From Sea to Source – A Journey up the River Deben

A Poem by Christine Redington

First published 2018. Copyright: Christine Redington

In the darkness, listen,
listen for the sound of breaking surf
to hear where the shoals lie,
broken water on either side of the bar
a guide to the channel
into the estuary.

The river frightens off the timorous,
complicates timings of entrance,
as if it wishes to deny the sailor
the journey up its tortuous channel
and keep its secrets safe.
Shingle shifts every winter.
The ebb tide rushes out,
catching the unaware.

At the mouth of the river, history is hidden
in walled creeks and changed usage.
To the west Anglo-Saxons settled
in a land full of geese they called Goseford –
not a town, nor a village,
but an area of wide horizons.
Then in the Fourteenth Century, a port
for Edward III’s fighting ships
sheltering in King’s Fleet,
assembling to attack the French.

A place inhabited for centuries,
building upon building.
Between Bawdsey village and the sea
is a criss-cross of ditches and post holes,
an archaeological dig.
Discoveries record the lives of people
from the late bronze age to Medieval times:
early axe fragments, roman coins,
bits of pots, roof tiles, metal buttons
and metal rivets, maybe from a boat.
Goseford, a place of boat building and repair, busy;
now choked creeks, lost buildings, lost names,
birdsong and silence.

At Bawdsey, wave a white paddle to call the ferry,
a small motor boat, wooden seats all round,
the ferryman’s dog tied up near the wheel.
Two pounds to Felixstowe Ferry,
the boat curving its white wake across the tide.
Bawdsey, where men fished,
acted as pilots, rescued ships
and salvaged them.  That was their living.

Cuthbert Quilter, MP and businessman,
pulled down a Martello Tower
to build Bawdsey Manor in the 1880s.
World War Two, it was the home
of the radio location experiment,
with tall transmitter towers.
This radar won the Battle of Britain, they say.

But the antennae have gone,
the RAF left Bawdsey Manor.
Now the transmitter block
has been transformed
into an exhibition space
to tell the history of radar here,
from before, during and after World War Two.
On the beach are cement blocks,
which are cracking and falling apart;
echoes of war, echoes of echoes.

Once the river was a highway:
ferries from Bawdsey to Felixstowe,
Ramsholt to Kirton Creek,
Waldringfield to Stonner Point, to Plumtree Hard,
Guston Stone Ferry to Sutton Mill Fleet,
Woodbridge to Ferry Cliff.
There were rowing boats,
a chain ferry, steam ferries,
horses coaxed onboard, using a pony.
This river, once linking people,
village to village, farmers to their lands,
now is a barrier, after Felixstowe no ferries,
no fords, no bridge until Wilford at Melton.
Between Bawdsey and Woodbridge,
there is no crossing.

My daily walks along the river,
a way of finding silence.
Alone, even though there are others walking.
I sit on a bench beside water, birds, boats
and enter the landscape,
a form of meditation.

gusts agitate the water surface,
stir an uneasiness below.
Above the sky is darkening.
A boy climbs up the tower
of Ramsholt All Saints
on the orders of the Church Warden.
The view is panoramic
from Harwich harbour to Woodbridge,
but it is to Waldringfield he looks,
for a small rowing boat braving the weather,
carrying the Reverend Henry Canham,
to conduct the Sunday service.
Will the vicar come today?
If the boat is seen, the warden can ring the bell
to summon the faithful.

From the same round Norman tower,
a light once shone out to tell the smugglers
that it was safe to land their goods:
tea, brandy and gin.
In Ramsholt cottage cellars
were ready to store the contraband.

wild flowers in All Saints churchyard,
this place, seemingly so remote,
discovered along a narrow road
with a view down the river.
It is quiet as I enter the nave
but there is sudden activity,
a coming of people, which makes me leave,
not to be in the way.
Cars are arriving.
Then in the distance two black horses,
black plumes dancing, pulling a black carriage.
The horses stop by the church gate
and the coffin is removed.
The Church door shuts me off from the ceremony.
I stand with the horses, they are Friesian
and rare. They gleam in the sun
and shake their heads
making their feather headdresses sway and shimmer,
their harnesses jingle and rattle.
That and bird song, are the only sounds.

A row of avocets stand on their blue-grey legs
along the mudflats by the river wall.

Up river, past Prettyman’s point, Shottisham Creek,
Hemley Point and Pilot’s Reach, is Waldringfield.
Here the sea is still in the air, seaweed
washed up in curving lines, salt on the wind.
High tide slaps waves on the gritty, sandy beach.
Yachts race up river, a jumble of white sails.

They go where barges, a hundred a month,
once brought horse muck from London,
stinking out the village,
returning with straw and hay,
coprolite, Suffolk crag full of fossilised animal bones
and dug up around the area,
bound for Ipswich to be ground into fertiliser.
For Mason’s cement works near the beach,
barges delivered coke and chalk from the Medway.
The other ingredient:
mud dredged from Hemley Reach.

The work’s tall chimney sent smoke across the sky,
its furnace fires flamed a landmark at night.
Five thirty in the morning,
fifty pints lined up on the bar
for the workers,
who have walked from Brightwell,
Acton, Hemley, or been ferried over
from Sutton and Ramsholt.
Every weekday beer was carried up from the cellar
In a bath by Jimmy Quantrill,
landlord of the Maybush Inn,
payment settled at the end of the week.

Dusk by the river,
I walk through a charcoal drawing,
smudged mud flats,
across which lie horizontal strokes
of seaweed, beyond are
upward strokes of trees.
Flicks of starlings
coalesce into a murmuration.

At Woodbridge the restored Tide Mill
produces strong flour on milling days.
Painted and photographed, an iconic image,
it has been there since 1170s,
using the falling tide to turn its grinding wheels.
Once owned by the Augustinian Friars,
until Henry VIII confiscated it and Elizabeth I
sold it to Thomas Seckford.

Black timbers sunk in the mud
are all that remain of the barges,
that once traded up and down the river
and to London, or as far as France.
Now low tide reveals barge ribs,
the curve of a prow,
or just the outline, black on grey.

Once they crowded around the quays.
Barges of all kinds:
Round-bottom booms,
sharp-bottomed ketches.
‘Billyboys’, some ketch-rigged,
some sloop-rigged, some gaff-rigged,
clinker built.
The schooner with three keelsons
and set ‘gallant topsul’ or ‘lower topsul’.
Some with names of women,
“Alice Watts’. Lucy Richmond’
or those with a moral flavour,
‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’.
1914, they had almost disappeared.
Only spritsails remained to trade
at Woodbridge.
1935, the end foreshadowed by the finding
of Robert Skinner, Captain of the ‘Tuesday’,
dying on his barge at Woodbridge quay.

Seaweed everywhere, up to the fence, to the wall,
over the pediment of the seat
on the way to Martlesham Creek,
a full moon, a high tide and the smell of the sea.

A spring tide so high it all but covers the benches
along the river front, laps over the wall
and up to the steps of the Ferry Quay café.
It was this fortnightly tide that the brigs
and schooners needed to reach Woodbridge
with its winding channel and gravel bar,
always a difficult port.

Boats unloaded
coal from the North,
timber from Scandinavia,
stone for churches,
stone for Wilford Bridge,
dried peas for the canning factory,
linseed cake from Liverpool for the cattle,
Wines, spirits, groceries from London.

Loaded onto the boats were long straight oaks
from Framingham and Otley for Edward III’s fleet
down river, plus lengths of Woodbridge rope.

Later exports were
wool, cloth, corn, butter and hard cheese.
Daniel Defoe said that Suffolk made the best butter
but the worst cheese, even the sailors refused it.

Over time reaching Woodbridge became more
and more difficult. Fully loaded boats
had to be partly unloaded at Kyson Point,
before they could sail upriver.
Deep draught schooners sometimes had to drag
up river using an anchor, rowing ahead to drop it,
pulling the boat up on the windlass,
over and over. Even the pilots took
tidesmen with them, who used long poles
to push the boats off the mud.
Only flat bottomed barges saved the trade
for over a hundred years.

Slowly the Deben silted up,
until even the barge trade ceased.
1930s goods came up from Ipswich by lorry.
Silence settled over the quays,
sheds, warehouses, workshops,
until people discovered
the pleasure of taking small boats
onto an empty river.

Leisure craft: yachts, sailing dinghies,
motor cruisers, canoes,
these are the new traffic.
On the water surface float orange,
red and yellow buoys, ready for the boats.
As the weather warms the smell of paint
is in the air, yachts are sanded, scraped, painted.
Owners scramble up ladders to reach
their over-wintering boats.
Advice is shouted, jokes thrown over shoulders,
cranes move around, removing a mast here,
erecting one there, lifting a yacht into the water.
The boatyards are emptying,
support cradles lie across the ground in disarray.
A yacht is ready to sail, black pirate flag raised.
‘Have a nice day’, a neighbouring boat owner shouts,
‘Not too much pirating’.

Waves, whipped by the wind,
surge along the centre of the river.
Gulls are blown about like tattered
paper against the cobalt sky.
Swans bounce along the waves,
moving one behind the other,
like school children on an outing.

Saturday, high tide, good breeze, the river is alive
with coloured spinnakers and white sails,
a Sailing Regatta.
Flotillas of dinghies head up river to turn
at Wilford Bridge.  Different classes,
clear by numbers on their sails.  Shouts, laughter,
incomprehensible instructions, conversations.
I, a spectator, safe on the bank,
watching adults and children
negotiate a tricky turn round the yellow buoy,
to sail back down river tacking across
limited width of water, narrowly avoiding each other,
nearly capsizing as they turn, the competitors lean
far out to counterbalance their sails, weaving
around an orange inflatable number 9, in which sit
two men recording progress taking photographs
of each boat.  Orange lifejackets, red spinnakers,
blue ones, orange sails, grey, white, booms swinging,
the slap of lines, gulls screeching,
lapwings pee-witting,
swans taking off from the flood water with a whoosh.
Through this melee cuts a small, red motorboat,
at the prow sits a white poodle, obviously in charge
of the boat and its two owners.

A man on a paddle board propels himself up river,
tall, blond, tanned bare chest, blue shorts.
On a white dinghy, named ‘Optimus Prime’,
are two young boys, one leans on the side of the boat
his head on his arms, as if very sick, or very tired.
Suddenly boats are becalmed,
everything is still.
the tide is turning.
Up by the bridge a boat is grounded in the mud.
A man clambers out. By Flea Island nearby
another boat is stuck, its squat sail
different from the others;
occupants small and square, with white sunhat
rammed down to their ears.

Downriver white sails everywhere,
wind picks up, boats surge back down the course
over choppy water. The squat boat
also makes its way home,
tacking amongst impatient competitors.
Orange inflatable number 9, leaves it place,
motors slowly upriver, turns,
picks up speed and heads
back to base, racing nearly over.
Man on paddle board appears, having ventured
upriver into shallow waters and reed beds,
he has gone further than any of them.
Skeleton sides of the sunken barge emerge.
Soon no one will be able to sail up to Wilford Bridge.
Sailing Regatta over.

Ducks cross the mud, opening their beaks,
pushing forward, sifting their findings,
producing a soft, sucking sound,
leaving winding patterns on the surface,
abstract lines
on silver.

On the landward side of the river wall
a patch of reeds, from where
a high-pitched scratchy song echoes out,
continuous as on a sound loop;
a reed warbler, summer visitor
impossible to see, impossible not to hear.

Over Martlesham Creek circles a marsh harrier,
huge and brown, it turns,
spiralling slowly down
to the river bank.

At Sutton Hoo
only the shape, the palimpsest of the boat remained,
patterns in sandy soil of the clinker-built ship.
Long oak planks from the keel up the sides to form
the hull, stem to stern drilled for iron rivets,
ribs curved across the hull fixed with wooden pegs.
Ninety foot of Anglo Saxon ship, rowed by forty men.
Already old and repaired, it made the final journey
with the dead king and his treasure,
down the Deben from Rendlesham,
seat of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

The ship then hauled up the hillside
to be buried with a ceremony perhaps like that
of the Geat people with a pyre hung with helmets
and war shields, a funeral fire
in honour of their leader.
But all we have is a boat grave, the grave goods
and a mound on high land above the river.

Thirteen hundred years have passed
and on Whisstocks boatyard in Woodbridge,
once known for building and repairing
wooden yachts for half a century
and derelict since 1991,
a clinker-built, ninety foot long,
Anglo Saxon wooden ship
is to be constructed, in a specially built boat shed
part of the new development
rising from the old boat yard,
a tourist destination, with apartments,
café and shops.

Late afternoon, a hot day of bright colours
dwindling to monochrome.
Across the water, at the divide of flooded land
and navigable river, stands a dead tree.
Perched on each branch is a cormorant,
corvus marinus, sea crow.  Ancient, almost reptilian
with curving neck and hunched, black shape.
One has spread its wings to dry.
Below runs the ebbing river, mud banks revealed
turning to pewter.

Autumn and yachts, lifted from the river,
hang from giant cranes
in web slings dripping dark river mud.
Weed, clinging to their keels,
sways as if still in the water.
Then comes the power washing
surging the debris of summer sailing
into a grey flood on the quayside.

Yachts up on their supports, still wet,
smell of the sea.
Boats lifted out of the water leave coloured buoys,
dotted across the water’s surface.

A cormorant swims, creating ripples,
dives, stays under for a long time,
surfaces, dives, again and again, then suddenly
lifts up from the water
and flies away, dark against a pale sky.
Godwits gather russet plumage shed for winter grey,
they peck over mudflats revealed by the ebbing tide.
Facing away from the river,
a heron stands stiff and still
against the grey-green of the river bank,
stretches its long neck,
turns its beak to the sky.

On the banks, bushes have red berries,
trees are chrome yellows, burnt sienna, orange.
Only the oaks stay obstinately green
Reeds with feathered heads stand upright
in the stillness of late autumn warmth.

Houseboats, of all origins and shapes,
line the river banks and beside Woodbridge quays:
a converted military vessel used to rescue pilots,
its greyness and sleeker lines,
reminders of a former life.
‘Waterdog’ built in 1876
made from iron and riveted,
a Humber barge that once carried coal,
manganese ore, linseed oil, bales of cotton.
‘Tommy Lee’, ‘Seafarer’, ‘Ganges’,
all have their histories.

In the quays, where they are moored,
the sediment is accumulating.
There is erosion of saltings and saltmarsh
of Ferry Cliff, of Waldringfield beach.
Flea Island by Wilford Bridge is diminishing,
ooze mud levels are dropping
and there is a drift of sediment southwards.
People are fighting back.
The Deben Estuary Partnership
has an action plan
for flooding, dredging, landscape work
and tranquility.
There is hope.

Little Egret raises its bright yellow feet
in its purposeful, stiff walk through shallow water,
its black beak ready to plunge down
for the next flounder.

Boats indecisive at the turning tide,
float sideways now.
In the boatyard lines slap on masts.

I sit in a shelter by the river,
hail comes straight down onto the concrete path,
bounces back up.
The river is so full, surely
it can take no more water.
Clouds are moving south,
a dark, ragged edge as if torn away
from a greater, blacker mass.
Behind it is a sky of faded blue.

So still, the water surface
one vast mirror to a cobalt sky,
white frost by river paths,
lapwings step delicately onto ice,
that extends from the river bank.
It is cold, but not so cold
as the winter of 1963.
The river froze over at Waldringfield,
it was possible for the locals
to walk to the opposite bank.
Downstream yachts laid up on the saltings
drifted on ice flows,
past Hemley point and Shottisham Creek,
to beach at Rocks Reach.
1895 in Woodbridge,
people gossiped
standing on the ice in Ferry Dock.

The tide flows under Wilford Bridge,
once Willowford, stepping stones,
always a crossing place,
a wooden bridge, a narrow brick bridge,
eventually another bridge, wide enough
and strong enough to carry the constant traffic.

Upstream is peaceful,
not a world of yachts, barges and trade
but reedbeds, waterbirds and canoes.

Once the narrowing river powered water mills,
to grind the corn, to make millers,
like Reuben Rackham, of Deben Mills, rich.
His flour supplying numerous bakers
from Woodbridge to Aldeburgh.

There were eight watermills upriver
and four on streams running into the Deben.
A mill built by Augustinian Canons,
one built by the Bishop of Ely,
two Medieval mills at Kettleburgh.

Down ‘White Woman’s Lane’ near Eyke
walked the workers of a water mill
going home covered in flour.

From the bank I see through reed stems
canoes yellow, blue, red,
silent and at home on this non-navigable section,
north of Wilford Bridge.

From here to its source
the Deben curves North East, then North West,
through what was once a fish pond
for St Mary’s Priory, founded in the Twelfth Century
for twenty one nuns. They had their own mill,
as did all the Estates on the Deben.
The river runs through Deben Mill
at Wickham Market, Glevering,
Easton, Letheringham,
Kettleburgh, Brandeston and Cretingham,
where it becomes a weed-choked stream,
inaccessible, secretive, shallow.
The river banks are a haven for wild life:
foxes, badgers, muntjack and otters.
Salmon were once found right up to Debenham
and it was navigable too.

Debenham, a village in the Domesday Book,
taking its name from the river and here
the journey to the source proves
problematical. This is a place of convergence
where several tributaries conjoin,
flowing down from watersheds around Aspall.
In heavy rain forming flash floods
down Water Lane, where white posts
are marked up to six feet
and along Stony Lane, at about half a mile,
the longest ford in England,
a water-pooled, tree-tunnelled lane,
until it becomes a torrent.

There is no single source,
no sun-lit pool in Aspall wood.
The river’s beginning is many beginnings.
It is also an end.


The various books about the River Deben by Robert Simper, W.G. Arnott’s “Suffolk
Estuary’, plus the websites about the River Deben were excellent sources of information for the poem. I also gathered small snippets of useful information from many other books.

My grateful thanks to the Writer’s Group for listening to sections of the poem and for their helpful comments. My special thanks to Michael Laskey for his careful and detailed editing.

This poem was first produced in 2018 by me as a hand-bound booklet and includes the illustrations that I painted or collaged for the poem.

If you would like to order the hand-bound pamphlet of this poem, then please contact Christine Redington at: [email protected].

Poetry publications by Christine Redington

  • Black Fen  (2010)
  • Seeking Wonders  (2012)
  • Novel:  Fen of Dark Winter (2013), available on the Amazon Kindle website.