Exploring Arthur Ransome’s ‘Secret Water’: On Foot to ‘Witch’s Quay’

Last month Arthur Ransome’s Nancy Blackett and crew embarked on an expedition to ‘Secret Water’ to coincide with the Old Gaffers Association’s Swallows and Amazons Weekend in the Walton Backwaters.

Following an initial leg down the Orwell to Shotley Marina on Friday, Saturday morning saw a lengthy sail against the wind to Titchmarsh Marina near Walton-on-the-Naze, where they were all welcomed with ‘safe arrival’ drinks by members of the Woodbridge Cruising Club. Crewman Tim Everson takes up the tale…

On the Saturday afternoon the crew of the expedition to Secret Water (skipper Neil Brooks, Judy Taylor, Mark Worledge and myself) had watched the sunlight reflected on the ebbing tidal stream in the gutway leading into the ‘Red Sea’ and beyond, where we could discern an amphibious vehicle creeping across the Wade. I suggested an expedition on foot to ‘Witches Quay’, mistakenly called Kirby Creek on charts and Ordnance Survey maps!

As Sunday morning dawned, there being little wind and no water, previous plans to sail to ‘Secret Water’ and raft up with members of Woodbridge Cruising Club (WCC) were abandoned and our group of intrepid explorers set out well provisioned with chocolate and a bag of apples.

The Wade, looking towards Swallow Island/Tim Everson.

However, we hadn’t walked far when Judy abandoned us for the company of WCC members and the pull of civilisation, and departed for the town. Too late we realised she had taken the bar of chocolate with her, no doubt thinking to bribe WCC members in joining the Nancy Blackett Trust… we were left with the apples and one expedition member who didn’t eat fruit!

Neil, Mark and myself followed the busy main road (which was apparently also busy when the Swallows followed it into town to have Wizard’s rudder repaired) although the thatched cottages and fields have now been replaced by well appointed bungalows and new-builds.

Mark put his recently acquired pilotage skills to good use to identify the track that led down past fields of wind-blown corn and wild grasses, where rooks and jackdaws cawed, eventually coming out at the weather-worn telegraph pole and the jetty marking the beginning of the Wade. We looked across the ‘Red Sea’, now beginning to cover the Wade as the tide flooded, to the ‘Native Kraal’ hidden by trees on ‘Swallow Island’. No buffaloes were in sight!

Witch’s Quay/Tim Everson.

Taking the footpath on the top of the dyke, we set off west through overgrown sea-beet, mallow and sea grasses (having left our machetes behind!) to where the path veered south and we had a view of ‘Witch’s Quay’. Two modern houses, one of a traditional weather-boarded construction, overlooked the quay – but where was the “small cottage of tarred black wood, standing in a small potato patch”?

Making our way over a bridge across the creek it eventually appeared set back at the head of the creek  – just as in Arthur Ransome’s day – although no longer surrounded by a potato patch! There was also no sign of the bent old woman who the children met (“wrinkles deep as ditches”) but one could imagine her leaning on her stick in the doorway.

The Old Woman’s Cottage, Witch’s Quay/Tim Everson.

Apples were consumed by two of us explorers and, by the time that we returned to look over the creek towards ‘Swallow’ and ‘Mastodon’ Islands, three or four lug sailed dinghies were making their way up the creek on the flooding tide, now and then getting stuck on the mud and waiting for the tide to lift them off.

We could almost have imagined we were watching the children’s dinghies, Wizard and Firefly, if we had not known it was the Old Gaffers Association’s annual Swallows and Amazons Weekend.

Many thanks to my fellow sailors and explorers for a weekend of fun, good conversation and adventure…and especially to Judy for returning with the chocolate!

The Monday saw Nancy Blackett and her crew sail back home from the middle of Hamford Water with a following wind and sunshine, sailing as far as Levington before motoring into Woolverstone mid-afternoon.

Crewman Mark Worledge said: ”The whole weekend was a huge pleasure. Most of the credit for that must, of course, go to Neil, Tim and Judy as skipper, mate and crewmate, but it is worth reiterating how friendly and welcoming the WCC members were to us. Nancy Blackett herself handled beautifully when weather conditions allowed sailing, and she proved a cosy and comfortable ‘home away from home’”.