Of Birds and Barges

Furrow / 31st January, 2014

Suffolk_Barge2Early last Saturday morn we (that’s me and Father Forté) headed for the old Ha’Penny Pier in Harwich, armed only with flask, thermals and binoculars. We were greeted by a gaggle of similarly shivering (but smiling) folk all destined for the intrepid mist laden voyage up the Stour on the Victor.

The Victor is a handsomely restored Thames Barge, built at Dock End Yard in Ipswich, 1895. She’s a real beauty, a steel and wooden belly flop of a boat. No graces, just coal black grunt and muscle. God knows how you’d sink one of these.

In her prime she ferried her Linseed Oil cargo from the fields to London and back, but today the only oil onboard was to fry our Bacon (a rather nice surprise). These Barges were once a common sight on the estuary, shipping bricks from Holbrook, Malt from Mistley and Coprolite from Stutton, the industrial ghosts of commerce past. I’ve admired them at distance, usually from the windows at the Pin Mill Butt & Oyster, but this was the first time we’d climbed aboard and set sail.

Suffolk_Barge1The fully paid up members of the Suffolk wide brimmed hat society had gathered today to be guided up the Stour on the Victor by the local RSBP crew, to sneak up on the migrants and catch a glimpse of birds unseen from the shoreline.

Our excellent guide for the day (Rick, Manager of the local RSPB Reserves) was surprisingly unperturbed by the belching fog, “we can creep up on them, they won’t know we’re coming” he said, and he was right. The thick mists made for great cover and the slow silent drift of the Barge was a migrant meditation.

We have treaded the banks of the Stour for years, from Cattawade to Stutton, Holbrook to Harkstead, Erwarton to Shotley, Mistley to Wrabness, the whole shebang (not in one swipe I hasten to add) but the Barge trip delivered a new perspective, looking back toward the marsh and mud with plenty of surprises.

The majestic Peregrine falcon sitting atop the Light Boat, the three Shag on the yellow drum (they were not Cormorant, it’s all in the beak), Black Throated Divers at Deep Fleet that we’ve only seen in Scotland, the Great Crested Grebes flying (it’s daft, but I’ve never seen one fly), ducks, ducks and more ducks, Gadwall, Pintail, Goldeneye, Widgeon, Merganser, a Kittiwake, and every wader under the sun, well… mist. It was like an artic migrant motel.

Breakfast_BargeThawing out, we moored at the mid point for a well received breakfast bonanza, a proper Bacon, Sausage and Egg feast. A well timed break and an opportunity to enjoy the warmth below deck. As an aside, back on deck, if you faced toward Essex the cold wind was brutal, if you turned and admired Suffolk the warmth was palpable, just an observation.

As we trundled up river toward Mistley Quay the mists cleared and the sun threatened a wink. The u-turn journey back even treated us to two cheeky Seals and a parting wave from the Peregrine.

I can’t recommend this trip enough, we had a great time even in flaky weather and the guides were excellent. It was a pleasure to spend the time gliding up the estuary on such a magnificant Barge, nostrils full of salty air and bluster.

It wasn’t all about about the Birds, Barge or Bacon either, it was great to just grab some quality family time, reminiscing about the fond shoreline of my youth from a different angle with the old man. Good times.


Posted by: Forte