|The Chelmer Canal Trust's Newsletter||August 2005||Issue 30|
Over thirty visitors and members were present for the meeting which was presided over by Lord Petre, our president. Five apologies for absence were recorded and the minutes of the previous meeting were approved, as was the Directors' Report and the Chairman's Statement. Copies of these have been sent out to the membership, but others can be obtained by request. The various reports were noted by the meeting.
The accounts for the year 2004-5 were presented by the treasurer, Paul Archer, and these were approved by a show of hands with no dissenters. It was noted that the accounts had been inspected by Richard Allen of Barclays Bank, and it was agreed that he should be thanked for his services. It was noted that a sum of money in the accounts was ring -fenced for contract work on the pennywort invasion.
Appointment of officers and trustees: Dudley Courtman and Robin Jones, who resigned in line with the requirements of the Trust's Articles of Association, were re-elected The appointments of Valerie Cummins and Neil Frost, who had been co-opted during the year, were approved, as was that of Miriam Lewis who had been nominated and seconded for trusteeship prior to the meeting.
We now have six trustees with room for more. If any member is interested in joining the board: they are invited to come along to a meeting to see what is involved. Meetings are held on a Tuesday evenings, usually at The Cats in Wodham Walter.
There being no other business the meeting closed at 8-30pm
The evening was concluded by an illustrated talk on “The Invasive Pennywort” by Dudley Courtman.
On the Saturday morning of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, a flotilla (one might say “armada”!) of nine boats, each flying the “Jolly Roger” and with many of the crew in pirates' costumes, locked down to Heybridge on their way to an all-weekend party. Reports are that this sort of thing will become a regular feature for those bold enough to take part. The participants seem eager to accept further boats into the flotilla and one wonders just how big this sort of thing might get!
Cuton Lock went out of use for a couple of weeks during the summer, receiving attention to the pivot column on one of its bottom gates. Repairs have been completed. One consequence of the stoppage has been an increase in the weed present at Sandford Mill owing to the reduced number of boat trips locally stirring it up.
The weed present in the Navigation changes with the months. Towards the end of June a long, thin, spindly weed (L: Weedius Stringii) causes serious delay to boats - one of them had to shave the “beard” off its propeller three times in the Rushes Lock area just to get away; a week later after a rain storm it had largely gone. There is another, broad-leafed weed (L: Weedius Cabbagii Martianis) present in the summer that causes little trouble to boaters, and then there's our old favourite the American Pennywort (L: Weedius Horribilis) that just seems to cause havoc all year round.
Now to some more sensible matters before the Editor tells me off!
Whitsun holiday weekend saw a small number of boats normally based at Heybridge come up above Paper Mill for an outing, which was good to see.
Recently a couple of “pedalo” boats have been in use around Paper Mill. Once thought to be little more than a novelty for the municipal boating lake their innovative application to a navigable waterway is to applauded, being easier to operate than a rowing boat provided there is more than one person available.
Following on from previous Boat Watch notes, the steamer “Araminta” is now back at its Hoe Mill base and it is understood that the narrow boat moored there once in primer, now resplendent in its finished paint colours, is named “Maybe Baby”. Look out also for “Riplet”, a new arrival to be based in the Sandford Mill area. Riplet is a narrow boat with a fold-down river-boat cockpit added.
The house adjacent to Sandford Mill Lock has recently changed hands, and the tea room at Paper Mill is under new ownership and management. A new pontoon has been added at Springfield Basin, giving greater scope for visiting boats to moor-up, and reports are coming in of boats beginning to occupy “Marina One” in Chelmsford on a permanent basis.
We finish with some special notes on novel fuels for marine use. With the ever-rising price of oil-based products it is worth looking at alternative methods of boat power from time to time to assess their application - remember that a large proportion of the cost of petrol and derv fuels is road tax, not applicable to marine propulsion, and there are alternatives for those who do not like paying tax!
So when can we read about them from people who have tried them?
By “Yellow Ensign”
Their initial conclusion is that stocks of fish in the Chelmer are growing well.
One of my companions, who had known the route from childhood, was able to explain significant aspects of each section reached, indicating many topographical and other details I would otherwise have missed. He took pains to point out how much had changed even in recent years - especially the not inconsiderable achievement by volunteers of clearing large stretches of the pennywort threatening to choke the entire waterway and indeed the control of bankside vegetation that made our progress possible. His description of the industrial history of the Navigation and its contribution to the growth of Chelmsford as both a county town and nineteenth and twentieth century centre of technological innovation provided a useful counterpoint to the obvious natural charm of the location. It set us musing on the complex interrelationship of human economic activity and the natural environment in the past, present and future. As we passed the Langford Museum of Power and its modern replacement - not to mention the industrial archaeological site at the mill near Beeleigh, being impressively conserved by the County Council - it was interesting to speculate on just what role water power might have in the future and if there would be any part in this for waterways like the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation.
With international discussion on Climate Change pending at the time of writing, evidence of global warming (and the need for major rethinking of our attitudes towards energy consumption) seemed all too evident with every step we took. Our by now regular soaring summer temperatures meant we were able to observe several species formerly only rarely encountered in Essex. Two entomologists met at Beeleigh weir were very pleased to have identified 'scarce chaser' dragonflies apparently first recorded locally only two summers before and never in such numbers. We were able to tell them of many more we had seen earlier alongside the familiar dragon and damselflies observed further upstream. Six or seven little egrets on the estuary below the weir provided another example of the influx of southern species although we also encountered healthy looking broods of shelduck, moorhen, coot and mute swan - with cygnets already half grown. Other birds we observed included pied and single grey wagtail (on the weir) and turtle dove as well as the expected hirundines, warblers and green woodpecker.
Our snack lunch in the welcome cool of an expensively air-conditioned local store underlined the environmental dilemmas we all face and on our return we speculated further on future changes to this tidal adjunct to the Navigation. One substantial property in particular, with lawns reaching to the tide line, looked potentially vulnerable to future rising water levels. Back on the Navigation proper, however, we chatted with some lads sunbathing after a refreshing dip, and then, just before Hoe Mill, bantered briefly with a party of closely supervised young canoeists making the best possible use of the still very warm conditions. Ready by then for mid-afternoon refreshment we agreed to defer our original plan to go on to Ulting church to another hopefully slightly cooler occasion. But we were reminded again of the versatility of the waterway both as a contemporary leisure facility for boating, fishing and walking, and as an almost unique wildlife habitat and conservation area locally that was formerly such an important transport conduit.
Bruce May - Basildon. - July 2005
A large strand of pennywort was held up before the audience so that everyone could identify the foreign invader. With its long fronds, some extending to 5metres or more, its many rooting points and floating leaves, it is well adapted to quickly spread across open water. It extracts nutrients from the water through a profusion of fine root hair; it loves sunlight, and is able to double its biomass in three days. So there is no time to spare if you want to stop it! Its pennycress type leaves expand from the size of a one pound coin to that of a dinner plate in no time at all. In Florida, and the other States in America, from where it originates, it is a tropical plant. There it competes with other tropical plants for its existence, eventually achieving equilibrium. In the UK it has no competition and occupies all available water space. In the spring it starts its main growth along with all of our native plants, among which it becomes inextricably intertwined before overwhelming them. In the autumn when the native plants naturally die off, it keeps going, and will continue to grow until frost and cold slow it down. Even then it doesn't die. Its large tangled cords lie just below the surface ready to poke up their leaves as soon as the water warms up again.
Getting rid of it is a formidable task. It weighs tons once it is established. Lifting it out of the water is very hard work but the really difficult part is getting rid of all the bits left behind. The meticulous handpicking needed is perhaps even more of challenge because it takes a lot longer and you do not get the satisfaction of seeing a large pile on the bank as with large clump removal.
Three practical stages are involved in ridding the waterway of pennywort: first, clearance, the heavy work of mass removal; second, cleaning, the meticulous handpicking; and third control, the process of regularly patrolling the river to pull out new growth.
The Trust started their campaign against the pennywort over five years ago. All official bodies were approached. A press campaign was launched to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem. Initially little progress was made. One would have thought that once the authorities had been alerted to what was in fact a major environmental disaster that something would be done .But no, they shared our concern, but were not prepared to invest in a solution. One assumes that the cost of clearing over 20 miles of waterway was too high to contemplate. They were also hampered by the existence of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Company, a private company that had a statutory duty to keep the navigation clear. The fact that the company had only a duty to keep a path clear through the weed didn't encourage others to step in to help, and years of delay followed. The result was that the canal blocked up completely, interfering with boating and fishing , spoiling the visual environment - litter and debris collected on the weed - upsetting the growth and life of waterside plants and animals, and becoming a health hazard to young visitors and domestic animals.
One August afternoon in 2003 the Chelmer Canal Trust members carried out a litter pick at Beeleigh, the local beauty spot. As part of this, merely as a token gesture to publicise the pennywort threat in the local press, some weed was removed from above the lock. The massive clumps, some 10metres square, were detached from the bank and dragged into the lock for removal. The weed weighed so much that it had to be broken up so that we could get it out of the lock with the small garden rakes and forks that we had brought for the job. No one at that stage had any thoughts that this was to be the start of major campaign. At that time the idea of clearing the whole canal using such methods was thought ridiculous. However we hadn't counted on the enthusiasm of one of our trustees, Ian Petchey, who insisted that we could do it ourselves, and immediately set about organising our first official working party.
And so on the first Saturday of September 2003, a team of fifty volunteers assembled at Sandford Lock. It was a magnificent response to our appeal for help. Many local people were prepared to give generously of their time: some came by motor bike and others cycled; some brought their boats and canoes; nearly all had a garden rake. The plan was explained and battle commenced. The rest is not history because we haven't finished yet!
The sight that met us at Sandford was extremely daunting; carpets of pennywort, several metres wide covered both banks as far as you could see. We dislodged the weed from the banks with canoes and the other boats and pushed it down to under the A12 road bridge from where there was a clean bank to work. We learnt several things: that we needed to float the weed down faster to the take out point; and that ordinary garden rakes were not substantial enough. So the first innovative tools were introduced: fisherman's anchors, which enabled the weed to be anchored and towed downriver, and 9ft silage cromes, which we managed to borrow, and which we estimated quadrupled our lifting efficiency.
It took us four Saturdays to reach Cuton lock. The weed was piled up along the towpath where it quickly died off. The huge 6ft high pile under the A12 bridge soon reduced itself to six inches of sludge but not before we had taken a trophy photo of the team standing behind it. By the spring we had worked all the way downriver as far as Hoe Mill, some six miles of clearance, and had also found time to carry out some follow up handpicking sessions- members of Chelmsford Canoe Club helped with this. Our handpicking method was to raft together two open canoes and suspend a large net between them thereby creating a platform to carry the weed. Canadian (Hiawatha type) canoes were very useful as you could penetrate the reeds and bushes to reach the weed more easily.
Feeling very pleased with ourselves we carried out our last clearance of the season- we thought! - at Ricketts Cut which by the time we got there in June was completely blocked. It was here that we developed a new, effective, removal technique: the paddles on the downstream lock gate were opened and an artificial current was created, thereby enabling the rafts of weed upstream to drift into the lock for quick and clean removal.
It was at this point in the pennywort campaign that we nearly came unstuck. We had been successful in obtaining various grants, which we thought would enable contractors to finish the job for us, and that we could enjoy a well earned rest. The professionals would take over with their heavy lifting gear and impressive fleet of boats. Big mistake!
The contractors completed their work by the end of the summer. All seemed well for a while, the Long Pond was restored to boating and fishing and was a pleasure to behold once more. But then, in September, to our horror and disbelief, the pennywort returned with a vengeance, everywhere. Imagine our dismay! Despite the large investment of our time, and the substantial grant money spent, we were virtually back to square one.
At Sandford, where we had started the previous autumn, we were confronted by the sight of masses of pennywort on both banks. It was as if we hadn't done anything. Most volunteer groups would have been forgiven for giving up at this point but not our committed team.
“Once more unto the breach”. The second time round we were able to draw on our experience and work more effectively. The method of floating the weed down to a lock for removal was extensively used. We improved things by using an advanced party on the evening prior to the work party to release carpets of weed from the bank To assist with this we invented a special tool - a four meter aluminium pole with a wide T piece on the end - which could push the carpets of weed into the centre of the river where the current was strongest. In those lock pounds which were very long we had to place collecting booms across the river about half way down. We chose places with low banks where the weed could be caught and easily extracted; the boom also prevented small pieces from escaping and returning to haunt us another day. Large fisherman's landing nets were used to capture the small remaining pieces, and a large broom attached to a long pole enabled weed to be brushed out of the natural vegetation.And so we battled away during the winter - again! - despite some wet and windy weather. An additional working party was started to work from the Heybridge end on the Long Pond so that we could tackle the weed from both directions. In May we were back at Ricketts lock where we had finished the previous year. This time we knew that “having a rest” was not an option, because the pennywort wouldn't be resting, so we quickly followed up our efforts with some handpicking sessions. Fortunately there was enough grant money left over to employ a contractor to handpick from Sandford to Paper Mill: this proved to be a great help.
At the present time progress is very encouraging: there is very little pennywort visible on the river between Sandford and Hoe Mill, meaning that two thirds of the waterway is effectively “under control” and has been handed over to the “control team” which consists of a small mobile fleet of boats and canoes. The Special Boat Squadron is regularly on patrol removing any new growth and reporting any major outbreaks to our clearance team, “the Weed Busters” who tries to deal with them. The problem places are: where the weed grows in shallow bays, some times trodden by cattle; in the parallel feeder ditches at Cuton and Stonham's, and in Sandon Brook at Little Baddow; and amongst the overhanging bushes below Rickets weir as far as Beeleigh.
The Pennywort Campaign is a great success. The battle is not quite won; there is still a little way to go before we can take our well earned break. What has been achieved so far is an inspiring example of the dedication and commitment of the Chelmer Canal Trust's band of volunteers. All users and admirers of our beautiful waterway owe them all a profound debt of gratitude.
| A church spire, no a figure,
A tall black bird
On the very topmost branch
Of the tallest tree.
Silhouetted against the sky
A cormorant holds out its long arms
In the sultry summer heat
Great wings that encompass
The world below.
The Angel of the South
Mysterious, pre-historic, heraldic, god-like, motionless,
Confirming the long green ribbon
Of cool deep water in the middle of its plain
And its own Garden of Eden
With its secret life and treasures
Waiting to be seen.
Readers will remember that the Stour was featured in a previous edition of Coates' Cuttings which carried an account of Ted Pearson's talk. It was noted then that the 100 years, or thereabouts, that separated the building of the Stour and Chelmer-Blackwater navigations, made a significant difference to the construction methods employed. It was also noted that the act of parliament for building the Stour didn't provide statutory rights for the construction of a towpath, with the result that, whereas a horse could tow a barge from Chelmsford to Heybridge Basin impeded by only a few clap gates and bridge crossings, the Stour horses had to jump fences, and onto, and off, their barges to cross the river.
Some of the celebrated paintings of John Constable illustrate this fact most clearly. The White Horse shows a horse being ferried from one bank to the other. The riparian owners of the time had to be persuaded to agree to provide access to their land, consequently the tow path constantly changed sides. It would have been too expensive to build lots of bridges, which meant that a horse had to jump on and off a barge 40 times on the 26 mile journey from Sudbury to the sea. Special jumping stages were provided. It would seem that the barge would be poled close to the bank and, at the optimum moment, the horse would leap aboard, or off, as the case might be. It is recorded that not all jumps were successful and some horses were injured. As if the horses did not have enough to cope with they also had boundary fences to overcome. These had to be at least 2ft 10ins high so that the horse could jump them and the cattle couldn't!
Brian Osman in his article, “Barge horses on the River Stour”, draws our attention to Constable's painting:…… “The Leaping Horse (1825) is a vivid illustration of how the horses performed a standing leap. The horse is gathering himself up ready to tilt over the fence. This position is the same as that used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna , where, depending on the angle the horse's body makes with the ground, it is called Levade( 30 degrees) or Pesade (40 degrees). John Constable's picture is carefully observed. The horse is posed ready to tilt forward. The swingle tree lies on the ground attached to the traces, which are slack. A figure half hidden by the tree appears to be taking up the slack in the towrope that is attached to the boat. He may also be lifting it over the fence rails beside the river. The tow rope is not disconnected: presumably frequent disconnections would be too time consuming. The tilt forward would have to be carefully controlled so that the swingle tree did not fly forward and clobber the horse or its rider. It is possible the figure on the ground would have been ready to check the rope to prevent this.
Brian Osman thinks that no modern horseman could do it and he would like to offer a challenge of £200 for the first one who can demonstrate a standing leap with an appropriate rider and tow rope over a fence of 2ft 6in.( contact 01206 272534)
One of the Trust's own expert horseman, Henry Marriage, says: “I have always wondered how they made heavy horses jump gates. In the Midlands the men preferred lighter horses such as old hunters to tow. Most of their pictures show a riding horse, or vanner, at work.
I was always puzzled by the John Constable horse who was obviously made to take off by the “seat” of the boy; how often did the horse do this? Another puzzle is the whipple tree (note change of term from Suffolk to Essex? Ed.) and tow rope - no horse would (readily) jump with those things behind him: they must have un-shackled…”
And so you have it. Come on all you riders there's £200 for the taking.
On my first session, in May, I paddled down from Chelmsford Canoe Club to Sandford and was slightly worried to see a swans' nest just below Sandford Lock. (Although I paddle the river regularly, it was the first time I had seen one at that rather exposed location.) The male swan met me as I launched below the lock and 'escorted' me past the nest, carefully keeping between me and the nest. I found a scattering of pennywort at various places downstream, worst at Cuton Lock and pulled out as much as I could - some of it was concealed among the reeds and brambles.
|The small round pennywort leaves hiding among the rushes look insignificant but they will spread across the width of the river if we don't keep them under control|
A week later, I repeated the process on a warm summery day. The male swan again escorted me downstream. But this time, on my return, it was resting on the bank opposite the nest as I paddled past. A few seconds later, it suddenly leapt onto the rear deck of my kayak, wrapped its wings sharply round my bare arms and banged my head with its beak. As it went back into the water, I turned round to face it as quickly as I could and paddled backwards to the lock while it followed me, making some noise but not coming too close again. When I landed, I saw some blood oozing from my arm but no other injury.
For the next few weeks I adopted the cowardly policy of taking my boat down to Little Baddow Lock on my car, then paddling upstream to Cuton Lock and not going as far as the Sandford cut. In the middle of June, I met a pair of swans with five cygnets. They watched me but did not become aggressive - and later I saw the empty nest. (For most of the year, swans simply ignore canoeists - it is only while they are breeding that they give us any trouble.)
By this time, the pennywort, although still appearing and growing, was not too extensive. The biggest problem was getting to it through a lot of blanket weed. Blanket weed is a real nuisance to navigation although it does not last as persistently as the pennywort. One day, after I told Dudley that I was keeping things under control, he asked me what conditions were like in the Sandford Mill weir stream channel. I had to admit that I had not looked at it! So I did that on my next trip and found a few quite big patches of pennywort. I shifted as much as I could and then appealed for help. Dudley had a go as well and between us we have managed to move most of it - the banks are high and overgrown which makes it difficult to get rid of the pickings. But now, I think we really do have the weed under control on that section of the river and, with regular inspections, let's hope it will stay that way!
A recent article in The Times tells how one of the Queen's “swan- uppers” was attacked by a swan. Robert Cheeseman, a member of the livery company charged with counting and checking Her Majesty's swans on the River Thames, was unfortunate enough to fall into the water. A recently “upped swan” eager to get its own back at being unceremoniously “upped” against its will, spotted him floundering in the water and immediately took its revenge by landing on him and beating his head with its wings until he was nearly submerged- “swan-downed” as it were.
Reflecting on this here follows some rough guidelines for local canoeists and boaters to help them avoid being similarly treated.
At the swans' approaches (they are usually in family mode at this time of year, having several baby cygnets) try reasoning with them, speak to them quietly and say reassuring things: “Now look here my dear swans this river is quite large enough for all of us and I wish you no harm. You just keep to your side of the river and I will keep to mine”. Or words to that effect. It is best to repeat this several times to ensure that they get the point. If unsuccessful and you are feeling threatened by them, or by the daddy swan, it's usually the male, you can use strategy number two.
Try distracting them by playing upon one of their other basic needs; replace their need to defend their young with their need to feed them. Carry an ample supply of bread, and scatter this liberally in front of them, especially the cygnets. Whilst they are squabbling amongst themselves for the largest pieces you can then paddle quietly past. If this strategy fails, or you have forgotten the bread, you can try the “Disinterested” approach, number three.
At the swans' approach retire to the nearest bank and ignore them, make out as if you are removing some pennywort, definitely no eye contact as you might betray your fear! Be completely unimpressed by any displays of aggression: hissing, rising up out of the water and the flexing of a formidable wing span, flying up and down beside you to land in a cascade of water menacingly close. Hold your nerve! By this time the cygnets with their mum, who has seen it all before, will get bored and will move off, and dad, feeling a little tired from all the exercise, and that he has done his bit, will follow her. It this tactic fails then you can try strategy number four “Avoidance”.
If all of the above strategies fail and you feel that you are about to be dive-bombed, boarded, and pecked, then turn to face the attacker. Present the front end of your canoe/boat to attacker -it will act as a fender. Persuade yourself that you have the situation under control and when the swan attacks emit a blood curdling scream. As the attacker closes in “for the kill” (peck), turn away adroitly at the last minute and paddle off in the opposite direction at high speed. Should you be followed then repeat the strategy, and again, as necessary. However, if your assailant is obviously an inveterate “head -pecker”, and is not impressed by your scream or your manoeuvres, then Desperate Measures are needed.
5 Desperate Measures
You have been pursued several times and are standing by to repel boarders. As previously, turn craft to face the attacker, carefully remove your hat -every canoeist should wear one in swan infested waters - and place it on the end of your paddle; hold it at arm's length ( just as the Boy Scouts used their hats at the end of their staves to distract mad dogs). While swan is “downing” your hat you make your escape. A lost hat is better than a pecked head!
Swan-upping, counting and checking on the welfare of the swans on the Thames has been carried out since the 12th century. It sounds like a worthwhile project that the Trust could inaugurate on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. Looking after our swans' welfare, omitting the “upping” bit, might make them more amenable to sharing their waters with us.
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.