Your editor recently asked me to write about some of the characters I have met on the Chelmer during my 50 odd years or so of involvement with the navigation.
The first person I really met (apart from Stunt's clerk, who issued canal licences) was George King, lock keeper and dredgerman. He lived at Sandford lock cottage and was a cheery character with a winning smile and always willing to help. He was particularly tolerant of the occupants of the hired row boats from Barnes Mill, who often found themselves in difficulties at his lock. Later on, I found him a tower of strength when a small group of canoeists, including myself, acquired Susan, the barge, for preservation, and moored it next to the Lock. Unfortunately, like many old boats, she developed leaks and I grew to dread the late night phone call from George, "Oi think she's goin"- meaning she was sinking. On telling him we were on our way he would always say "Thet'll bee th' best". George was a winder with the company's archaic dredger, which could be really vicious at times. One of his sorties ended badly when he lost a kidney cranking the engine when it backfired. Nevertheless, after his return from a lengthy stay in hospital, he continued to operate it until he retired at 65.
Another person who I shall never forget was the Canal Foreman, Bill Siggers, who in the 1950's, lived in the lock cottage at Paper Mill. He ran the canal as his own private fiefdom and it was my impression that even the Directors were frightened of him. Certainly my friends and I were! He really didn't seem to much fancy having young paddlers on his waterway. On several early exploratory cruises I remember his head suddenly appearing above the reeds and, in a wonderful Essex accent overlaid with a fierce barking voice, demanded to see our licences! However, later, when he began to know us and realised we were really interested in the canal and intended no harm, he mellowed a little. He once told me that his father had also been canal foreman and it had been his duty to oversee several gangs of navvies supervising them from horseback. In his day, of course, there was only one gang and together with normal canal maintenance they planted and tended the willows, then, as now, lining the banks.
As you leave Barnes Mill Lock the river winds towards the old waterworks building which once extracted millions of gallons of drinking water from the river to supply Chelmsford. Now the Chelmsford Borough Council own the building and plan to convert the former water works into a science museum to display, amongst other objects, historical comnnmications equipment from Marconi's, who still have a significant presence in Chelmsford. Moored alongside is the former navigation company's barge SUSAN which has recently been restored. On turning the bend, Bundock's Bridge crosses the navigation and is one of the original brick bridges that is now over 200 years old. Just below this bridge is Sandford Lock where there are moorings and the base for Blackwater Boats.
Start: Car Park, Heybridge Basin 12 Noon
Finish: Club Headquarters about 6pm
All taking part must be self sufficient
There will be a halfway stop
All paddlers welcome.
So bring your boat, some lunch, sensible drink, and sun tan lotion
The canoe club will also be holding a race on 27th April but have need for more 'paddlers' to take part and volunteers to help run it.
For further details on both events contact Keith Connell, 48, Cannon Avenue, Chadwell Heath, Romford.
Many people now collect as souvenirs what are generally known as "Bridge Plaques" of waterways all over the British Isles. they are very popular with boaters and displays can often be seen on cabin doors. The Committee of the Friends has decided to commission some plaques for the Chelmer and Blackwater which will hopefully be available from the end of May 97. There will be two colour plaques both with the words:
CHELMER AND BLACK WATER NAVIGATION 1797.
The dark blue plaques will be available- to all who wish to purchase one, you do not need to have a boat. However as an additional encouragement to boaters to travel the full length of the navigation and not just the middle section, a limited amount of black plaques will be available. Those who can prove they have navigated the whole length of the waterway by producing a photograph of their boat at both ends of the navigation will be eligible to purchase a black plaque. These will bear a number on the back, so will be a collection item in their own right! Anyone hiring a Blackwater Boat will additionally need to be in the photograph themselves. Both plaques will be priced at '5.00 each and will be available from the Friends committee.
A further plaque will be available to celebrate the Trail Boat Rally in Chelmsford. This will have the words: CHELMER AND BLACK WATER TRAIL BOAT RALLY 1997 and will be coloured maroon. It will also be priced at '5.00 and will be available on the Inland Waterways Association stall. All plaques are oval and 90mm x 60mm. Why not collect the fills set!
Moored near by, for storage facilities and staff quarters will be a traditional narrowboat.
The main impression given was that members are keen to find out more about the navigation and they want to conserve it. The commitment to do this is matched by the overwhelming support given to taking part in physical and social activities. The committee of "Friends" are very grateful for all your suggestions and they will put these to good use when planning future events and projects.
One is a programme of events for the Bi-Centenary. The other is the titled "Implications of the Conservation Plan for the Chelmer Valley and Navigation"
These are not in colour but nonetheless provide interesting reading. Should you have any comments, that are printable, the "Friends" committee would be pleased to hear from you via Dudley Courtman our Secretary.
Phone 01621 892231
l6, Roots Lane, Wickham Bishops, Essex. CM8 3LS
Members afternoon cruise on Victoria Saturday 20th September from Paper Mill Lock.
Annual General Meeting, Tuesday 8th July, venue to be announced.
A programme of events has been planned which include; a procession of boats into Springfield Basin, small exhibitions boat trips, a raft race, a rally of boats and the unveiling of an information board and commemorative plaque.
We would be very interested to hear from any members or others who may be able to help out. Specifically with a working party to tidy up Richard Coates' grave at All Saints Church, Springfield (Contact John Marriage 01277 352166). In addition the Lions Club would appreciate any offers of the loan of life jackets for the raft race, so if you have a few - or few dozen which you can spare, please contact Roy Chandler on 01245 354755/352650
This is also the number to ring if you or your company would like to sponsor prizes for the duck race.
The events programme planned so far:-
Roy Chandler started his talk by defining the boundaries of the conservation area within the Chelmer-Blackwater valley. The defining features it seems, rest with the general ambience created by our area rather than individual buildings. He conceded that this was easier to see at Heybridge Basin with its more mediaeval salty atmosphere than at Springfield Basin, home of Chelmsford Gas Works and other industrial buildings. The areas suffering from past dereliction were assessed with the assistance of English Heritage and focus was placed upon the potential of the Navigation as a future enhancement feature.
Subsequent to the definitions of the conservation plan, work was carried out on the Springfield Basin by combining the efforts of interested parties; Chelmsford Borough Council, the County Council, the National Rivers Authority (now the Environmental Agency) the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Company and the Inland Waterways Association. After protracted and thorough consultation a detailed plan of action was agreed to bring Springfield Basin back to life by clearing undergrowth, repairing the lock chamber and bridge, dredging the mud and silt and funding new lock gates.
The "Rennie" brick bridge is a listed structure and had to be refurbished despite the efforts of local vandals to undo the day's work during the evening - a night watchman solved this problem. The Dundee capping stones on the bridge could not be replaced as per the original but their remnants are now held by the Navigation Company for other repairs.
The voluntary contributions of the efforts of the Inland Waterways Association was massive. Not only were they committed at a very early date to the clearing operation, they were involved in dredging, brickwork and general refurbishment. Their initiative in obtaining free oak timber in exchange for their conservation labours on behalf of the Essex Wildlife Trust was most impressive; this allied to their sterling work clearing the feeder stream connecting the River Chelmer to the Basin via a culvert illustrates what a powerful force a volunteer group can be for constructive change. They seemed to provide the catalyst for everyone's efforts and the great achievement - an area renewed with life for the future - a real conservation prize.
Roy then showed how this area now served by a navigable waterway could become part of a grander plan of development with offices, restaurant, theatre, community offices, museum and display areas All of these would benefit from the new waterfront area. It was proposed further that a new canal Cut would be made between the navigation and the River Can, thus improving the navigation for leisure boating. Moorings in the Centre of Chelmsford would encourage more visiting boats as well as enhancing the waterfront image of the town.
Great efforts are currently in hand by Essex County Council with Chelmsford Borough Council in conjunction with English Heritage to bring the plan to fruition. Much will depend on Lottery funding and the Millennium Fund Perhaps in 2000AD Chelmsford will boast a new river basin, Heritage Centre, Discovery Centre, new Records Office, theatre and restaurants.
As Chairman of the Navigation Company he was well placed to talk about the importance of water transport. From personal experience with horses and carts and heavy loads he knew that going up the old route, pre navigation days, Danbury Hill; was respectively easy, but coming down the other side was against the better nature of the horse - it didn't like being pushed from behind! The new navigation could manage thirty tons on the level in one boat.
The Company has always franchised out the carrying of loads to others - a very acceptable idea now with privatisation's, perhaps CBNC were the first to think of it! The carriers on the navigation were the Woodcrofts and the Clarkes and many of them are still living in the valley, especially at Heybridge Basin. The carriers provided the cargoes and the Company the line - canal track by any other name.
Modern technology overtook the horses, first steam power, then petrol/oil. The carriers turned to railways and motorways and the rest is history as they say, except for one very important difference. The Directors and Proprietors did not give up on their investment, they saw the importance of safeguarding the water and communication link for everyone to enjoy. Not being complete philanthropists they have turned to other means to balance the books: Moorings, willows, licences, and fishing rights.
Henry's vision is to maintain the waterway at all costs and to try to defray as many of these as possible. It is with these in mind that he seeks the co-operation and assistance of the Councils, voluntary bodies, and Government Agencies. The Company urgently needs money as costs increase and is committed to improving communications between all interested bodies to smooth the way towards obtaining significant aid and assistance.
In order to maximise the land development potential of the line, plans have been drawn up for an apartment complex at Springfield Basin, and a country pub/restaurant at Little Baddow Mill.
The Company owns the water and head of the river at Springfield Basin and will be concerned whether the proposed development will overcome the security risks that exist at present, especially with regard to new moorings if a new cut is made to link up with the River Can. Within the prevailing financial limitations the Company's aim is to keep the line open. It needs as much help and support as it can get. The Company's conservation record so far has been impressive.
The need for more effort to be made educating the public in this respect was apparent. Someone has to pay for extracting supermarket trolleys from the waterway not to mention other debris. The retailers involved might be persuaded to play a more responsible role in this. Chelmsford Borough Council and the Environmental Agency are the agencies responsible for controlling this problem.