400 contrary ducks on the River Stour!

400 contrary ducks on the River Stour!

430 ducks swimming towards Sudbury

On the banks of the River Stour at Henny, July 2017…..

“The river is flowing the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?”

“The river is flowing the wrong way!” I repeated. “Look at the current. The wind is blowing the water the wrong way.” It was a breezy day.

“No, no, it’s an optical illusion” said the head organiser of the Henny Fete.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes” was the reply (with an unspoken hint of “Don’t be daft – everyone knows the River Stour flows from Sudbury to Bures”). “Look over at the reeds, the water is definitely flowing towards Bures”.

I really wasn’t convinced but took him at his word.

After a couple of years of supervising Splat the Rat and other games and one year managing the cream teas, last year I had been given the task of being the photographer of the fete and its highlight event, the now annual duck race. (A few years earlier I had been at the committee meeting when Steve suggested a duck race to a chorus of “That will never work” and here we are watching the now annual duck race on the Stour). A boom had been laid across the river to prevent the yellow plastic ducks from going down the weir and this would act as the finishing line. 400 ducks would be carried further upstream in a canoe and then released to swim downstream. Each duck had been numbered and purchased for £3. The “owner” of the duck reaching the boom first would win a superb hamper of goodies. My job was to capture the release, the progress of the ducks down the river and the exciting finish as the first speedy duck reached the boom.

I took my place close to the river to capture the action; behind me the crowd started to take their places sitting on the high river bank at the Henny Swan to cheer on their duck. The intrepid Steve and Barry and 400 ducks set out on the canoe to the release point further upstream. Carefully Steve and Barry tipped the ducks into the river.

To the amusement of the crowd and the consternation of the organisers, 400 yellow ducks started swimming towards Sudbury, despite Steve and Barry’s efforts to make them about turn and head in the direction of Bures. Before long they were at the bend in the river and almost out of sight. To add to the chaos three canoeists paddling down the river had to negotiate their way through the fleeing ducks. Steve and Barry paddled back to the waiting crowd to announce that the wind was too strong for the lightweight ducks and there was no way the ducks were going to co-operate and head towards the boom – the winner would be the duck that had swum the furthest towards Sudbury.

So my intuition was right – today the river was flowing the wrong way (on the surface anyway) and 400 ducks had outwitted us.

The ducks abscond towards Sudbury 2017

On the banks of the River Stour at Henny, July 2018…..

Again I am given the job of fete photographer. It’s a breezy day.

Determined not to be fooled again I walk to the water’s edge to check the flow of the water. Like last year, the wind is blowing against the current, towards Sudbury. Time to check in with the organiser.

“I hate to repeat myself but you do realise that the river is flowing the wrong way again”.

“Yes, we know. This time we are going to put the ducks in by the boom next to the weir and we are putting another boom further upstream as the finishing line”.

All prepared then. No surprises. I take my place on the river bank. The crowd begins to gather behind.

This year there are 430 ducks. Booms in place, Steve and Barry take to the water and tip 430 ducks into the river, corralling them with the boom until the start. And they’re off…..

Ducks released 2018

The ducks start to race upstream carried on the breeze. A lot are driven into the weed and some disappear under the jetty. Steve and Barry and a fellow canoeist try to rescue ducks from under the jetty, using their paddles to send them into the air to rejoin the yellow throng. A few ducks are making fantastic headway, bobbing away towards the finishing boom. Suddenly the wind drops, as if breathing in instead of blowing. The ducks start heading towards Bures! The leaders are now tailenders! The chaos has the crowd enthralled. After a rest, the wind gusts again. The ducks turn and starting heading upstream again, with many being driven into the clutches of the weeds. A few more “one step forward two steps back” moments follow. One duck in particular has a noticeable lead – the crowd start cheering for 190. (The passion of an amassed crowd to cheer on a small piece of floating plastic has to be witnessed firsthand). When it looks like 190 has the race in his beak, he loses momentum and 112 swiftly bobs past him and makes it to the boom.


Heading towards the finish line 2018

Excitement over for another year, the ducks are retrieved and stored for next year’s race.

The river can certainly be unpredictable. 430 ducks can testify that it’s not always “from the source to the sea”.

Kim Humphreys

The Henny Fete and Duck Race is an annual event held at the Henny Swan pub on the River Stour in aid of St Mary’s Church, Great Henny and Henny Parish Room.