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Colchester River history book uncovers the secrets of the Blackwater

18 Nov Colchester River history book uncovers the secrets of the Blackwater

he latest book by Colchester author Ken Rickwood reveals the hidden history and secrets of the Blackwater River.

Blackwater is the fifth book by Mr Rickwood to explore the waterways of north Essex and was researched during the spring 2020 lockdown, when he was able to cycle and walk the full length of the 34-mile river.

Blackwater will be launched at a book signing event with Mr Rickwood at Red Lion Books, Colchester, at 11am on Saturday 20 November. It’s also available from

Mr Rickwood, who was born in Danbury and has lived in Colchester since 1966, was inspired to start writing about Essex’s rivers in 2005 when he explained the origins of Johnny-All-Alone, a now-unmarked place on the River Stour, to a friend. He went on to write Stour Secrets as well as three further books about the Stour, Colne and Colchester’s Roman river.
The Blackwater, which rises as the River Pant near Saffron Walden flowing in a south-easterly direction to Bocking near Braintree, has long held a fascination for Mr Rickwood: “I had been thinking about a Blackwater book for a long time. The Blackwater above Heybridge is not easily accessible. Unlike its tributary, the Chelmer, much of the freshwater Blackwater lies hidden from view and where it does show itself its assets as a river are not utilised.”

The COVID-19 lockdown gave Mr Rickwood the perfect opportunity to follow the river, which flows through some of Essex’s most picturesque villages and historic towns. Using his daily outdoor exercise allowance, he cycled to parishes along the river and walked its footpaths.

The result is a rich exploration of the Blackwater, from source to estuary.

Secrets uncovered include a mill once used to generate electricity for industrial use, something not seen on the Stour, Colne or elsewhere on the Blackwater.

“There are several mills where electricity has been generated for lighting but at Rye Mill (now demolished) in Feering a generator was installed by seed merchant John William Moss to produce electricity. The electricity was conveyed by wires to Threshelford’s Barn where it was used to drive the firm’s seed cleaning machines,” explained Mr Rickwood.

Today the Blackwater helps provide much of south Essex with water, feeding Hanningfield Reservoir from the River Ouse. Along with its tributary, the Chelmer, the Blackwater is also the only wholly-Essex river to be part of an all-Essex navigation accessible to sea-going vessels.

Mr Rickwood, who hasn’t ruled out further explorations of Essex’s rivers, said: “Our land is shaped by its rivers. The positions of towns, roads and railways are all where they are because of the rivers. Today their importance is underestimated and undervalued. They are generally unnoticed until they flood. Our rivers should be nurtured, celebrated and revered as they once were. They are vital to our existence, we cannot live without them.”

Blackwater, which is published by Manningtree publisher David Cleveland, is available at £10 from
Mr Rickwood, who retired in 2016 after a career in physics at the University of Essex, is also author of Lighting up Colchester, which traces the development of street lighting in the town.