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.

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LV18, Harwich

In Harwich, there is one vessel on the quayside that you just can’t ignore, not least because of its scarlet livery.  Built in 1958, LV18 was Trinity House’s last manned light vessel before it was retired from service in 1994.  But as with the Harbour Ferry, this was a boat that wasn’t going to go quietly, thanks to one man – the ebullient and utterly charming Tony O’Neil.  He bought the vessel for a nominal £1 and the Pharos Trust was set up to oversee its restoration.  It opened in 2011 as Harwich’s quirkiest visitor attraction.

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A musician by trade, Tony has a passion for radio. Visitors to the ship can see some of his extensive collection of antique and vintage radios on board, but with an estimated 1600 in his collection, some remain in storage in the hold.  That passion for radio also manifests itself in broadcasting.  Tony once worked for Radio Caroline and his enthusiasm for pirate radio is undimmed.  The likes of John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko and Johnnie Walker all broadcast from radio ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters and the tenders that facilitated their commute came from Harwich.

Bourne Mill

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This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey.  A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.

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After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it.  Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill.  The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, formed the new structure.  If you’ve been to Colchester and seen its castle and wall, you’ll notice some similarities.

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The wonderful building that you see today at Bourne Mill was the result.  Well actually, not quite.  What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner.  On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory.

Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true.  This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.

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But that story doesn’t end there, of course.  Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe.  Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter.  Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.

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The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says.  They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular.  A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth.  That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.

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Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium.  It became a fulling mill,  a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable.  A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive.  Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth.  Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead.  Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.

After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more.  The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton.  By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill.  As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape.

Bourne Mill was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed.  The three millstones used at Bourne Mill were imported from France.  Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.

Today, the property is managed by the National Trust.  You’ll find it a 20 minute walk from Colchester Town station just east of Mersea Road, which is served by buses from the town centre.  If you drive, there are a few parking spaces at Bourne Mill but if these are full, roadside parking is available nearby.  If you’d like to explore other mills in North Essex, the map below gives you an idea of where to find them.  For one of only two working tide mills in the country (the other is at Woodbridge in Suffolk), check out Thorrington Tide Mill, a short distance from Colchester:

https://essexology.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/thorrington-tide-mill/

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