial surplus, which will go towards longer-term renovations of locks and other navigational infrastructure. The directors are exploring various options for the future of the navigation including running the navigation on a “not for profit” basis.
The Chelmer Canal Trust is now a (small) shareholder in the Company, courtesy of John Marriage who left us a share certificate in his will.
People to contact:
For licences and permissions:
Hugh Turner, Paper Mill Lock, Little Baddow.
For reports on locks, blockages, etc:
Colin Edmond, Lock House, Heybridge Basin.
Last year the hard work of volunteers, combined with that of two contractors, cleared the whole canal. Unfortunately, during the short time when work was stopped for lack of funds, we saw the weed re-establish itself at a frightening rate. To say that we were all disappointed was an understatement. The weed won't give up without a fight! We had anticipated that it would take two years, or so, to get it under control, but did not appreciate the speed at which it could grow if left for a short time in the summer months.
Many lessons have been learned, not only about the methods of removing the stuff, but also about how to spend the grants we have been given most effectively.
On the first point, we have perfected a quick and efficient removal method for the large clumps - pushing them into mid-stream, opening one of the lock paddles to create a current, floating the weed into a lock and removing it there on the clean sides. Working in the winter, when there is little bankside vegetation, allows easier access to the weed.
The Trust, working in partnership with the River Users' Group, secured grants of £45,000 which was spent last year on mechanical removal and hand picking from the Hall Bridge in Heybridge to Sandford Lock. So far this year some £12,000 has been awarded which will be spent specifically on clearance from Sandford to Paper Mill. The plan is to concentrate on the upper reaches of the navigation and handpick this section thoroughly at least four times each year for three years. We only have enough funds to pay for two complete handpicks. By doing this we should be able to show potential award-making bodies what has been done and what still needs to be done. The Trust's and volunteers' own contribution of £15,000, in the form of man hours and admin costs, will continue to help attract match funding. Clearing the weed from the whole navigation won't happen unless more funds are forthcoming.
The Trust's warning leaflet on the dangers of the pennywort has been supported by the various funding groups and is in the course of being printed by Essex County Council.
This year, by the first week in March, the combined efforts of contract labour and volunteers should achieve a complete clearance of pennywort from Sandford to Paper Mill, plus all the large clumps will have been cleared as far as Rushes Lock, and the Long Pond will have been cleaned from Heybridge to the Beeleigh flood gate. Looking ahead we will need a group of canoeists and boaters to patrol the “cleared sections” in May when the pennywort growing season starts.
In December the Navigation Company made a very impressive contribution to mechanical clearance by lifting out the large clumps between Hall Bridge, Heybridge and Beeleigh. It is to be fervently hoped that they will be able to continue this work from Beeleigh upstream as soon as possible.
There is still some way to go but our volunteers are irrepressible and full of optimism. Many, many thanks to every one of them.
The “Susan” is the last surviving wooden lighter on the canal. She was built in Burnham in the 1950's by Prior's, and was extensively repaired in the 1980's, by courtesy of a grant from the Passmore Edwards Museum in London Borough of Newham. Over the last twenty years she has been cared for by a volunteer group led, for the most part, by our sadly departed trustee, John Marriage. Many of us have had the pleasure of taking a trip on the barge with John. The boat was very dear to him and he did everything possible to keep it afloat. That's the aim of the proposed new trust. He would have been at the helm!
Several consultative meetings have been held at Sandford at which our Trust was represented. The final outcome was to make an application the Charity Commission to establish a charitable trust. Chelmsford Borough Council will effectively give the boat to the new trust and will continue to support its preservation and educational use.
Some of our members, especially those interested in historic craft, particularly a local one, might be willing to becoming trustees of the new trust. This would be a very positive way of contributing to the historical heritage of the navigation - it was the former “Susan's” that carried the goods which built Chelmsford.
For further information, you can contact Nick Wickenden, Chelmsford Museums, at The Old Cemetery Lodge, 1 Writtle Road, Chelmsford, CM1 3BL. (Phone 01245 615120 )
Chipperfield's circus came regularly every year, usually in October, and still does, although its name has changed. One of the star acts was “Sammy the sea lion”, who could balance balls on his nose, clap his flippers in time to music, and catch hoops thrown into the air by his trainer. In 1974 the circus brought a young sea lion, Sylvia, with them with the idea of training her up as part of Sammy's act, and also to give him some company. The plan was working well until one night, the beginner, Sylvia, decided to stage an impromptu act of her own “off stage”, so to speak. Unfortunately the stage which Sylvia chose was not the circus ring but the waters of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation.
It was a dark and stormy Sunday night, pelting rain, and high winds. Claire Steibner, Sylvia's trainer, was settling her down for the night. As soon as Claire opened the cage door Sylvia shot past her like lightning; it was almost as if she had worked out an escape plan and was waiting in readiness. The grass outside was slippery, and the river was only a few yards away - Claire had complained on their arrival that the lorry had been parked too close to the water. She was powerless to stop her: Sylvia made straight for the river bank, slipped effortlessly into the water, and disappeared. The river was in flood and the night was pitching black: Claire could nothing but raise the alarm. She was dismayed because she knew that she would get the blame for allowing the valuable young Californian sea lion, which had been with the circus only three weeks, to escape.
The next day she told her story to the local papers: “Sylvia was past me before I could do anything. I'm in terrible trouble but it's not my fault. I told them that the lorry was too close to the river, but they wouldn't listen”.
The hunt for a sea lion along the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation was on! All day long Claire, armed with a basket of fish, patrolled the towpath. All to no avail. Then, towards the end of the day, a breakthrough: she received a message that there had been a sighting several miles downstream at Stonham's lock.
Eddie Webb, for many years the foreman of the Navigation Company's maintenance team, had arranged to meet George Magnay, one of the canal's riparian owners, near Stonham's lock. When they had finished their discussions about a boundary dispute and were setting off for home, Eddie noticed a ball-like object bobbing up and down in the lock. They both thought that they must be seeing things as “the ball” seemed to have a life of its own. They took a closer look. To their amazement, they found Sylvia swimming up and down, and diving from time to time to look for fish! This meant that she had swum five miles downstream from Chelmsford and had successfully negotiated the weirs at Barnes Mill, Sandford Mill and Cuton lock. No doubt she had been helped by the high water level because in normal conditions she would either have had to jump the rim of the weirs, or walk (slither) around the locks- the latter is highly unlikely. Claire rushed off to Stonham's but when she arrived Sylvia was nowhere to be seen
The police and the River Authority were alerted and joined the hunt. A police spokesman said (as reported in the East Anglian Daily Times): “There is no danger of a sea lion finding its way to the sea”. One wonders who their authority on sea lions was, for, by the following day, she was spotted one hundred metres from the sea at Beeleigh weir! Obviously the police manual didn't contain a section on escaped sea lions and their ability to swim ten miles down a river and shoot ten weirs on the way. Perhaps Sylvia was finding her new diet of fresh water fish especially invigorating. But not so the local angling clubs who were by this time, according to the circus manager: “Doing their pieces”.
Sadly for Claire when she eventually got to Beeleigh, “the bird had flown”, or if you prefer: “the sea lion had swum”.
From day one of the hunt the River Authority team had been patrolling the river looking for Sylvia; it was a novel challenge and one that they would never forget. Peter Marchant, now with the Environment Agency, remembers it well: “we had no luck at first, but we headed for Beeleigh as soon as we heard Sylvia was there - no sign of her - someone said that she had swum back upstream to Paper Mill”. One would like to believe this story as it adds to Sylvia's reputation of being able to swim up the weirs as well as down. It's unlikely though because the steepness of the weirs at Ricketts, Hoe Mill, and Rushes would have made it a formidable feat. But, who knows, she might have done it. Sylvia was definitely in her element.
The following day Claire and the team tracked Sylvia down at Beeleigh. They baited nets with Maldon herrings and laid them along the bank. Claire then tried to coax Sylvia on to them. The plan was that once Sylvia had taken the bait and was on the bank, the net dangling in the water would be pulled over her. What happened was that at the first suggestion of the net being raised, Sylvia slipped back into the water. Several attempts were made: all failed because the net could not be flipped over her fast enough. At the last attempt of the day, Claire became despondent: “ Oh, it's so frustrating to be so close; it's such a shame that all this has happened because I have been working with Sylvia for three weeks and she was just beginning to get on with Sammy, the other sea lion”
It was at this point in the story that a young man from Maldon decided to take a day off work. Paul Surridge was 19 years old and worked at Stellar Components on the Causeway in Maldon. He woke one day, feeling a little under the weather and decided to stay in bed. Later in the morning, feeling like some fresh air, he decided to take a walk down the footpath past Beeleigh Abbey and the mill to the canal. Just as he was crossing the iron bridge over the river Chelmer; he happened to looked to his left, and there, in the pool just above the weir, a head popped up. Yes, it was Sylvia! He took a closer look: the seal (or sea lion), seemed very friendly, and swam towards him. He thought the best way of showing that he was friend was to give her something to eat. Searching his pockets for something he found a packet of cough sweets, Lockets. He unwrapped one and tossed towards Sylvia. He must have been very close to her because she caught it and balanced it on her nose before juggling it into her mouth. She performed this trick a number of times until all the Lockets were all gone. A man walking his dog stopped to watch this incredible open air performance, and only when Sylvia has eaten the last Locket did he go to call for help.
It wasn't long before the previous day's rescue party, including Claire, arrived. This time they brought a cage with a large hinged trap-door. A trail of fish was spread enticingly up the bank leading into the cage. Sylvia dutifully obliged and followed the trail and entered the cage. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for and all held their breath, but a critical hitch occurred.
During the final act of Sylvia's capture a television news crew had arrived on the scene, and because they were not quite ready for the trap door to be lowered, they pleaded for a minutes' delay so that that could adjust their equipment: was it ever thus! This proved fatal. Sylvia sensing danger, and frightened by the shouting and arm waving, bolted for the water!
Paul Surridge, too, decided to follow Sylvia's example and “do a runner”, because he realised that he was supposed to be ill at home, not catching sea lions on the canal. After all he didn't want his boss to see him suddenly appear on the evening's television news.
Once back home his mother told him that the escaped sea lion from Chipperfield's circus was on John Craven's Newsround: “I know that”, he said, “I've just seen it”
“How's that?” his mother asked, “Where have you been all day then?”
He told her his story and hoped that his secret would be safe within the family. It was - until now!
Sylvia was now back in her element, and, just to prove that she was, she shot up and down Beeleigh weir several times, sometimes pausing to take more fish from Claire's hand. By this time she was too nervous to be persuaded to play the fish trail game again.
Eventually she turned and swam down the weir for last time towards the wide ocean, free at last!
After all the excitement and near misses Claire was near to accepting defeat, saying: “It's been an incredible chase, like something out of a comic film. Sylvia's chances of survival could be good if she can adapt quickly to her new environment”. But more excitement and near misses were still to come.
The newspapers, both national and local, enjoyed the story and made as much of it as they could. After all it was very unusual, with both a sad and funny side to it. For example the Maldon and Burnham Standard carried a report with the headline: “Police reinforcements called”. It told how the chief of police, a Chief Inspector Naylor, who having insisted on directing operations on the bank at Beeleigh, had slipped, getting both his feet wet! Another storyline was: “Sylvia slumbers on the shore, while her partner Sammy back at Chelmsford is pining for her and slapping the sides of his tank!” It was also reported that a local water mammal expert, one Reg Bloom, who managed the Dolphinarium on Clacton pier, was to be sent for, to see if he could help.
There were various sightings of Sylvia over the next few days but it was presumed some of these could have been of seals which entered the shallow waters of the estuary at that time of the year. Then one day, out of the blue, she appeared at low tide opposite Sadd's timber yard in Maldon. One worker climbed on to a ship's rudder and tried to attract her with fish while his mates made a make-shift trap. But Sylvia couldn't be persuaded to enter it - she knew all about such things. Ignoring it she made her way upstream to the deep pools below the old railway viaduct where she stayed quite happily for some time before swimming off down tide.
Dick Townsend had just been appointed as the coast-guard for the river Blackwater, based at Bradwell. The first task that he was given was to hunt and capture a sea lion! Knowing what it's like with new jobs he could have been forgiven for thinking it was a “wind up”. What a novel way of starting, one which he still remembers well. In his log book for October 14th 1974 he recorded that he had spotted “Sylvia” at Bradwell some 200yds off shore. Perhaps the warm waters from the atomic energy site reminded her of her home waters in California. Yet again Sylvia became a local attraction as she slumbered on the beach at Bradwell. At low tide one policeman got within a foot of her, and at high tide his colleagues on the police launch tried to lasso her. Local fishermen, however, frightened that she would eat all their fish, wanted to shoot her. Claire, yet again, was dismayed when she found out: “She has been on the beach for over thirty- six hours and no one has told me!” On the next tide, Sylvia, as if sensing danger, quietly disappeared.
A report appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on the 1st November 1974:
Mr Barry Parker, 29, of Grey Gables, Swan Lane. Westerfield, Ipswich, was fishing from the shore at Felixstowe yesterday and says he saw a sea lion in the sea only ten yards away.
“I presume it was the same one that escaped form Chipperfield's circus at Chelmsford,” he said.
“I know the difference between a seal and a sea lion - and this was definitely a sea lion. It was jumping in and out of the sea and looked quite healthy”.
Mr Parker said he watched the sea lion for about ten minutes before it swam off
When Sylvia escaped, it was thought she would survive for some time, but would be in danger when the cold weather came.
Did she survive? Did she make it back to California? Sylvia's bravura performance on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation certainly suggested that she was up to it.
If you live in Essex you usually have to travel for quite a way to find an undisturbed place that has been left as nature intended. Somehow we get used to the huge brown fields all around us and the absence of hedgerows and ponds; we get excited if we spot the occasional fox or hare, and feel that we are in the countryside. We tend to forget that the landscape is man made; we somehow grow to accept its uniformity and the barrenness of its ecology.
On the bright side there are alert conservationists at work who are only too aware of these shortcomings and how important it is to try and redress the balance: Phil Luke is one of these. That he has a firm belief in the mission is illustrated by the magnificent results that he and his colleagues have achieved at the old gravel pits at Chigborough. The former brown fields were dug up for gravel in the 1960's and then left to their own devices for nature to work its magic. Where there was nothing in the way of wildlife and natural plants there is now a rich diversity of many species: over 230 plants, 120 birds, and many amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, some deer, fox and badgers. What a collection! All from nothing. It is one of the wonders of nature that all these visitors found their way. Well to some degree it is, but they needed encouragement, and that is what the dedicated conservationist provides.
|A winter view of one of the lakes.|
We all know that, before the arrival of the railway, goods in central Essex were carried by horse and cart, and then by canal lighters along the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation from Heybridge Basin to Chelmsford, stopping on the way to offload at various wharfs: Heybridge, Ulting , Little Baddow and Boreham.
I had not spotted any for more than a year when, just before Christmas, I saw one swimming across the River Can in Central Park, Chelmsford, close to the county cricket ground. Since that time I have been looking out intently in the hope of another sighting. Five weeks later I was delighted to see perhaps the same animal within a few yards of the original location.
I have not seen any on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation for many years. There are quite a lot of holes in the banks that look like the entrances to vole burrows but it is hard to say whether they are in current use or not. It would be interesting to hear of anyone else's sightings.
At present the government has plans to add the Water Vole and several other endangered animals to the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The effect will be to make it an offence to kill voles. It is already illegal to damage their river-bank burrows and habitats.
In our local environment, the common belief is that the voles are threatened by wild mink rather than by human hunters. Also, the river banks do not seem to be much affected by dredging or any other engineering work on most parts of the canal. Perhaps the invasive pennywort weed impedes the voles' movements?
The museum is on the site of a warehouse used by a nineteenth century ice merchant and ice cream maker, Carlo Gatti. This accounts for some of the exhibits on display. There is a trolley bicycle in a central position when going further into the museum. This is the type of vehicle ice cream sellers used when the Gatti firm was on the premises. Those visitors who wish to learn about Carlo Gatti and his use of the museum over a hundred years ago, should look at the display blocks on the right.
A play area for children is to be found here, at the bottom of the horse ramp, which took the horses up to the stables on the upper floor.
Opposite this are wall boards giving a brief history of canals in Britain. Next to them is the butty Coronis, into which you can go inside. It is now much easier to enter the butty, and there is the chance to find out how people living on working canal boats coped. The small kitchen space is worth looking at, and do listen to the audio narrative installed near the front of Coronis.
There are items of canal ware dotted around this floor. They need to be viewed in conjunction with the items used to keep these boats working, which can be found on both floors.
The London Canal Museum has become adept at collating such items of canal history. Such pieces, some of which are beautifully decorated, need to be viewed in context. When going to the upper level of this floor there are human models wearing the type of clothes worn by boat people. These are cared for on a regular basis by craftspeople hired by the museum.
When on the higher level take a look out into Battlebridge Basin. There one sees Bantam Tug, now fully restored and in full working order. It is sometimes still used as a working tug, and can be seen at Little Venice during their canal festival. Also on this level is an information board showing what the local area was like when it was fully devoted to industry. If visitors come up where the models are, they can then go down the other side and see the cargo handling equipment.
Nearby are the partly excavated ice wells used by Carlo Gatti. This building was ideal being near water, and the wells themselves are below water level meaning they are cold. The ice, brought from Norway, was transported by barge from the Port of London along the Regents Canal to the Gatti warehouse. Wealthy people had their own ice wells at the time Gatti was beginning his business in the nineteenth century.
Gatti also owned emporiums in nearby Central London to sell his ice cream, which accounts for the stables upstairs as the horses would be used to take the carts on their rounds.
Apart from the lift for the disabled, there are stairs with non-slip grips taking visitors to the upper floor. Near the stairs is a display case with models of various kinds of barge. Display stands on this floor give interesting information on various topics. Some of these provide a history of the Regents Canal, which is of course the local canal to North London. Visitors will learn about important events in Regents Canal history. Also to be found here is information about the building of steel narrowboats made for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company.
There is a stable with a model horse. Nearby are various items of horse related interest. They were not necessarily used on the horses Gatti had to draw his carts, but the type of harness worn by horses leading barges along the canal. Barges would not have engines in those days and were drawn along by sturdy horses.
Also on this floor are two videos to be seen by the public. They relate to the history of the Regents Canal, and the London Canal Museum.
The nearest station is Kings Cross underground. Buses pass by the bottom of New Wharf Road and they stop in nearby Caledonian Road going the other way.
Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4.30pm, staffed by volunteers. Entrance fee is £3.00 with concessions. The museum is open on Bank Holiday Mondays, but closed at Christmas and New Years Day.
|Saturday 2nd April||Chelmsford Annual Litter Clearance. Meet at Wharf Road car park at 9 am.|
|Wednesday 8th June||Sandford Mill. A chance to see the Museum's own wildlife site hidden in the heart of the lower Chelmer Valley. Meet inside the gates at 7pm. (Details to follow.)|
|Wednesday 15th June||Chigborough Gravel Pits, a conducted tour around the Essex Wildlife conservation site, 7.30 pm (Details to follow.)|
|Wednesday 3rd July||Barbecue at Rushes Lock (two others proposed at Hoe Mill and Heybridge).|
|Wednesday 6th July||AGM; 8pm at Langford and Ulting Village Hall.|
Chelmer Canal Trust - 01621 892231
Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Company;-
Hugh Turner- 01245 222025 Colin Edmond- 01621 853506
Ron and Judith, Blackwater Boats - 01206-853282
Environment Agency - 01376 572095