Life on the Deben: new documentary by journalist John McCarthy stars the Suffolk river

PUBLISHED: 17:37 11 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:37 11 December 2017

Life on the Deben

Life on the Deben


Nick Cottam talks to journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy about his latest project, a documentary film about a river that has played such an important role in the nation’s history as well as his own life. Images: Tim Curtis

It’s one of those autumn days when the river shines and sparkles almost as brightly as the sun. Light dancing on the water as nature comes back to claim its own after the summer hub bub. I’m drinking coffee and chatting with journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy about Life on the Deben, a new film he is presenting about a river, its people and the history which has helped to shape life in east Suffolk and beyond.

The River Deben, which meanders 25 miles between its tributaries near the antique shops of Debenham to the sea at Bawdsey and Felixstowe, is arguably still a well kept secret in these parts. “What I hadn’t appreciated before we started making the film,” says John, “was the deeper history of it all. This has been an incredible revelation to me.”

Life on the DebenLife on the Deben

Life on the Deben is the story of a river that has its recorded origins in Roman times, moving on with the ebb and flow of the tide to transport the Viking invaders, the Saxon warriors of King Redwald and, for hundreds of years, the traders, fishermen and sailors who have brought prosperity and happiness to a region steeped in natural beauty.

“The film helps to show how important the Deben has been not only to this area but to the history of the nation,” says McCarthy.

Life on the DebenLife on the Deben

“You only have to think of the Saxon King Redwald who was buried at Sutton Hoo across the river and who, as far as we know, was the first king of England. We now know – and the film highlights this – that Redwald had his extraordinary base at Rendlesham where Saxon craft and culture flourished and which gives us a better understanding of how the nation state of England was coming together.”

As we talk, just a stone’s throw from the river in Woodbridge, John McCarthy is relaxed and enthusiastic about a project which, for him, has been something of a home coming. He lived in Suffolk for over 10 years, sailed his yacht in all weathers on the Deben and only left when he and his wife Anna found they needed to be nearer London for work.

Life on the DebenLife on the Deben

“We came for a couple of years initially and just stayed,” he says. “We then did the counter intuitive thing of moving back to London, but it’s always very good to have an excuse to return here.”

John McCarthy remembers his yachting days on the river with great fondness. “It was an enormous sense of escape and adventure that I loved. It’s that wonderful thing with sailing of just doing something which is ancient, just using the water and the wind to get from A to B.” The chance to get away, to escape any feelings of confinement was clearly important following the dark time he spent as a hostage in Beirut back in the 1980s. “A big chunk of my life,” he says.

Life on the DebenLife on the Deben

While McCarthy eventually returned to the Lebanon in 2004 – “a liberating experience” – to make a film about Shiite Muslims, Suffolk was clearly an antidote, a chance to reclaim his life, and the River Deben played a part in that process.

The film, which he has made with his old friend and colleague, Woodbridge-based film maker Tim Curtis, has provided plenty of excuses for return visits over the past two years. Apart from being a superb documentary in its own right, the film, he says, will help to raise the profile of the Woodbridge Riverside Trust, which seeks to preserve the town’s maritime heritage, including plans to build a life-size replica of the Sutton Hoo ship in which Redwald was buried alongside his Saxon treasure.

Life on the DebenLife on the Deben

All profits from the film will go to the trust. Making the film has been a revelation in so many ways, says McCarthy.

“While I loved the river walks and the sailing, what I had never explored when I was living here were those secret places such as an area of river bed where you can find the Groaning Stone, which is said to roll over at full moon, or Ash Abbey, with its decoy pond built for the abbess. As we see in the film, the river has been diverted for numerous reasons over the centuries. Now we have to work out how it can best be preserved as a resource.”

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As for how this can be accomplished experts give their views alongside local characters. Quirky facts float breezily alongside serious information, and the Life on the Deben team, which includes producer and Riverside Trust founder member Malcolm Hodd, revel in them. Malcolm’collated a raft of information and anecdotes which make the film informative and also entertaining.

“There are just so many stories,” says McCarthy. The plans to build a canal between Woodbridge and Debenham. Felixstowe, the home of medieval war ships, smugglers plying their trade up and down the river.

Environmental and natural phenomena are also highlighted. Avocets are flourishing and water voles are back, notes environmentalist Penny Hemphill, who is interviewed by John McCarthy in a fascinating sequence on the river’s ecology and recovering wildlife. It’s hard to a walk along certain stretches of the Deben these days without seeing egrets, lapwings, curlews, cormorants and herons. Even young oystercatchers noisily celebrate their environment deep into autumn.

Life on the DebenLife on the Deben

“Today,” says John, “we can enjoy the Deben as a tranquil place and a beautiful natural resource. What the film revealed to me was the profound importance of this river. It’s only 25 miles long, but it’s played a key role in the history of this nation.”

And with that he is gone, whisked away to board a classic old barge at Felixstowe to film one of the opening sequences of the film. Boats, birds and autumn sunshine have all reminded us that life on the Deben is in good shape.

Life on the Deben will be launched at the Riverside Cinema, Woodbridge on December 3. The film will be available on DVD following the launch.


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