The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation is a delightful, little-known waterway. The canal/river begins at Chelmsford and runs for 14 miles to the tidal estuary at Heybridge Basin and is used by pleasure craft, fishermen, cyclists, walkers and canoeists.
The canal was used for transporting coal, corn and timber until the 1970s. Every parish had its own waterside wharf. The coastal trading ships unloaded at Maldon and horse-drawn barges transported the goods inland. Little Baddow was the halfway stop over point in the Chelmer and Blackwater’s heyday. Bargemen would sleep in the bothy and the horses in the stables.
This walk from Little Baddow gives a glimpse of the area’s past – and its unspoilt present.
Finding the canal
From the centre of Little Baddow, take Spring Elms Lane east. Soon bear left on a drive opposite Mill Lane until you reach a house. Bear left and follow the footpath through woodland. Continue along the edge of a field until you need to navigate through Tofts Farm.
Keep ahead over Tofts Chase and descend on the footpath to the navigation. Bear left. The navigation was opened during June 1793 after an Act of Parliament allowed a navigable waterway to operate between Chelmsford and Colliers Reach.
Ghosts of industry
Follow the path along the river until you reach Papermill Lock, which has been developed as a leisure centre with a tearoom. Pleasure boat hire also operates from here. The canal centre opened in 2002. It’s not too hard to imagine how busy these building were when the river was in its industrial prime.
Cricket bat willows
Continue along the next section of riverside footpath. The canal is lined with cricket bat willows and is very peaceful. Pass a reservoir on the opposite side of the river and continue until you reach a footbridge just before Church Road, where the riverside footpath swaps banks. Richard Coates was the resident engineer, constructing 12 locks that allow the canal to rise 23m (77ft).
Part river, part canal the Chelmer and Blackwater is still operated by its original company of proprietors.
The canal’s demise
Bear left uphill through the field to reach St Mary the Virgin church, with early Norman features, and Little Baddow Hall Farm. Take a
track opposite to skirt around the edge of the farm and continue ahead on a footpath through woodland. Soon
bear left to reach Chapel
Lane. Turn right and then
left on another footpath
which passes Belle Vue Farm. At a bend, keep ahead, passing buildings and bear round to
the right to a lane adjacent to
a school. Go left to return to Little Baddow.
Ironically, the canal was crucial in the building of the Great Eastern Railway, which led to the canal’s own demise. The last diesel lighter loaded timber in 1972.