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Fun for all in Harlow

PUBLISHED: 11:01 03 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:51 03 April 2018




Among its many attractions, Harlow is positioned on The River Stort Navigation – an area of stunning countryside and beautiful waterways. Petra Hornsby discovers why this is a place that really does have something for everyone


Situated close to the Hertfordshire border and in the west of Essex, Harlow was one of the first locations to be chosen to be part of the New Towns scheme (1946) designed to accommodate people in need of new homes following the bombing of houses in London during World War II.

Architect and planner Sir Frank Gibberd was appointed master planner and, along with other leading architects, he set about developing a new community around the existing Old Harlow and other surrounding villages. Harlow is reachable by the M11, but well before the days of the motorcar, the area relied on its canal as a link for transporting goods to and from Bishop’s Stortford.

The River Stort Navigation was opened on October 24, 1769 and operated barges to carry grain, such as malted barley, as well as timber and coal. Although no longer in use commercially, the area is very popular for walking, cycling and fishing, providing an ideal countryside location and a great place to go and watch the narrow boats pass through the Burnt Mill Lock.


There is a three-and-a-half mile River Stort Trail which incorporates the canalised section of the River Stort, Burnt Mill Lock and the Marina, not to mention some lovely scenery and plenty of wildlife too. Another great riverside feature and something of considerable historical interest is Parndon Mill. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the flour mill has gone through a few structural changes over the centuries, mainly due to fires, and the current building dates back to 1900.

Flour production ceased in the 1960s and, although the mill was used briefly for producing animal foods and then in the coal business, it eventually fell into disuse and was taken on by the Harlow Development Corporation. Parndon Mill is now a thriving studio base for several artists and craftsmen, and is open to the public five days a week. It also runs a variety of classes and workshops.

For many, taking a trip on a narrow boat and travelling at leisure through beautiful countryside is a great pleasure, and many choose to do just this along the beautiful rivers Stort and Lee, winding their way through the idyllic Essex and Hertfordshire countryside. However, the logistics of being able to board a narrow boat and enjoy all the pleasures of taking a trip in one can be more than challenging for people with disabilities and special needs.


One charity has made it its mission to make cruising a narrow boat an option for all, by offering specially adapted boats for day trips and short breaks. CanalAbility, an award-winning charity founded over 25 years ago, provides disadvantaged people and people with disabilities (along with their families and friends) a chance to involve themselves fully in the experience of crewing a canal boat.

This not-for-profit organisation relies solely on donations, sponsorship and grants to offer this service, along with fully accredited training for volunteers and service users.

Each boat has ramps, lifts and hoist points enabling access for wheelchair users and those with impaired mobility. Each boat also has toilet facilities for the disabled and the holiday boats even have wet rooms. The purpose-built boats have broad beams not only for easy access, but to allow everyone on board to take a full and active part in the experience, while central heating means that trips out can be made all year round.


The charity’s vision to, ‘facilitate totally independent boating on the inland waterways for people with any disability’ certainly seems to reflect on the ethos of founder and now president, Derek Fenny, who (back in the late 1970s while working as a community education officer for West Essex) was also responsible for the local Youth Training Scheme or YTS.

While standing on the banks of the River Stort, a narrow boat came round the corner and Fenny was inspired to build one – with the help of local, unemployed youngsters. Those involved in the building of the boat (YOP Rose), learned essential practical skills and acquired a sense of empowerment as they were equipped with training and gained confidence.

However, it struck Fenny that, in spite of the achievement, the boat was unsuitable for anyone with a disability. Concerned with the issue of inequality, Fenny turned to Essex County Council for funding, but when this route hit a brick wall he felt the only other option was to start a charity.


The charity serves a variety of people and boats can be hired privately if one or more people in a group has special needs or a disability. Many groups and organisations have also enjoyed the facilities offered by CanalAbility, including local schools, care homes, hospices and charities such as Mencap and MIND.

Being able to provide the opportunity for an experience that is a little bit challenging, definitely fun, but most importantly inclusive to all, must be hugely rewarding for all those involved in CanalAbility.

Doreen Goodall, general manager for CanalAbility, recalls some of the responses from people on the boats. ‘One that really sticks in my mind was when the chair of trustees took a boat out recently and a member of the group was a gentleman who had had a stroke ten years earlier and was quite disabled,’ says Doreen.

‘Because the skipper and crew always try to encourage the people to participate, he actually got this gentleman steering the boat and he turned round and said that it was the first time that he had felt in charge of something or done anything of use in the last ten years. To us that says it all. Everybody loves the peace, the tranquillity, the sound of lapping water, the country air and the rain. We all love the waterways and we love to help people.’

Emmalena L Ellis, social media executive for CanalAbility, sums up the attraction of one of these narrow boat experiences. ‘It’s one of Britain’s best kept secrets – the River Stort peacefully meanders for 24 miles between the Hertfordshire and Essex borders, past watermills and country homes, weirs and nature reserves. CanalAbility provides the resources for mobility restricted and other disabled individuals, who otherwise might have been left stranded on the banks, the freedom to travel on the river.’

So, with autumn now well and truly here, what an ideal time of the year to head down to Harlow’s Burnt Mill Lock to tackle the River Stort Trail, visit Parndon Mill for some creative inspiration, see the boats cruising by or even book a canal boat experience and take in the changing colours and light as well as learn some new skills. You are sure of a perfect day out.

Find out more

Those interested in fishing in the area should contact either the Bishop’s Stortford & District Angling Society (visit or the Ware Angling Club (visit

For private boat hire, visit or you can contact CanalAbility at or call on 01297 424444.

For more information and a map of the area, visit and details of the exhibition and workshops available at Parndon Mill can be found at


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