River Stour - Sudbury to Cattawade

Early use of the River Stour

Evidence from crop marks and artefacts show that Neolithic people and later Bronze Age people were living along the Stour Valley and so the valley was populated from 5000 years ago. Much later the Romans, then Angles and the Saxons arrived and all those people would have come from the Continent by boat and would have continued up the Stour and created their settlements.

Saxons use of the River Stour

Harnessing the River Stour to power water mills

The Saxons were probably the first to engineer the river so that it provided the power for water mills. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1068 most villages along the Stour had at least one water mill.  Flatford, or as the Anglo Saxons called it Flodingford, is one example and Flatford is listed as having a mill in the Domesday Book.

Using the River Stour as a mode of transport (what follows has to be a matter of conjecture based on known details).

Saxons used rivers as a mode of transport and, given the number of Saxon settlements along the Stour they would almost certainly have used the river, and so the river was used for transport and trade from early days and this continued until 1705. However this use would have been totally informal and there is no documentary evidence for it. Presumably in those days the use was dependent on the state of the river as there many places where it would have been too shallow during periods of drought so a boat being rowed upstream would have run aground. This could be solved by a process called staunching, using rawhide and stakes.

  • Staunching the river to travel up stream – wooden stakes were driven into the bed of the river on the downstream side and then a length of rawhide stretched from one side of the river to the other. This would have raised the water level enough for the boat to cross the shallow area
  • Staunching the river to travel downstream – for a boat going downstream the staunch was again erected downstream and when it was removed the boat would have been carried over the shallow area by the “flash” of released water.

The process of staunching was well known across Europe by Roman times and so was probably in use much earlier. As trade increased more efficient and permanent staunches were built. Efficient staunches however were unpopular with the millers as they had an impact on water flow.

Cloth Churches

Long Melford - example of a Cloth Church

Along the Stour Valley there are many “Cloth Churches” built with the wealth of the Cloth Trade in the early 16th century.

There was no stone suitable for building in Suffolk so the good quality stone used to construct these churches would have been brought upstream using the staunching process.

Stour or Sture?

The name “Stour” appears in early documents from 894 as “Sture”. The name is probably of Celtic origin and meaning the strong or powerful one. The river formed the boundary between the East Saxons in Essex and the South Folk of the Angles.

There is disagreement about the pronunciation of the name Stour, but a consensus that there is not a right or wrong way. In general those in East Suffolk call the river the Stour, to rhyme with tour, and those in West Suffolk call it the Stour, to rhyme with tower. There are 4 other rivers called the Stour in England.

River Stour - Key Facts

There is a broad valley between Dedham and Flatford and in the past there were two branches of the Stour, one on the Dedham side and the other on the Flatford side. At some stage the majority of the Dedham water was diverted to join the Flatford water to create the Stour as we see it today. Unfortunately there is no evidence of when this happened but it seems likely that it was at the peak of the Cloth Trade in about 1500 to provide more power for Flatford mill. The River Stour running through Flatford rises at Wratting Common in Cambridgeshire and flows for 42 miles to its destination in Harwich and the North Sea.

  • Length: 42 miles,
    • four miles in Cambridgeshire
    • eight miles in Suffolk and
    • then it forms the boundary between Essex and Suffolk
  • Direction:
    • north westerly to start with
    • then north
    • then south easterly in which direction it continues for the majority of its route
  • Gradient:
    • drops 190 feet in its first ten miles
    • drops just 40 feet for the last ten miles
    • average fall – three feet in every mile from Sudbury to Brantham.   

The last 12 miles are tidal and the principal tributaries are the rivers Glem, Brett and Box.