Unlocking the secrets of the River Gipping

PUBLISHED: 09:45 20 October 2015 | UPDATED: 09:45 20 October 2015

River Gipping Trust

River Gipping Trust


Lindsay Want dons her hard hat to join volunteers from the River Gipping Trust unlocking Suffolk riverside secrets at Pipps Ford near Needham Market.

River Gipping TrustRiver Gipping Trust

“No need to be up with the lark,” declared Martin Bird down the phone in a cheery, yet practical sort of way. “We all meet up around nine and getting the kettle on straight away is always a priority!”

It was a heart-warming thought, especially when the Wednesday morning in question arrived freshly chilled with a deep dew to challenge the boots – and when, on the grassy walk down to the Gipping, it finally dawned that any riverside working party would be damp around the edges.

At the shed by the lock, it’s all tea and indomitable spirits. A small, boiler-suited brigade smiles at this week’s new recruit and at the equally welcome prospect of getting back to riverbank tales left behind just a week ago. Conversation cranks up. The flood gates open. And for a few short moments the world is awash with talk of bricks and abutments, copping stones and culverts, bridges and bywashes.

The rush of canal talk runs its course before the happy band disperses purposefully in all directions, tools to hand. Kitted out in true health and safety style, the new River Gipping Trust (RGT) recruit is taken under Martin’s wing and without further ado, it’s off to the waterside to admire the newly discovered 18th century weir, and for a history lesson which puts everything into perspective.

River Gipping TrustRiver Gipping Trust

Navigating through time

Suffolk has a rich, yet somewhat overlooked waterway history. The Orwell smacks of big boats, the Deben shimmers with sailing yachts and boasts tales of ship burials, whilst the Waveney whirrs with cruisers. Admittedly Constable immortalised the River Stour’s locks and ‘lighters’, but the Gipping’s bustling trading history simply passes us by, glimpsed at best and most ironically from the whizzy railway route which brought about its sad demise.

Celebrated by the Romans and the Danes, used to transport Caen stone for Bury’s Abbey in the 11th century, to take timber to build London’s Royal Exchange in the 1500s, even to bring bells to Stowmarket, the River Gipping was eventually treated to an effective navigation system of 15 locks over 16 miles in the 1790s to overcome the 90ft rise from Ipswich to Stowmarket. Around 30 barges made the eight-hour journey each day carrying coal, slate, coprolite, corn, hops and gun cotton until the railway blew the final whistle on its viability in 1932. Some 40 years later a local group started the painstaking journey towards restoration of the grandly named Ipswich & Stowmarket Navigation. The rest, as they say, is apparently history.

River Gipping TrustRiver Gipping Trust

More than just messing about on the river

Maintaining pathways, clearing overhanging trees, carrying out structural projects, restoring locks, gates, sluices, building bridges – it’s amazing just what the volunteers of the River Gipping Trust put their mind to and achieve. At Pipps Ford, software engineers push wheelbarrows alongside retired railway personnel, mechanical engineers move materials with finance managers (and even the occasional journalist) while the production engineer from Bird’s Eye surely has twitcher tendencies in his breaks from bricklaying. It’s a magical mix of long-established and new skills, common sense and camaraderie and a love of fresh air and firm purpose, where everyone is considered to have something to share.

At Pipps Ford the volunteers are reinstating the bywash, the channel designed to divert water around the lock and prevent overspill when the upstream gate is closed.

“It’s all about safeguarding our local heritage by making it more accessible, bringing it back to life as something to enjoy and be proud of,” proclaims Les, from down below in the muddy excavations. “Part of the vision is to restore a section of the river to navigation and maybe run a small electric pleasure craft,” adds Lewis who fondly remembers his narrowboating days. “It only needs to be a few miles, but Creeting Lock for example took 10 years to restore. The sluice at Baylham Mill was reinstated, but new lock gates are still needed.” Looking up from under his hard hat trust treasurer Spencer confirms them to be “a good £40,000 a time”. The lock at Pipps Ford will need two sets. This is all adding up to a significantly long term project.

Doing the maths

As Martin greets Nick from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and heads off to float a mink raft, Colin treats the new recruit to a quick sortie to Baylham Lock to share the achievements, dream together about ultimately restoring Baylham Mill and bring back a load of reclaimed bricks.

At 88, the softly-spoken former electrical engineer has long been one of the bright sparks behind the Gipping projects. Unloading the brick cargo back at Pipps Ford, he quietly admits to designing the attractive footbridge over the lock tail, based on the mathematical bridge in Cambridge.

“As with the Baylham sluice gates, we sourced the timber from Glemham Estate and were kindly donated space at White House Farm there for us to work on its construction.” He pauses brick in hand.

“It fitted nigh-on perfectly into place on its footings here...” His gaze goes beyond the bustle of activity towards the bridge and he drifts away a moment with the gentle flow of the Gipping.

Hands on history

Professed ‘restoration junkie’ Pete interrupts with a quick blast of pneumatic drill. He’s a regular at Inland Waterways Association ‘canal camps’ up and down the country, but enjoys supporting the local cause and loves the banter best of all. Up to a dozen volunteers usually show at the work parties, each happily mucking in, sharing a certain pride of place and taking it in turns to step into the limelight. Most recent ‘man of the moment’ turns out to be “Time-Team” Trevor, the intrepid digger whose gentle unearthing of a copping stone led to the discovery of a 1792 brick weir at one end of the bywash – today’s focus of the restoration project.

River bedfellows

Although the Gipping is hardly likely ever to see any icebergs, the hands-on RGT Wednesday working party is just the tip of things. Time, patience, perseverance are all key to the equation. Vital too - and many – are the Trust’s restoration partners, including the National Rivers Authority, Environment Agency and the ‘Riparians’, the river-edge property holders who own half the stream bed. “The Greatrix family here have been so supportive,” says Martin on his return. “It makes everything so much easier and more enjoyable. We work with others every step of the way. Our goal is to do what is right by nature, by history and by today - so people can enjoy, value and learn.“ He pays homage to the vision of long-term local waterways stalwart, Chad, quietly getting on with things across the site, then gets to relate the riverside tale of the newly discovered mink which need monitoring. “Oh, it shouldn’t be a setback, “says Martin stoically. ”There’s still plenty to do on the weir; we can tackle the bywash when the right time comes.” Down by the Gipping, all hands make light work and everything… well, it just runs its course.

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