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.

FullSizeRender4

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.

FullSizeRender

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.

Advertisements

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.

FullSizeRender6

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.

FullSizeRender24

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.

FullSizeRender19

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/

Bourne Mill

Col18

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.

Col22

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.

Col1.jpg

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.

Col12

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.

Col9

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.

Col120

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/

Col11.jpg