Drawn to the Deben

PUBLISHED: 11:23 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 20:20 01 September 2015

Sailing the River Deben

Sailing the River Deben


Garth Cooper grew up on the River Deben and decades later he’s still sailing its historic waters

Sailing the River DebenSailing the River Deben

The Deben is often referred to as the secret jewel in Suffolk’s crown and it has undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the area over the centuries. For a long time it was an important trading and ship building river and today is a mecca for cruising and dinghy sailors alike.

The river has a long history, at one time being a main thoroughfare for Saxon invasion of the Anglia region. On its north bank on the high plateau overlooking Woodbridge is the world famous Sutton Hoo burial site close to an important centre of Saxon administration.

The Romans also used the river as a thoroughfare to get men and arms in and slaves and produce out. And in more recent times Nelson had ships built on its banks, and local yards supplied boats to the Royal Navy during WWII.

I grew up on the river at Woodbridge, terrorising the sailing fraternity for a number years in a variety of old boats and doing an apprenticeship as a boat builder at Whisstock’s. Then the river was relatively sparsely populated, but today the first time visitor needs his wits about him to find a clear passage through the increasing number of moorings at Ramsholt, the crowded anchorages of Waldringfield, Methersgate, Kyson and Woodbridge itself. There are however, still quiet anchorages in good holding mud to be found away from these busy centres.

Sailing the River DebenSailing the River Deben

Because the surrounding area is predominantly farmland, there’s been little shoreside development for most of its length and wildlife abounds, indeed the whole tidal river is a Special Protection Area and RAMSAR Site and lies within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (SCHAONB). It is one of the key sites in Britain for the overwintering of avocets.

The river valley is a shining example of how an activity sport and enjoyment of the natural world can live in harmony.

Felixstowe Ferry harbour master John White is steeped in Deben loreFelixstowe Ferry harbour master John White is steeped in Deben lore

The source

The river Deben rises from a spring just North of Debenham close to the home of Aspall’s cider. As it travels 25 miles southeast towards the sea it gathers water from some of the county’s most productive farmland and attractive countryside.

Just above Melton the water starts getting brackish as it meets the incoming tide and is fully salt by the time it passes under Wilford Bridge.

It’s a peaceful river with little or nothing in the way of development along its banks. The only major conurbation is Woodbridge, an attractive bustling one-time market town that was a major port and centre of ship, working boat and yacht building. Today it’s one of the East Coast’s major centres of yachting.

Along the way

Woodbridge is a quaint market town that features a plethora of Elizabethan and Georgian properties. It is a good shopping centre and has easy transport links to the nearby county town of Ipswich. A striking feature of the Woodbridge waterfront is the old Tide Mill, which is the last working example of a tide mill in Britain.

Part of the character of the waterfront comes from the sailing clubs, boat yards and a marina that attract sailors to the river. Downriver from Woodbridge is the drying Martlesham Creek, followed by the old farm quay of Methersgate from where Thames barges took hay, corn and fodder to London and brought back horse muck to be spread on the land. The creek ends almost at the front door of the Red Lion pub, which sports the red painted lion figurehead from the Dutch man-o’-war Stavoren captured in the battle of Sole Bay (Southwold) in 1672.

Waldringfield with its famous Maybush pub, boatyard and art gallery and local sailing club is a mecca for east coast sailors. At one time cement was manufactured here shipped to London on barges, which loaded both from the quay and off the beach. One of Britain’s most popular cartoonists, Giles had a boat at Waldringfield and worked on his world famous cartoons in a studio parked in the car park of the Maybush.

A popular picnic spot on a sandy beach below a low cliff half way down river between Waldringfield and Ramsholt is The Rocks, so called because the riverbed is littered with them. It can only be reached by boat. Opposite is Kirton Creek from where King Edward III prepared a fleet of ships to attack Flanders in 1338, giving rise to the name King’s Fleet to the tributary.

Further down river lies the tiny settlement of Ramsholt, which was once an estate quay and the famous Ramsholt Arms, a one-time ferry house and smugglers’ den.

It’s about three miles to river’s entrance into the cold grey North Sea at Bawdsey. Originally a small fishing settlement it became famous before, during and just after WWII as the home of RADAR.

Opposite Bawdsey and joined by a ferry is Felixstowe Ferry, a collection of clapboard fishermen’s huts and holiday homes, a boatyard, a pub, The Ferry Boat Inn, and Felixstowe Ferry SC.

Here the river sluices through a narrow-ish entrance between shingle banks to the sea. While care is needed entering the river, ideally on a rising tide and not in high winds, especially from the east and at night, it’s straightforward if you follow the rules. If in doubt always call the Felixstowe harbour master John White for advice and help (07803 476621 or VHF Ch 08 call sign Odd Times).

Need to know

River Deben Association has an excellent website full of background information on what to see and where to go at www.riverdeben.org .

There are four sailing clubs on the Deben, Felixstowe Ferry SC at the mouth of the river, Waldringfield SC, Deben Yacht Club at the downriver end of Woodbridge River Wall and Woodbridge Cruising Club, also on the River Wall, Woodbridge. All have useful websites and contacts for first time visitors seeking help.

For pilotage and general boating information visit East Coast Pilot at www.eastcoastpilot.com .

Places of interest

Felixstowe Ferry is well worth a stopover. Apart from its attractive quaintness there’s the Ferry Cafe serving some of the best fish and chips and all-day breakfasts on the east coast, the Ferry Boat Inn, there’s a chandlery attached to the Ferry Boatyard, and a number of coastal and riverside walks to explore.

A short ferry ride across the river to Bawdsey, with its sandy beach alongside the jetty and ferry landing leading off to the Boathouse Cafe, is Bawdsey Manor itself with extensive grounds and the Transmitter Room Museum, where the history of the development of RADAR on the site is explained.

At Ramsholt the Ramsholt Arms is a must, and a stroll up the lane to the isolated church is worth stretching the legs for. There’s an attractive riverside walk to The Rocks a mile upriver on the same bank.

Waldringfield is a crowded and popular anchorage. The Maybush is a well-known watering hole, but there are no shopping facilities for the visiting yachtsman. The sailing club runs dinghy racing on Wednesday evenings and Saturdays. To find a visitor mooring, contact the boatyard. Woodbridge is steeped in history and there’s much to see, ranging from the Guildhall to art galleries and antique shops, a plethora of good eateries and good shops. The Tide Mill is worth a look and the whole waterfront is absorbing.

Cross the river (sadly a ferry no longer runs) to visit the Sutton Hoo burial site, or stretch the legs on the many riverside and heathland walks in the area.

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