Our first speaker of 2015 was Lewis Tyler, who came to give us an illustrated talk about the history of the River Gipping.
Lewis is a member of the River Gipping Trust*, an organisation which aims to preserve the historic heritage of the Stowmarket Navigation by restoring the structures that enabled navigation of the River Gipping from the centre of Stowmarket to the docks in Ipswich, whilst caring for the flora and fauna of The Gipping Valley and making the footpath more accessible for the less able to enjoy the river.
The Gipping is the source for the River Orwell , and gives its name to the village of Gipping. It rises near Mendlesham and flows in a south-westerly direction to reach Stowmarket. From there it flows south-east, passing through Needham Market and a number of villages to reach Ipswich, where it becomes the Orwell. The river once supplied power to a number of watermills en route, several of which are still standing, although none are now operational.
In the 11th and 13th centuries the river was used to transport building stone in flat-bottomed boats to Rattlesden. This stone was used in the rebuilding of the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds. Stowmarket church bells were also transported down-river in the 17th century to be re-cast at Ipswich.
As the need for better transport links increased, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1790 to allow for the improvement of the river from Ipswich to Stowmarket. This was achieved by the building of 15 locks, and the river became known as the Ipswich and Stowmarket Navigation when it opened in 1793.
The main cargoes on the Navigation consisted of agricultural produce, hops, barley and beer, which travelled downstream, with coal, manure and other heavy goods travelling in the opposite direction. Tolls were set at 1d per mile downstream, and 1/2d per mile downstream. At first there were up to four working barges, which soon increased to 10, and by the early 1800s barges were making over 30 trips a week, each trip taking around 8 hours to cover the 17 miles between Ipswich and Stowmarket.
The route became well-used by barge traffic, and in 1819 there was even talk of expansion, but nothing came of it. Then when the railways arrived in the area in the 1840s the railway company leased the Navigation from its trustees for 42 years, on the understanding that they would maintain it. In truth it was not particularly in their interest to do this, and so by the end of the lease the Navigation was in a poor state from which it never really recovered. There remained some traffic through the lower four locks, with barges serving the Fison’s and Packard’s fertiliser factories at Bramford, but by 1917 it was no longer economical to keep it open, and the river finally closed as a trade route in 1934.
It was not until 1974 that the Eastern Region branch of the Inland Waterways Association began to take an active role in the improvement of the River Gipping, after seeing the state of the Navigation in a waterways magazine article. Their long-term aim was to restore the waterway to navigable standards for leisure traffic, and to improve the river path for walkers. This led to the setting up of the Gipping Valley River Path, a footpath from Ipswich to Stowmarket which uses the towpath for most of its route.
Locks, sluice gates, weirs and bridges have been re-built, restored and repaired, but there is still much work to be done. Eventually it is hoped to run an electric boat for tourists to cruise along certain stretches of the waterway, from where they will really be able to appreciate features of the old Navigation – the mills, bridges, locks and towpath – and perhaps catch something of the feeling of a bargeman’s journey down the River Gipping.
*The River Gipping Trust is a registered charity. For more information go to: www.rivergippingtrust.org