Messing about on the River Stour

PUBLISHED: 20:26 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 20:27 01 September 2015

Flatford Kayak Safari

Flatford Kayak Safari


Shirley Sampson, the RSPB’s Flatford Wildlife Garden warden takes a canoe trip on the River Stour and discovers a new way to see the secret world of wildlife

Flatford Kayak safariFlatford Kayak safari

After an initial alarming wobble, I manage to sit down into my kayak, before gliding off over the cool waters of the River Stour.

It’s five o’clock on a hot Sunday afternoon, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than setting off on a three-hour paddle up these secret backwaters, the water running in silvery streams from each paddle in turn, the warm evening sun on my back.

Our safari – run by the Outdoor Hire Centre, with me providing narration to accompany the sights and sounds of the wildlife that surrounds us – begins at a leafy picnic site at Cattawade, wending its way upstream to beautiful, timeless Flatford and back again.

On the southern shore of the freshwater river lies the RSPB reserve Cattawade Marshes, a rich breeding site for many wildfowl and waders, notably lapwing and redshank, as well as the occasional exquisitely elegant avocet. In summer, the marsh is a paradise for skylarks, martins, swifts and swallows overhead, dragonflies and butterflies whizzing and fluttering, and the nostalgic ‘peewit’ call of the lapwing, once such a common sound over farmland.

Our canoes slip between tall banks of reeds that rustle in the wind, punctuated with lovely flowering reed, woody nightshade, rosebay willowherb and pretty yellow waterlilies that rise above the mirror surface of the water.

I am roused from my pleasant reverie by the sight of the a slender, graceful white bird dipping and gliding on the air towards us, a common tern, scanning the river for tiny fish. The name lets the bird down – if I had to rename it, I’d call it the ‘gravity-defying snow-white fairy bird’. Impossibly graceful, it wheels on slender wings and drops like an arrow into the water, emerging a moment later with a fish no bigger than my little finger clamped in its scarlet beak.

Later, we catch a tantalising glimpse of a male marsh harrier, hovering momentarily on black-tipped silver-grey wings before dropping into the reeds. I know this bird is the father of at least two young marsh harriers, which have only recently fledged and have been seen inexpertly flapping about between trees under the watchful eyes of their parents. These beautiful birds, as rare as golden eagles due to historic loss of their reedbed habitat, typically nest on or close to the ground deep in the reedbed, and can be seen above many East Anglian reedbeds, passing first nesting material, and later food, in spectacular acrobatic displays.

As we near Flatford, the river becomes more enclosed, with graceful willow trees arching overhead and trailing their fingers in the water, and impenetrable blackthorn thickets hiding blackcaps and chiff-chaffs. The only clue to their presence is the clear, mellow notes of their song.

Gliding between fallen willow trees through the golden light of evening, we suddenly catch a glimpse of Willy Lott’s cottage, made famous in John Constable’s Hay Wain. Here it is seen from the ‘other’ side, as if we were looking out of the painting, caught in some strange and lovely time warp.

We stop briefly at Flatford, an opportunity for people to see the sights while the hamlet is deserted, before turning for home with the evening sun behind us, and a light breeze rippling the cool surface of the water. I don’t think many in our small group had experienced nature quite like this before, but I for one will be doing so again as soon as possible.

Stour Estuary Canoe Trips run on September 6 and October 26. Two trips run each day, morning and evening. For full details, visit, or by call 01206 700707.

All equipment is supplied, and no prior experience is necessary. Children under 14 will need to be accompanied in a double canoe.

To find out more about these and other RSPB wildlife activities visit

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