Suffolk is home to one of the most picturesque stretches of navigable water in the UK. Find out why it’s so special.
Its famous bar is probably the thing that does the most to determine the Deben’s character. These notorious shifting sands at the river’s entrance are not actually that fearsome – they change position each winter, and sometimes more often, but they are well buoyed – it’s just that its reputation tends to frighten off more timorous and less experienced boaters. This, as well as the complications of timing your departure from, and arrival at, Woodbridge, has ensured that, of all the Suffolk rivers, the Deben is less well-visited than its charms merit, and, somehow, has become the haven of choice for traditional wooden boats.
Moreover, the aforementioned bar discourages large commercial traffic, ensuring a restful cruise up the nine-mile navigable length to Woodbridge. Standard advice on crossing the bar is to do so on a rising tide, from half-flood up to High Water, and to leave on the flood, or, even if you’ve experience of these waters, very soon after. The ebb, which can rush out at up to 6 knots needs to be taken into consideration. The bar, at least this year, forces you over to the west bank, but once inside, and having made sure to keep clear of a wicked little mid-river spit, just before you reach the second Martello tower, you’ll need to edge over to the eastern, Bawdsey, side to avoid the Horse Sand Shoals in the middle of the river. Best to pre-arm yourself with an up-to-date chartlet from harbourmaster John White.
Once safely inside, it’s worth picking up a mooring and going ashore. Felixstowe Ferry on the west side is a pleasantly clapboard-shack and fishing boat sort of place, where you can buy fresh fish off a stall, and walk out to the two Martello towers. There’s a pub, The Ferry Boat Inn (the other pub, the Victoria, has closed down), and the Ferry Café, a classy greasy spoon with homemade cakes, whose breakfasts are so superlative that Nancy Blackett’s crews have been known to drive out from Woodbridge in order to partake of them, on the pretext of inspecting the bar.
The other side has the Boathouse Café, overlooking the river and more of a tea and scones sort of place. It also has the resplendent Bawdsey Manor, a Victorian gingerbread Gothic pile with oriental turrets and other embellishments, just waiting to be chosen as a location for an Agatha Christie adaptation. It was built in 1886 by Sir Cuthbert Quilter, MP and telephony entrepreneur, who also established a steam-powered chain ferry across to Felixstowe Ferry. Opened in 1894, it ran until 1931. The Manor was taken over by the RAF in 1936 for the secret development of radar. Its array of prominent transmitter and receiver towers became a local landmark and the Transmitter Block is now a museum.
Immediately above Felixstowe Ferry there is a short stretch of unrestricted speed, for the benefit of water-skiers. Then an 8-knot speed limit kicks in to ensure the relative tranquillity up to the head of navigation. The land on either side of the river here is generally rather flat – marshes in some parts – and mainly undeveloped, thanks to 19th-century landowners who kept the area clear for wildfowling – even to the extent of pulling down Ramsholt village. As a result, it’s great bird-spotting terrain, particularly for overwintering avocets.
Nowadays, Ramsholt is known as a mooring, with a length of quay providing landing and shelter for row-ashore dinghies, an attractive grassy strand and an isolated riverside pub, the Ramsholt Arms. This has one of the best locations of any pub in Britain – sunsets a speciality – but has struggled to maintain viability in recent years, and in fact closed down briefly earlier this year. Good news is that it’s open again, under new management but, shock horror, has lost its Suffolk pink-wash exterior in favour of a genteel cream render. Tasteful enough, but indicative of its gastro-ised ambience. Approach via low-tide mud in seaboots is unlikely to be welcomed, so visiting yachtsmen may need to come ashore armed with spare shoes and plastic bags, or resign themselves to eating in their socks.
Above Ramsholt, the character of the riverbanks changes, with the addition of low, wooded cliffs. The Rocks – aptly named, for those not removed to build Orford Castle litter the river’s bed – provides a pleasant landing spot with a sandy beach.
Then, on the west side, is Waldringfield. There used to be a thriving cement industry here, with barges coming and going, but perhaps mercifully there’s little evidence of it now. Instead, there’s a popular inn, the Maybush, and a small boatyard, which also offers river trips and, as of this season, incorporates a gallery and shop run by local artist (and CB contributor) Claudia Myatt.
Still on the west side, and shortly before the river reaches Woodbridge, lies Martlesham Creek, accessible about an hour either side of High Water, and with its own secluded boatyard, which has pontoons and swinging moorings. Five minutes’ walk through the woods and up the lane brings you to the Red Lion pub. The fierce figurehead of a red lion on the wall comes from the Dutch ship Stavoren, captured – so I’ve been told – in the Anglo-Dutch battle of Sole Bay, 1672.
And so to Woodbridge, a rewarding finale to this upriver passage, despite its tendency to be fringed by mud rather than water for a large half of each tide. Several of Classic Boat’s friends and contributors live there, including Richard Hare, Andrew Craig-Bennett, and Moray MacPhail of Classic Marine.
But you will need to time your arrival with some care. The river pretty well dries here at Low Water, and entry into the Tidemill Yacht Harbour is feasible for less than a couple of hours either side of High Water. The marina is protected by a sill at its entrance and the depth over the sill is shown there on a tide gauge.
You’ll notice at once that this is not your normal marina, being a horseshoe of water and pontoons, surrounded by grassy banks. In fact, it was converted from the old tide mill pool by Whisstocks, then the town’s chief boatbuilder, in the 1960s. The tide mill itself, an iconic Woodbridge sight, still stands at the head of the marina. Built in 1796 (though previous mills date back to 1170) it was still working commercially in the 1950s. Now a living museum, it provides daily demonstrations according to tide times.
A walk from the tide mill along the river wall will take you past the now-abandoned Whisstocks sheds (they come to life every other year for the Woodbridge Maritime Festival), the Ferry Dock and Bass’s Dock, both full of intriguing liveaboard boats, including a number of Dutch barges. Then there’s the black-timbered home of the Woodbridge Cruising Club, a particularly lively organisation and as much a social centre for the community as it is a sailing club. And no visit to Woodbridge would be complete without a diversion to see the array of boats for sale at Andy Seedhouse’s yard.
Walk the other way, upstream – fi nd a footpath between the tide mill and the railway line – and you’ll reach Robertsons boatyard, with its lagoon full of more liveaboard barges, and then on, past the odd mooring as the river becomes more rural and tranquil until, within a mile, you’ll happen on the Granary Yacht Haven, known to all as Mel Skeet’s, a rambling collection of pontoons and temporary tarpaulin boatsheds where restoration and rebuilds are under way. Here, for example, John Krejsa is slowly restoring the Albert Strange yawl Mist – just one of the several Albert Strange boats in the area. Further upriver, Larkman’s Boatyard has a large winter lay-up area, and is a useful source of chandlery supplies.
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