Back in 1939 Julian Tennyson published an account of his rambles around Suffolk in a publication called ‘Suffolk Scene’. In it he recorded that the water meadows of the Stour Valley followed every inch of the river until it disappeared over the border into Cambridgeshire.
Most of those water meadows have long since gone under the plough with the consequent loss of the wildlife associated with them. Sudbury’s meadows, however, have survived largely intact and although areas were at times, largely abandoned, today the winding verdant ribbon is once again managed for its amenity and wildlife.
Although many of the wildlife riches recorded by local naturalists Joseph Andrews during the eighteenth century and William Walter Hodson in the late nineteenth century have not survived, there is still much to see and enjoy on the riverside. This narrow river valley corridor is alive with wildlife for those who stop to look and listen in spite of ever mounting pressures from intensive agriculture on the one hand and burgeoning urban growth on the other.
Conservation is about putting a management strategy in place.
Providing that strategy is correct then wildlife benefits will ensue. England’s lowlands floodplain grasslands were traditionally grazed by farm livestock through the summer months. During the winter the pastures were liable to flooding and with no grass growth anyway, all livestock was removed until the following spring.
Grazing, therefore, provides the key to the conservation management of the riverside, with some small sensitive areas treated as hay meadows and cut in late summer in order to encourage the specialised wetland flora.
The greatest reward for the conservation manager is to witness the annual improvements as a result of carefully targeted work. Sudbury’s good fortune was that the land was neither ploughed up nor heavily fertilised or sprayed with chemicals.
Thus, plants and animals managed to survive in low numbers during periods of neglect from which they could increase once suitable management was reinstated. Of course, the Sudbury riverside is a mere pin prick in a wider environment and there are many external influences at work which affect it in both good and bad ways.
The river downstream of the Sudbury Common Lands formed the head of the Stour Navigation. For around two hundred years the Navigation was a busy artery of commerce until 1913 when the navigation company went into voluntary liquidation. When the railway came to Sudbury in 1849 it was built on the floodplain, cutting off a piece of Friars Meadow (now Corporal Lillie Close), and King's Marsh and Cootes Meadow - both divided neatly in two.
Thus these arteries of transport attracted industry and Sudbury’s riverside environment was a hive of commercial and industrial activity.
Perhaps most notable among these were the Allen brick works, although the company was also engaged in the malting and lime businesses. As these businesses closed or moved elsewhere, the riverside lands, shaped by their endeavours became somewhat backwaters.
Looking at the landscape and the river today, it is difficult to envisage the brick works and pits, the gas works and warehouses all once busy with industrial activity while horse-drawn gangs of lighters moved up and down the Stour Navigation carrying a wide range of commodities.
Today, the Stour’s quiet backwaters are the haunt of swans with their families of cygnets, pottering moorhens and streaking blue kingfishers, while on the main river the heavily laden lighters have been replaced by recreational craft.
On either side of the river, the energy of commerce and industry has long since fallen silent and given way to rural tranquillity with hedged, tree and ditch-lined pastures bursting with wildlife. On the valley slopes where brick earth was once dug, badgers now dig deep in the old pits and where bricks dried in the hacks, spring cowslips and summer orchids now bloom.