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
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.
River Stour icicles
River Stour icicles
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
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.
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.
photos by John Milne ©2017
John Milne is a novelist, photographer and screenwriter. A version of this post was published at www.johnmilne.photography
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.
Foraging with Matthew Rooney (photo: James Ravinet)
Getting ready for the Solstice Swim with the Dedham River Swimmers (photo: John Milne)
Swimming with the Dedham River Swimmers (photo: John Milne)
Words from Wissington to Wormingford with James Canton (photo: Ruth Philo)
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