Category: River Stour Festival

The Oak Papers by James Canton – Radio 4 Book of the Week

We are pleased to announce a joint River Stour Festival and Quay Theatre event. This will be a live-streaming event of The Oak Papers by Dr James Canton of Essex University on Wednesday 9th September at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury at 7pm.

This will be a conversation about the book with questions at the end from the audience that have been sent in in advance, lasting around 45 minutes, starting at 7pm.  The event will then be put out on the Quay Theatre’s YouTube channel for several weeks and will be free to watch.

Dr James Canton runs the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex and has done since its inception in 2009. He is the author of Ancient Wonderings (2017) and Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape (2013) which was inspired by his rural wandering in East Anglia. He was awarded his PhD by the University of Essex and reviews for the TLSCaught by the River and Earthlines. Dr Canton is a regular on television and radio and lectures frequently.

His book The Oak Papers is due out on 30 July 2020, published by Canongate (£16.99 Hardback). The book is Radio 4’s Book of the Week for the week commencing 3rd August (listen here). James will also feature on BBC Look East next week so watch out for that.

The Oak Papers is a stunning, meditative and healing book about the lessons we can learn from the natural world, if only we slow down enough to listen. James Canton spent two years sitting with and studying the Honywood Oak. A colossus of a tree, it would have been a sapling when Magna Carta was signed. Inevitably he needs to slow down in order to appreciate it fully, to tune in to its slower time frame, to connect with the ecosystem that lives around it, inside it and beneath it. He examines our long-standing dependency on oak trees, and how that has developed and morphed into myth and legend. We no longer build our houses and boats from them or grind their acorns into flour in times of famine; physically we don’t need them in the same way now. Or do we?

Media reviews:

This is a profound meditation on the human need for connection with nature, as one man seeks solace beneath the boughs of an ancient oak tree. The tree and its surrounds come to life in shimmering detail, and Canton’s writing has an exquisite, somewhat dreamlike quality. PETER WOHLLEBEN, author of The Hidden Life of Trees

James Canton knows so much, writes so well and understands so deeply about the true forest magic and the important place these trees have in it. Knowledge and joy. SARA MAITLAND

With rare delicacy and precision, James Canton has captured the magnificence and mystique of the oak tree. The Oak Papers is a book of deep knowledge, perception and love. PHILIP MARSDEN

This is a moving, poetic and life-affirming exploration of the idea that a person can form a rich and rewarding bond with an individual tree. The Oak Papers possesses great sensitivity, real wisdom and a deep mystical power. PATRICK BARKHAM

Praise for James Canton:

Intensely alive to the landscape; its pasts, people and creatures. ROBERT MACFARLANE
Canton . . . is a stalker of literary ghosts, following traces across the Essex countryside that might lead him to the writers who might have lived and worked among these landscapes. Times Literary Supplement

Stour Valley Visitor Development Officers appointed

We are delighted to announce the recent appointment of two Visitor Development Officers for the Stour Valley, Oka Last and Katherine Davies. They will be supporting the promotion of the River Stour Festival and we look forward to working with them. Here they tell us about their new roles.

We have recently been recruited to deliver the LEADER funded ‘Improving the Stour Valley for Visitors’ project, and part of our role will be to support the River Stour Festival in developing and promoting their fantastic programme of activity throughout the valley. We are delighted to be on board, and have enjoyed meeting the rest of the festival committee and learning about the history and ambitions of the festival. We are going to be supporting the festival in 2019 by promoting the programme of events online, assisting with leaflet and poster distributions, attending events and hosting stands to further promote other festival events, and helping the committee with administrative tasks. We also hope to be able to help with securing funding or sponsorship to continue the festival next year, and help develop and coordinate another exciting programme of events and activities for 2020. We are looking forward to being involved in the delivery of such a fantastic festival in such a special place! We know that the events that the festival curates and promotes are very valuable to our overall aim, which is to attract visitors to the valley, and encourage them to stay around for a little while and enjoy the wonderful things that the area has to offer.

Oka Last & Katherine Davies Stour Valley Visitor Development Officers

Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project www.

Green Minds and Good Health 

Today’s blog is written by Jules Pretty OBE. Jules is Patron of the River Stour Festival, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, and author of the 2017 book, The East Country. He will be giving a talk on ‘Nature and Health: How Green Minds Could Help Save Us and the Planet’ at the Quay Theatre in Sudbury on Sunday 2nd June at 7.30pm, followed by a book signing. For more information and to book tickets click here

We know now that nature produces mental and physical health benefits. Even a five-minute dose of nature brings immediate wellbeing. All activities work, and most people receive an additional benefit from social engagement, doing things together. There is something very ancient going on here: we humans evolved in natural environments, learned to cooperate, shaped the land for food and resource. Now we can measure how good this nature and social engagement is for us.

In just the last two generations, world GDP per person has tripled; in the affluent countries it has quadrupled. This planet now produces 35% more food per person; infant mortality has fallen from 150 to 50 per 1,000 live births, in affluent countries down to 5 per 1,000. But here is the reckoning: we consume more, we fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. We have more stuff, our lives are more convenient, yet we are not happier. We have solved many infectious diseases, yet we have stumbled into an era of savage health problems caused by our behaviours. We have moved further from nature. The way we live today is killing people in affluent countries – through cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, mental ill health, dementia and loneliness. We are living longer, but are not sure it will be worth it.

Yet at the same time, we know from the longevity hotspots what it takes to live well and long. In Japan, where there are record numbers of happy centenarians, their cultures encouraging healthy and tasty foods, regular physical activity outdoors, social connections and continued cognitive engagement.

It surely is not too much to demand a sustainable planet and contented people. We have now developed a green mind theory to link the human mind with our brains and bodies, and connect bodies through behaviours into natural and social environments. We know this: environments shape bodies, brains and minds; minds in turn drive body behaviours that shape the external environment. Recent discoveries come from neuroscience and hormones, from loneliness to longevity research, from nudge behaviours to choice architecture, and from many spiritual and wisdom traditions.

The green mind theory centres on a simple idea that the brain comprises two parts: one red, one blue. The red brain is ancient, and centres on the bottom brainstem: it is fast acting, involuntary, and driver of fight-and-flight behaviours. The blue brain is more recent: it is slower, voluntary, the centre for learning, and driver of rest-and-digest. The bottom brain reacts before you think and directs the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The top brain is calming, directing the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). A mix of blue and red is best for health and happiness.

But beware: natural selection built a negativity bias into your mind and brain. The gatekeepers are the amygdala nuclei, deep within the brain’s temporal lobes, and highly responsive to alerts. To miss one tiger in the bushes meant death to an ancestor; to run 99 times out of 100 when there was no tiger meant survival. The brain-mind thus evolved a default mode: fast, automated, fight-flight. There is no moderation in the amygdala: it is on or off, responding before thought. The blue brain contains centres for emotions, memory-forming and bonding. In its cortex are abilities to learn, plan, make choices, and the social abilities of empathy and language.

Our minds are built from experiences, and we use the term ‘green mind’ to indicate that there is an optimal daily mix of mainly blue, with some mild red. Too much red is bad for health. In modern affluent economies dominated by material consumption and the manufactured desires for always more, the red mode is over-active. Modern life is lived on simmer, and now it is our thoughts that bring stress. When the wolf knocks on the door, there are consequences. Evolution did not give us an off-switch for the prefrontal cortex, so now today it is thoughts that bring greater worries than the tiger. Today, most threats seem to come imagined worries. Towards the end of his life, Mark Twain said: “I am an old man, and have known many troubles; but most of them never happened.”

Immersion and attentiveness quieten the over-active brain and thus improve wellbeing. Activities that are immersive and involve focused attention reduce oxygen consumption, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and increase the release of serotonin and dopamine: we feel better. Green minds are also more pro-social: they build empathy and trust. Oxytocin increases bonding and understanding between individuals. Increasing the circle of us might be a way to encourage greater care for the planet, resulting in the emergence of greener economies. When the green mind is quiet, the self is stilled. You are not those troubling thoughts: they come and go. They are clouds on a still pond at dawn.

Three types of engagement increase regular attentiveness and immersion:

  • Nature engagement
  • Social engagement
  • Craft engagement

To make these produce better health and more happiness, each of us needs to develop new habits. This is always hard. It is why we know what should be good for us, but so often fail to implement it. Good habits are difficult to develop, bad ones hard to give up.

We need emphasis on nature, social and craft engagements in neighbourhoods, schools, care homes and health-care facilities. Charities and care organisations have a vital role to play: promoting healthy engagement with nature as part of their mission. Every child should be outdoors every day; every older person in a care home should sit in a garden. Every economy should be green and pro-social. Now is the time for a new ethic: the economy is the environment. Meanwhile, the idea of the green mind offers routes to both wellbeing and a better planet.

Jules Pretty

Explore the Stour Valley with Suffolk Cottage Holidays

As winter approaches, our thoughts may turn now to winter breaks and next year’s summer holidays. This blog post is written by writer Gill Bendall. Gill writes for Suffolk Cottage Holidays (a festival sponsor) and its parent business The Original Cottage Company, as well as writing and editing for a number of national and local magazines. She is the owner of the Coastal Guide. She regularly sails her yacht on the River Stour and knows the area well. 

The River Stour Festival has highlighted the history and importance of the mighty watercourse that marks much of the border between Suffolk and Essex, and celebrated its role as a vital transport route, essential to the economy of East Anglia and the lifeblood for many towns and villages.

But it’s also thrown the spotlight on an area that’s much-loved as a holiday bolthole, a place where those who want to spend time immersed in rural idyll can unwind in the countryside, towns and villages immortalised by a number of internationally-acclaimed artists.

For evidence look no further than Constable Country, so-called because it was the setting for some of the ‘chocolate-box’ scenes painted by John Constable (1776-1837) who, as a schoolboy, would have crossed the river and walked through the meadows from East Bergholt to his grammar school at Dedham.

The subject matter Constable captured is still identifiable more than two centuries later, making holidays here a ‘must’ for those seeking peace and tranquility, and a world apart from some of Suffolk’s more bustling tourist locations. Walk in the footsteps of the great artist while enjoying a stay at The Old Chapel Annexe in Nayland (pictured below), an incredible piece of Suffolk history cleverly converted into self-catering accommodation.



Further upriver, Suffolk’s famous Wool Towns are inextricably linked to the River Stour and are additional holiday honeypots. Surrounded on three sides by water meadows and gently rolling hills, Sudbury is the largest, famous for its historic links to Thomas Gainsborough – he was born here, and the surrounding countryside inspired much of his work – and its beautiful blend civic buildings and private dwellings. Make the most of the setting with a riverside stroll or electric boat ride along the River Stour, and stay awhile in the comfort of a self-catering cottage courtesy of Suffolk Cottage Holidays.

A veritable picture of prettiness, Lavenham is famous for its woven blue broadcloth – once exported as far as Russia – and is known as England’s best-preserved medieval village. Once the 14th wealthiest town in the country, Lavenham is home to more than 160 listed buildings, some of them almost cartoon-like in their wonkiness. Right in the heart of town, Pilgrims (pictured below) is an utterly charming holiday cottage offering a perfect view over the building famed for its role as Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows film.

For a getaway closer to the busy mouth of the River Stour, Suffolk Cottage Holidays’ sister-company Suffolk Secrets offers a beautiful barn conversion on the Shotley Peninsula. Lake Farm Barn (pictured below) at Holbrook is surrounded by well-groomed grounds and sleeps up to six people, while up to two well-behaved dogs are welcome too.


  • Rural retreats specialist Suffolk Cottage Holidays is part of the Original Cottages family of local holiday cottage letting agencies, all offering in-depth knowledge and an on-the-ground service to homeowners and holidaymakers across England and Wales. To find out more, call 01394 389189 or log on to the website.

400 contrary ducks on the River Stour!

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.