Walk the length of the 14 mile Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation.
Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation
The towpath is easy to follow along the length of the Navigation, and obvious where it changes from one bank to the other. Many other rights-of-way link with the towpath, giving endless opportunities for round walks of any length.
Much of the towpath has been upgraded although it can become muddy in wet weather.
Maintaining the towpaths
Essex Waterways tries to keep the towpath clear and the full length is mown at least four times every year. There are also occasional workparties to clear back encroaching scrub and vegetation, especially between the towpath and the navigation channel.
Clearing vegetation in an area will appear brutal for a short period after work is complete. What may appear harsh immediately after cutting and clearance will soon grow back – have a look at the same site again in a few months time to see how quickly it reverts back! The best managed wildlife meadows are mown twice a year to allow fresh growth to emerge and avoid eventual dominance by the strongest species. Likewise with occasional clearance along the banks of the Navigation, clearance of dominant species from time to time can improve the diversity of plants and improve the habitat – not withstanding that on those occasions when clearance does take place it can appear rather devastating at first glance for a short period.
Historically, this bank was always kept clear to avoid snagging the towline between a vessel and the horse towing it.
The following itinerary indicates the points of interest along the navigation. It starts at The Head of the Canal in Chelmsford, and runs downstream to Heybridge Basin.
Springfield’s population expanded, partly as a result of the coming of the navigation, from 889 in 1801 to 2,256 in 1841. Industries grew up around the Basin dealing in coal, coke, lime burning, timber and malting. Richard Coates, Resident Engineer on the Chelmer and Blackwater, founded a coal and timber business which later became Brown & Sons. He was also instrumental in founding Chelmsford’s first gas works on the wharf in 1819.
Springfield Bridge and Lock
This is an original bridge of the 1790s and just below the lock the navigation joins the river Chelmer proper. Ahead, across the broad flood plain, can be seen the Chelmsford bypass opened in 1932.
Barnes Mill Lock
Near the lock can be seen a late eighteenth century weather boarded mill. For much of its life it was tenanted and worked by the Marriages, a well-known local milling and farming family, connected with the canal from its earliest days.
Here the navigation takes an artificial cut to bypass the site of Sandford Mill. The original mill here had four pairs of stones. In 1880 additional power was provided by steam and in 1884 1,596 quarters of waterborne wheat were ground here. Gradually the mill decreased its output until it was bought by Chelmsford Borough Council in 1924 for the site of its water works. Now 2 million gallons of water are daily drawn from the navigation and treated here. Near the entrance to the artificial cut is Bundock’s Bridge, an original road bridge with towing path accommodated under the bridge arch. The exit of the cut is immediately below Sandford Mill Lock and Bridge, all built in the 1790s.
Cuton Lock and Stoneham’s Lock
Between these two locks there is a good prospect of Danbury Hill. The highest part, 365 feet above sea level, is crowned by a spired church.
Little Baddow Lock
To the right is the site of Johnson’s, alias Little Baddow, Mill. This was burned down in 1893 and the site was later acquired by the Navigation Company who built the present house. Below the lock and beyond Boreham Bridge, rebuilt in the 1950s, there is a good view of Little Baddow church dating mainly from the twelfth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Paper Mill Lock
This marked the ‘half way house’ along the navigation in barging days. On the right of the lock are the stables where the horses spent the night and on the left is the recently restored early twentieth century bothy, complete with its bunks, where the bargees slept. In 1792 there were two mills on the island to the left just below the lock. One mill was engaged in grinding corn and the other in making paper. Paper making seems to have been started by John Livermore in the late eighteenth century. A mill stood on the site until the early years of the 20th century.
Beyond the lock can be seen the thirteenth century church of Ulting which was restored in 1873. It possesses a fine timber roof over the nave.
Hoe Mill Lock
The lock is contained in an artificial cut which bypassed the mill that possessed two wheels and 12 pairs of stones. It was worked until 1895 and was finally pulled down about 1914. Four hundred yards below the lock is Sugar Baker’s Holes. This was the site in the early 1830s of Marriage, Ried and Marriage’s beet sugar works, one of the earliest in the country.
Rickett’s Lock and Bridge
This is another of the original red brick bridges built in the 1790s. Just below the lock can be seen Langford Waterworks which takes upto 35 million gallons of water daily from the navigation.
It is contained in an artificial cut which joins together the Chelmer and Blackwater rivers to form the navigation. Beyond the lock the excess water from the Blackwater flows over the Long Weir into the tidal reach of the River Chelmer. At this point the navigation enters the river Blackwater. Beeleigh Bridge, built in the 1790s, now takes traffic from Langford to Maldon Golf Course, laid out in 1891. A good prospect of Maldon can be obtained from here. Immediately beyond the bridge the former Langford Canal, built in 1792, which served Langford Mill goes off to the left. Its disused southern section can be seen making its way across the golf course to the right.
This is the last of the original brick bridges you will see on the navigation. Just beyond it is the railway viaduct built in 1889 to join the Maldon East and Maldon West Stations.
Beyond the second railway bridge a backwater leads off to the right to the site of Heybridge Mill (demolished 1954). At this point the navigation leaves the river Blackwater and enters its longest artificial cut which goes through Heybridge to the Basin. Heybridge developed enormously after the opening of the navigation especially with the siting in about 1811 of William Bentall’s iron works beside the navigation where iron ore, coal and timber could be easily imported. The business prospered and Heybridge grew from 368 people in 1801 to 1177 in 1841. By 1900 the works covered 13.25 acres. At the beginning of the straight cut, beyond Wave Bridge, is Bentall’s warehouse built in 1863 and now a scheduled industrial monument.
No settlement existed here until the 1790s. As sea and navigation trade increased so the hamlet expanded. The cottages adjacent to the Basin, date from the 1790s and the Old Ship, formerly the Chelmer Brig, was rebuilt in 1858. The Lock Keeper’s House built in 1842 and the pair of old cottages nearby date from the 1820s. The basin could accommodate ships of 300 tons which once brought coal from Newcastle and timber from Scandinavia.
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