Abberton Reservoir & the Dambuster connection

Largely taking its water from the River Stour, Abberton Reservoir is the largest in Essex.  But as well as being an important source of fresh water for North Essex residents, it’s also a wetland site managed by Essex Wildlife Trust.  The location is a key overwintering ground for migratory birds.  The damp ground hosts lapwing, curlew and golden plover and where the grass is better you’ll see wild geese.  Other birds that are commonly spotted include grebe, coot, swan and wigeon populations.

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An estimated 40,000 birds come each year, attracted by the shallow waters at the edge of the reservoir where they can peck about in the mud.  There’s also a breeding colony of cormorants, unusual as they nest in inland trees rather than on the more common coastal cliff ledge sites.  There are plenty of footpaths in the vicinity as well as a well-stocked visitor centre.  You can’t quite circumnavigate the reservoir but you’ll get a close look at the water in many places.

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But this tranquil place hides a chilling secret.  During the war, Abberton was one of the practice locations used by RAF 617 Squadron, more famously known as the Dambusters.  Preparations were intensive, with emphasis on low flying and simulated night flights.  Though participating pilots didn’t know what the target of Operation Chastise was going to be, the reservoir location offered some vital clues.  The Layer Causeway would have simulated a dam and was closed to passing traffic while the planes were overhead.  But the reservoir, finished just a short while before war broke out, was itself a target.

The Ministry of Defence was concerned that Abberton could be used as a landing site for seaplanes and placed 312 mines across the reservoir.  They were held in place with steel cables attached to concrete blocks.  At the end of the war, most were exploded; soldiers were ordered to fire at them from the banks of the reservoir.  Some, however, were holed and sank.  A prolonged period of dry weather in the late 1980s led to 22 of these mines being exposed on the reservoir’s banks and the army were called in.  Seven still had some explosives intact and were blown up.  Since then, a specialist diving unit has carried out a thorough survey and the reservoir is now officially clear.

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The gardens at Beeleigh Abbey

Beeleigh Abbey dates from the 12th century.  Once an abbey for the Premonstratensian Order (don’t try to say that with a mouthful of cake), it was later owned by one unfortunate individual who was beheaded for supporting Lady Jane Grey.

The house you see in the picture dates from the 17th century but the timbers and some of the other features of the original abbey have been retained.  These days, the place is privately owned and not accessible to visitors.

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However, for a few days each year, the gardens are open and make a pleasant afternoon out if you’re in the Maldon area.  What follows are some of the highlights of the garden.  If you’d like to see for yourself, the last opening of the year is on September 8th and then it will close until the 2018 season.

Adjacent to the house is an area laid to lawn surrounding several ornamental features.  There’s plenty of bench seating which was being well used at the time of my visit, as was the marquee serving refreshments.  The garden makes the most of its watery setting, with paths alongside the adjacent River Chelmer.

Beeleigh’s pond was very shady and on such a hot day, offered welcome relief from the sun.  This area felt less like a formal garden and more like a slice of the beautiful Essex countryside, but again had plenty of benches allowing you to sit and take in the view.

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For me, the most impressive part of the gardens were the floral displays, but that’s probably to be expected given the timing of my visit in August when the roses were a riot of colour.  As well as the dedicated rose garden, there were a plethora of fragrant specimens in the cottage garden and in the beds lining the many gravel paths.

It’s easy to forget how much deadheading and pruning goes into displays such as this.

Other areas open to visitors included the orchard, kitchen garden, wild flower meadow and wisteria walk.  Depending on the time of year, some are past their best or yet to take centre stage.  If you can only come once, and at £6 a ticket, that’s probably the case for many people, then think about the time of year which will give you the most pleasure.

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To reach Beeleigh, go to the top of Maldon High Street and follow London Road until you pass the cemetery on your left.  Make a right turn into Abbey Turning and follow the signs for Beeleigh Abbey.

http://www.visitmaldon.co.uk/beeleigh-abbey/

East Anglian Railway Museum

Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.”  Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.

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But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate.  Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list.  Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties.  With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.

Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly.  It was hot work.  As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable.  Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead.  I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.

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While it’s a special treat to ride on the footplate, the museum’s regular exhibits are well worth exploring.  I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way.  The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top.  Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.

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Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory.  Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on.  There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.

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The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge.  Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate.  But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury.  Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers  disappearing into the mud.

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EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree.  I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train.  You’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out.  The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.