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The Rivers Stour; five contrasting rivers.

March 24th, 2013 in News by admin

Picture: The Stura de Lanzo in Northern Italy.

There are five rivers in Britain that bear the name Stour; they can be found in Dorset, Kent, Suffolk, one a tributary of the River Severn flows through Worcestershire and in Warwickshire the fifth that is short but noteworthy. They are all very different, but their flows are descriptive of their form and ever changing uses.

The name Stour can mean strong flow and is of international use, there are several European rivers so named including; the Stoer a tributary of the Elbe in Germany and two Stura rivers near Turin, both flowing into the Po River.

The Dorset Stour.

The river rises at Stourhead in Wiltshire; the surrounding estate and gardens owned now by the National Trust were created in the eighteenth century; they use the river’s headwaters to create some of the most interesting ornamental lakes in Britain, they give spectacular aspects to the garden, reflections of colours through the seasons alongside architectural features that in many a gardener’s eye are unparalleled.

The Headwaters of the Stour

From the start of its run to the sea it is confined, its progress checked by the peoples needs to make use of its capabilities of power and transportation. The river flows out of Wiltshire and then through the clays of the Blackmore Vale to Blandford Forum where it passes through the Chalk escarpment and then on to the English Channel at Christchurch Harbour.

The main river is slow flowing with a clay bed, many of its feeder streams run more swiftly over chalk substrates, the whole catchment is of varied and magical flora, water crowfoot, yellow water lilies and true bulrush abound. The fauna is equally diverse with mesmerising rises of damselflies and dragonflies taking to the air as one passes down along the banks. The vale landscape although appearing changeless; a patchwork of pasturelands through which the river meanders for much of its course is though in a state of flux. The water meadows have or are being drained and sown pastureland rather than the past’s herb rich swards are everywhere. The birdlife is now less varied as are the insect populations along the banks. The surrounding chalk down lands is predominately open landscapes of arable farming. Farming like all business moves on, since the Second World War the farmer has had good times and invested in improving their holdings viability in the harder times that are with them today. It is no new cycle for the farmer every generation has lean times as well as times of plenty.

The agricultural practises impact on the rivers water quality, the land drains take the excess of fertiliser and manure away from the land, the river carries the evidence away to the sea. These are not catastrophic pollution issues but like many UK rivers they are stresses to the aquatic ecosystems. Similarly the discharges from sewage treatment works add further to the challenges for modern ecosystems as do diffuse pollution; runoff from roads and urban areas, drainage from isolated agricultural and domestic buildings.

No river that is controlled as at the source and along its banks is easily confined between its banks and the Stour manages to break away from its set course downstream flooding across the vale in winter also from Blandford Forum to Christchurch and its wide floodplain after persistent rains. During summer months or in times of water stress the rivers clay stream bed maintains flow at a modest level which allows the flora along its banks to flourish. The flooding historically gave the pastures their rich variety of herbage which was well nourished by the silts deposited by the floodwaters.

The river enters the English Channel via Bournemouth and Christchurch Harbour which is a busy sailing centre, and the inshore fishing boats still go to sea.

The Kentish Stour

The Stour runs its varied course in the east of the county; is an unusually complex stream, it rises as three parts; the Upper Great and East forming together the Great Stour, when the Little Stour joins the main flow it becomes the Stour which then splits into two again. The northerly arm of this river becomes the River Wantsum meeting the sea at Reculver whilst the River Stour flows to the east and into the English Channel at Pegwell Bay. This divergence of course is the creation of Isle of Thanet. At the time of the Venerable Bede writing his ‘histories’ the crossing from Kent  to Thanet was at St Nicholas at Wade; a suitable location for a ford.

The river has been a great milling river, not just for grain grinding, but for fulling, the finishing of woollen cloth and the grinding of other agricultural products to produce oil. The East Stour River still has a working flour mill on the river at Mersham.

The East Stour

Both the Upper Great and East Sour rivers flow from greensand beds and come together at Ashford where the Great Stour meanders along the Wealden Valley with few tributaries joining its flow, once through the Canterbury stretch which is divides into two parts, one part passing through the city’s centre the other passing by a northern arm.

The Little Stour

The Little Stour rises in the chalk downland to the south as the Nailbourne. As such a bourne it is river that only flows in winter or when the volume of rain allows it to. Once the stream is permanent it takes on the identity of the Little Stour. This stream joins that of the main river at Plucks Gutter to become the River Stour.

Pluck’s Gutter

The Stour and Great Stour was an important waterway that allowed larger vessels navigation to the wharfs in Canterbury and lesser boats or lighters farther upstream to Ashford.    The presence of so greater number of mills along its length from Canterbury upstream precluded the fashion of dredging and straightening the river for larger traffic.

The river downstream from Canterbury passes through a large area of marsh and gravel extraction that is now an important set of nature reserves. The area also suffered subsidence within this marshland due to the coal workings beneath the area from colliery at Chislet. The management of the water levels in this area were the responsibility and historic liability of the Coal Authority which has now passed on this operational.

As the river reaches the T junction formed by the Isle of Thanet the Stour follows the Eastern spur whilst the northern becomes the Wantsum.

The Wantsum flowing to the north and Reculver.

The Stour though flows now to the east with a larger southerly meander at Sandwich before entering the Channel in Pegwell Bay.

The Suffolk Stour.

The Suffolk Stour is the best known of the five rivers, it has been the waterway that allowed John Constable to develop his understanding of light on water, gave sense of place to subjects that have drawn tourists in droves to this once quiet backwater of a backwater. It also allowed Thomas Gainsborough to understand and develop his love of painting water. Like Gainsborough the contemporary painter Maggi Hambling was born in Sudbury and still has a close link with the county of Suffolk through her art and presence. John Nash also painted many pictures of the river and its surrounding landscapes.

The Hay Wain by John Constable is much more than a postcard: it speaks of ways of life, fording the Stour, the wetting of the wooden wheels helped keep the iron tyre in place; it also allowed the horses to drink. The mill building on the left of the picture is of an old design and even at this period considered picturesque. The flat lands show the floodplain that bordered the river. The isolated trees were there due to need for stock shade trees; the landscape has not been enclosed at this time. The mill weir and sluice gate are not obviously well maintained, the mill may not have been very active at the time but was lived in as the smoke from the chimney and the millers dog witness.

This area based along the banks of the river around Bures, Clare and Nayland are now all located along with the river as being parts of the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty also called Constable Country. John Constable was a miller’s son and the craft of milling was a major industrial practice along the river, the country of the area being an important cereal producing region of the country.

The meandering river and the ghost patchwork of hedgerows a water abstraction point and a pumping stations, a lot going on on the upper river.

Along with milling was the rights of navigation to take hay and straw as well as grain from this region to the coast and then on to the major market of London. Till the Second World War navigation was from the coast up to Sudbury, now not manageable by boats of any size, some of the traditional craft of river can still be found on its lower reaches around Manningtree and along the estuary.

The Stour through Sudbury has been used by specialist silk textile mills for three hundred years; Huguenot silk weavers from France and the Low Countries established the silk industry outside of London in small towns along the rivers of the Essex and Suffolk borders. Today though the waters’ power is not generally used eight silk fabric produces are still based in the town.

Sudbury, one of the huge watermills of the town; now used as an hotel.

The river acts for much of its length as the county boundary between Essex and Suffolk though it rises in Cambridgeshire. The river bed and the land that travels through are predominantly clayey chalk. Its course of around 47 miles in length is short but it is a significant river in the English consciousness: the flow is abstracted from for drinking water purposes by Essex and Suffolk Water to supply the area and further afield. The main contaminants of water quality are nitrates and the pesticides clopyralid and metaldehyde, not uncommon in waters abutting intensively farmed areas such as that within the Stour Valley. Phosphates are also present as are many other constituent parts of agrochemical fertilisers used across the area. Such diffuse pollution is costly to remove from potable water supplies both in energy and materials so the water company is working with Natural England and farmers to try to lesson the impact of the agribusiness fraternity on the natural water chemistry. Anglian Water is also improving water discharges from their sewage treatment facilities along the river.

As the river meets the sea at its estuary, which it shares with the River Orwell, the port of Harwich is on the southern shore, once famous as the ‘other’ English port to take a ferry across the North Sea to Europe; the Hook of Holland. Ferries still do sail the route though they not as busy as they used to be with foot passengers.

The Estuary of the Stour between Manningtree and Harwich.

The river is set in a valley as already said internationally known for its landscape, painted by world famous artists and famed for its fine churches, mills and picturesque towns along its length. The river itself has always been a problem, methods of keeping it from flooding have always been contentious; any engineering work that appears to separate views of the water from the landscape have been opposed by conservationists as the proposed engineering works because views will be altered from those of Constable’s paintings; many are already changed due to agricultural methods, roads and signage.

The Severn’s Stour

The Severn’s tributary is a major receptor of the wastes and drainage of much of the West Midland flowing through Worcestershire, it is a slow broad river that has suffered pollution and been abused for many hundreds of years. Today the river has come back from the brink and is returning to that of having waters which show a far better quality waterway but can never be classified as a pristine river. It is cited that salmon are returning to the river, though if this is by accident of fish taking a wrong turn whilst migrating back to their home river or by natural desire to look to spawn in the rivers headwaters is unknown.

The river and most of its tributaries emanate from the Clent Hills and follows a 25 mile route through Worcestershire and Staffordshire to join the Severn River. It passes through many towns of heavy manufacturing history and was once amongst the most lifeless of British rivers.

The Headwaters of the River

The river has always been a useful waterway with a volume that is both of value in itself but also for supplying water to the canals that follow along much of its length. The development of the river was attempted for navigation from earliest times, but the rivers meanders and ability to flood held off much that the navigators might have achieved in other locations. From early times the river has been used to power mills, not only those that mill cereal, but to power fulling mills, blade mills and splitting mills. The waters were used to power forges and cool steel and glass production across the Black Country; its name descriptive of the river and surrounding conurbations linking the industrial heartlands of the catchment together.

A River of Contrasts.

In the last twenty-five years of the 20th century and more recently as well the economic strictures that industry has passed through have meant that many of the main old industries have closed down, that and the development of law and regulation regarding environmental care and protection have seen the river revert to a far more natural water quality. The increasing problems of diffuse pollution, such as road and urban drainage though are still developing concerns for the regions future rivers water quality. Like most issues of environmental care and consideration there is no letup as the ways of life constantly develop and alter.

Warwickshire Stour.

The second river Stour that rises in English Midlands is far shorter than the other.  Rising close to the village of Swalcliffe and entering the River Avon at Stratford upon Avon after some14 miles of gentle meandering.

The River Flowing Beneath Crimscote Hill. The river banks are cutback to allow the flow to not be held up by excess water during times of flood and allowing access for watering stock.

It has been a much used river for milling in its several forms; fulling, grain and driving spinning machines to produce cloth and yarn. The main town along its short progress being Shipston on Stour. The town developed on the income from the wool trade and the water power that the river provided. Today the town is the centre for General Electric’s manufacturing of steam turbine blades in the UK; a continuing link with past engineering activity.

The Bridge at Shipston on Stour after heavy flows has receded.

One memorably named crossing point is Traitors Ford, found on the upper reaches of the river.

The river’s water quality chemically is of the highest order, particularly above Shipston with the water being classified as of A grade; few Midland rivers can be so designated. The river has not been badly affected by drainage work and navigation improvements so it holds the same course for its length that it achieved of its own flow, unlike many that were over centuries partially canalised and dredged.

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