Colour photo of River Stour near Fenn Bridge in winter

River Stour near Fen Bridge

There are four other rivers called the Stour in the country. The name Stour probably comes from the Celtic meaning fast flowing or powerful river. Celtic river names date back as far as 2000 years ago which suggests that Suffolk’s River Stour was  named before the Saxons started to build watermills on the river in the later 5th Century.

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.

River Stour’s Route

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 and 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.

The river has played a significant part in the history of this area of East Anglia – see below.

Anglo Saxon period: from 5th Century AD  

By the 5th Century the River Stour formed the ancient boundary between the East Saxons in what is now Essex and the South-folk of the Angles, now Suffolk. The Anglo Saxons built the first water mills on the River Stour.

Middle Ages: 5th – 15th Century AD

By the middle ages nearly every village on the course of the River Stour had a watermill. Windmills did not come into general use until the 13th century whereas watermills are frequently mentioned in the Domesday Book. The sites of many of the watermills on the River Stour are of great antiquity and are of Saxon origin. 

18th Century: canalisation & commercialisation of the River Stour

In 1705 the river was made a navigable river by act of parliament – one of the country’s earliest statutory rights of navigation. 

  • Between 1705 and 1713, work was undertaken to make the river operate as a canal by building locks, wharfs and tow paths to enable barges, (also called lighters), to travel along it.
  • The lighters measured 47 feet long by 10ft 9ins beam (wide) and, when fully loaded, carried up to 13 tons. Usually two lighters were joined together end to end to make a long ‘gang’ and the locks were built long enough to take a gang. The gang was pulled by a horse and operated by two men or a man and a boy.
  • The journey between Sudbury and the estuary at Mistely normally took about 2 days. The crew could make an overnight stop halfway at Horkesley where a special bothy or bunkhouse was provided for the lighter-men or they would simply moor at a convenient place and sleep in the cabin in the rear lighter.
  • At its peak there were 18 gangs operating on the Stour. John Constable’s father took full advantage of the commercial opportunities River Stour offered at this time, running barges from Sudbury to Mistley Warf where goods were unloaded onto his two sea going barges destined for London.

The lighters operated on the River Stour until the early part of the 20th century carrying cargo including bricks, grain, flour, manure, iron and coal. The paintings of John Constable have immortalised the industry of these times in the river’s history.

End of Stour Navigation

The advent of the railways was fatal for the Navigation and their trade dropped rapidly. Some Stour lighters continued to travel upstream to Sudbury until the 1914-1918 War, when fearful of a German invasion, it was decided to scuttle the entire fleet of 14 lighters in Ballingdon Cut. However, two separately owned lighters continued to operate on the lower part of the river until about 1938, when they were eventually abandoned.

River Stour today

Many of the locks that covered the 25 mile stretch of river have disappeared and it is now only possible to navigate part of river in light craft such as canoes.  However, most of the locations John Constable painted are still recognisable today. The biggest difference in the 200 years since Constable painted his famous landscapes, is that there are now many more trees than there were in Constable’s time.

For pictures and more information about the history of navigation on the River Stour please click River Stour Navigation

The River Stour Trust was formed in 1968 to fight the proposed closure of navigation on this historic river. Its aims are to maintain the right of navigation, and to restore the three Constable Locks (at Stratford, Dedham, and Flatford). For more information please click River Stour Trust

For more than 20 years the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Project has been at the heart of a partnership between local authorities, government agencies, national organisations and local people. The aim of the partnership is to conserve and enhance the special qualities of the area. The staff and volunteers working for the Project are chiefly responsible for the upkeep of the river and the banks. For more information please click Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Project