“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable…”
TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages
If the River Deben is a god, he is a very sluggish one, slow and muddy – but like many gods, unpredictable, fickle and capable of taking on several manifestations. The first thing that startled me about the Deben, when I moved to be near it in late 2019, was its sheer changeability, the consequence of its heavily tidal nature.
The River Thames, the only other river I know well, never changed much. The odd strand of grubby sand might emerge at low tide; if you were unlucky enough to live in one of the areas to the west of the capital prone to flooding, you took your chances at high tide.
The Deben, at least where I live in Woodbridge, can sometimes be so low it is possible to cross on foot – one of our local running clubs actually does so each summer, a muddy if apparently joyous ritual. I have seen people swimming even in low tide in the mucky waters further downstream, towards Martlesham Creek.
At other times the tide laps over its banks, making some river walks impossible and leaving cars parked on the shore by the famous Tide Mill at Woodbridge sitting in a foot of water. Earlier flooding has led to the building of substantial metal flood defences to protect parts of the foreshore.
Go upstream, to Melton and Wilford Bridge, and at low tide the river becomes impassable even to small craft.
It was not always thus. It was in Victorian times possible to get quite large boats right up to Debenham, where you approach what is now the source of the river. The upper reaches are even now rather less tidal.
There were plans, in the early 19th century, to dredge the upper courses of the river and create a navigable canal to allow agricultural produce to be brought from Debenham all the way to Woodbridge, which was then a thriving port. Those plans, and much of the business of the port, succumbed to the coming of the railway, which gave farmers an easier route to market.
The Deben is about 25 miles in length, meeting the sea around Bawdsey and crossed there by the Felixstowe Ferry. Its actual length is conjectural as no one seems to accept just where the river starts. There are a number of sub-branches above Debenham, any one of which might lay claim to be the source.
My first introduction to the river, and the working boatyards and other businesses that fringe it, involved a typical townie misapprehension. I walked past one of the rusting metal cranes and noted it was built by Priestman, one of the big names of Victorian engineering that powered that era’s emerging industries.
I nodded approvingly. A fine piece of industrial archaeology, and a suitable memorial to the Deben’s thriving past as a port and shipbuilder.
When next I walked past the crane, it was pulling a boat out of the water. This elderly machine was a still a working part of the boatyard, part of a proper business environment that still provides jobs and prosperity. That is part of the appeal of the Deben around my way, that it is at the heart of a still functioning network of boatbuilding, yachting clubs and marinas. Some people even live on the river, in the thriving community of houseboats that fringe its banks.
Across the Deben, though, the landscape would seem not to have changed much since the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in the longships in the 5th century and thereafter, hilly, wooded and with few visible buildings. One of those ships, of course, was dragged up that shore to form the burial mound at Sutton Hoo, discovered just before the Second World War, an event commemorated in the film The Dig.
(Spoiler: the events in the film do not strictly follow the book of the same name, which is more accurate if less romantic. Some of the river scenes were filmed further downstream, towards Bawdsey. The house is not Edith Pretty’s home at Sutton Hoo, still visible from my side of the river. Several characters have been changed. Nonetheless the film did much to introduce the Deben, and its surroundings, to people who might never have otherwise heard of it.)
Head down the river from Woodbridge and you reach Ramsholt, and the riverside pub the Ramsholt Arms. The pub features, along with the Deben, in another film made hereabouts. “Yesterday” is the story of a musician who somehow slips into a parallel world where the Beatles never existed and recreates their hits; one important scene is set outside the pub.
From Ramsholt there is another staggering view, on a river not short of wonderful, widescreen vistas, down towards the sea.
At the river’s mouth there sits Bawdsey Manor. In 1935 the team developing radar, initially based at Orfordness, bought the house and moved in there. The work continued and radar was developed, with much of the initial work being done by women who were discovered to be better suited at monitoring the screens. The first guinea pigs, as operators, were one of the chief scientist’s three secretaries.
There is plenty more to say about the Deben, its bleakness, paradoxically attractive to some, the endless reed beds, those huge vistas. Those with an interest might consider joining the River Deben Association, a local special interest group. More details at www.riverdeben.org.