Big river, long history

PUBLISHED: 12:19 13 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:19 13 October 2015

The Thames barge Thalatta sailing past Pin Mill on her way to Ipswich

The Thames barge Thalatta sailing past Pin Mill on her way to Ipswich


The River Orwell is second home to Garth Cooper

Looking across Fox’s marina towards the Cliff Quay container terminal and grain handling installation.Looking across Fox’s marina towards the Cliff Quay container terminal and grain handling installation.

I first recall sailing down the Orwell at the age of 12, when I collected my first real cruising yacht from Orwell Yacht Club. She was 18ft long with a 10ft bowsprit sticking out the front, had two berths and two-burner gas stove and bucket. She was gaff-rigged and I was taking her home to Woodbridge.

I remember thinking at the time just how huge the river appeared compared to the narrow twisting reaches of the Deben. I still find it a joy to cruise up river from my berth at Suffolk Yacht Harbour, turn round at the lock gates into the Ipswich Wet Dock, and cruise gently back down river. It never fails to enthral – wide and deep running to the sea in broad, gentle curves through some of the best of the Suffolk countryside.

Dropping down river from Ipswich through the Cliff and West bank docks under the high spans of Orwell bridge (194ft from the road deck to the water at mean high tide, the vista opens out with heavily wooded banks on either side. To the south lies Freston Tower, a folly with five floors built by the Paul family.

Close by on the same bank is Stone Sailing Club with its moorings either side of the big ship deepwater channel. In the war Woolverstone was a centre for the building and repair of navy gunboats and MTB. Today it is a 350-boat open water marina, alongside it the new Royal Harwich YC clubhouse and club marina. Also visible from the water is the Cat House, famed as a smugglers’ den in times of yore. It is reputed that a black cat in the window was a warning the revenue were poking about.

Enjoying a leisurely sail up the Orwell off Levington CreekEnjoying a leisurely sail up the Orwell off Levington Creek

Possibly the most renowned place on the Orwell is Pin Mill. Home to a series of annual barge matches and one of the best riverside pubs in the county, it has a small thriving sailing club and two traditional boatyards. Most days one of the iconic Thames barges can be found parked on the hard for some maintenance work.

On the south bank, half a mile down river from Pin Mill, lies a white cottage almost on the river’s edge, another famous smugglers’ haunt, the Clamp House, off which is an area popular with Thames barges as a safe mooring. On the north bank on final bend of the river opposite Collimer Point, where the river swings south before it flows into and through Harwich Harbour, lays Suffolk Yacht Harbour. At 550 berths plus a full-service boatyard it’s the largest on the river and probably the East Coast. It was off here that the famous 1950s film of the Yangste Incident was filmed, Levington Marshes being where the Red Chinese guns battered the British frigate HMS Amethyst.

The Orwell never fails to fascinate, with everything from general cargo boats to Thames Barges, East Coast smacks and yachts. It’s an ever-changing scene.

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