Tag: river

Notes from a riverside garden – April 2021

Sunrise over the water meadows on a frosty, April morning

The garden is a hive of activity with nest building in progress or completed in numerous locations. A pair of starlings have found an opening under the eaves of our garage roof and are busily darting in and out. This space has been used by bees in the past.

Adjacent to the garage is a Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ where a pair of blue tits have taken up residence in a nest box affixed to the trunk of the tree. Close to the mill pool ivy has completely covered a pollarded, dead ash tree and this provides an excellent nesting site. We are suspicious a duck is nesting in there. It is a sizeable area of dense habitat, with a pigeon nesting, and probably other birds we have not noticed as yet.

I have been watching a pair of goldfinches building their nest in the top of a small Holm oak from our bedroom window. The pair fly off together each time searching for nesting material but only one returns with a blade of grass or a small feather (the materials I have observed so far) and disappears into the tree, while the male sits waiting in a prominent position close by. I have read that the females construct the nest so I assume she is the one conveying the nesting materials. Within a very short while she flies out and off they go together in search of the next item. They are back and forth within minutes. Such industry is admirable.

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

The pair of swans were mating in the mill pool during the Easter weekend. Such an elegant and rather beautiful bonding ritual takes place prior to mating with mirrored neck movements. I have observed this several times over the years, and I am always stopped in my tracks if I am fortunate enough to see this delightful display taking place. The aggressive and territorial nature of the cob swan has also been on display with two or three violent confrontations taking place in the mill pool with an interloping cob. The necks being used as a weapon as they entwine and beat each other with their wings in fights that can continue for some time. Eventually the loser manages to extricate himself from the relentless pecking and pounding of the resident male and makes a hasty retreat, usually across the island and to the river above the mill pool sluice gates. The female circles around the battling males giving the interloper the occasional peck too! We think it is the same cob trying to take over the mill pond territory but so far he has always been driven away minus a few feathers!

We were so thrilled to see a kettle of eight swallows swooping and circling over the river early on Easter Monday. Snow was in the air! Their visit was brief but a fabulous way to start the day. Other sightings in the garden include the blackcap, reed bunting and several chiffchaffs filling the air with their song. A pair of Egyptian geese also made their presence known for a few days as they surveyed the island as a possible nesting site. Being of an aggressive nature they chased off the mallards from a wide area around them. Calm has now returned as the geese seem to have moved on.

The paving on the terrace outside the kitchen window has been there for many years and gaps have appeared in places adjacent to the low brick wall and these are where the bank voles access their underground world. They dart out and make off with any seeds that fall from the bird feeders above. Recently we saw a stoat exiting a larger gap with a rodent in its mouth! It happened so fast it was impossible to identify the rodent, most probably a vole but maybe mice live under the terrace too.

In the same area, only two or three yards from our kitchen window, and where we walk past several times each day is a clump of long established thyme. It has become quite woody and about a foot high. I just take the flowerheads off with shears once they have finished flowering later in the year. The low brick wall extends around behind it. We have had ducks sheltering in the middle of this clump with their ducklings in the past. They are so well camouflaged and can sink down into the slightly open middle of the clump but still be hidden from view. This year we have discovered a duck nesting in this spot! She currently has six eggs. It is so hard to see her as the excellent camouflage her feathers provide merge completely into the stems and thin foliage of the thyme. In some ways it is the perfect nesting site. We put out grain and there is a water tray where she washes and drinks. She is also safer regarding the drakes who will chase any female that ventures from the safety of her nesting site. She is tucked away so not so visible to them. Yesterday she flew up onto the wall and within seconds was in flight being pursued by three or four drakes. When she does leave the nest the eggs are all carefully covered with a mossy layer so completely invisible to any predators from above. Nesting at ground level is a danger however, as we have badgers, foxes and a domestic cat as nocturnal visitors plus, of course, the resident stoat. We shall have to wait and see what happens. It is a hard time for the females, laying and sitting on eggs, avoiding the unwanted attentions of the opportunist drakes and later trying to raise their broods.

Thirteen tiny ducklings were on the terrace with their mother over the Easter weekend. They haven’t returned again but some ducklings have been seen in the lake on the island so hopefully the family have found a safe place there.

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

Notes from a riverside garden – March 2021

Helleborus Orientalis in bloom.

The remaining pools of flood water on the water meadows are slowly disappearing but are still attracting large flocks of seagulls, Canada and Greylag geese amongst others, to the area. It is a joy to observe the abundance of wildlife in the valley. Of particular note was the sighting for a few days of a Great White Egret along the riverbank. A stately bird, of a similar size to a Grey Heron, with a slow and deliberate flight as it progressed across the meadow. A birdwatcher walking the footpath was keenly watching it with his binoculars on one occasion. More birdwatchers are seen on the meadow due in part to the variety and number of birds present at this time, we suspect. It is good to see people appreciating the wildlife in our area.

With the warmer weather the number of folks out walking their dogs on the water meadow has increased. Most stick to the footpaths but a number wander wherever the fancy takes them, with their dogs usually off the lead. We witnessed one of the well known resident swans in the village so nearly being mauled or worse by two large dogs, off the lead. The dogs streaked away from their owner, oblivious to his frantic calls for them to come back, heading straight for the swan who was grazing on the riverbank. By some miracle the swan just managed to get back into the river as the dogs slid to a halt at the waters edge. For a moment it looked as if one of them was going to plunge into the river after the swan. I have to say I was so angered by what we had witnessed that I yelled across the river and the noise of the weir at the owner to keep his dogs on a lead, in fairness to him he did put them on leads after the incident.

On a cold February day I was most surprised to see two ladies, only clad in swimming costumes, not wetsuits, swimming past the house! It was some while before they came swimming back, climbed up the bank and left the meadow wrapped up in warm coats. I admire their mettle!

The wet and muddy area along the footpath on the meadow brought a smile to our faces when a young woman, faced with getting muddy shoes, pulled a carrier bag out of her rucksack and then stepped inside the carrier bag. What happened next was so hilarious as she tried to take minute steps, her feet confined in the bag, across the muddy section of footpath! Of course, the bag soon fell apart, she had almost fallen over several times and despite her ingenuity she still got muddy shoes/wet feet!

Reedmace (also known as bulrush) in the river

Reedmace (also known as bulrush) in the river

A clump of reedmace (commonly known as bulrush) is looking rather impressive as the brown seed heads have “exploded” resulting in a froth of soft, cottonwool like seeds hanging in readiness to be blown away on the breeze.

Most of the female ducks are on their nests now (early March) and the drakes are idly passing the time of day. We have a pure white duck resident in the garden, who patiently sits in the same area of river for most of the day. We assume his mate is not far away on her nest and periodically we see them briefly together when she emerges to feed. This morning when I was looking out of the bedroom window a duck flew down from our roof onto the high Leylandii hedge, the top of which is on a level with our bedroom window. She looked around for a moment or two and then disappeared into the top of the hedge. She must have a nest tucked away inside. We have seen ducklings tumbling down from the top of this hedge in the past. Ducks tend to nest off the ground hidden away in tree stumps, log piles, on the pillbox in the ivy and in the Leylandii hedge.

At night the otters can be seen in the river, silently making their way through the water. Geese fly overhead in the pitch dark, calling to each other as they progress. Tawny owls are frequently heard communicating through the darkness.

We have coppiced our hazels, taking a few branches from each to be used later in the year as runner bean poles and the tops for pea sticks and plant supports. The tops make excellent plant supports as they soon merge into the border and have many twiggy branches for plants to grow through.

Puschkinia Libanotica in full bloom

Puschkinia Libanotica in full bloom

The garden is bursting into life with exuberant daffodils, crocus and anemone blanda lifting our spirits. One of our many willows was alive with large bumble bees all feeding from the catkins of the hoary willow, Salix elaeagnos, on a recent sunny day. I also had a fleeting sighting of a Brimstone butterfly – a sign that spring has arrived. SB

A Place, and Time for Everything by Stuart Bowditch

A Place and Time For Everything flyer image

A Place, and Time for Everything

CAMP Radio (Quarterly)

In 2020 Stuart Bowditch was invited to contribute a regular show to CAMP Radio, an internet radio station run by CAMP FR from their base in the French Pyrenees mountains. His previous shows/DJ residencies were music based so he thought it would be a good opportunity to broadcast some of his field recordings of the natural, urban and suburban environments instead of playing the creations of others.

Each edition is representative of a particular location, whether Stuart’s time there has been part of a project or on his travels around the world. Episode 1 features 2 hours of field recordings from the River Blackwater in Essex, where Stuart visited between November 2019 and April 2020 as part of his Resounding project, (funded by Arts Council England). Resounding followed in the footsteps of JA Baker, author of The Peregrine that was published in 1967, and documents his endeavours to spot and understand the elusive bird of prey. Listen to Stuart’s recordings made near Tollesbury, Osea Island, Goldhanger, Maylandsea, Stone and Bradwell. Resounding here.

Episode 2 captures a visit to Palestine and Israel in 2019 with Ruth Philo, and includes recordings made in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dormition Abbey, Tomb of the Virgin Mary, St. Anne’s Church, Church of Condemnation, The Western Wall and St, James’ Cathedral Church, all in Jerusalem; The Milk Grotto and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; St. Joseph’s Church and The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, as well as streetscapes from each of those cities. Listen to Palestine and Israel here.

Episode 3 documents a month-long trip around China conducting research for the Fabric:Silk Road project with Ruth Philo (funded by British Council). Fabric:Silk Road is a cultural and ethnographic exchange making connections between the silk mills of Sudbury, Suffolk and the silk industry and traditions in China. During their time there they visited the cities of Yantai, Xi’an, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai researching and meeting silk designers, shops, mills, historical exhibits and a sericulture plant. As well as streetscapes, buskers and religious ceremonies you can listen to several different silk mills and even hear silkworms munching mulberry leaves. Listen to China here.

The River Runs Through Us film still

The River Runs Through Us film still

Episode 4 will be broadcast on 15th March and will feature recordings made along the River Stour between 2016 and 2018 as part of the project The River Runs Through Us with Ruth Philo (funded by Arts Council England/Dedham Vale AONB). The film from the project has been screened at 7 pubs and galleries in the Stour valley as well as in China, Berlin and Venice Biennale 2019, and Stuart played a selection of the field recordings between bands at a Daylight Music event at the Union Chapel in London in 2019.

Further information can be found at:

CAMP Radio http://listen.camp/#shows

The River Runs Through Us http://www.theriverrunsthroughus.uk/events.html

Stuart Bowditch https://www.stuartbowditch.co.uk/live-dj/

 

Notes from a riverside garden – February 2021

A bend in the River Stour in the snowy landscape

The river continues to run at a high level with a few days of flooding following a spell of rain. Even relatively small amounts of rainfall propel the river level upwards. Pools of floodwater linger, reluctant to drain away, on the water meadows. The bomb crater, within the water meadow, now resembles a large pond. Debris, left high and dry following the flooding, is caught up in the sheep fence running across the meadow. Sadly this includes an assortment of discarded packaging, plastic bottles etc which have been, at some point, tossed into the river. This mound of debris has been of some assistance to walkers during times of flooding. We have seen them precariously balanced on the debris, hanging onto the barbed wire top strand of fencing for extra support, as they try to negotiate the deep flood water at a higher level. I must say we have had some entertainment observing the antics of walkers. Two men were seen with trousers rolled up, carrying their trainers and wading through the knee high flood water with bare feet. Not an enviable option given the temperature of the water! Two young women were in fits of giggles as the water spilled over into the tops of their wellington boots as they struggled across.   Others have prodded fearfully into the depths with their walking poles and decided to turn back. Dogs have had great fun charging about, spray flying in their wake.

A few days have passed since I wrote the previous paragraph, a blast of very cold weather has arrived with snow, ice and very low overnight temperatures. The temperature last night was forecast to dip to minus ten degrees, the coldest night for ten years. Outside the snow that fell earlier this week still lingers in places. The view across the water meadows is akin to frozen tundra! Our terracotta pots now resemble giant cupcakes with a liberal topping of royal icing!

The bird table has been a hive of activity with a constant flurry of visitors. The robins and blackbirds appear to expend a vast amount of energy chasing each other away from the food supply. In addition to the usual offerings of bird seed, fat balls, insect suet squares (much preferred to the fat balls) and peanuts, I add mealworms and also handfuls of wheat during harsh weather. The wheat is for the pheasants and dare I say for the four pigeons who visit the feeding area. My father, a farmer, would be horrified to know that I feed pigeons!! There is quite a squabble between the pigeons and collared doves if they arrive at the same time. The collared doves usually win and drive the much larger pigeons away.

A beacon of golden yellow at this time is the Hamamelis (witch hazel) on the millpond bank. It is a large specimen and looks fabulous against a clear blue winter sky. We recently planted three young witch hazel’s on the island but due to all the recent flooding they have spent a while with their roots underwater. In flower at the moment but not sure what the long term repercussions of being so water-logged will be. It is relatively fleeting however.

Snow on a flowering bush

Snow on a flowering bush

The intense cold has created some incredible ice sculpture around the garden. Beside the sluice gates spiral formation icicles encase overhanging branches. Further into the garden a truly magical natural wonder awaits where the spray from the weir has created a multitude of extraordinary icicles. The photos below illustrate some of them.

Icicles hanging from a tree by the River Stour

River Stour icicles

Icicles hanging from a tree by the River Stour

River Stour icicles

SB

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

Thoughts on the Stour

Stour, Dedham, Flatford, River Stour Festival

John Milne writes…

My wife is a painter and works for the National Trust. It was with her that I started to explore the valley of the Stour river.  I think we are both moved by trees and always have been. That response may be formal – in general landscape goes from side to side and trees go up and down. So for a painter a tree in a landscape is like a mark on a drawing. Our responses may have been to the increased unnaturalness of the post-industrial world we inhabit. We seek out trees in landscape because their scale reflects the human scale and their generally long lifespan appeals to us. Sarah can point to oaks around East Bergholt and Flatford which were there when Constable walked by. It may have been just a colour response – people feel happier, appear handsomer, just look better against a green leafy ground. The effect is doubled if water runs through the scene. The Stour valley is an uplifting place to be.

Stour, Dedham, Flatford, River Stour Festival

Of course on the Essex and Suffolk Stour we have the extra element of John Constable. He dominates the landscape as much as he reflects it. Constable’s childhood is just before the industrial revolution and his adult life takes place during it. He lived in East Bergholt and was schooled in Dedham, across the valley and across the Stour. His paintings often feel to me to be reflections on his walk to school – there’s my father’s mill, there’s Fen Lane, there’s the bargemen on the river, there’s our cart and horses. These images stayed with him even though he was in London. His work is a prism through which we see the landscape which both exists and for us – living long after the Industrial Revolution – is like a dream. If you take photographs in the Stour valley, especially close to Dedham and Flatford, you can’t help but find little glimpses of Constable in your pictures. Much has changed but many of the shapes remain – bends in the river, hand-fired brickwork, calves in a field, sometimes even the very same trees he saw. And this remains true though we are 180 years after Constable’s death.

John Milne

photos by John Milne ©2017

 

John Milne is a novelist, photographer and screenwriter. A version of this post was published at www.johnmilne.photography

Welcome to the River Stour Festival

Ruth Philo writes…

I am very pleased to welcome you to the new River Stour Festival and thank you for dropping by on our website. We now have leaflets ready for distribution across the whole of the Stour Valley in Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and will be putting these out in December and January. Further events are being added as the year progresses so please check back on the website from time to time to see the updated programme.

The festival came about through a project The River Runs Through Us that I have been working on with sound artist Stuart Bowditch, which has involved a series of public walks and swims in 2017 as well as research for a short film that we are making about the river, supported by Arts Council England and the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project. It has been a fascinating project to undertake and we have met so many different people involved with the river in a myriad of ways. Stuart has been keeping a blog about the project on the website theriverrunsthroughus.uk where you can read individual stories. The Stour Valley is a rich area in many ways, geologically, historically, artistically and there are layers of connections to be found. There are the obvious ones with major artists John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough but there are many others to be found that not everyone knows about, with artists, writers, swimmers, walkers, historians, musicians, foragers, botanists, wild life people, birders, fishermen and women, archaeologists, sociologists, boating people, landscape and food specialists. In working on the project we visited other rivers including the Waveney and the Thames, both of which have festivals and I thought our river was equally deserving of being celebrated. I found a lot of other local people and organisations thought the same, so together we have formed a steering group to put on a festival that not only includes our own events but those by other organisations in the valley, curated together to make a rich celebration of place in the Stour Valley over the year.

 

 

 

In 2017 we ran public walks and swims on a number of topics, all of which sold out, including a Witchcraft Walk in Manningtree by Professor Alison Rowlands, a Wildlife Walk in Nayland by Darren Tansley of the Essex Wildlife Trust, a Painters Walk out of Constable Country by artist Simon Carter, a Foraging walk in Wrabness by forager and mushroom grower Matthew Rooney, a Wild Writing walk from Wissington to Wormingford with Dr James Canton, an East Country walk by Professor Jules Pretty and a couple of Wild Swims with the Dedham River Swimmers. These were all such rich experiences, where everyone could share their own experiences out in the landscape. The festival will build on these. I hope that you will join us on some of the events in 2018. You might event want to come onboard and help us with the festival organisation, we are currently looking for someone with financial experience who might help with our funding plans, but also other forms of help such as distributing leaflets, helping with events and publicity – if you are interested please get in touch through our contact page.

Ruth is a painter and filmmaker and is both the director of the festival and its originator. See her work at http://www.ruthphilo.co.uk