The Chelmer and Blackwater Canal from Chelmsford to Heybridge Basin
via Little Baddow and Maldon

Researched written and photographed by Jeannette Briggs

The River Chelmer runs from Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, eastwards through lush farmlands towards the North Sea near Maldon. Back in 1677 the first proposals were made for making this river fully navigable. However, it was not until 1792 that - with the support of the local landowning gentry led by Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall, Brentwood - the interested parties pushed for an Act of Parliament to enable them to authorise work on digging the navigation channel from Springfield north of Chelmsford to the North Sea at Heybridge Basin, a distance of just 14 miles.

The Act did not please everyone, needless to say. Millers who relied on the river water to turn millwheelsand local landowners all objected, but the engineer John Rennie was appointed to supervise the works. He designed the locks and bridges built from bricks made locally at Boreham. A major future snag was created right from the start because the depth of the navigable river was set at only 2ft. Initially the cargoes carried on the canal were quite profitable but ironically much of these consisted of material for the construction of a new railway line, so the writing was on the wall. When this opened much of the cargo carried on the canal now transferred to the railway and thus the economic viability of the canal was doomed at the early stage of its life!

The Chelmer and Blackwater Canal struggled to keep going until 1975 when the decision was taken to allow canal boat users on to the navigable part of this gentle waterway. Volunteers make up a very large part of the body of people who help to maintain this canal through the Essex Waterways who took over the management of the canal in 2005.

Sandford Mill Lock
Photo credit R Webster
Springfield Basin
Photo credit Mike Faherty

You can continue your canal boat holiday or day trip from Springfield Basin through Springfield Lock in Chelmsford where it passes under the A12 Chelmsford by-pass trunk road with the constant roar of traffic and swings north to Cuton Lock. Here it turns east again and begins a meandering course across fields, past farms, pubs and churches, then come to Stoneham's Lock, Baddow Mill Lock and Paper Mill Lock on the edge of the village of Little Baddow. You should not miss a walk to visit the lovely old church of St Mary or the 14th Century Little Baddow Hall which are easily reached from the canal at Baddow Mill Lock. From here the canal swings round to Rushe's lock through( for Essex!)some quite remote countryside. A road does not touch the canal for several miles until you reach Hoe Mill Lock and bridge. Ulting Church is situated right by the canal but there is no sign of a village which might have been "attached" to it. Possibly this was one of the mediaeval villages that "died" after a third of the population of England was wiped out by the Black Death in the 14th Century.

Ulting Church
Photo credit Glyn Baker

From here the canal follows an easterly course well away from centres of population past Rickett's Lock, Beeleigh Lock and flood gates and to what is now left of Beeleigh Abbey, one of the many monastical foundations destroyed by King Henry VIII.

The canal now approaches the town of Maldon which at one time was second only to Colchester in importance and prosperity as a port and market town. Maldon's most famous export is sea salt. Salt was of course vital for the preservation of fish and meat before the days of refrigeration and even today Maldon sea salt is highly prized and produced for a worldwide market. The port has silted up but Hythe Quay still has sailing barges moored up and the town itself is well worth a visit. Your canal boat journey loops around to the north of the town and there is a good supermarket with helpful moorings. There are lots of pretty local shops to be explored and Maldon is full of pubs, as you might expect as a former sea port.

From Maldon the canal swings past Pipe Bridge and your canal boat holiday advernture and has a new twist beacuse the canal heads towards the open sea in order to reach the sea lock at Heybridge Basin.

The canal passes some industrial areas but is always pretty and you can easily pick out the sea on the horizon because the tall masts from hundreds of sea going boats can be seen above the trees. You can also smell the ozone!

Sea Lock at Heybridge Basin

After a straight run with lots of narrow-boats moored on the sides of the canal you will need to find a temporary mooring for your canal boat because the next huge lock is the Heybridge Sea Lock opened only by the Harbourmaster at high tide.

However, your wait here is no hardship. The basin has lovely old pubs serving good food and you can mingle with sailing folk visiting chandlery shops and rope makers.

I do hope that this brief introduction to the Chelmer and Blackwater Canal will inspire you to make the journey along it - either by boat, a day trip boat or by walking along the towpath and that you will enjoy it as much as I did on my visits there!

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