Gallery: A 12-mile trip from Ipswich to Harwich aboard the Orwell Lady reveals rich biodiversity of this vital waterway

Orwell Lady

Orwell Lady - Credit: Archant/grant

Estuaries are vital for wildlife and a host of human activities. From the deck of the Orwell Lady, John Grant offers a personal view of one of the most important of them all

View from the Orwell lady

View from the Orwell lady - Credit: Archant/grant

A cruise down the River Orwell from Ipswich to Felixstowe or Harwich is a relatively short journey of about 12 miles. On a vessel such as the Orwell Lady the round trip back to Suffolk’s county town takes a leisurely three-and-a-half hours.

But, and it is a very big but, it is a short journey that is long on social and natural history. In those 24-or-so miles and in those 210 minutes the River Orwell reveals itself to be bustling at either end with globe-spanning trade, busy all the way with all manner of yachts, speedboats and a sprinkling of more historic sailing vessels, and positively bristling throughout with biodiversity.

And so a trip along the Orwell is a trip through all the pleasures a UK river estuary has to offer and is an insight into all the pressures these important commercial arteries, these much-loved recreational spaces and these precious wildlife habitats increasingly face. The Orwell encapsulates our estuaries’ very essence. If any of the UK’s estuaries can be seen as an example of how each estuarine characteristic - natural beauty, commerce, recreation and ecological importance - sits side by side with all the others, it is indeed the Orwell.

As the Orwell Lady’s crew cast off in Ipswich Wet Dock, this magical mix of the river’s uses and values - its vibrancy, its varied life - is immediately clear. Within yards of the smart apartments and buzzing restaurants and bars on the recently invigorated Ipswich Waterfront, a dinner plate-sized jellyfish pulsates at the surface before gracefully descending to the dock’s dark depths. A cormorant’s beady eyes gives the oil-black bird a commanding view from a crane top, there is the white forest of the towering masts of a myriad of moored yachts and we are reminded of the Wet Dock’s past trading importance.

View from the Orwell Lady

View from the Orwell Lady - Credit: Archant/grant

A sea port has existed here since the 7th Century. Indeed, the port has played a crucial role in the development of Ipswich over many centuries. But business leaders in the 1830s created the Wet Dock to enable commerce to thrive still further, to enable vessels to load and discharge their cargoes without having to wait for the next high tide - and thrive commerce did. Now, though, there is only one commercial ship left operating from inside the dock, contracted to the Anglo-Norden timber company.

Exiting through Prince Philip Lock, however, we see that the Port of Ipswich retains much of its vibrancy and commercial potency. It is busy handling timber, aggregates, grain, fertilisers and other goods. And even amid this tumult of trade, on a slither of mud, a common sandpiper bobs along, apparently unconcerned by the hustle and bustle nearby. It seems more concerned with feeding up on the Orwell’s natural food supply, its speciality - invertebrates - to fuel the next leg of its long migratory journey from some fast-flowing river in northern Europe to a warmer wintering ground far to the south.

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The Orwell Lady glides serenely under the elegant concrete sweep of the Orwell Bridge - home now to one of the estuary’s star species, the peregrine falcon. A few years back a pair of these powerful, speedy birds of prey chose the bridge as the location for their species’ Suffolk comeback, it having been absent from the county as a breeding bird for more than 100 years. Following several successful breeding seasons on one of the bridge’s central pillars, peregrines have now spread to other parts of Suffolk and are as likely to be seen soaring over urban centres as they are over remote marshes.

Leaving Ipswich behind, there is a wilder feel to the estuary now and the first black-tailed godwits are encountered - elegant, imposing wading birds that have made the journey south from Iceland, Shetland, Orkney or western Norway. Hundreds are here probing the oozing Orwell mud for juicy, life-sustaining worms. Raucous oystercatchers, vivid black and white, are in their hundreds, some local, some from far afield, all seeking out the mud’s bounty.

This inter-tidal mud is peppered with thousands of gulls, mainly herring and lesser black-backed, and the frequent bigger white “blobs” are some of the little egrets that have colonised Britain from southern Europe in recent decades to illustrate perfectly that in the natural world, change is a constant.

We pass the glitzy, gleaming white yachts in marinas and marvel at older vessels, the barges from the era of vast red canvass sails that are yet more indicators that times change for humans as well as for nature.

The biggest indicator of change comes as the huge cranes of the Port of Felixstowe break the skyline, and then the mighty container ships themselves.

These vast vessels are the very epitome of global trade and of how western consumerism has gathered pace - the largest now are 400 metres long and have a capacity equivalent to 18,000 20ft containers.

Today, we pass the Singapore-registered Thalassa Pistis, with a whopping gross tonnage of 146,700 and a seemingly endless 396 metres long, stacked high with containers stamped with the names of ‘K’ Line, Hanjin, Evergreen, Cosco and the like.

Amid the port’s globe-trotting giants, Sandwich terns screech and squawk. Two hobbies, agile little migratory falcons, flash overhead.

The container-laden giants will lumber across the world’s oceans. The terns and the falcons will travel far and wide under their own “steam” - the terns to west Africa, the falcons across the Sahara.

There is a sense of bustle, business and travel in both the commercial and natural worlds here near the Orwell’s mouth.

We turn and travel sedately back to Ipswich, with plenty of time to reflect on the fact that, according to the Royal Yachting Association the Orwell is the UK’s second most beautiful estuary, topped only by the Devon’s Dart.

It is beautiful alright - much of our route has been within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But it is also full of life in so many ways.

There has been concerns expressed in a recent British Trust for Ornithology report that many wading bird species are showing worrying declines on the UK’s estuaries - will the Orwell’s vast expanses of inter-tidal mud swarm with them much longer?

Another thought springs to mind as we near our destination. After recent rejection by the Government as a potential Marine Conservation Zone that would have also taken in the estuary of the River Stour, we must hope that all the pressures the Orwell faces can continue to be balanced and reconciled. Only time will tell. For the time being at least, and on the evidence of our Orwell Lady trip, the pleasures appear to outweigh the pressures.

As a young Ipswich lad, Carl Webb would hop over the back wall of his home in Burrell Road, jump into a little boat and spend hours exploring the River Orwell. Those were formative hours indeed.

He went to sea at the age of 16 and later spent 32 years as a tug skipper back on his beloved home river. Now he helps people explore the river that means so much to him. He is operations director for Orwell River Cruises, which operates the Orwell Lady, a 42-ton passenger boat built in 1979 and licensed for 118 passengers and two crew to ply between Ipswich, Felixstowe and Harwich, having previously worked on the River Thames and in Poole Harbour.

Mr Webb has an obvious air of contentment when out on the Orwell, borne of his love of the vessel, and his love of the river.

“There’s a good balance here now between recreation and commerce, and the river is full of wildlife,” he said. “The growth of the recreational use has come along as the commercial use has declined a bit since the boom time of the 1980s. We are close to Europe and close to the open sea - and it is beautiful river - so you can see why there is so much recreational use but it isn’t a problem. I like to see people out on the river enjoying themselves. I certainly enjoy it - it’s a great little river.”

Another member of the Orwell River Cruises team is David Ridall, who skippers many Orwell Lady trips with a similar air of contentment to the one that radiates from Mr Webb. A former chief officer on cargo ships for the United Baltic Corporation and a former Manchester Ship Canal helmsman, Mr Ridall fell in love with the River Orwell on runs from Ipswich to Poland. “I was really struck by the beauty of it,” he said.

Just how struck he was is apparent in the fact that he was on a waiting list to become an Ipswich-based pilot for a full four-and-a-half years. Eventually the chance came and he served in the role until what he referred to as his “semi-retirement” and his “reunion” with Mr Webb.

“I knew Carl from his days on the tugs here and we have always got on well,” said Mr Ridall. “I think we are a good team. We both love this river - I certainly do. Always have done from the first time I saw it.”