The Orwell is a short but significant river in east Suffolk. Only 11 miles in length, it runs from the centre of Ipswich, rapidly widening before it joins the River Stour at Shotley Point and then empties into the North Sea. Anglo-Saxon settlers, marauding Vikings, and traders from across Europe have sailed up and down its waters.
The Gipping, a freshwater river that flows into Ipswich from near Stowmarket, becomes the tidal, saltwater Orwell at Stoke Bridge, adjacent to the Ipswich Waterfront. Its name is believed to meld the pre-Celtic word “Or”, likely meaning “river” or “estuary”, and the Anglo-Saxon “Well”.
The Orwell, gateway to East Anglia
People have lived by the Orwell since prehistoric times. The Celts crossed the North Sea during the Iron Age, and later the Romans built a fort at nearby Walton. When the Saxons arrived sometime in the 600s, they founded the town of “Gippeswic”, meaning “the settlement by the river Gipping.” It has been continuously inhabited ever since.
The Orwell was to become a crucial trade and commerce route between Europe and East Anglia, turning Ipswich into one of the richest and most important ports in the country.
The river may have enabled the local inhabitants to prosper, but it was also their greatest vulnerability. In 869 Vikings used the Orwell during their invasion of East Anglia. They tracked down and killed Edmund, King of East Anglia, who was interred at Bury St Edmunds and later canonised.
While the Norman conquest was the final invasion of the country, the river continued to play its part in subsequent wars fought by England abroad. Possibly its finest moment was in 1340 when King Edward III massed about 150 ships and sailed down the Orwell to take part in the Battle of Sluys, an event that kicked off the 100 years war. The King was victorious, securing the English Channel for many years to come.
Traders of all kinds
During the late medieval period, the river’s deep water during high tide allowed the largest ships of the time access to Ipswich. As a result, the county town became a member of the Hanseatic League, a trading confederation that stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea.
The League helped turn Ipswich into a key commercial and trading hub. In particular, it was a major centre for the wool trade. Many merchants and traders made their fortunes from the river.
Alongside the legitimate trading by merchants, another darker trade in contraband was being plied along the river. It’s likely that smuggling – principally spirits and tea – was the main occupation for many in the villages that bordered the Orwell.
The smuggler’s cat
A number of buildings on the banks of the Orwell are associated with smugglers. The Butt and Oyster Inn overlooking the river at Pin Mill is rumoured to have been one of their favourite havens.
Another is the Cat House, named in honour of its first owner, who was sympathetic to the smugglers. It’s said she was very fond of her cat, and after its demise, had it lovingly stuffed. The cat, no longer working to keep the mice at bay, was put to a new use on the sill of a prominent window visible from the river. If revenue inspectors were in the vicinity, the cat was removed, signalling to the smugglers not to land with their goods. The customs men finally caught on and after her trial, the smugglers’ friend was shipped off to Australia.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the river played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. Until the mid-1800s, ships and boats would be left stranded in Ipswich at low tide.
Work began to dredge the estuary and straighten the natural meanders in the river. In 1842, the Ipswich Docks were completed, allowing larger ships to access the Orwell. Then in 1882 a dock basin was built at Felixstowe, turning the small seaside town into a major deep-water port.
The area around the river saw a significant increase in industrial activity. Factories and mills were built along the river’s banks, and the population of the towns along the river grew rapidly.
Environmental concerns ebb and flow
However, as industrialisation took hold, the river became increasingly polluted as factories and mills dumped their waste into it. This led to a decline in the river’s fish population, and the once-thriving fishing industry was decimated. The pollution also had a negative impact on the health of the people living along the river, and many became ill from the contaminated water.
In the 20th century, efforts were made to clean up the Orwell. The 1948 Clean Rivers Act helped the river’s fish population to recover, and the fishing industry slowly started to rebuild.
The estuary is now an internationally important wetland site for migratory birds. It has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and falls within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Conservation groups are working to protect the area and preserve it for future generations. However, despite best efforts, environmental concerns remain, mainly because of development and pollution.
The UK’s busiest container port
When Felixstowe became the UK’s busiest container port a new road was needed to connect it to the rest of the country, passing south of increasingly congested Ipswich.
An almost mile-long bridge now spans the river, rising high enough for ships to pass beneath to Ipswich docks. The huge construction project took three years to complete. The bridge, which finally opened in 1982, carries the A14 from the Midlands to the port of Felixstowe.
Shipping remains heavily associated with the river. At the confluence of the Orwell and Stour sit two major British ports. Felixstowe is located on the Suffolk north bank, and on the south bank in Essex lies the port of Harwich. Its ferries carry passengers across the North Sea to the Netherlands – a sailing route that goes back to antiquity.
Fame in literature and film
The river may have inspired Eric Arthur Blair to choose the pseudonym George Orwell. He went to school in Suffolk and lived in Southwold during his 20s and 30s.
Another author associated with the river is Arthur Ransome. His children’s novels We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water – part of the Swallows and Amazons series – feature the hamlet of Pin Mill, located on the south bank of the estuary.
The Orwell itself was once a stand-in for the mighty Yangste River in China, for the 1957 film The Yangste Incident – a war film starring Richard Todd and William Hartnell.
The Orwell today: relaxation and study
Along its 11-mile length, the River Orwell is popular with both visitors and locals for recreational activities such as walking, bird-watching and even ‘wild swimming’. Several footpaths and cycle ways run along the river, offering stunning views of the Orwell Bridge, surrounding landscapes and wildlife. The river is also popular with anglers hoping for sea trout, carp, bass and flounder.
In town, near where the Gipping becomes the Orwell, Ipswich waterfront has undergone a resurgence. The addition of new shops, restaurants and pubs is popular with both locals and tourists. It’s also home to the new University of Suffolk campus.
The River Orwell is a vital part of Suffolk’s heritage and has played a crucial role in the history and prosperity of its county town. It’s a natural asset prized by the people of Suffolk and continues to be popular with sailors. Perhaps some glance up as they sail past the Cat House, looking for a stuffed white feline.
This article is part of a series on Rivers of East Anglia.