Category: Stour Valley

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

Confluent: River of Words

Our blog post today comes from Stuart Bowditch, sound recordist, who recently launched his project Confluent: River of Words. Read about his project and text installations here and be sure to listen to his podcast.

Confluent: River of Words

Text installation at the Granary Tearoom

I am a sound recordist, artist and musician and my main interests gravitate towards people and place. Through working on socially engaged project The River Runs Through Us with painter Ruth Philo in 2017, I grew to love the Stour Valley and recently moved to Sudbury to immerse myself in the area and hopefully work on some more projects exploring its long and rich history and beautiful landscape.

This area of outstanding natural beauty does however need a lot of management and care and there are a lot of people, organisations and resources that are dedicated to keeping the valley and surrounding areas a place that we can all enjoy. In the spring of 2018, The River Stour Trust’s 50th anniversary, I was lucky enough to secure funding from Dedham Vale AONB’s Sustainable Development Fund for a new project Confluent: River of Words, to record, document and share the voices of those people whose hard work helps to maintain, conserve and preserve this unique landscape, for us and future generations, but also for the myriad of flora and fauna that share it with us.

I met with nearly thirty people, each with their own unique perspective on the area and working in a specific area or patch of the valley. I have included a list below of everyone who I spoke to and am grateful to them all for their generosity, wisdom and time.

The conversations have been edited in to a series of podcasts on the topics of Partners and Collaboration, Natural Beauty, Volunteers and Habitat. Whilst listening back to the hours of footage I collected some of the phrases and statements that contributors had made, a list of trees and all of the dragon and damsel flies that can be spotted at Foxearth Meadows, and turned them in to three text installations that can be found on two of the River Stour Trust boats ‘Rosette’ and ‘Edwardian Lady’, and also in the Granary Tea Room in Sudbury. The text installations will be visible until the end of the summer season and the podcasts are online now at

Stuart Bowditch

Contributors: Robert Erith, Robert Baker,Tony Platt, Lesley Ford-Platt , Catherine Smith, Simon Amstutz, Emma Black, Martin Gosling, Brenda Gosling, Sally Bartrum, Nigel Chapman, Dave Dignum, Cat Burrows, Arthur Studd, Mark Prina, Will Akast, Ben Norrington, Adrian Walters

AONB Volunteers: William Ford, Bob Smith, Lorna McGain, Howard Leader, Will Eden, Peter McGain, David Dale, Ian Thompson, Steve Pritchard, Deena Harding

RST Volunteers: Jim Lunn, Paul Roberts,

Text contribution:Susannah Robirosa

Notes from a riverside garden – March 2019

Our blog post today is from SB with more of her interesting observations from her beautiful garden on the banks of the River Stour. We hear of her spring planting plans, including planting some delightful witch hazels which will provide colour next winter.

Garden Clippings

The recent spell of unseasonably warm weather brought some early visitors to the garden.  A butter yellow brimstone butterfly was seen on the 23rd February and a peacock butterfly sunning itself on the house wall.  Several types of bee were out feeding on the flowers of the crocuses and Pulmonaria.  We have several Pulmonaria plants dotted around, sporting white through to the vivid blue flowers of ‘Blue Ensign’, which are extremely popular with bees on warm days.

At the bird table either a marsh or willow tit was feeding on the seed mix.  According to our bird identification book it is extremely difficult to tell them apart.  It was a fleeting visitor as I have not seen it since but we very much hope a pair will be nesting somewhere in the garden.

The dead stalks of the nettles etc. that grow along the upper parts of the riverbanks have all been scythed down and removed to the compost heap.  We use a scythe as it seems more appropriate than an intrusive and harsh strimmer along the riverside. We do not cut the reeds but keep above them maintained at this time as it keeps the area manageable.  Soon it will be a mass of wild plants including willow herb, hemp-agrimony and of course nettles.  We encourage the wild plants on most of the riverbank areas only keeping the more formal areas clear so that we can enjoy the view of the river from the lawns.

We purchased some new plants for the garden at our annual early spring visit to our favourite garden centre at East Bergholt.  We have redesigned a corner in a terrace area beside the house.  The assorted pots of ornamental grasses, all of which have seen better days have been removed and we have replaced them with a large terracotta pot containing a Magnolia soulangeana.  We also snapped up a Chaenomeles (Japanese quince) with an apricot coloured flower to grow against a wall in our formal garden.  We already have a fabulous deep pink Chaenomeles which is currently giving us a splendid display.  Then we succumbed to three Hamamelis (witch hazel).  On the island we have a group of five Betula papyrifera (Canoe birch), which have a pale orange-brown bark, Corylus avellane ‘Webbs Prize Cobb’  are planted behind them.  We intend to plant the witch hazels which are mollis and varieties ‘Barmstedt Gold’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ at the front to give, in time, a blaze of winter colour to accompany the catkins of the hazels.  I have been inspired to plant more witch hazels by a recent visit to the delightful Green Island Gardens at Ardleigh where they have a large collection of witch hazels adding such form and colour to their garden in winter.

We frequently hear the otters whistling to each other after dark in the millpond.  The kingfishers are regularly seen, a fabulous blue streak accompanied by a high-pitched whistle.  I was blessed with one sitting on the hedge immediately outside our study window, I have never seen one so close before and the colours were incredible.  It was a brief rest for the kingfisher and then it flew off across the millpond to its usual hunting spot on the fallen willow.  SB

Notes from a riverside garden – February 2019

Our blog post today comes from SB with “Garden Clippings”, her seasonal observations from her garden on the banks of the River Stour. In this edition SB is surprised by an opportunistic visitor to the garden!

Garden Clippings

We have had a sparrow terrace nest box on our garage apex for several years now and this is being used regular by house sparrows and occasionally great tits.  As we have a larger number of house sparrows in the garden we decided to make our terrace into a sparrow street and have added two more terraces providing a total of nine nesting sites.  The new boxes may not be used this spring, we shall have to wait and see. 

Pruning is being done as the weather allows.  The several clematis around the garden have been cut down and progress is being made on the climbing roses.  We have a large pergola with various roses, a pale pink Montana clematis, fragrant summer jasmine and a white wisteria twisting its way through the roses.  We are gradually training it along the length of the pergola.   Pruning this large area is quite a challenge but well worth the effort, particularly for the wisteria which rewards us with a mass of cascading white flowers to walk beneath.  We do not prune the jasmine or the clematis.  Although following severe winters we have had to cut the jasmine hard back to regenerate it.

Today, as no frost is forecast, I have been cutting back our five buddleia on the butterfly bank, all different shades of mauves and a white when in flower. Two sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and a variegated box elder, which need hard pruning to keep them a reasonable shape as they put on a large amount of growth each year.  One of the sambucus nigra is located close to our group of three mature silver birch which are underplanted with snowdrops.  It has been a windy day and the snowdrops looked fantastic jingling their numerous heads in the breeze.  The strong wind had caused numerous sprays of fine birch twigs to tumble from the trees.  I will be gathering these up as they make excellent kindling for our wood burning stove, even straight from the garden they burn fiercely and only a small amount is needed to light a fire.

We feed the birds suet blocks in a metal, cage like feeder.  The blocks seemed to be consumed at quite a rate and regularly needed refilling.  Despite an almost constant coming and going of great tits, blue tits and long-tailed tits we were suspicious they were not alone in appreciating the fine dining on offer.  The “extra guest” revealed itself this week – I glanced out of the window to see a bank vole tucking into the suet block!  Accessing the feeder via a very narrow branch which conveniently rose up in front of the feeder providing the vole with the perfect route to the food.  After eating its fill it disappeared in a flash down the branch and into the dense foliage of the hedge behind.  Amazingly, it had climbed around twelve feet through the ivy-clad forsythia to reach the feeder!  SB

Notes from a riverside garden

Happy New Year! Our first blog post of 2019 comes from SB with “Garden Clippings”, her seasonal observations from her garden on the banks of the River Stour. She tells us about the wildlife coming to her garden, including a very unusual visitor!

We planted a new witch hazel last spring and despite watering as much as possible throughout the drought its leaves withered and died late summer and we feared we had lost it to the dry conditions.  To our delight we now see flower buds have formed and the witch hazel is alive and well.  All those buckets of water were worthwhile after all!

The bird table is very busy with a good size flutter of sparrows also blue tits, long tailed tits, coal tits, great tits, robins, green finches, goldfinches, a female reed bunting, lesser spotted woodpecker, starlings, blackbirds and the occasional sparrow hawk swooping through.  On the island we have had a new sighting, a water rail (see photo).   We have the reed beds there and dense vegetation along the riverbanks which it prefers.  Our reference book informs us that it feeds on insects and their larvae, crustaceans, worms, fish and even other birds, together with roots, berries and seeds.  I have heard a strange call when walking around the island and perhaps the water rail has been responsible.  The reference book states its weird cries have been likened to those of a screaming pig!

Nocturnal visitors to the garden of late include badger, fox, muntjac, stoat, otters (a family of three have been seen) and the occasional rat and mouse.

Welcome signs of spring greet us as we walk around – crocus and daffodil are making an appearance and we have aconites and snowdrops in flower.  The willows are sporting fabulous catkins, furry ovals of silver along their upright stems, which look stunning against a blue winter sky when the light catches them.  The hazels have cascading clusters of catkins.  In the border the hellebores are about to enchant us with their pendulous flowers, so worth stopping for a moment, lifting a flower to admire the beauty within.  SB

Dark skies and the Stour Valley

As we approach the shortest day, it is an excellent time to look at the night sky, especially on clear nights. Our final blog post of 2018 is written by David Murton of The Commission for Dark Skies. He tells us how to best enjoy the night skies in the Stour Valley and highlights the importance of preserving dark skies.

It’s not widely appreciated, but the night skies within parts of Stour Valley are as dark as anywhere in the UK. However this situation is under constant threat from encroaching development and uncontrolled lighting with its associated light pollution and sky glow. Recent surveys have shown a 2% increase in the artificially lit area every year. If nothing is done we are in great danger of losing the splendour of the Milky Way and the stars for our children forever.

Many of our National Parks and AONB’s are now classified as Dark Sky Reserves and Parks by the International Dark Skies Association, giving them some protection from this blight and the Dedham Vale Society are looking into applying for Dark Sky Park status for their area. To aid in this, they have been conducting an extensive night sky survey to establish how dark the skies actually are and which areas are in need of improvement.

This will be about ensuring the right light in the right place, not stopping all external lighting. Unnecessary or inefficient lighting costs millions of pounds and tons of CO2 pollution every year and simple changes can make a huge difference, not only with regard to astronomy, but also wildlife and our own health.

Dark sky tourism is becoming a big business, with people travelling long distances to be under dark skies. Hopefully increased awareness of the quality of the Stour Valley’s dark skies will encourage holiday accommodation providers to embrace this opportunity to gain much needed off season trade, being only an hour from the M25.


If you have never before experienced the wonders of the night sky, I would highly recommend that you take time to do so. Just choose a clear night, without too much moonlight, and find yourself somewhere dark away from streetlights. You won’t need to travel too far in the Stour Valley to find ideal places. Your eyes will need around 30 minutes to become properly dark adapted allowing you to get the best views. If you need a torch use a red light one, such as a bicycle rear light, as this won’t spoil your dark adaption.



There are some great apps available for your mobile phone or tablet to help you find your way around the sky and explain what you are looking at. If you have a pair of binoculars, make sure that you take them with you. You will be amazed what you will be able to see with them, from the Andromeda galaxy and the moons of Jupiter, to the mountains and craters of the moon.

Above all please support the efforts being made to ensure that these splendours are still accessible to future generations.

David Murton

The Commission for Dark Skies

Thank you to all who have contributed to the River Stour Festival blog this year and to all who have followed the blog. We are busy planning for the River Stour Festival 2019. In the meantime may we wish you all Season’s Greetings and best wishes for the New Year.

Garden Clippings November

Garden Clippings

Our blog post today comes from SB as she tells us about her beautiful riverside garden in November.

Our garden appears to be situated in a frost hollow and as a result we have had to scrape the frozen car windscreen on two or three early mornings recently. Regrettably the fabulous display of dahlias was reduced to limp flowers atop blackened stems during one overnight frost. I have since cut them all off to a few inches above the ground and covered them over with a deep blanket of straw. In the past I have dug up and overwintered some of the more prized tubers but I am leaving them all in situ as I have lost none of the plants left out overwinter for the past few years and storage space is limited. The greenhouse is full of tender plants now tucked away for their winter sojourn.

It was necessary to have some major tree surgery carried out to a large willow with many diseased or dead branches which were in peril of falling onto a bridge below. The bridge was designed and built for us by a good friend who sadly passed away at an early age. The bridge is a great asset to the garden and allows a circular walk around the island. We are reminded of our friend when we walk over it and we certainly didn’t want it damaged during a gale. The willow will regenerate from the trunk and stumps of branches.   We now have an enormous pile of future firewood and the whole space has been “opened up” allowing more light into the area of water adjacent to the willow. A white waterlily which has not be flourishing of late should now benefit from the additional light. We had a bonfire of all the small, unusable brush but anything which could be “logged up” has gone onto the firewood pile. Very little has been wasted.

Piles of windfall apples and quince surround the base of the trees. Many were picked but with such a heavy crop unfortunately many were left on the trees, partly due to us being away on holiday at the time of harvesting. Timing a holiday with a productive garden is never easy! However, the moorhens, blackbirds and robins are all enjoying the feast. Wormlike creatures are slowly breaking down the quince plus the voles and mice who come from below to tuck into the fruit lying above their burrows. We have had a sufficient harvest of the crop so we are happy to share with the other residents of our garden.

There are still several insects to be seen in the garden including bees, wasps and the occasional butterfly. I spotted a red admiral only yesterday in the vegetable garden.

I have tulip bulbs to plant in pots on the terrace and several dozen wallflowers to fill the bed beside our gateway. It is good to be thinking of spring and what one will be growing or changing next year.   SB

Our Outstanding Landscape – now and the future

This blog post comes from Cathy Smith,  Communications, Funding & Development Officer of the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project


The Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley is an outstanding place, and it has been nationally designated too, helping us recognise that it has many special qualities for us today and for future generations.

The landscape of the Stour Valley with its vibrant communities and rich agricultural history has inspired generations of artists, writers and painters. As well as these strong cultural connections, the valley has abundant wildlife living in the mosaic of habitats along the river valley. Large numbers of visitors are drawn to appreciate and enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside and explore its rich historical associations.

The River Stour is the heart, and I’d say soul, of the area. The main river and its tributaries touch every part of the area, and although you can’t always see it, the water course is life giving and a rich focus of activity for people and wildlife. The Stour Valley Path is a 60-mile walking route that also runs the length of the river from source to estuary, and a hike or stroll along the route will show you all it’s many wonders. The River Stour Festival is another great example highlighting the variety of cultural and natural events and activities that enhance our experiences.

But we must also look to the future.

When Defra wrote their 25 Year Environment Plan (Jan 2018) they included an announcement of a Designated Landscape Review. This Review, of both National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), will report back to Michael Gove in 2019. 2019 is also the 70th Anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. A fitting time to look once again at how your Essex & Suffolk AONBs are delivering local priorities too.

This week (20 October 2018) Defra began its public ‘Call for Evidence’. Everyone can – and should – submit comments to Defra, via their consultation pages, see their news report: The deadline is Tuesday 18 December 2018.

Nationally there are common themes across all the designated landscapes – including wildlife, land management, agriculture and recreation. We also have local priorities that we will take to the Review Advisory Panel about at our face-to-face, and when we submit our response to the consultation.

Here in the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley the AONB team and its Partnership is already delivering against the 25YEP, and we have a thriving agriculture sector, a healthy rural economy, beautiful landscapes and rich habitats for wildlife. Looking forward, we have pressure from infrastructure and building developments, a keen interest in further enhancing biodiversity through countryside management and the work of our wonderful volunteers, and we strongly believe that supporting our community groups with advice and grants can deliver great benefits locally.

We hope you get out as much as possible to enjoy our outstanding landscape soon and that being in the landscape will help you think about how we can all support it – conserve and enhance it – for many more generations to come!

Cathy Smith