Messing About On The River

Messing About On The River

Perhaps high summer is a good time to think about ‘messing about on the river’. Hot days and long warm evenings make the river an attractive proposition whether for a walk, picnic or getting out in a boat. I have enjoyed the riverside over several decades particularly for its wildlife, but I also recall the times that my father told me about from his younger days.

The Stour has long provided leisure pursuits for the people of Sudbury including swimming and various forms of boating. For example, the Sudbury Rowing Club was established in 1883 although boating was already popular long before then.

As a young boy, my father was taught to swim at the Old Bathing Place which was Sudbury’s first official swimming pool. Not so much a pool as part of the river, but it had changing rooms and the steps into the river can still be seen, as can the semi-circle to which non-swimmers were confined. Father, having, at a young age, been incarcerated and immobilised in a leather jerkin with a spinal splint and unable to move for eighteen months on account of his treatment for tubercular spondylitis, had to catch up on his physical skills once he had recovered. He recalled being under the care of a terrifying ex First World War Major who was an expert in the management of TB. He clearly knew what he was doing for father went on to lead an incredibly physical life and lived to the age of 101. He was taught to swim by the bathing attendant, Mr Felton, who received half a crown from my grandfather for his efforts. On graduating, boys were able to exchange pink trunks for blue and swimming became one of his favourite past times well into old age.

The Old Bathing Place, Sudbury, 1923. Image from the Sudbury Photo Archive
Arthur Essex surveys one of the fourteen redundant barges sitting in Allen’s Cut, Sudbury, 1923. Image from the Sudbury Photo Archive.

As a boy, he also ‘played’ on the Stour lighters which had been scuppered in Ballingdon Cut on the orders of the Admiralty at the start of the Great War. There is a photograph showing that they remained above water although the hold hatched were removed and the vessels full of water.

My father loved the river, and he was fortunate enough to acquire a canoe to use in his teenage of which he took full advantage. The Stour provided endless days of fun with trips down to Pitmire Lock and back or longer expeditions with an overnight camp. It all sounded idyllic and seemed to dovetail rather nicely with Ratty’s escapades out on his river in The Wind in the Willows.

As father got a little older, he began to explore further afield. On one occasion after a long day on the Little Ouse in the north of the county it was getting late as he drew out his canoe in the town of Brandon. So how late was it and how to find out? Father walked along the main street peering into the parked cars to see which might have a clock to tell him the time. After a while and without success, a policeman appeared. Surely, he would have the time? Instead, he was promptly arrested on account of his very suspicious behaviour, and he had a lot of explaining to do to get off the hook.

Eventually, canoeing took him to the Danube, a vast river in comparison to the Stour and plied by large barges carrying all manner of goods up and downstream. He had a fold-up canoe which were very popular at the time, and he was able to transport it by train.

Back on the Sudbury Stour, one could, of course, hire boats by the hour from Durrants by Ballingdon Bridge. Pleasant hours could be spent rowing up and down the gentle stream on a summer’s day. However, one young romantic had other ideas when inviting his ‘intended’ out for a day on the river. To save on the hire fees he cobbled up a discarded aeroplane fuel tank into a makeshift craft. His lady friend, thinking she was going out in a nice rowing dingy, was none too impressed, but they got married anyway.

View from Ballingdon Bridge, Sudbury, c.1930’s. Image from the Sudbury Photo Archive

The river looks very different now when compared to before the Second World War. The Sudbury Flood Alleviation Scheme altered the width of the river and, on the Priory Fishery, removed the meanders, or bends entirely. Meanders slowed down the flow of the river which, it was claimed, led to flooding. In March 1947, a huge quantity of melting snow inundated low lying areas of the town. On one meander the bend was so tight or incised that people in boats on either side could almost reach over to shake hands. Maps of the late 1940s show a defensive WW11 pill box situated on one meander but following the river works this now stands out in the meadow well away from the river.
Nowadays the river attracts large numbers of people and whilst things may be quiet during the winter months, through the summer many people are about either rowing, canoeing or generally having fun on the riverside.

Ballingdon Bridge, Sudbury, 2020

Adrian Walters, Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and Honorary Freeman of Sudbury