The end of October was drawing ever closer, the days were getting shorter, but it just seemed right to plan a little adventure. My friend, Andy and I hatched a plan to paddle the River Stour in Suffolk, early the following month. The navigable section is between Sudbury and Cattawade, the last stop before the tidal estuary, a short journey of just 24 miles, broken up by quite a few portage points. Not being in any rush, a gentle paddle over two days downstream, going with the flow and a wild camp somewhere by the river was our plan.
It seemed prudent to check out other folks experiences of paddling the River Stour, this included the paddling guide by the River Stour Trust, and the potential for concerns about river levels on the Song of the Paddle, so I checked the two monitoring stations on our route, Bures Bridge and Langham, the levels approximately 0.2m and 0.4m respectively and falling! The former was a tad shallow for an open canoe, but we figured we could always walk and line the canoe along that stretch!
So there we were, dropping of one car at Cattawade, ready for our return to Sudbury the following day, a beautiful November morning, the weather gods were being very kind, a slight chill in the air and sunshine. A short drive to Sudbury, we loaded a box of food, a few essentials for a wild camp on route, and we were soon on the water paddling downstream, the river levels were fine and soon we were simply enjoying life afloat.
Whilst hardly a mile went by without a short portage around a weir, they were all well maintained and bar one, easy to navigate. The access points were designed for canoes and rowing boats, and made exit and entry easy. Andy and I hadn’t paddled together before, but it wasn’t long before we had a tried and tested approach to the many portages.
We glided up to the decking, stopped, I’d sit on the decking, feet still in the canoe, steadying the craft, Andy would do the same. All gear emptied on to the deck, and then we’d portage the canoe to the next entry point, return for gear and put it all back in, climb aboard and off we’d paddle. What was nice is just how everything had it’s place, that first pack of the canoe at Sudbury seemed to work fine, so that’s how it stayed.
It was fascinating how the river changed, from relatively wide, with views across fields and cows grazing, down to little more than a stream, where we were banked by tall rushes and reads, and couldn’t see much at all. Some stretches of the river had clear banks with young willow, others could have done with some management with branches dangling in the river and whole trees down, making navigation challenging.
These navigation challenges really made our paddle all the more of an adventure, as you paddled around a bend in the river, you never knew quite what to expect. At times it was just a matter of paddling through a narrow gap on one side of the river or the other, at other times, we were ducking under branches, pushing through reads that had gathered in beds against sunken branches and cutting our way through.
Our progress at times was a little slow, and it being November the days were shorter and so we were on the look out for a suitable wild camping spot before dusk. As luck would have it, a kind soul out walking with his dog, had told us of a large tree blocking the river, although he thought it may have been cleared. It hadn’t, after a few attempts to find a way though, over or under, we headed back up river in the quest to find somewhere to safely get out of the steeply sided river (yes, it’s been reported to the Environment Agency).
Suffice to say, we found a place to climb out of the river a 1/4 mile back upstream, we then had a portage trip back down past the fallen tree, and found ourselves a nice spot for the night. I say night, it was barely 5:30 in the afternoon and already dark. We made a brew and dinner and then with it getting quite cold, snuggled into sleeping bags ready for an early night’s sleep.
Lying under a big oak, relaxed, listening to the water running through the nearby weir, it was a lovely end to the day. But not quite, it wasn’t long before a large dog out for an evenings walk was startle by our presence, and barked loudly until it’s owner called it back and continued on their walk.
We had an early breakfast, and chatted to a friendly land owner about the fallen tree. Then, packing our gear back into the canoe, once again we were off with the flow, paddling downstream.
The portages varied, some were around weirs, others sluice gates, some narrow and others wide and rather pretty. With a few exceptions the water levels were fine for paddling. Typically, downstream of a weir the river level would be lower, and we had to get out and line the canoe along until the water was deep enough to paddle again.
Much of the land adjoining the river is private, with signs to make sure you know that they would prefer you keep to the portage trail. But in the main that really wasn’t an issue. The only portage that was an issue, was at Bures Mill. The re-entry into the river was signposted as via an adjacent stream, but with branches and rocks, we need to line the canoe along this stretch – the challenge here was needing to cross the stream, there was a foot bridge for what appeared to be a public path, but sadly the gate from the river to the path was locked!
Some of the river was quite well choked with reeds, and it wasn’t long before our next challenge was upon us. Yes, another tree down and despite some struggling and pushing across reeds, we realised this was not going to end well. So we found somewhere to get out and pulled ourselves and the canoe up out through the reeds and nettles. Once past the fallen tree blocking the river, the soft bank, made it easy to slide down with our loaded canoe, and carefully climb back in and push ourselves off into the rivers flow once again.
The portage points really were simple to use, and whilst there were warning signs about keeping to the trail and no picnics, we figured that the decking being part of the portage trail, we were fine to stop for a brew and a snack, but obviously not a picnic!
As we paddled with the flow of the river, you really felt at one with nature, with much of the time being peaceful and just the occasional sound of distant traffic. As we move gently east to the coast, Andy pointed out some of the landmarks beautifully painted John Constable 200 years ago, and yes, there are many places that seem as wonderful today as perhaps they did way back then.
The River Stour was beautiful, yes, helped by the kindness of the weather gods, we so enjoyed our paddle down this peaceful river. I think we’ll be back for another paddle sometime, but in the mean time, we’ll be hunting out other dreamy rivers for paddling adventures. It really is a fab river for a gentle paddle in a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddle board. And if you fancy paddling the River Stour and have any questions – please do just ask. Happy paddling.
For those who are curious – our craft is a Bob Special, made by Nova Craft Canoe, it feels like it was designed for rivers like the Stour, it’s light weight, and a joy to paddle. I’ve lowered the seats a couple of inches to aid stability when paddling with a friend and added a kneeling thwart for solo paddling.