by K Bannister

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It had always intrigued me, the story told by my father, of how my grandfather, a barge owner at the time (circa 1870) would take his craft, known as a "dumpy" barge, up the river Mardyke, tie up at various farms, load up with corn and fodder for the London horses and on the return journey bring down street refuse from the City for use as manure on the land.

I had no doubt of my father's sincerity in recounting the story but knowing the location of the fen farms and the course of the Mardyke, I could not quite bring myself to accept it in its entirety. As far as Stifford Clays farms yes, but beyond that, to such places as Chantry, Botany, Hoblets, Cherry Orchard, Conways, and Lorkins farm, was asking too much of the imagination, and yet somehow ...

I had been at Cherry Orchard farm discussing our "dig" with the late Sir Francis Whitmore, and in order to clarify a point, he suggested that I should go down to sea "Young Wordley" which I promptly did. "Young Wordley" proved to be Mr. G.E.Wordley of Lorkins farm, a man in his sixties, whose family had farmed in Orsett for many generations. I introduced myself to him, explaining the purpose of my visit, and although we did not altogether clear up the matter which I was investigating, I spent a most enjoyable hour listening to Mr Wordley's account of various aspects of life in Orsett, his own experiences and recollections of things bis father had told bim in the past. Suddenly he said, "Your name sounded familiar to me and I've just remembered why. My dad used to tell me of a Mr. Bannister, who, in my grandfather's time, loaded his barge with fodder at the farm here and later ...", etc. etc .

My excitement took him aback! Here, like a bolt from the blue, was complete verification of my father's story - no prompting, no hesitation, word for word as my father had told me, but from the other end, as it were, of those long past voyages of nearly a century ago .

Still the question rose in my mind, how did a barge get to this farm, which is almost on the Tilbury-Brentwood road, when the Mardyke is a mile or more away across the fen?

Mr. Wordley's explanation was simple. He showed me how all the farms, on and near the fen, are connected by what had been wide shallow ditches to the Mardyke, which was itself both wider and shallower than at present. The narrow, shallow draught vessels sailed up the river and were then poled along the ditches right up to the farms.

These ditches, like the river itself, are today merely deep cut drains and only a memory passed down from father to son could bring alive the fact that at one time they had been navigable waterways.

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