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

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Coates' Cuttings

The Chelmer Canal Trust's Newsletter May 2005 Issue 29
Registered Charity No 1086112.


Becky Patten collecting pennywort near Paper Mill


In This Issue

Our Board of Directors - Mike Lewis
Boat Watch - “Yellow Ensign”
Pennywort is not the only alien!
A green landscape
Floods on the Baddow Meads - John Woods
The history of King's Lock - Peter Carter
The Chelmer and Blackwater in 1970
Timber Lighter Towage
Diary Dates

We welcome members' photos, articles and other contributions to Coates' Cuttings. Please e-mail them to Mike Lewis or post them to 75 Tabors Avenue, Chelmsford , Essex, CM2 7EL.



Our Board of Trustees

The Chelmer Canal Trust is a non-profit distributing company and registered charity governed by an elected board of nine directors/trustees. Sounds very formal, doesn't it? Actually the trustees are a group of enthusiastic unpaid volunteers who put in a lot of effort to protect the canal as a venue for recreational boating and walking and as an attractive natural environment. Here is a short description of the kind of issues that are keeping them busy at the present time.

First, of course, is the dreadful pennywort weed that has sadly dominated all activity on the canal for the last two or three years. It has become a virtually full-time job to organise volunteer weed-picking groups and raise funds in order to bring professional contractors into the fight. At last, the end may now be almost in sight. Recent developments have included;

In total, something like £40,000 has been spent on weed removal to date. But the pennywort is not allowed to take over the life of the Trust completely. Some other activities that the board are pursuing include the following.

The plan to open up the lower part of the Blackwater above Beeleigh weir is still being pursued but without any positive response from the Museum of Power yet.

A new brochure to publicise the trust has been completed and is being distributed. Wildlife Information Boards and leaflets to describe towpath walks are also in preparation.

Ways are being sought to forge closer links with the Chelmer and Blackwater Company with a view to taking a more active role in maintaining the canal for recreational use.

Some renewal of the lock mechanisms at Paper Mill is being planned in co-operation with the IWA. The idea is to make the operation of the locks a lot easier than it is now and thereby encourage more people to use them.

And, of course the 'routine' activity of planning social and public events, such as walks and barbecues goes on!

All we members owe a continuing vote of thanks to our hard-working trustees.

Mike Lewis


Boat Watch

In this, the first of an occasional series focussing on craft that use the navigation, we look at some of the early starters to the 2005 boating season, and what owners are doing with their vessels.

One of the first off its moorings this year was “La Boheme”, a smart river cruiser with blue superstructure, normally based at Hoe Mill. “La Boheme” was seen above Rushes Lock heading for Paper Mill and beyond before March was out, thereby becoming a flagship for others to follow. Where “La Boheme” goes, “Psi” is never far away, with the peace at Rushes Lock being a favoured destination for her.

Another of the Hoe Mill cruisers, the cream-coloured “Chesywynde”, was another early riser, spotted on a return trip to Paper Mill during the first weekend in April.

Observers at Hoe Mill will have noted a new-ish narrowboat there, being fitted out internally and in primer externally for the time being, probably awaiting the spring weather before painting continues. Watch this space for further news.

Of the recent repaints, “Bittern” is approaching completion. At the time of writing (April 2005), the main way of identifying this narrowboat is the oval-shaped portrait of a bittern being carried on the forward part of the superstructure. Another is its distinctive, throaty engine sound coming from a low-revving diesel aptly suited to such a style of vessel.

“Victoria” reportedly spent the winter at Heybridge, and moved up to Paper Mill just before Easter. This broad-beamed vessel, also with a distinctive sounding engine, looks due to run a range of day charters through the 2005 season, as in previous years. “Victoria” is one of the few boats, incidentally, that are licensed to operate after dark.

Of the largest narrowboats, “Mister Badger” and “Johalma” have been spotted out and about, while one of the smallest, a former Blackwater Boats vessel, took an early 2-day trip to Heybridge and back from Sandford though it was reported that the return trip was delayed because of fuel delivery problems and an electrical fault within the engine compartment. Formerly “Widgeon”, it is understood that she is to be renamed “Camelot” upon completion of her repaint. Bring on the better weather, eh?

One of the few wooden, clinker-built, vessels on the navigation has also been active early this season, taking a return trip above Stonham's Lock to rendezvous with “Camelot” over the Easter weekend. Both vessels were seen locking together down to Paper Mill. It is understood that the owners also have plans to improve paintwork this season and name her “Andraste” soon afterwards.

Now, what about steam-powered vessels? “Impulse” is moored above Paper Mill, though another active one, “Araminta” is absent. When do you return, we wonder?

Watch out for increased activity from hired rowing boats of late in the Paper Mill area. Most weekends see several of these out causing chaos, which is surely what leisure boating is all about!

By “Yellow Ensign”


Pennywort is not the only alien!

A government crackdown on a variety of alien plants was announced at the beginning of March. We are of course very familiar with floating pennywort but others varieties included in the plan are Japanese Knotweed (also quite familiar in Essex), Giant Hogweed, Montbretia, Rhododendron Ponticum, Crassula helmsii. Himalayan Balsam and Azolla fillicoides.. The import, selling and planting of all these species will become illegal.

We understand that specimens of the last two mentioned above have been seen on the C&B canal although not in large numbers. Azolla is the American water fern which colours the water red (the pond on the Maldon by pass is currently infested). It sometimes breaks out on the canal but is not too serious a problem because it is floating and eventually gets washed out to sea at Beeleigh.

Himalayan Balsam is starting to appear in small patches. It is an attractive plant which grows up to over a metre with many stems. The overall result is that it shades out all smaller plants and eventually takes over (sounds familiar?) As it is an annual it can be controlled by removing the flowers in June/ July. One patch appeared beside the towpath about 300yds upstream of Rushes lock this year. The flowers were all removed so we hope that it won't appear this summer, but keep an eye open and get to work if you spot it!


A Green Landscape.

Under new plans announced by the government in March of this year, farmers will be able to claim payment for following green farming practices and safeguarding wildlife habitats. At the basic level, they will receive £12 per acre for agreeing to use less fertiliser on grass, leave grassy margins in crop fields for voles and ground nesting birds, and to leave stubble on fields until mid February for birds to feed on in winter. Also they can cut hedges only every two or three years to encourage berries for birds. Much larger handouts of cash can be obtained for following organic standards and for conserving archaeological sites, flood plains and water meadows.

We wonder what effect this policy may have on the Chelmer and Blackwater environment. In principle, the recommended practices should mean more wild fruit in hedgerows, more newts and frogs in ponds and more varieties of birds and butterflies. But will the water meadows along the C&B show these effects? Many, as you know, have been ploughed up for arable crops. It will be interesting to see!

And now, having dealt with the present situation on our waterway and countryside, we can look back at some things that went on during its long history. First, some personal recollections by John Woods from the middle of the twentieth century.


Floods on the Baddow Meads.

The meads are a natural flood plain for the river and, although very distressing for any poor souls whose homes are inundated, the floods provide interest and excitement for boys.

My first involvement with a flood occurred in the winter of 1947 when the snow melted after a bitterly cold spell. I was down at the sea scout headquarters at Barnes Mill where a crowd of us worked desperately to raise the bank that protected our new headquarters from the mill race behind. Our new building was an ex-army Nissen Hut, known as 'The Cabin', erected the previous November. I believe we were successful but the sight of the river in full flood and all the fields under water was awa-inspiring to a young lad.

Barnes Mill with the 'cabin' on the left.
There was always a temptation to go out on the water and on one occasion three of us took out one of our rowing boats, a sturdy craft, “to collect driftwood for the store”. I recall just getting under the tow-path bridge and travelling down river at a great rate of knots. We then went across the fields towards 'the Mount', the small hill near Sandford Water Works. We filled the boat with wood and eventually started back. By this time the water was receding and we grounded halfway back across the fields. We had to get out and push and drag the boat back to the river and then had a great struggle getting it back against the current. Another lesson learned!

One winter we were allowed to stay overnight in the Cabin, spending Christmas Day and Boxing Day there. We had our own entertainments as there was a table tennis table and someone brought down a quarter-size snooker table. We also had an ancient wind-up gramophone with steel needles and some old Frank Crummit records, left over from a rummage sale. Two of these are etched on my mind. “The song of the prune”; (No matter how young a prune may be, he's always full of wrinkles) and “Grandma's old rocking chair”; (All she left him was her old rocking chair but her life savings were stuffed down the back.). These were played over and over.

The fields had been flooded in the days before, then had receded but left the low gullies filled with water which then froze hard. This provided much sport including tug-of-war on ice.

Our Senior Scout log-book records that on 7th and 8th April 1951, various scouts were out on their First Class journeys. This involved travelling at least 12 miles, camping overnight, performing special tasks and writing an account. The journeys were done in pairs. Two scouts, Terry Savage and Don Courtman decided to go by canoe. The book records; “First Class journeys took place although the day was dull and overcast and the floods were coming up. There was a thunderstorm and hailstorms over the weekend but all the journeys were completed. However, Terry and Don were forced by the conditions to leave the canoe 'Swift' at the 'Kings Lock'. The flood stream was against them.”

April 9th. “Made two attempts to get the canoe back but the floods were too deep both on the fields and at the waterworks.”

April 12th. “Managed to get the canoe back but it took us about four and a half hours including the walk down to 6th lock.”

Swift was a long elegant canoe, quite stable as it had floats running along each side, about six inches wide in the centre, tapering to nothing at the bow and stern and following the profile of the boat. It was pretty heavy to lift around the locks.

Another incident, not recorded in the log book concerned myself and your esteemed chairman. Our boats had been put away in the boathouse for the winter but one afternoon when the river was in a state of high flood Dudley persuaded me to take out a canoe on the swirling waters. We had two canoes, Swift, previously described, and a smaller very tippy one, the name of which I forget.

I was never too keen on this canoe, preferring the stability of a rowing boat. However, Dudley prevailed and we set off into the deep pool in front of our headquarters. This pool is fed by an overflow sluice from the mill race and the water was circulating round it like a whirlpool. It was certainly exhilarating but it was not long before, due to my ineptitude, the canoe capsized. We were thrown into the water and struggled to the bank, laughing nervously as we clambered out. The boat was washed away.

It was a cold winter's day, already getting dark, so we found some old dry clothes in the Cabin and pedalled guiltily home on our bikes. We returned the next day to find the floods somewhat subsided and the canoe, unharmed, suspended in the branches of a willow tree, well above water level. Much to our relief, we were able to retrieve it and return it to the boatshed.

It probably occurs to today's readers that the matter of health and safety was sadly lacking in those days; no lifejackets or helmets, no training in righting a canoe. There was one firm rule that nobody was allowed in a boat unless they could swim.

At the time of the above incident Dudley and I were about 17 and had passed our master swimmers badge. This entailed, among other things, swimming 100 yards fully clothed and being able to swim one mile. For our sea scout troop this test involved swimming from the second to the third lock. These swims were accompanied by boat, mainly to shield us past swans who seemed to resent our intrusion into their territory.

Looking back, it seems surprising that we all escaped unscathed. I do not recall a serious accident and the word 'insurance' was not in our vocabulary.

John Woods


The History of Kings Lock.

King's Lock is shown on Ordnance Survey maps as 'Little Baddow Lock'. It is quite close to Little Baddow church but quite a long way from Little Baddow village. It is actually closer to Boreham which is why it is often called 'Boreham Lock' on less official maps.

A mill was built on the site about 20 years before the canal opened in 1795, when a lock appeared beside the mill. Steam power was introduced to the mill around 1860, when it belonged to John Piggott, who also owned Langford Mill (on the River Blackwater) and one of the wharfs in Chelmsford's Springfield Basin.

The mill was sold in 1880 to Edward Morgan. Both the mill and house were burnt down in June 1892.

The present house in the 1980's. Seen from above the weirs in the mill stream.
The canal company built a new house on the site, which was owned by George Smith who ran a coal business there until 1899 when William King acquired it. (So that is where the name of King's Lock came from!) He kept it until 1914, when the house became a tea room that continued in business until the 1960's. For a long time afterwards the canal company hoped to restore it to that kind of use but it is now simply a (rather attractive) private residence.

From information provided by Peter Carter


The Chelmer and Blackwater in 1970

This is an abridged version of an article produced by the Railway and Canal Historical Society (based in London) as an introduction to a weekend visit to our area by society members 35 years ago. It starts with the early history of the canal, and leads up to the situation that existed at the time of their visit. While most of us are reasonably familiar with the early history, not as many of us remember how much has changed since 1970.

The River Chelmer is not one of the great rivers of England. It rises in the north of Essex and flows in a generally southern direction to Chelmsford where it turns to the east and reaches the Blackwater estuary at Maldon. But because Chelmsford was and is the county town and the importance of water transport was clearly recognised, consideration was early given to making the river navigable for the fourteen miles between Chelmsford and Maldon. The first positive plan was made in 1677 but, largely due to the opposition of the town of Maldon who feared the loss of their revenues if traffic would be permitted to travel direct to Chelmsford, nothing more was heard of that scheme. The same opposition bedevilled future proposals as well. The next attempt to initiate a scheme came in 1733, when the surveyor John Hoare estimated the cost of construction would mount to £9,355. In 1765 a further survey was made, this time by Thomas Yeoman who emphasised the savings which would be made in carriage costs if the river were improved. On the basis of his report an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1766. On this occasion, in addition to the opposition from Maldon, the undertakers found themselves unable to raise the necessary finance. So once again the work was deferred.

In 1793, the project was again revived but on this petition the navigation was to bypass Maldon and terminate instead at Heybridge. This revision of the route increased the ire and indignation of Maldon and a typical 18th century pamphlet was published criticising in round terms “the manifest impropriety of passing” the Chelmer Navigation Bill. The Bill however was successful and became law 1793. The authorised capital was £40,000. Work commenced in 1795 under the direction of John Rennie, assisted by Richard Coates. The work proceeded steadily and the full length of the Navigation was opened in 1797. It made its influence felt on the surrounding countryside in that the population of Heybridge trebled between 1801 and 1931, and because of the convenience of transport of coal, the Chelmsford gas works was established in 1819.

The Navigation is essentially a river navigation rather than a canal although there are a number of cuts to straighten out the meanders of the natural river. The present length is 14 miles and there are thirteen locks including the sea lock at Heybridge. There is a basin at Chelmsford now used only by Brown and Son Ltd in connection with their business as timber merchants. They make almost daily journeys to this basin from Heybridge where they have a large timber storage ground and wharf. The timber mainly comes from the Baltic ports and is brought to Heybridge in small coasters where it is discharged on to the timber wharf. There are no cargoes transported downstream from Chelmsford to Heybridge. The present situation contrasts unfavourably with the tonnage carried prior to the opening of the railway, although in this case the railway does not provide as direct, or even as short a link between Chelmsford and Maldon as does the navigation.

Heybridge Basin now provides a safe anchorage for sea-going yachts and a substantial part of the present income must derive from the mooring fees. At present the Navigation can only be used by those pleasure craft that do not use the locks. This means that the waterway is comparatively little known and even though it is so close to London, it has preserved its pastoral nature.

The Navigation is still privately owned and because of this the Proprietors have maintained a custom which was once common on most canals and navigations but has now fallen into disuse. This custom is to make an annual survey of the property by boat; on the Chelmer and Blackwater it is done in a horse-drawn barge and, for the trip, the Proprietors invite a select company of guests who are entertained to a traditional meal.

The members of the Historical Society enjoyed their own trip from Chelmsford to Heybridge in a working (but not horse-drawn) timber barge.




TIMBER LIGHTER TOWAGE (in 1951!)

Chelmsford Importers Put New Tug Into Commission on the Blackwater-Decks and Planking are of Afrormosia

This article was published in the TIMBER TRADES JOURNAL of 24 November 1951. It provides a fascinating insight into the practical side of the timber trade on the Navigation in those days - even if we do not quite understand all the technical terms . . . .

Fresh from completion of her trials in the River Crouch, where she was built, the new timber built tug " George Wray " of Brown, and Son, Ltd., timber importers and merchants of Chelmsford, Essex, arrived at her station at Heybridge Basin last Saturday. The tug, named after a director of the company, is to be used for towing lighters into which timber is discharged from ocean-going steamers, lying off Osea Island in the River Blackwater, to the storage yard of Messrs. Brown and Son at Heybridge Basin.

The " George Wray " is something of an experiment in the design of light tugs for towing lighters in tidal waters. She is 38ft. 6in. long with a draught of 4ft. 9in. and has the lines of a smart cabin cruiser combined with the sturdy construction that will stand up to the hard work of lighter towage. She was designed by Mr. Alan Buchanan, a leading yacht designer, after studying the craft which she is to replace and was built by R. J. Prior of Burnham-on-Crouch.

The " George Wray " at speed on the River Crouch at Burnham during her trials last week (in 1951 ! ). She has been built for Brown and Son, Ltd., timber importers, Chelmsford, for use as a tug for towing timber lighters on the Blackwater

Chiefly because of the difficulty of obtaining teak, her decks and planking are formed of the West African hardwood afrormosia. This again is largely experimental. It is the first time that Mr. Prior has worked with this particular timber but he is well satisfied with the result and the performance and career of the "George Wray'" will be followed with interest. Her frames and other timbers are of oak.

With cabin accommodation for her crew forward the tug has a sharp sheer to her bow and a powerful stern. The wheelhouse amidships is open at the rear to facilitate working but side screens are fitted which enable the house to be totally enclosed in bad weather. Immediately abaft the wheelhouse are the massive oak towing bitts and a spacious cockpit in which the men unloading the .steamers' cargoes into the lighters off Osea Island will be taken from shore to ship. Removable wooden covers enable the cock-pit to be decked in when the tug is towing.

A 72 b.h.p. Thornycroft diesel engine is installed which drives a 35in. propeller through a 3 to 1 reduction gear. The engine is cooled with fresh water from a small header tank which is considered preferable to a sea water cooling system as the craft will be operating in shallow water and may occasionally have to take the mud.

At 1,500 r.p.m., which leaves an ample margin of speed in reserve, the tug makes an easy 9 knots and on Saturday she did the passage from Burnham to Heybridge by way of the Raysand Channel in 3½ hours. She had a foul tide down the Crouch and across the Raysand but derived the benefit of the flood up the Blackwater. There was a fresh south-westerly wind and the short steep seas over the shallow patches tested the sea-worthy qualities of the tug. Apart from flung spray she remained perfectly dry. A representative of the Timber Trades Journal was privileged to join the party which went with her. They included Mr G Auckland, managing director of Messrs. Brown and Son, and Mr G G Auckland his son, who is works manager and also a director of the firm, Mr R J Prior and Mr R Clark, who is to be skipper of the tug which will start work possibly this week as Messrs. Brown and Son are expecting a shipment from Sundsvall to arrive in the Blackwater shortly.

Both Mr Auckland and his son took 'a trick' at the wheel and an unexpected opportunity to observe the manoeuvrability of the tug occurred when the rope towing the dinghy astern parted. The boat was quickly recovered and made fast again.

Timber lighters at Heybridge Basin
Meeting Incoming Timber Carriers.

Mr. Auckland explained to our representative that the incoming timber carriers anchor in the Blackwater off Osea Island and the lighters, which carry from 30 to 35 stds, are towed out to them, loaded, towed back to Heybridge Basin and the wood either stored in the yard there or loaded on to canal barges which complete the journey to Messrs. Brown and Son's yards at Chelmsford by the Heybridge-Chelmsford Canal on which an extensive frontage is occupied.

At the moment the canal-barges are horse-drawn but Messrs. Brown and Son are experimenting with outboard motors to propel them and may later build barges with inboard engines suitable for work on the canal.

Brown's timber wharves at Chelmsford



Welcome to new members:
Andrew and Anne Hicklin from Hadleigh
Michael Baker-Rogers from Tolleshunt Major


Forthcoming Events:

Wednesday 8th JuneSandford 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 enclosed.)
Wednesday 15th JuneChigborough Gravel Pits, a conducted tour around the Essex Wildlife conservation site, 7.30 pm (Details enclosed.)
Wednesday 3rd JulyBarbecue at Rushes Lock (two others proposed at Hoe Mill and Springfield .).
Wednesday 6th JulyAGM; 8pm at Langford and Ulting Village Hall.
Essex Wildlife Trust Events
The Essex Wildlife Trust has set up a programme of events aimed specifically at its 'Corporate Members'. The Chelmer Canal Trust is a corporate member which means that all our members are entitled to attend these events, as listed below. If you would like to attend any of them, please contact Dudley Courtman who will make the necessary arrangements.
Sunday, 19 June. 10:30 am to 4:00 pm.Family Fun Day at Langdon Nature Reserve, 3rd Avenue, Dunton, Basildon. A family day of various activities including pond dipping.
Thursday, 7 July. 12.45 pm to 2.45 pm.Barge Trip from Maldon. A two hour trip on a Thames Sailing Barge, followed by an optional guided walk along the canal to Beeleigh Weir. Cost: £30 per person, including lunch.
Wednesday, 20 July. 8pm.Bat evening at Hanningfield Visitor Centre. A talk followed by an opportunity to use bat detectors on the reserve.
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Some useful phone numbers:

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

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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