Ipswich Icons: We look at one of Ipswich’s best unused assets, the river

Boating on the Gipping. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

Boating on the Gipping. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE - Credit: Archant

John Norman looks at the river running through Ipswich and laments the opportunities not taken up

West End Road weir. Picture: John Norman

West End Road weir. Picture: John Norman - Credit: Archant

This week we’ll explore what is potentially one of Ipswich’s best unused assets: the river.

Not the Orwell downstream from Stoke Bridge, probably the most beautiful commercial river in the country, and not the Gipping upstream from Sproughton, where it passes through the peaceful countryside – where wildlife abounds and the remnants of its life as a canal are all around.

No, I’m talking of the river as it runs through Ipswich, the “Salt Water” as the tidal portion was called on old maps, and the freshwater above Handford Lock, under Yarmouth Road and beyond Boss Hall.

The tidal portion, still technically the Orwell, lost its charm and character as a result of the 1953 floods.

The river from the Princes Street bridge. Picture: Ann Elmy/citizenside.com

The river from the Princes Street bridge. Picture: Ann Elmy/citizenside.com - Credit: citizenside.com

This surge was devastating to numerous places on the East Coast, notably Felixstowe, where the tide flooded Langer Road not by coming over the prom but by breaching within the port and flooding up the stream running through Langer Park.

The layout of the port has changed considerably since and this particular weakness is unlikely to breach again.

Most Read

Ipswich was also flooded, the tide overflowing the dock wall at St Peter’s Wharf, near Stoke Bridge, and flooding St Peter’s Street, Commercial Road and the property thereabouts.

It took some time but the preventative measure was to canalise the river (removing the meanders, mud banks and excessive vegetation on the banks) leaving a straight, free-flowing ditch where the tide could ebb and flow without hindrance, and the fluvial waters from upstream, the excessive run-off after heavy rain, could move straight out to sea without pausing to wet Ipswich’s low-lying streets.

The river wall was raised, from the open end of the New Cut to the weir in West End Road: the overall result an open channel between Stoke and the Sir Bobby Robson Bridge – a river that adds nothing to the ambience of the town.

Above Handford Lock (today a flood control barrier) the river maintains a reasonably constant level but fails to attract leisure users.

Where are the rowing boats, the kayaks, young boys building rafts from plastic barrels? Where is the rowing club, the sailing school or the wild water swimmers?

It wasn’t always thus. There is evidence of dinghy sailing being taught on the length of river under Yarmouth Road Bridge (which wasn’t built until the late 1920s) and a boat builder who hired out his craft from the back of his parents’ pub, the Royal William in London Road. The boat shed had been there since 1880.

Mr & Mrs Wright were the landlords; Gary, and later his son, the boat builders earning their crust by building floats for the seaplanes based at Felixstowe.

They also built air-sea rescue launches during the Second World War, a larger vessel than could comfortably be accommodated on the Gipping but essential off Felixstowe for access to seaplanes landing in Harwich Harbour.

There was also a boat shed tucked in close to Yarmouth Road Bridge, used for a time by the Sea Cadets whose local headquarters were here: Unit 195, T.S. Orwell, under the command of Chief Petty Officer Louise Cousins, RNVR. T.S. means (land-based) training ship and RNVR is the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, occupying a similar role to the Territorial Army, which is based in a larger compound diagonally opposite.

What is likely to change? Nothing. It’s all too expensive and risky; too great an investment for the possible return. In Grafton Way, on land that was reclaimed from the town’s marshes for use as the railway goods yard, planning permission has been granted for a mixed use scheme which includes hotels, flats and houses.

But the developer wants nothing to do with the river. The Environment Agency insists on a four-metre-wide access along the bank; thus the development will stand well back, the residents simply watching the tide disappear and the rusting shopping trolleys and discarded bicycles rear their ugly frames.

Marston’s built a pub on a key site: the Mermaid on the corner of London and Yarmouth roads. The outlook from the rear was onto the Gipping but they separated their pub from potential risk the river bank may pose.

Redevelopment of the sugar beet site will no doubt take the same attitude, a high fence separating the tow-path from the industrial estate: no additional costs in tidying up the river bank, improving the cycle route between Ipswich railway station and Sproughton, and no chance of a bridge to Hadleigh Road Industrial Estate.