For the pleasure of it

From almost the beginnings of time we have been drawn to water not just for economic reasons but also for the sheer fun of messing about in boats. I’m sure that in the stone age some boating was done just for the fun of it. One precursor of course is a navigable stretch of water and in the Aylsham Navigation that’s precisely what there was.

Pleasure boating in the modern sense started in earnest during the early 20th Century, before then it was a somewhat limited pool of people who could afford the time or money. We know that the Aylsham Navigation Commissioners frowned on pleasure boating. There were several reasons for this, I suggest. The one we know about is that they complained that they could make no money from it; the usual bottom line in such matters. Another reason was probably that people in pleasure boats could impede the passage of commercial craft and they did pay for their usage. On some waterways there was a rule that pleasure gave way to working and that a cargo boat got first preference at locks. I do not know at this stage if that was also the case on the Aylsham Navigation but I would be suprised if it wasn’t. Other rules may have applied to the hours of navigation which would have tried to restrict pleasure craft whilst maximising use by fee paying wherries.

However once people start using boats on a waterway for pleasure the genie is out of the bottle and it is near nigh impossible to put it back.

Here is a party out in a day boat around 1905 – 10 at what I believe is Burgh Lock. It is apparent that the boat is punted rather than rowed or sailed and would comfortably fit 4 or 5 together with their picnic.

This is clearly a different (smaller) boat around the same period at Burgh Mill. It is rowed and only comfortably takes three. I wonder who they are and where they’re going; it must have been a grand day out ! A big thanks to Michael Grix for permission to reproduce these photographs.

More World War 2

A little while ago I did a blog about the Bure during World War 2 and this led to an email arriving from a gentleman called Christopher Bird who filled in some of the gaps for me. I think his email is worthy of wider dissemination and I have therefore copied below the salient bits.

Christopher writes “my particular area of expertise is Norfolk’s WW1 and WW2 defences against invasion

In addition to almost all of Britain’s coast being protected, the country had several dozen defence lines (as opposed to the French’s single Maginot Line). The Ant was used as a defence line, usually called a stop line, in both world wars and many WW1 pillboxes survive on the upper Ant. The Bure was only used as a stop line in WW2. The line ran from Holt down to Yarmouth. The logic was that for most of its path the Bure was too deep and wide to be crossed by the German tanks of the time. Norfolk had several additional stop lines, the idea being for each one to slow the enemy down and allow mobile forces to come into position.

The key thing is to see a lone pillbox as part of a much more comprehensive defence scheme. The bridges would have had explosives in them to allow them to be blown in the event of an invasion, and anti-tank blocks beside them would have prevented tanks crossing the blown-up remains (there are large anti-tank blocks at Brampton, right beside the bridge, but these are very overgrown). In 1940 the defences would have been manned primarily by regular troops rather than by the Home Guard (post-Dunkirk there were large reserves of troops in Britain, though poorly armed – hence the reliance on using natural obstacles and fixed defences to slow the enemy up).

A survey I carried out in the mid-1990s recorded the following Bure defences, mainly at the river crossings:

Ingworth: two pillboxes
Aylsham: four pillboxes (one demolished)
Burgh-next-Aylsham: 8 anti-tank blocks
Brampton: one pillbox and 6 anti-tank blocks
Buxton: 4 anti-tank blocks
Little Hautbois: 8 anti-tank blocks
Horstead: two pillboxes (one demolished)
Coltishall: anti-tank rails (removed)
Wroxham: two pillboxes (one demolished)
Acle: 3 spigot mortar bases and six pillboxes (one pillbox demolished;
the spigot mortar was a Home Guard anti-tank weapon used from 1941)
Yarmouth had a great many defences which I can’t list here, but a lone
pillbox still survives where the Bure meets the Yare.

You get the picture. Bear in mind that each of the bridges would have been mined, and there would have been trenches, barbed wire, sandbagged machine-gun emplacements etc, all of which are long gone”.

I thank Christopher for his information and perhaps there are some out there that remember those days and can add to this useful information.

The photograph above shows the Bure looking out across Brampton Common. It was taken from Oxnead Bridge in April 2007 and the Pill Box is over and behind the photographers left shoulder. This was a stop line but in the event of an invasion I doubt that it would have held a determined enemy up for long although no doubt any inconvenience and delay would work to the defenders advantage.

Years apart

The photographic spread of this website continues to grow and I have decided to highlight two very different photographs which we have just been given permission to use. They are seperated by approximately 100 years but both capture something essential about the Aylshamn Navigation. The first (below) was taken sometime before the flood when the Navigation was still in use. It is a rare photograph as it shows a Wherry under sail using this part of the Bure. The County archivist thinks this is photographed at Lammas Church and I agree although there is some little room for doubt. I would prefer to say it is Lammas unless you can prove to the contrary.

It is clearly a black sail trader and of the right size for the navigation. If the location is right it is a few minutes upstream of Buxton lock heading for Oxnead which is away round the long sweeping left hand bend ahead. Ithink it’s late autumn or winter and the weather looks traditionally grey. Presumably she is heading to Aylsham.

The second photograph is of recent vintage and is a little further upstream from the above. In fact it is taken, I believe, near the upstream start of the lock cut at Oxnead and looks towards the bridge.

I find this a very atmospheric photograph taken as the shadows lengthen – this adds to the magic of an already special place. Thanks to Chris Goddard for permission to reproduce it here.


The last blog looked downstream from where I’m sat in Brampton and now I’m going to look a little upstream and across the water, the Bure that is.

One of the nice things about running this website is the finding out. This often involves seeking permission to use images or other material originally produced by others. I have just sought and obtained permission to use two small sets of photographs which appear on the Flickr photo sharing site. People are mostly kind and allow the use of their material such is the case with these two collections. One is from the UEA and the other by a man called Chris Goddard who has a website where he is known as the Webrarian. The photographs are in the Album page.

One of the photographs from the UEA showed Burgh Lock as it is today (see below). It is apparently still fulfilling a purpose in maintaining water levels and flood control. The chamber actually looks in quite good order. Around Burgh there is a complex series of watercourses and channels all designed to maintain a rate of flow through the mill and control flooding.

This photograph should be compared to to the one below which dates from 1927. That’s 15 years after the damaging flood and only one year before abandonment. To my eye the lock is in a much better condition today than it was then.

To the wherrymen users going upstream Burgh would have been a welcome sight – less than an hour from home and only Aylsham Lock left to negotiate.


Down South

The southern end of the navigation, specifically Buxton to Coltishall and Horstead Lock via Mayton Bridge, is the stretch I know least well and yet in some ways it can be argued as being the most beautiful part of the river. In these blogs I have more than once sung the praises of Oxnead but the hall there is not the only old house on the route. Little Hautbois Hall is a 16th century house of some note and it dominates this stretch of the river lying as it does just up from the old water meadows.

Little Hautbois used to be a village with its own church but it fell in to dereliction as early as the 15th Century and can no longer be seen. It now forms part of Lammas Parish but is completely distinct from it. The settlement consists of very few houses (Wikipedia says there are 8 dwellings and one of those is a holiday cottage but I haven’t counted them), the hall and an old pub. Marl used to be worked hereabouts but apart from that I think the wherries would have passed by in both directions.

There is a waterside footpath on this stretch but I am told that the line between Mayton Bridge and Coltishall is particularly difficult at the moment so any reports you may have would be gratefully received.

There is a tranquility here which has a rare quality. In Hautbois itself (as opposed to Little Hautbois) which is somewhat nearer to Coltishall there is a large establishment (described as an activity centre) used by the Girl Guides from far and wide. At this centre many a Guider gets to enjoy the countryside and the Bure valley. I’ve looked at the website for this centre and am intrigued by one of the activities on offer which seems a far cry from when I was a Girl Guide (some literal licence in use here – for Girl Guide read Scout). They have so called Chill and Skill weekends. Presumably they learn somethinhg new in the cold. I tease, they are a wonderful organisation.

Aylsham Navigation


On 26th August 2012 an event was held at Coltishall Common to comemmorate the Aylsham Navigation and to remember the flood which destroyed it exactly 100 years previously.


The event at Coltishall Common copyright Margaret Bird

The photographer who took the picture above was Margaret Bird who has spent many years researching and bringing to publication the diaries of Mary Hardy who was a witness to the opening of the Navigation. Margarets view of the event can be read here along with more details of the diaries.


FIND US ON FACEBOOK : Event : Navigation Project : Bure Navigation Conservation Trust

The vision is to raise the profile of our beautiful river, to identify and protect its history and wildlife in such a way that it remains available for the generations that follow to enjoy.

This community project plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the closure of the Aylsham Navigation. The waterway closed in August 1912 after heavy floods washed out the 5 locks between the current head of navigation on the River Bure (part of the Broads) at Coltishall and the town of Aylsham. The waterway had been in existence since 1779. The Act authorising its construction (George 111 c.37) received royal assent on 7th April 1773.

The waterway served the communities of Coltishall, Horstead, Hautbois, Buxton, Oxnead, Brampton, Burgh and Aylsham itself. Along its banks were a number of staithes (local term for dock or landing stage) and Mills. The locks at Coltishall, Buxton, Oxnead, Burgh and Aylsham were mostly designed to get around pre-existing Mill streams. The purpose of the waterway was mostly the transport of agricultural produce away from the area but return loads were varied from coal to state of the art (for the time) consumer goods. The tonnage rates varied depending on the commodity but broadly speaking was 1 shilling per ton for goods such as coal and building materials carried upstream and 1 shilling and 6 pence (old money) for agricultural produce downstream.

The Navigation utilised the River Bure for most of its 9.5 miles from Coltishall but  some canal cuts were put in place to facilitate ease of navigation. The final cut in to Aylsham itself was filled in during the 1970’s and the site of Aylsham Staithe is now a housing development (called The Staithe).

Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England & Wales (1904) states that the Aylsham Navigation was suitable for maximum size vessels as under.
From Coltishall Lock to below Buxton Lamas Lock:
Length 54ft
Width 13ft 9in
Draught 3ft 6in
From Buxton Lamas Lock to Aylsham:
Length 54ft
Width 12ft 8in
Draught 3ft 6in
Headroom at Burgh Bridge 6ft 4in.

When the flood came on August 26th 1912 all of the locks and some of the bridges (including the one between Coltishall and Horstead) were washed out. The navigation was already in decline as the coming of the railways in the 1880’s had dramatically cut the trade. After the flood the Navigation was never re-opened. Trading wherries caught upstream were abandoned with the exception of the Zulu which was man-hauled around the obstructions to gain her freedom.

The waterway was formally abandoned in November 1928.


The Project plans to identify and record what remains of the history of the navigation and also the wildlife of this spectacular river. It also plans to hold a commemoration of the navigation in some form as close to 100 years from the date as possible. More details will be published here as they become known. We also plan to identify and describe walks that will enable others to responsibly (and with respect to land owners) enjoy the river, it’s history, scenery and wildlife.

The project consists of participating groups who will each be undertaking their own aspects of the work sometimes alone and sometimes in collaboration.

If you or a group you represent feel that you would like to get involved please let us know (see the useful links down the right hand side of the page).

In defence of history

Well that’s a challenging title if ever there was one and I could quite easily go off on a long ramble through the recorded past and point to the significance of past events to those of today but I think that would bore you quickly and if I’m honest I would be yawning before you. So what is it about history that attracts?

Henry Ford famously said that “history is bunk” implying that we could learn nothing from it but with all due respect to the great man he was plain wrong. If economists, generals and the ruling classes paid more heed to the lessons of history the world would be an infinitely better place. I believe that the only new thing is technology; in all other respects nothing is new. Human beings have been trading, fighting, procreating, negotiating with their neighbours and educating their children from the days when we all lived in caves. Each day we make the history of tomorrow and we learn from the mistakes of yesterday. History is the greater learning from those that have gone before. I don’t claim to be any kind of intellectual, I do not have a degree and I’ve lived in humble circumstances all my life but I do respect what has gone before whilst embracing the modern and anticipating the future. I believe that is what makes a rounded human being.

My own personal interest in history (apart from some obvious political interests that I wont bore you with) is in the everyday. How you and I would have lived in the past. What we would have done and how we would have traded and travelled. If it’s got a sail or a steam engine all the better!!

Earlier I stated that only the technology is new and I think that is self evident but the way in which it is used is as old as time itself. At one extreme the space station is only a modern extension of man’s need to explore. Blogging is the modern and direct equivalent of the pamphleteers of bygone days and the so called social networks are only another way of talking to one another which we’ve done from day one.

So, in my most humble opinion, history is anything but bunk. If we are sensible it is our best friend, wise counsel and tutor.

So how does this relate to the navigation. Frankly I think I’ve gone off on another of my regular tours off the subject but then maybe not. In the navigation research we have a natural human interest in understanding the world around us and how it came about. The history of the navigation is closely linked with the economic development of Aylsham and the villages along the route. If it hadn’t existed today could be very different.

The other evening we held a project meeting. I didn’t actually count how many people were there but I know it was fewer than the previous meeting although there were lots of apologies. These were ordinary people, I hope that doesn’t offend anyone because sometimes the word ordinary is misunderstood when it actually means solid, dependable and willing but I am not going to digress down that line. Ordinary people giving of their time in the now, looking to the future and celebrating the past. Up yours Henry Ford !!!

The meeting was fairly short and productive. We are on the cusp of setting up a Trust, well underway in the research for a book on the Aylsham Navigation, looking to study the wildlife, creating art, planning a comemmoration – in short making tomorrows history today quietly and without too much fuss. All of this on a local level whilst around us on a global scale history of another sort seems to be in the making as man’s innermost desire for freedom is being aired as it always will eventually, history teaches us that.

I thank all the good people involved in the project for their hard work and support. An invitation is also extended to others to join in and share in the experience. Now let’s look at some real history.

The above lock, in suprisingly good condition is the one at Aylsham around the time of abandonment in 1928. Actually it is half way between Aylsham and Burgh lying now on the opposite side of the A140 to the town but I’m not going to split hairs. To my eye this is a lock which could have been put back in to use fairly easily. It is clear that the local populace like the tranquility of the location although I do wonder who they were. This lock is now the only one which is not readily accesible so I can’t say from personal knowledge what remains now but I can’t help wondering how things might have been had it been repaired and put back in to use. I shall be dreaming of wherries tonight.