The River Orwell

It is probable that many of those living within a few miles of these waters have been unaware of the beauty, history and thrusting port developments of Felixstowe and Harwich which are so uniquely combined here on the eastern borders of Essex and Suffolk by the River Orwell culminating in the thriving river port of Ipswich, the county seat of Suffolk.

Without doubt, the River Orwell is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt of our deep water navigable rivers. So much so that it must have looked very much the same when the Romans, followed by the Angles, Saxons, Danish, Norwegian and Dutch pirates swept in looking for loot, women, or more living space. The remains of a Roman fort lie at Walton near Trimley St Martin and one imagines there would have been close and constant contact with the large Roman Garrison at Colchester – the oldest recorded town in England.


Ipswich, the county Town of Suffolk, and the Port itself, is spread out with the Ostrich public house by Bourne Bridge marking the boundary. The Ostrich is four centuries old and named after part of the crest of the Earls of Leicester who once owned the land on which is stands. It is also said the name Ostrich was a mistake caused by a drunken landlord whose slurred speech resulted in the sign writer mis-understanding his orders for the sign to be painted ~The Oyster Reach~.

Close by is the Orwell Bridge which was built to take East coast traffic out of Ipswich. Whereas now the Port occupies both the East and West Banks of the river, two hundred years ago, it was the West Bank of the river which presented scenes of great commercial activity. Where now the gardens of the houses in Wherstead Road extend almost to the water’s edge, there were the busy shipyards of Halifax and Nova Scotia, names by which this part of Ipswich is still known by some residents

Splendid East Indiamen were launched from these yards. The famous Spectator and Friendship were launched from here and in 1817, with spectacular ceremonial, the Orwell was launched. An impressive ship of 1,350 tons with a keel length of 153 feet, one of the largest of her class to sail from an English Port; 2,000 loads of Suffolk oak went into her sturdy hull and she was completed in 15 months. The history and importance of the River Orwell is bound up with that of Ipswich itself. In 991 a fleet of 93 brightly painted, dragon-prowed Viking ships swept up the Orwell to sack and pillage Ipswich, or Gyperswick as it was then called. Ipswich was already a port and down the ensuing centuries this beautiful river has seen every kind of vessel that has marked the evolution of shipping.

During mediaeval times Ipswich was a vital trade outlet for East Anglia and by the time of Edward III Ipswich was one of the richest and most important ports in the country. Wool was then the staple product and export and was in great demand by the weavers of Flanders and the Netherlands. Ipswich was ideally placed for this trade, having the raw material close at hand on the backs of the flocks of Norfolk and Suffolk sheep.

It was in the River Orwell that 300 ships massed for the landings of English sailors who were to fight and win the battle of Cressy. In 1588 Ipswich built, fitted out and manned two ships to sail against the Spanish Armada. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the region’s cloth trade declined, the estuary silted and the larger vessels had to discharge lower down the river – this was disastrous for the port of Ipswich.

During the 19th century, commissioners were appointed to widen and deepen the Orwell and now the wheel has come full circle once again.

Quays and cranes, ships and sailors once more line the banks of this historic port. The West Bank Terminal, 240 metres long and with a draft of 6.10 metres alongside, balances the Cliff Quay development on the East Bank. Ships up to 114 metres can be accommodated in the Wet Dock, built in 1842 and for many years the largest in Europe.

It is entered through lock gates at high water and gives some some 900 metres of quay space. The Port of Ipswich is administered by Associated British Ports (ABP) which has jurisdiction over maritime activities from Ipswich to a line drawn from Shotley Point across to Fagbury Cliff. Thus, after a serious decline, Ipswich has re-established itself over the past 20 years as a major UK port.

The Orwell Bridge

Construction of this magnificent bridge commenced in December 1979 and was completed in December 1982.The Main contractor was Stevin – a Dutch company. The bridge is constructed of concrete box girders that allow movement for expansion and contraction.

The main span is 190 metres which, at the time of its construction, was the longest pre-stressed concrete span in use. The total length is 1,287 metres. The width is 24 metres with an Air Draft of 43 metres. Pilings were sunk 40 metres into the river bottom. The Department of Transport funded the project and, partly because of the Bridge, paid for radars and cameras to be installed at the Port’s Orwell Navigation Service to monitor the river and the bridge.

Freston Tower

The true origin of this curious building has never come to light, but a charming explanation has been put forward by Richard Cobbold in his book ~Freston Tower~, in which he says it was built by William Latimer in the 16th century, as a place of study for Ellen, the beautiful young heiress to the De Freestons.

Each of the six rooms which form the tower was devoted to a different study and Ellen divided her day between them. Thus she dispensed charity from the ground floor, later going to work on her tapestries on the first floor. After this she would climb to the second floor where she played music, followed by painting on the third floor, literature on the fourth and astronomy on the fifth.

It is also said that Wolsey, Latimer and De Freeston visited her there on one occasion when she led them to the top floor room and they remained to take breakfast with her and tell her of the outside world and the roles they played in it.

Here the river banks are still embroidered with small open paddocks and spinneys. Pond Hall Farm embraces the tidal waters and marshes. A fascinating smugglers ploy was uncovered during alterations to the Hall. A small tunnel leading from a living room to the river bank enabled a lantern to be seen by smugglers coming abreast of it and it guided them safely to welcoming comrades.

Royal Harwich Yacht Club

Before we arrive at Pin Mill where the river is wide and shallow and, apart from the dredged channel which enables the deep draft ships to come and go from the port of Ipswich, there is an ideal place for yacht moorings.

The marina at Wolverstone services these moorings and the yachts that use them. Many of the owners of these trim vessels are members of the Royal Harwich Yacht club which lies close to the marina. This club is one of the oldest of its kind in England and Queen Victoria was an honorary member.

As its name implies it was first in Harwich but moved to these more tranquil waters following a disagreement between the Club members and Harwich Town Council, a move which they do not regret now that the Harbour is so taken up with the comings and goings of the shipping fleets of the world.

Adjacent to the club house is a small cottage, painted white, known as the Cat House. It earned this name in the 18th century when smuggling was a way of life for almost the entire population of the villages bordering the Orwell. The then owners of the cottage were the fond possessors of a fine white cat. In due time the feline died and was stuffed, and, no doubt, continued to be much admired. Even more so when a use was found for him. Whenever the coast was clear of Excise men he was placed in the window of the cottage and the smugglers knew they could shift their contraband without having to look over their shoulders.

One of the last recorded captures by the Excise men was of the Ipswich Yawl ~Daisy~ at Levington Creek in 1817. Forty-eight tubs of spirit were found aboard and the owner’s protestations that he had trawled them up out of the sea off Languard Point fell on deaf ears. It is worth mentioning here that the novel ~Margaret Catchpole~ by Richard Cobbold would come wonderfully alive for anyone who has sailed these waters and is interested in the days of free trading when so much smuggling took place.

Admiral Grog

Rising above the ancient trees of Orwell park, just beyond Broke Hall, is Orwell Park House, a splendid 18th century mansion. This was the home of Admiral Vernon, twice Mayor of Ipswich, and Admiral of the Fleet when it won a notable victory at Portobello.

It is not for either of these reasons he is remembered however, but for the fact that because of him, the Royal Naval rum ration came to be called Grog. He was a stern, puritanical gentleman who, when on deck, wore a black silk cloak made of a French material called gros grain. This rustled as he made his way around his ship and his sailors corrupted the words gros grain and called him Old Grog. At that time drunkenness and vice in the Navy life was rife, and Old Grog thought of a way he might improve the situation. He ordered that all rum rations should henceforth be watered down, from which time it came to be called grog by the sailors.

We can also see a green buoy positioned in the River close to his old house called the Grog Buoy.

Pin Mill

The small community of Pin Mill lies as near to the river as can be. Somehow it has managed to retain a delightful reminder of days’ past, when those workhorses of the water, barges, were built here, just as they were in almost every salt water creek of the south and east of England. It is now one of the few places where men with the old skills of the shipwright can be found to repair and prolong the lives of these beautiful craft. As a result, we are fortunate to see more than our fair share sailing to and from Pin Mill, and the sight of one beating her way along the ever-changing Ipswich river certainly adds a dimension to any cruise. 1973 saw the last of the commercially operated barges, but, thanks to far sighted enthusiasts, approximately 30 of them have been salvaged from a rotting death and they collect at Buttermans Bay early in July each year for the Pin Mill Barge Match. That really is a sight to warm the hearts of all who can appreciate the skill and loving care that went into the building of every one of them.

There is a pub at Pin Mill which typically has been built with the water lapping around its foundations; it is called the ~Butt and Oyster~ and if only its old stones could talk! At high water yachtsmen could be served whilst still aboard from the windows of the pub and it is reputed to have been a secret rendezvous for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when he was Prince of Wales and she was Mrs Simpson, awaiting her degree nisi in Felixstowe.

The very name ~Butt and Oyster~ indicates connections going back to mediaeval times when every able man was required to spend two weeks a year practising the art of archery, the better to defend his local community from foreign invaders. The field where the archery practice took place was called the butts, and until comparatively recent times, oysters were to be found in nearly all the lovely reaches of the River Orwell.

The charm of this region is its simplicity and lack of so-called sophistication. Pin Mill is a happy example of this, and its name refers to the fact that mills for the grinding of locally grown corn were situated here.

A ferry used to leave from the hard at Pin Mill carrying folk across the river to land by the picture postcard thatched cottage on the opposite bank until the end of the 19th century.

The pleasure boats that carried large numbers of people between Ipswich, Harwich and Felixstowe when the L.N.E.R. operated the service, landed passengers and took them aboard just off Pin Mill, and what a lovely picture it conjures. Excited children out for the day, clambering aboard from the tiny tender that rowed them out to the deeper draft boats for a day, or shopping in Ipswich. Elderly matrons being heaved and pushed helpfully to and from the Queens of the River.

The Orwell was, in those days, a far quicker, smoother and more reliable highway than the roads.