The Bridge.

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Europe’s Largest Mobile Crane.

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The New Bypass Bridge Under Construction.

The subject of one of last week’s posts: Europe’s largest mobile crane being used to lift a new bridge structure into position across the River Stour and the Worcester and Staffordshire Canal. I photographed the crane from Hoo Wood last week, and the new bridge from the River Pasture today.

Progress dictates the need for a bypass to divert some of Kidderminster’s increasing traffic through the new combined residential and industrial estate currently being built at the old British Sugar factory site, on the west bank of the canal, just beyond the boundary of the north marsh.

Fortunately, this new development is not yet impacting on Wilden Marsh, and I am hoping it is far enough away not to present significant problems in the future.

Falling Sands.

Sunrise: 05.10   Sunset: 09.20

170 metres downstream of the former Falling Sands Rolling Mills and Cottages’ site mentioned in my last post, is another vantage point. I can look across the River Stour and the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal from here, they are only 15 metres apart, to a 6 story high sandstone bank thick with trees and varied sprawling vegetation. The Falling Sand lock is here too, and to its right was a lock keepers cottage, demolished in the 1950s, built tight against the sandstone bank; the canal was less than a couple of metres from its front door.

90 metres upstream, just around the canal bend, is the pipe-bridge that spans the canal and river. It gives good aerial views of the Riverside Pasture, the river and the canal, from the top of its steps.

The canal, once a main commercial haulage highway, is now a leasureway. It was very different at the turn of last century. Like now, though, there were no lampposts to light the way on dark nights. The present day joggers, bikers, power walkers, fishermen, and the odd motorcyclist, would not be using the tow path during the first half of the 1900s; not if they wanted to avoid being knocked down by a large cart horse pulling a heavily laden narrow boat.

At a steady walking pace, the cart horse could pull fifty times as much weight in a boat than in a cart – around one hundred times its body weight. Even with the introduction of steam and diesel engines, horse drawn craft continued to compete until the end of commercial canal haulage business.

The first steam powered commercial narrow boats appeared during the mid 1880s on long haul routes, but the engine, boiler and coal storage took up a lot of valuable boat space. To make the steamer pay, it towed a butty. Seven men were required to operate the boat pair: four on the steamer and three on the butty. They ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; the men lived on the boats. By 1927, all steamers had been fitted with diesel engines.

There were many narrow boats waiting to be unloaded and loaded at the Stourport-on-Severn basin at the end of the 1800s, with others waiting further up the canal, or on the River Severn. Also, wagon loads of pig iron were arriving at Stourport by rail and run on tracks down through the town to the basin under gravity, with a brakeman on the back to control them. Yes, the canal was very busy in its heyday, and not the place to conduct any kind of leisure activity. Fishing would not be possible, as it is today, because of heavy pollution.

It’s not difficult to imagine the chaos of narrow boats hauled by powerful horses up and downstream, and the well practiced passing manoeuvres. The Riverside Pasture was used to graze and rest the horses; a wooden bridge over the River Stour gave access to the pasture. It was the Merchant’s family narrow boats that transported loads of ten feet long pig iron bars from the basin to the Wilden Iron Works, via Pratts Wharf. Before Pratts Wharf lock was built, the materials where unloaded at the wharf and lowered down the river bank to waiting boats, to be pulled by horses the half mile to the iron works.

The canal system was nationalised in 1947, and coal was transported down the canal to Stouport-on-Severn Power Station until 1949.

Were these the “Good Old Days”? No contest as far as I’m concerned….

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A Healthy Fascination.

Sunrise: 05.07   Sunset: 09.23

I have had a deep fascination with Wilden Marsh for many years. A new story seems to present itself with every visit.

Moonlit evenings provide the best atmosphere. I’m never lonely or afraid when walking through the blackness of the nighttime marsh, with its strange noises, fleeting shadows, and darting will o the wisps. I am often accompanied by ghosts from its near and distant past, showing and telling me the most interesting things about everyday life in bygone times. Sometimes a miasma lifts off the river giving the impression that a corpse might be floating by or, even more distressing, caught up in one of the rubbish rafts. The miasma is a drawback of having an old sewage works high up on the river bank. I dread the thought of finding a dead body in the river.

From the instant I set foot in the meadows and pastures, the ghosts begin their whispering. In fact, I don’t know of another place that is so eager to give up its colourful secrets in such detail. No, I am not deluded or suffering from a schizoaffective disorder. I am receptive to the lay of the land and what it can tell me. I also have a vivid imagination, and a strong interest in local history.

Standing close to the Riverside Pasture stock fence, at the point where Hoo Brook rushes into the River Stour, I look across to the stark, sharp-edged, relatively modern buildings of the Hoo Brook Sewage Pumping Station. Sometimes, in the right light, the area melts to a vision, set some 150 years ago, of the dark, satanic, hotchpotch buildings that were the Falling Sands Rolling Mill and Cottages. In fact, the industrial buildings weren’t placed randomly at all; they were placed at the precise angles necessary for the efficient operation of their waterwheels. There were four industrial buildings. The site was then owned by Lydia Barnett, and the tenant was Samuel Barnett.

I hear grinding and creaking of waterwheels, rushing  water, clanking of loose gear wheels, hissing of water quenching red-hot metal passing through steel rolls, and  rhythmic ringing of 20 lbs sledge hammers striking iron. My nose tingles at the smell of high sulphur coal used to fuel the mill furnaces. All these noises, sounds and smells are memories of visits to my grandparents house, on the edge of the Abergavenny steam railway junction, way back in the 1950s. We have a steam train railway crossing the marsh on the Falling Sands Viaduct.

A leat allowed the river water to bypass the waterwheels that spanned the full width of the river and provided power for the rolling mills. To stop the waterwheels, a gate lowered into the river cuts the water flow. The river water was then diverted into the leat at a point close to where the Falling Sands Viaduct is now, and exited 700 metres downstream into Hoo Brook.

The time I imagined was 1840. The Staffordshire and Worcester Canal opened in 1770 and the Severn Valley Railway in 1862.

Urgent shouts of the mill workers going about their daily business filled the air, as did excited screams of dirty little urchins playing around stacks of metal and redundant machinery spread haphazardly around the rolling mill stockyard. These urchins were the children of the mill workers, and they lived on-site in company cottages.

I don’t know why I am affected so by Wilden Marsh, its history, its fauna and flora, and its geology, but I’m glad I am.

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Falling Sands Viaduct.

 

Sink or Swim?

Sunrise: 04.46   Sunset: 09.33

Modern world technology first touched Wilden Marsh and Meadows in 1511, with the building of a water powered fulling mill by William Baylly on the River Stour, at Wilden Village. This was the first of 17 mills to be built here before the rise of the steam-age.

In its heyday, there were more watermills (in excess of 100) on the banks of the 25 miles long River Stour and its tributary than any other river in the UK. There were 19 water mills along the banks of Hoo Brook alone, including the full width water wheels of the Falling Sands Rolling Mills at the confluence of Hoo Brook and the River Stour – where the water pumping station is now. I don’t know whether the adjoining ironworks that fed the rolling mills used water power.

The 1500s were a time of relative prosperity. The country was recovering from a couple of centuries of plagues, and the many plagues of the 1600s had yet to dilute the labour force still further. Wages were good compared with the rest of Europe, and many peasants could afford to build themselves wood framed houses. Food and firewood were plentiful. Bill Baylly was looking to increase his fulling capacity and fill his coffers. There was money to be made and people were scheming to get their hands on it.

The options Bill had available to power his new fulling mill were muscle, wind or water. There were not many people about in the 1500s (2,250,000 people in all England and Wales; another third of this figure in Ireland and Scotland). Wages were increasing rapidly. Bill decided he would use water to drive his machinery. The River Stour at Wilden was very suitable for his purposes, being a reliable, if somewhat variable at times, source of fast flowing water.

The function of Bill’s mill changed with the years. It became a slitting mill, a finery forge and finally a sprawling iron works. In 1958 the iron works closes. In 1964 the site becomes Wilden Industrial Estate.

Pollution threats to Wilden Marsh and Site of Special Scientific Interest from heavy industrial may have reduced with time, but they have not ceased. Residential pressures, however, have increased. The old sugar factory has been replaced with a large industrial, leisure and residential complex immediately above the west bank of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, at Falling Sands. Planning permission is now being sought to build a luxury housing estate on the edge of the swamp and Hoo Brook Pasture, the latter being a Site of Special Scientific Interest. If planning permission was granted, I wonder how the residents would feel about sharing their gardens with clouds of biting flying insects and fetid water smells? Would the next step be to sanitise the swamp?

One hopes that sanity will prevail, but it can’t be relied upon, and that our District Council is as pro-nature as I believe it to be. We have local brown field sites that have been or are being used for residential building. I don’t see the need to jeopardise the marsh floodplain to satisfy the short term aims of national or multi-national conglomerates.

Also read:

https://atomic-temporary-19456464.wpcomstaging.com/2015/06/15/help-how-do-i-get-out-of-this-valley/

https://atomic-temporary-19456464.wpcomstaging.com/2013/12/07/wilden-marsh-history/

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Help! How do I get out of this valley?

An Act passed in 1662 authorised the Earl of Bristol, Lord Windsor and Thomas Smyth of London, to make the Stour navigable from the River Severn to the collieries around Stourbridge; opening up and developing sales outlets further south, in particular around Worcester and Gloucester. The original plan was to make the river navigable for craft of 6 tons, with 11 locks and two branch tram roads. 

Engineer Andrew Yarranton (1619 – 1684), who managed the Stour navigation work, was born a few miles down the road in Astley, Worcestershire. He was not able to fully realise his dream of making the 10 miles stretch of River Stour between Stourbridge to the River Severn at Stourport-on-Severn reliably navigable. He did have some success bringing 16 tons coal boats down the river in the 1660s and 1670s, after the completion in 1667 of 16 locks and 4 turnpikes (thought to be half-locks). The venture was dogged by lack of money, which was one of the main reasons for its eventual failure around 1680. The River Stour was then and is now difficult to navigate; its many tight bends, narrowness, high flood risk, and variable water levels threatened its viability as a transport link. In fact, the great flood of around 1674 destroyed so much of the new river improvement work, that the investors couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the money to repair it. I have experienced these great floods on the marsh, and they are dramatic and sometimes devastating: breaking banks and flooding large areas, as well as washing away canal banking. In 1879 the Wilden Ironworks was damaged by one of these notorious overflow events. However, extreme volumes of water rushing down the river force stubborn rubbish rafts though longstanding log jams, causing them to hurtle downstream. It was high water flow events that destroyed our new southern rock weir within a year of installation. It is probably more accurate to say that the flash floods wash the rubbish rafts further down the river to become someone else’s problem, but not without first dumping a load of plastic bottles and footballs on the marsh.

In 1766, an Act of Parliament sanctioned the building of a canal system between Staffordshire and Worcester, resulting in the formation of the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal Company. James Brindley (1716 to 1772), from Derbyshire, built the canal at a cost in excess of £12,000,000 in today’s money; it opened for business in 1772. The canal runs alongside the River Stour on its journey through Wilden Marsh.

Wilden Forge and the nearby saw mill experienced great difficulty bringing in raw materials, and shipping out finished goods prior to the building of the S&W canal system. The road to the River Severn was narrow and became deeply rutted and impassable for heavy horse drawn wagons in wet weather. Attempts to create a link to the River Severn by running boats down the southern section of the River Stour, proved too difficult and unreliable.

The Severn Valley Railway arrived at Sourport in 1882, 100 years later than the opening of the canal system, and 371 years after Bill Baylly built his fulling mill at Wilden Village. Pig iron and logs arrived from the Forest of Dean and South Wales, via the River Severn and later by rail to Stourport-on-Severn.

The first record of Wilden Forge appears around 1647, when Thomas Foley built a finery forge on the site, close to the slitting mill. In 1840 the Baldwins bought the forge, when gambling debts forced the Foley’s to sell. In 1888 Stanley Baldwin joins the company at 21 years of age. Stanley later became 3 times British Prime Minister: 1935 to 1937, 1924 to 1929 and 1923 to 1924.

Even after the arrival of the canal and the railway, getting raw materials and finished goods in and out of the Lower Stour Valley was not straightforward, for reasons I will explain in my next history post.

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Green Shield-bug.