A brisk spring day dawned and cast its cold but bright eye upon us as we stood on the Ipswich Town Quay. I had arived to spend a day on the Thames Sailing Barge 'Victor' and our playground was to be the River Orwell and the River Stour in Suffolk.
Traditionally all Thames Barges even though sporting masculine names, are all ladies and demand to be treated as such. She sat quietly nestled against the quay waiting for us to cross the gangplank and step aboard onto her wide and calm decks. Once we got settled and listened to the Skipper relaying safety checks and a little bit of the history of the grand old lady who was going to take us for a bit of a jolly, the engine started and the lines were cast off and without further ado, Victor turned on a sixpence and headed out away from the quay on an ebbing tide towards the lock and out into the River Orwell.
Once safely on the river, the deckhand hoisted the sails and trimmed the daggerboards. Victor slipped through the water easily, shaking her nose a little as the tide over wind ripples hit her bow but not a drop of tea was spilt by her passengers all day! Victor remained, no matter at which point of sailing she found herself in, upright and steady.
The River Orwell turns into a wide and very pretty estuary at Ipswich and flows steadily to the open sea, confluencing with the River Stour at Shotley, just before emerging into the North Sea. Both river banks are quite beautiful with a large number of imposing houses standing proudly on the elevated land bordering the river and whose parklands sweep majestically down to the waters edge. Most of these wonderful buildings were reportedly built by Admirals of the Fleet who were stationed at Harwich Naval Yards in days gone by. An great example of this is Orwell Park which was built by Admiral Vernon in the 18th Century and then bought by Colonel Tomline a Victorian businessman, who not only built the wonderful observatory seen today but founded the Port of Felixstowe.
Felixstowe Docks together with the Port of Harwich which is on the River Stour are today thriving hubs of commerce, huge ships from around the world loading and unloading cargoes at Felixstowe and ferries ploughing their routes to Europe from Harwich twenty fours a day. However far from being a negative in our trip, when viewed from a relatively small boat, the modern towering crane structures of Felixstowe Docks and the old naval buildings and docks of Harwich full of history and intrique, both quite graceful and beautiful in their own way.
Just before reaching the commercial side of the River Orwell, we passed picturesque villages nestled into the bankside. Pinmill is quaint, not easy to visit or see from the road but oh so pretty from the water, full of gaily coloured houseboats and chocolate box cottages. It also boasts a very good pub which is a TV star in its own right having featured in one of the programmes in the series Lovejoy!
Pinmill has been the subject of many an artists palette and its charm and history abound. It was where Thames Barges were maintained, sails were made, bricks and even a malting and it is alleged that smuggling once a huge industry on the east coast, may have taken place - it certainly adds to its allure.
Well 'Victor' headed on by Pinmill and Felixstowe at a fair clip and hung a right at Shotley Gate and headed on into the River Stour estuary. Our destination was Mistley which is where the Stour estuary takes over from the river. At this point lunch was called and we all clambered below to indulge ourselves in a wonderful three course lunch slaved over by 'Victor's chef. No sooner had we put our dessert spoons down, than the cry went up from the Skipper that we were turning around and heading back to home and all the sails would be shaken out.
So with a good following breeze on the very last gasp of a slack tide, 'Victor' picked up her skirts and positively, for a very old lady, flew back the way she had come. The Royal Hospital School buildings presided over our progress and we slipped back along past Harwich and poked our noses into the confluence of the two rivers, a few cheeky waves rolled up against the barge but she took it all in her stride - tea was not spilt and she bolted for home back up the Orwell.
Great fun ensued when another Thames Barge ghosted past us unseen until she thumbed her nose as she pulled ahead. The race was on and our crew picked up the gauntlet, trimming the sails and daggerboards to get the last burst of speed and both barges galloped back to Ipswich on what was by now, a flood tide. Both barges had to squeeze into the lock and we were lifted effortlessly up to the level of the water inside the Ipswich Marina.
On leaving the lock, 'Victor' drifted back to her berth alongside the quay, lines were fastened and the engine stopped. The old lady seemed to relax and almost settle no doubt quietly congratulating herself for a job well done. We all thought so too and we all patter her deck as we stepped ashore. So to those visitors thinking of coming to Suffolk and to Ipswich, I would thoroughly recommend spending a day exploring the beautiful Rivers Orwell and Stour by boat or by car.