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Notes from a riverside garden, January 2021


There are indications that the autumnal signs in nature of a harsh winter to come might be born out with the current cold spell we are experiencing. I am writing on the 8th January so perhaps by the time you read this it will be milder again! The frost is lingering in sheltered spots with a gloomy, grey sky overhead. Snow is falling in some parts of the country.

In November we were amazed to see two broods of fourteen ducklings appear in the garden! One of the ducks brought her brood up to feed on the spillage from the bird feeders outside our kitchen window. We quickly put duck food out for them and were delighted to watch them during their regular visits, such an unusual sight at this time of year. Sadly, as is normally the case, the brood reduced in number on a daily basis, until only four remained. This was also the case with the family that didn’t come to the house for food. We have watched the remaining ducklings mature and they are now fully fledged and have become part of the large flock of ducks residing in the garden. The ducklings have survived sharp overnight frosts, snow and cold conditions generally. Plus several large floods. The river in flood seemed a major peril but even as small ducklings, faced with the very strong current to cross the river, accomplished the crossing with apparent ease. We feared they must surely be swept away. Amazing how strong small ducklings are!

The floods have been very dramatic with my husband and I raising and lowering the sluice gates several times over the past weeks. Parts of our garden were underwater and the flood plain water meadows opposite us a sea of water as far as one could see. On one occasion a lone canoeist was paddling about on the water meadow and waved as he came past our house. Vast flocks of seagulls and other birds descended creating a scene of true wilderness. The Canada and Greylag geese increased in numbers present too. The sunrise looking particularly fabulous reflected in the expanse of water. The straw protection placed over the Gunnera Manicata was swept away but now we have the replacement straw held in position with a ring of bamboo canes, we hope!

The owner of the water meadow has left a pile of tree trunks close to the river for wildlife. A colony of rabbits has taken over the area and can frequently be seen sitting on the trunks or in the vicinity. We wondered what would happen to the rabbits during the flood as the whole area was underwater. To our amazement we have seen at least four rabbits since the water has subsided, so somehow at least a few have survived! Molehills have appeared on the island where the water was at least three feet deep. How do moles survive a flood? There are many unanswered questions!

Signs of spring are appearing. Snowdrops are out in the shelter of a hedge and bulbs are pushing through. Spring is on its way! SB

Notes from a riverside garden July 2020

This blog post comes from SB with her observations of the flora and fauna in her garden on the banks of the River Stour. Lockdown brought an added peace to the river and its wildlife; with restrictions now easing the river again is attracting human visitors. 

With the slight easing of lockdown the tranquillity of the river has come to an abrupt end with the sudden influx of people whether in canoes, on paddleboards, swimming or enjoying the riverbank environment, particularly on the warm, sunny days of late. It has been remarkably busy along this stretch of river at times as people enjoy the freedom of being out and about again. I imagine this sudden change must have come as rather a shock to the river and riverbank dwellers who no doubt relished the lack of disturbance particularly during the breeding season.

We had an unexpected visitor in the millpond for a couple of weeks. A large red-eared terrapin was seen sunbathing for most of each day on one of the fallen tree branches. It would climb out of the water, make its way a short distance up the tree branch and find a comfortable position in the full sun.   It appeared to have found the perfect spot but then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

The pair of swans now have three cygnets. Only recently hatched they are venturing out onto the river with their mother. One of the routes back to the nest within the lake involves negotiating a small weir with a raised “step” either side of a fast running middle sluice.   Yesterday we observed the family returning to the nest via the weir. Mother easily negotiated the step but the small cygnets were having difficulties and only the tops of their heads were visible. She called to them but despite their best efforts they were unable to clamber over. She then went back down the step and with much vocal encouragement took them to the edge of the weir where some debris had built up and once again she returned into the lake. One by one the little chaps scrabbled up through the debris, the last one making a big effort but eventually all were safely in the lake and heading for the nest through the reed bed. We have now placed a couple of bricks in position to aid them until they grow a touch larger!

A cygnet rescue mission happened the following day when I noticed the mother trying to get them out of the river via a too steep area of the bank. Eventually she gave up and took them back up river. I wondered how she would guide them back to the nest via this route and hoped she wouldn’t try coming down the fast flowing main river weir with them. A short while later I spotted the mother with just one cygnet coming up through the area where we had placed the bricks previously. I rushed around to peer down into the swirling river below the weir and there were the other two cygnets looking decidedly sodden and cheeping pitifully! I rushed indoors for my husband’s fishing net thinking I may be able to scoop them out and reunite with the family. By the time I had got back to the river they had made their way downstream from the weir and were heading for the inlet to the lake. They obviously had a homing instinct of some sort and needed very little guidance from me back into the lake. Then faced with a forest of reeds it took them a while to find the channel made by the parents back to the nest. Meanwhile the mother seemed oblivious to the fact that two of her three youngsters were missing! She did eventually call to them when their frantic cheeping got closer to her and they were all reunited once more. I am not sure that swans have the best parenting skills! Perhaps this is her first brood.   I have now made a slipway in the bank where they originally tried to leave the river to enable the cygnets to scramble up, hopefully! This is the route the parents often use to return to the lake across the island.

Having time to observe the wildlife in the garden has made us more aware of the individual ducks that spend their time here. A pair of ducklings appeared to be abandoned by their mother when half grown for one reason or another. They have survived and are always together, very seldom seen apart. We have named them “The Twins” as they are inseparable it seems. Several ducklings have made it through the perilous early days and are now brought by their mothers to the duck feeder on the lawn or up to the terrace outside the kitchen window for food.   On average it seems four ducklings survive from the original large brood.   We are still seeing the occasional late brood of small ducklings being guided into the reeds for safety when out and about in the garden. Two Mandarin females also join the large group of Mallard lounging about on the lawn. A young moorhen, still not fully mature, seems to rule the roost. Its antics darting about chasing the ducks and generally acting in a thuggish way is hilarious to watch.

Two of our previously used nest boxes have been taken over by what we think are tree bumblebees. One of the bumblebee colonies has occupied a sparrow terrace nest box and a nest box beneath was being used by a blue tit. Thankfully, the arrival of the bumblebees took place in the final days of the feeding of its young. The unfortunate blue tit had to brave the bumblebees circling around the nest box entrance above.   I observed the blue tit hastily leaving its nest box accompanied by two or three unimpressed bumblebees on several occasions! It would then perch on the pyracantha beneath furiously scratching at its presumably stung face.   The bumblebees will be in residence for a few months and then disappear.   They are not a nuisance to us so we are happy to let nature take its course. The blue tit soon vacated the area along with its young seemingly none the worse for the experience.

A large clump of yellow flag irises at the edge of the millpond has become a regular gathering and resting site for a multitude of banded demoiselles. These are fabulous insects with the most iridescent blue body and black bands on their wings. Seeing them all clustered together is quite a spectacle.

Aphids seem to be a major problem with infestations on honeysuckle, lupins, roses to name but a few. However, I observed a large blue tit family deftly removing the aphids from a climbing rose on the pergola. The young blue tits darting about picking off the tasty morsels.

We were recently thrilled to see several swallows, martins and swifts, swirling together over the river as they hunted for insects. Having read reports of reduced numbers arriving this spring this was a most uplifting sight.    SB

Event Cancellations amidst COVID 19 Social Distancing

As we are all aware, the government has recently issued guidelines recommending restrictions against unnecessary social interactions and mass gatherings.

In line with this advice, the River Stour Festival has cancelled it’s own curated events up until the end of May. We will review as necessary if or when other events in the programme will need to be cancelled, in line with government guidelines.

We ask that our partners keep us updated of their own event cancellations, so we can remove listings from our website and programme as necessary.

Many thanks for your understanding, and best wishes at this challenging time.



Event Cancellations: Stour Surrounding Film Screenings

Unfortunately, due to recent advice regarding COVID-19 and social distancing, the Stour Surrounding Film Screenings that were due to take place at Clare Castle Country Park on Thursday 19th March and Christchurch Mansion on Wednesday 25th March have now been postponed until further notice.

A Day on Place at Essex Book Festival

The River Stour Festival is pleased to be involved in the ‘Day on Place’, part of Essex Book Festival, at Firstiste in Colchester this Sunday (15th March).

Unfortunately, due to family ill health, the previously scheduled ‘All at Sea?’ talk by Ken Worpole and Hana Loftus, which was due to take place from 11am to 12pm, has been cancelled (to be rescheduled later in the year).

The other two event’s are going ahead:

“Apples, Orchards and Community” with Adrian May and Marina O’Connell:

Hear Adrian May discuss how apples are closer to human life than Nature with a capital N. Can that tell us something useful about ourselves as part of the environment?  Marina O’Connell will  talk about how the back to the land movement is still relevant today with our climate crisis and in re-creating local food supplies. Followed by an open discussion, hosted by Ken Worpole around the subjects of apples, orchards and community.

“Blackwaterslide” with Ultramarine and Philip Terry

Ultramarine (Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond) present Blackwaterside, performing music inspired by their time working close to the Blackwater estuary. The performance will feature Philip Terry reading poems from his Quennets collection and a screening of the Blackwaterside film with live soundtrack based on the Survey East photography of Ian Cooper.



Calling all Stour Valley businesses!

An event especially for businesses in the Stour Valley!

A Forum for visitor-focussed businesses in the Stour Valley (Suffolk & Essex) to support growth, partnership and networking opportunities.
The forum will take place from 8.30 to 11.30am on Thursday 26th March, at Clare Park Lake Golf Course.

Including breakfast and after-forum business networking opportunities, leaflet exchange and marketplace for business stands. We are delighted to invite Stour Valley visitor-focussed businesses to attend.

Speakers include:

  • Simon Amstutz, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Manager
  • Alex Paul, Tourism & Hospitality Marketing Consultant
  • Clare – the ‘smallest town in Suffolk’ working together to attract visitors
  • Fiona Johnson, New Anglia Growth Hub
  • Dave Gooderham, Gooderham PR

Book your place now:

Notes from a riverside garden – January and February

 In our blog we catch up with SB and her wonderful seasonal notes from her beautiful garden on the River Stour. After January flooding, February sees signs of spring with spring flowers appearing and birds showing nesting activity.


The Christmas decorations have been put away for another year and we are now a few days into January. The river was in flood just prior to Christmas and spilled over onto the natural flood plain of the water meadows opposite. The flocks of gulls, rooks and assorted waterfowl soon descended in large numbers to forage on the temporary wetland. Parts of our garden were submerged for a day or two. The water roared through the sluice gates into the millpond creating turbulent rapids in its haste and quantity. We opened all the sluice gates to aid the flow downstream. After the water level had subsided, we were left with a sticky, slippery, quagmire of mud/silt over all the previously flooded areas. After each subsequent rainfall the slowly drying mud resumes its best efforts to attach itself to wellingtons, dog paws and wheelbarrow wheels! The tide line of detritus left on the pergola bank has been raked up and all the litter removed including a single large flip-flop and the remains of a gardening glove! Any further rainfall seems to result in the river level rising, perhaps not surprising considering the sheer amount of rainfall we have experienced throughout the autumn and into the winter so far.

Another flood issue we had to contend with was a very large willow bough which had been cut off upstream and then carried along in the flow, finally wedging itself in the sluice gates. Not an easy job to remove it as it had jutting out branches which snagged in the reeds and on the riverbank. A rope had to be tied to it and between us we managed to haul it out of the sluice gates and against the flow towards the bank. Paul then had to chop it up into sections on the waters edge, haul each waterlogged section out (not an easy task up to your ankles in slippery mud) and then pull the remaining bough further along to the edge of the bank until it was all reduced to manageable pieces. Needless to say the washing machine was put to good use later for our mud covered clothes!

The cormorants are back in large numbers. A group of seven or eight are regularly seen flying over the river. The millpond seems to be a favoured hunting ground with two or three diving for fish regularly. They are successful most of the time and one wonders how the fish stocks can cope with the predation of these consumers of large quantities of good size fish. They perch high up in the poplars looking almost prehistoric and sit with their wings open, drying them off. The little grebes are also present. Such charming little chaps, diving and bobbing along on the surface.

We have seen otter prints in the mud but no actual sightings of late. The resident Michigan blueback pheasant has discovered it can reach one of our wild bird seed feeders and stands on the wall outside our kitchen window, helping himself. Yesterday I spotted him in hot pursuit of a hen pheasant on the back lawn. The hen pheasant was obviously not impressed by his attentions and was running here, there and everywhere to get away from him! Diving in and out of the hedge and running to and fro across the lawn, in the end she took off to find a quieter area of the garden!


Buzzards are a fairly common sight in this area nowadays. Recently, one was circling above the millpond at quite a low altitude. Several ducks lined up in single file by the duck feeder, waiting their turn to feed, were immediately on high alert, standing to attention, very aware of the potential threat above. Suddenly they all took off in unison and flew into the millpond, feeling safer on the water. The buzzard did a final circle and then leisurely drifted off.

It is just a few days into February and spring flowers are appearing everywhere: snowdrops, dwarf irises, hellebores, pulmonaria to name a few and also daffodils in bud.   The ducks are seeking nesting sites. A favoured place is on top of a very tall Leylandii hedge. Pairs can often be seen on the flat top and sometimes a head might pop out from further down the hedge!   Skirmishes between males often erupt in the river and mating has already begun. The lazy days of winter seem to be forgotten and spring is definitely in the air.

We divided several clumps of snowdrops last spring and our efforts are now being rewarded with a greatly improved display on the millpond bank.

Snowdrops on the island

For a few days we had a visiting drake Mandarin duck in amongst the usual crowd of mallards. Such a handsome chap! Today I have seen a pair of reed buntings visiting the bird table.

The swans are fiercely protecting their patch with much puffing of feathers and chasing off of any interlopers. Sadly, a swan recently hit the electricity lines which run across the water meadow opposite us. The lines have attachments called diverters suspended from them which rotate in the wind and alert the swans to the danger. I have read that they also contain crystals which absorb and emit purple ultraviolet light so the birds can see them at dawn, dusk or in the dark. Usually the swans fly up and over the lines but on this occasion, for whatever reason, the swan misjudged.

We mounted two sparrow terrace boxes last spring on the gable end of our garage, below the existing box.   As expected, due to their newness, nothing nested in them last year. I was pleased to see a blue tit investigating each nest box recently. Popping in and out of each of the six access holes, working its way systematically across the terrace! Ideally we would prefer the sparrows to use the boxes but the blue tit was obviously very interested in the potential nesting site. SB

An update from Clare Castle Country Park

It is shaping up to be a busy year in Clare Castle Country Park. Our National Lottery Heritage Fund project is well underway with a new circular bench being installed to stand proudly at the top of our motte [pictured below], our play train being a new family favourite stopping point and Visitor Centre being designed to open just in time for Summer.

As these fantastic changes happen around us, we have also put together a jam-packed programme of events that taps into nature, history, heritage and general good family fun. Looking to spring we have an Easter model railway exhibition (10-13 April) in The Old Goods Shed. Working with the East Anglian Railway Museum and Sudbury District Model Railway Club we will be filling The Old Goods Shed with artefacts from our lost railway line and displaying wonderful models throughout the weekend. Open 10-4 Friday-Monday we expect this will be a great day out for all of the family.

We also have a brilliant programme of wood carving events thanks to The Woodland Haberdasher. You might be carving a teaspoon one day, whittling a butter knife the next and playing around with natural dyes the week after. Tickets are on sale for these events with some being specially hosted for families and others for grown ups looking to try out a new skill.

With a nod to our heritage, this May we’ve got a one-day special of longbow classes. Alan of Arnor Archery will be turning participants into Norman Knights for the day, shooting targets in the outer bailey where numerous flint arrowheads have been found in previous years’ archaeological excavations.

There is plenty more happening too such as our community bioblitz, regular kids craft mornings, community den building, art exhibitions and more. There is something for everyone in Suffolk’s most diverse country park so make sure you keep up to date by checking our website ( and social media.

We are also always on the lookout for volunteers so please get in touch if you’d like to find out more about how you can get involved with the Trust. We look forward to welcoming you in the coming months.

Outdoor and Environmental Learning in the Stour Valley

There are many organisations in the Stour Valley which provide some form of outdoor learning about the special qualities of the Stour Valley to children and young people either as formal or informal education. The Stour Valley Educational Network (SVEN) brings together the organisations involved in the delivery of environmental education and outdoor learning in the Stour Valley, in both Suffolk and Essex.  It is a forum for sharing ideas and best practice and to encourage wider involvement in environmental education and outdoor learning in the area.

A recent 2019 survey of SVEN partners has revealed that there is some wonderful education happening in the valley. The table below highlights the results from 15 partners:

335 school visits

114 community group visits

115 community events

14,200 children & young people engaged with some form of outdoor education
Most come from the villages within the Stour Valley then Sudbury, Manningtree, Colchester, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich 75% study science topics, followed by geography, history and other activities e.g. forest school, art
The main age range is primary school, and most visits are annual Groups visit because they like the location, uniqueness of site and price of visit
Some SVEN partners provide activities for people with mental health needs and those not in education, employment or training. Some SVEN partners work with adults, children and young people with learning and physical disabilities.  Some work with ethnic minority groups and refugees.

 One event that attracts lots of families is Wild in the Stour Valley, on Friday 29th May 11:00am – 4:00pm, at Mill Acre Pond, Croft road, Sudbury CO10 1HR. A FREE hands-on family day out with lots of fantastic outdoor activities provided by SVEN partners such as kayaking, minibeast hunts, wild arts and crafts, chicks and pond dipping.

Stour Surrounding – Artists and the Valley

As part of the ‘Improving the Stour Valley for Visitors’ project, a new film aiming to celebrate the art heritage and artistic activities available in the valley has been made.

‘Stour Surrounding – Artists and the Valley’ is a documentary film that takes a look at artists both past and present who have responded to the landscape of the Stour Valley. In the film we hear how this special landscape – of Constable, Gainsborough and Munnings – continues to shape and speak to the work of contemporary artists today. Moving between studio interviews and beautiful footage across the valley we hear from painter and sculptor Maggi Hambling who speaks of ‘absorbing’ the landscape, and from Simon Carter, May Cornet and several others who talk expressively about how they respond to the Stour Valley and landscape in their own individual ways. Other contemporary artists featured include Michael Carlo, Chris Dobrowolski and Freddie Robins.

The film is currently being screened at various venues around East Anglia, including Ipswich, Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe. For more information about these screening events, please see our events listings. When this initial tour of viewings is finished, the film will be made available for community groups, schools, collages, art centres, libraries, galleries and venues to borrow for further showings.

The film has been produced by artist Jevan Watkins Jones with Offshoot Films.  It was commissioned by the ‘Improving the Stour Valley for Visitors’ project, which is hosted by the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley Project and funded by The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

For further information, please e-mail