In this display we show how the course of the river has changed over the years and how the equipment used to plot its course and to navigate along it have developed and changed. Ipswich owes its existence to the River Orwell and to the seafarers who have navigated its tides and channels for the past 1400 years or so. This display celebrates their skills and some of the navigation equipment they used – and still use today to give safe passage to the Port of Ipswich.
A chart of the Medusa Channel is shown in the display. This was named in 1801, when Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson was High Sheriff of Ipswich and busy organising the ‘Sea Fencibles’ (a local Naval Home Guard defending Britain from invasion). In his frigate HMS Medusa, he was impatient to set sail from Orwell Haven in an easterly wind. Undaunted by advice not to, he set sail, determined to prove the existence of a channel from Harwich across to the Naze, offering a new and faster route south for London-bound ships. He was successful and to this day, the Medusa buoy marks this well-used channel.
This display has given us the opportunity to make the most of several donations of equipment used either to survey or navigate the river. We have also included a fine model of the whole of the river made by our volunteer Ben which showcases the various landmarks and buoys that make the River Orwell what it is.
The shape of the River Orwell today is very different than it was 150 years ago. The natural twists and turns of the navigable channel made it difficult to bring large vessels to and from Ipswich and several suggestions were made in the 19th century to straighten out the bends.
By 1872, some of the bends of the River Orwell had been dredged away but, even so, piloting ships was a skill requiring the use of compass courses and steering using landmarks ashore, such as Wherstead Church, the windmill at Stoke or farm buildings at Nacton. Today, red and green buoys mark the edges of the navigable channel: these and the use of radar, cameras and radio communications enable ships to safely navigate the river in all but the worst weather. The passage of vessels in the river is coordinated by the Orwell Navigation Service, based at the lock gates of Ipswich.
At the time of Samuel Pepys’ Harwich Approaches chart of 1686, the largest ships (100 tons) could only come up the Orwell as far as Downham Bridge, a Roman causeway across the river, built of septaria, where the Orwell Bridge lies today. Ipswich had to wait until the construction of the present Wet Dock, in 1843, for channel widening and deepening of the Orwell to allow larger ships to discharge at all states of the tide directly on to the quays. Dredgers are still seen today working the channels of the Orwell to keep them open for vessels from around the world bound for the Port of Ipswich.