“Who will come a-sailing, / Who will come with me, / Down the sunny Deben / To the distant sea?”
Well, it’s not John Masefield but it is one of many poetic tributes to our river, the River Deben, whose history is complex and fascinating and whose role in our lives today is a subject of much eager debate and no little controversy. The River Deben holds the key to the story of our area; today it is the preserve of a select group of interested parties and users; in the past it was central to the prosperity of almost all who lived along its banks and not least the people of Woodbridge.
The River Deben? Well, there are two rivers and they lead quite separate lives. Somewhere beyond Debenham, Aspall maybe, a humble brook or maybe two make a small but significant start; a river is born. Brandeston and Kettleburgh enjoy the most gentle flowing water, picture-book-stuff in fact. How many golf-balls have I popped into that lovely stream at Cretingham? Then man really starts interfering, damming the water for mills at Easton and Letheringham and, of course at Wickham Market. On she runs to more work at Ufford and thence to Wilford Bridge. Somewhere between that bridge and the railway line the innocence is lost and the second River Deben is found: the Deben Estuary with its salty marshes and hidden creeks and forgotten industries and half-hidden wrecks which stretch away to Felixstowe. I can show you guide books which identify the River Deben simply as running from Woodbridge to the sea.
Two rivers, many dimensions, many sharp contrasts. We have already seen one; the rural river with its hard-working mills serving local communities and the estuary river looking outwards to the sea and beyond, always ready to take its chance in a new adventure or economic opportunity. Contrast the serenity of leisure use, possibly an activity of the last century and a half, with the burdensome labour of the cement works or the coprolite trade or ship-builders that have in the past appeared and disappeared on the river banks. Let’s be political and a little controversial: the river has been a hard task-master to the labouring poor and a genial companion, indeed servant, to the middle classes. There have been tenacious struggles for possession of its banks. Edward FitzGerald wrote in the mid Victorian period,
‘Now we have a set of squires who, whether to entrench in their land for crops or for their damned game – are sticking up placards of prosecution to all who travel along the river walls, which many want to do, in going from Woodbridge to the ferry at the river’s mouth. We have one great squire – TOMLINE – who keeps buying up acre after acre between the rivers Deben and Orwell to make a game preserve of it. So now, any poor man is collared by gamekeeper after gamekeeper – even if the poor fellow has no gun in his hand.’
On a more positive and contrasting note, the River Deben has inspired more glorious writing… all right, some indifferent poetry, than any river of its size that I can think of. Its glory days, in literary terms, came after the arrival of the railway in Woodbridge, when people began to look at the river less as an economic artery and more as an object of beauty and tranquillity. This coincided with a golden age of descriptive writing, where authors did not panic about getting out of sentences too early! All that is now sadly derided in the utilitarian age, but look at these names and add your own to a catalogue of writers who recorded our river so elegantly: E.R.Cooper, W.G.Arnott and Alker Tripp, are pre-eminent. Robert Simper has explored, in writing, so many aspects of the Deben and the ships who have sailed her and the men who have worked her. Tom Ellaway always writes with lucidity and with heart. Remember the old ‘Riverside Notes’ in the sadly departed ‘Woodbridge Reporter’? These last two, writers of our time, also speak with huge authority and expertise.
Regard the History of the River Deben and you will find more ironies and paradoxes than are consistent with such an honest-looking river. The River Deben was central to the birth of England itself; the Saxon invaders used the Deben as a doorway to conquest. Germans became English and in 625AD the King of England himself, King Redwald, was buried in great pomp on the river banks. Time passed and later, at Bawdsey Haven, scientists developed Radar, which was crucially important in keeping yet another wave of German tribesmen from our shores.
History oozes from the Deben mud, 2000 years of it; Saxon invasions, mediaeval counter-invasions, attacks on France, a tilt at the Armada, ship-building for Crown and Commonwealth, trading and smuggling and the haven for sailing champions and round-the-world sailors. Remarkably the river has not changed its essential character. Here’s Alker Tripp, writing in the 1930s.
‘Up the river Deben, from the windswept shingle banks and tidal flats, the mariner searches his way by a winding channel, and the fields and woods close about him and replace the long sea-horizons. Landing at Woodbridge at high water he has approached by the same fairway as the adventurers and traders of the middle ages, … an old-world fairway, that is now as then it was. This is a spot that is very England.’
‘That is now as then it was?’ I wonder if we could still make that claim seventy years on. Stand at Waldringfield and look across the water on a full tide; has much changed in a century or so? I am sure, if it has, someone will tell me, but I would like to think that there is a strong visual continuity with our past at many spots along the river.
What of the future? Woodbridge Town Council commissioned a study of river usage in the upper stretches of Estuary Deben. Planners eye the vistas that can be sold for unimaginable fortunes and locals fight to preserve the status quo. The removal or re-positioning of the mud can cause bitter arguments. Wild-lifers, the sailing bods, developers, local businesses, the tourist and tripper trade, ecologists, artists and photographers, nimbies and honest folk who just want to preserve what’s old are all at it! They are struggling to state their case, vying for control. Good. The River Deben has not lost its grip on our imagination and our ambition and it never will.