Living the Dream

It’s been a busy week one way and another and not an entirely happy one as Friday found  me in Derbyshire attending the funeral of an old colleague. I don’t talk about my paid employment on here but suffice to say that I have spent 36 years (so far) doing a job that is useful, stressful, frustrating and sometimes fun all rolled in to one. It is in public service and I have always worked in a team environment where the loss of someone even after some years apart is keenly felt. The man in question had been retired a paltry 5 years. It was however a chance to catch up with some old and now mostly retired colleagues most of whom look remarkably well on it.

I’ve been busy recently on Navigation matters too. There was a meeting with the Coltishall Commons Trust to discuss the embryonic plans for the celebrations in August 2012. This is when we hope that the Wherry Albion and possibly another historic old vessel will come to Coltishall and we will carry a token cargo from Aylsham by canoe. That will meet with the Albion which in turn will have brought a cargo upstream. The first cargoes in 100 years to be carried on the Navigation. I needed the Commons Trust agreement as it would be great if this could be something more than just a Wherry. We can bolt-on other events to draw people and thereby enable a fund raising effort to be launched. Funds would be raised for the new Bure Navigation Conservation Trust, the Albion itself and the Commons Trust to help maintain that lovely space for people to enjoy. There’s still a long way to go but at least we’re on the road. It would be really lovely if some people could come out of the communities of Coltishall and Horstead to help take on the responsability for organising and running this event. If you might be that person don’t hesitate – drop me a line on .

Coltishall - Horstead Bridge after the flood

Those communities actually have something else to mark on the same day, August 26th 2012, as the flood exactly 100 years earlier not only closed the Navigation it also washed out the bridges including the main road one between Horstead and Coltishall. I can only begin to imagine the disruption that caused. This picture graphically illustrates the point; we can see what I think is an inspection party both in the boat and on the opposite bank. This must have been no more than a few days after the flood had subsided – the river still looks high.

I have also been out and about talking to people about the Navigation and our Project. The latest was a wonderful group of children at the marvellous Erpingham Primary School. The thirst for knowledge by children who are keen and taught well is un-ending. This group asked some really good, and rather direct, questions. Having spoken to the WI, a local Rotary and Primary School children I now feel ready for almost anything. The children kindly sent me some pictures and I’m afraid there’s only room to share two with you (below) although they are all lovely and I thank them very much.

For those who are interested in such things this has not been an entirely kitty free blog as somehow she has got on to the table whilst writing this and overturned a pot plant – charming.

A couple of updates helped by Kitty

I’ve got the kitten back from my wife’s lap as she is roasting Pork, Parsnips and Potatoes or something. Kitty’s showing a fascination for the computer when I am using it that is verging on the annoying. I left it switched on whilst out earlier and came back to find 21 windows open and, I’m kidding you not, an email sent which said kkkkkkkkkk…………….. etc You get the idea. Anyway enough of my trials and tribulations.

I have over this weekend sent out agendas for the next meeting of the Project on June 30th and notice of the Trust meeting on July 6th. If you haven’t rec’d one of these when you should or are new to the site and would like one please let me know on

Considering the content of blogs varies in difficulty. Sometimes the muse just takes me and at other times I think I ought to do one and sit at the computer and let it flow. I sometimes think that the best ones come from the latter process. I am however aware today that I have a couple of update issues arising from recent blogs to share with you. The first relates to the photograph accompanying “How it was” which showed a pleasure wherry moored at Buxton. Bob Malster, the author, emailed me with the following information which I thought I should share. Bob wrote “Your picture of Buxton mills is interesting because there is a pleasure wherry on the right of the photograph. This could be the Volunteer of Aylsham, which was owned by Thomas Shreeve, who in 1890 was miller at Buxton Mills and also at Aylsham and Cawston; he was advertising the Volunteer for hire in 1895″.

The second point comes from an equally knowledgeable source and concerns the slipping of keels which I have mentioned a couple of times. Mike Sparkes is the archivist at the Norfolk Wherry Trust and he has advised me of the following -:

“As to slipping keels Albion certainly had one and would have been a common feature on the wherries going up to Aylsham. Dilham and the Bungay Navigation’s. The slipping keel was fitted with keel irons at the stem ( bow) these held the the keel rigid they were two pieces of metal that slid up the stem post at the top of each was a hole once in position a bolt was put through plus through the stem post and a nut added to the other side  this would hold it in place. At the rear of the keel two pieces of rope were attached of equal length on each side of the keel and knots were added to each rope at equal distance, so once the bow section of the keel was secure the mate only had to get the knots held at the same distance while standing on the stern ( rear ) while the skipper in the hold pulled out the bungs of the keel holes in the bottom of the wherry put in a metal rod to line up the keel then slide in the three keel bolts then tighten. When a keel was removed it would be left in the water secured to the bank the wherry would then proceed up to where the load was required to put aboard on no account would the keel be left out of the water as by the time they got back it might have dried and would not fit back on because of shrinkage”.

So there you have it, two mysteries solved in one go thanks to the kindness of others. Now another mystery; I apologise for this photograph, it is a bit dark. It is very rare and shows the brick works on the Oxnead bank of the Navigation opposite Brampton Common. It is clear that wherries traded here. If you look closely you will see one moored just past the site, possibly overnight or resting but just as easily awaiting a load. Intriguingly though on the bank in the foreground is a wherry mast. Now what’s the story about that?

Lime Kiln Farm Brick Works

It’s good to talk

If you are a school, club, society, WI or any other kind of organisation and would like to know more about the Aylsham Navigation, the Project and Trust please let us know and we can organise a speaker although you will be required to provide a laptop (or similar device) and a projector. Talks can be tailored to your needs and we make no charge for them. Please email for more information.

Oxnead Fishery

We have received reports that notices placed by the Oxnead Fishery manager are being vandalised and removed. When these notices first appeared they were a little large and over-bearing but Ashe Hurst, the Manager concerned has made them less obtrusive whilst still being readable. These signs are part of a new effort to establish a sustainable fishery and to protect the river environment. Oxnead Fishery is not trying to restrict access to the river for walkers; indeed they are welcome on the designated paths but the bank and wildlife habitats need protecting. The indiscriminate launching of canoes in particular has caused the bank to degrade in places.

Ashe says “The signs state that the fishing is for private members only. However we can instruct Fishery Members and Non Members to leave the land as it is private property if they are in breach of fishery rules. We can instruct Members & Non Members to retain their dog on a lead and to clean up any fouling as instructed by the land owners.

Access  into the river from the bank or from the river onto the bank requires prior land owners ( Riparian) consent. The land owners have informed Ashe that access consent into and from the river is only granted to: The land owners Family & Friends, The Canoe Man , 1st Buxton Scouts and Oxnead Fishery Syndicate.

Through Passage by canoes is supported and unrestricted except where environmental impact is causing damage to the banks and spawning gravels or wilful interference to those habitats or Fishery Members becomes a conflict of interest”.

Ashe has also stated in respect of the signs that “I have consent to display them and have to legally define our remit of  public insurance liability and membership access consent and these thefts and vandalism amount to criminal damage & theft”.

Ashe is new to this river but he is a man with a vast experience and a lot to offer. He is very knowledgable about the fish and other wildlife and is supportive of the right to access that we are hoping to establish. This project hopes to have a worthwhile and ongoing dialogue with Ashe that will lead to improvements for everybodies benefit. Please let us know what you think.

The beauty of Oxnead; photograph copyright-Chris Goddard

Soap Opera

Sometimes I get really stuck for a title to these blogs so today I thought I would share with you that I am writing this as my wife watches one of her favourite soap operas. I’m sat in the computer chair right on the edge as the kitten, the most recent addition to the already large family of cats, is sat at the back of the chair making intermittent attempts to climb my back. As I write she has actually moved and has now jumped on the printer just to attract attention.

In a recent blog I metioned slipping keels. These were essentially detachable wooden keels that would be attached to make sailing easier and safer in the deeper, wider waters of the Broads in the widest sense. In the upper reaches of the rivers, particularly the Aylsham Navigation and the Dilham Canal (she’s now sat on my lap sharing her opinion with me which turns out to be a precursor to a full blown assault on the keyboard) where the depths were critically low at times these keels would be removed to enable onward passage. On the Navigation the normal place to slip was the Horstead / Coltishall Lock. The keels could be removed easily and quickly and being made of wood were always left wet; that is to say in the water so they could not dry out.

Bonny, the kitten, has now achieved one of her goals; I’m typing one fingered and one handed as she lies along my left forearm.

I spent a few minutes the other day on Burgh bridge (try typing that with one hand) looking at Isaac Helsdon’s old staithe. If you stand on the bridge and look upstream the staithe was immediately on your right. The photograph below shows either the Mayflower or the Hilda, both owned by Helsdon and based at Burgh. You can see the hatch covers are off and she is quite low in the water so I suspect that she is taking on a load. Presumably, from the photograph, we can assume that the cargo was to be hay. The staithe itself has left few remnants in the landscape but look closely and you will see a few clues. Then close your eyes for a moment and go back in time – isn’t it a delicious site.

Now that darn cat is using my leg as a scratch post so time to go.

WherryHilda or Mayflower at Burgh courtesy of Michael Grix

How it was

Buxton was an important point on the Navigation just shy of half way and the second of 5 locks. It was (and is) the largest village between the two ends and the various boats using the navigation would all have stopped here at some time. Buxton Lock itself lay alongside the Mill and all trace has been wiped from the landscape to the untutored eye. If you know what to look for there are clues to its past in the landscape today. The lock was filled in during the 1930’s and the road diverted over its site. The car park for Buxton Mill now stands where the lock entrance used to be. Other clues can be seen by taking the path from the Mill alongside the surviving Mill stream to the point where the old canal cut into the lock divides off. This is still very clear today and as I stood at this point last evening I could have closed my eyes and seen a wherry sailing by on its way downstream making for Coltishall before sunset.

Today’s photograph is of Buxton lock and is taken form an upstream position looking back towards the Mill. On the right we can see a wherry moored which looks to me rather like the pleasure craft “Victory” but I may be wrong about that. Then look to the left and it is clear that there is a working wherry just entering the lock about to go down. No doubt laden she will probably be bound for Great Yarmouth. Interestingly her sail has been dropped and I’m assuming without any particular operational evidence that this would have been routine when locking.

We do not know the age of this photograph but I’m going to suggest that it was in the last decade of the 19th Century. Photographs of boats on the Navigation are rare but to see two at once are very rare. What makes this special to me though is that despite large landscape changes since this was taken it is still possible to find where the photograph was taken from and to survey the scene today as a comparison. Go on, give it a go.

Buxton Lock from an upstream position circa 1890 courtesy of Jon Spinks.

A lesson learnt

To have days off together with my wife is a rarity but somehow we have managed to arrange several this week. Today we decided to visit Reedham as we hadn’t been to the church there nor seen the river for sometime. The tide was in flood as we got there and I watched the attempts to moor a motor cruiser in a narrow space with a mixture of amusement and concern as its bow was continually caught by the tide and forced away in to the middle. A Broads Authority man was in attendance and he caught my eye and pointed out that we all had to learn once which is true enough. It made me reflect on how I would have done as it is now some years since I have handled a large boat and even longer still in those conditions. I would like to think that I would have managed better and in my minds eye I could see the correct approach which was the opposite to the one being attempted. My efforts, had I been able to demonstrate them may have achieved the end result but would still have looked rank amateurish to those of a professional boatman.

I well remember as a child on holiday with my grandparents watching the old fishermen who operated the Mudeford ferry across the tidal race which is the entrance to Christchurch harbour in what was then Hampshire but may well now be Dorset. Here the tides ripped with a severe ferocity yet these fishermen who cast their nets across the harbour entrance using just their own muscle power in rowing boats made it look easy. The self same rowing boats when not fishing became the ferries and for a matter of pennies I, as a young lad, would be awe struck by the skill of these masters of their trade. It was inevitably very hard work but it didn’t look it; every oar stroke was slow and deliberate, nothing was done to waste energy but where needed great skill and strength were applied to take us across. I have never forgotten it and never will because here I believe is a lesson that could also be applied to the wherrymen. Despite it looking easy to assume that it actually was is a big and potentially dangerous mistake. Their skill shines through in that ease and my ignorance would very quickly be revealed if I assumed I could do it without learning the lessons of time.

The self same Broads man today made me smile when he said that we all had to learn but the ones he didn’t have so much time for were those that spent £250K on a gin palace cruiser when they should have spent £250K + £10 to get the instruction book with it. How very true.

One of the skills the old wherrymen would have learnt was when to slip the keel. This is an interesting concept designed for those parts of the Broads network, such as the Navigation, which were shallower. The wherries  had a removable keel that was “slipped” when necessary. This would undoubtedly have occurred at Coltishall / Horstead Lock to allow for onward passage. The false keel once removed would have been kept waiting for the return and it would almost certainly have been stored underwater to prevent drying out. Slipping, once mastered was a quick process that would not have delayed passage for more than a couple of minutes. Would have taken me an age though !!!

Coltishall Lock in use late 19th Century courtesy of the Norfolk archives

New Bure Video

The Bure Navigation Project is very lucky to have independant film makers working with us. One, John Parker (Blue Sky Productions) has just completed a short 5 minute taster covering a trip up the Navigation from Coltishall to Buxton. This video demonstrates the reason to conserve this beautiful river which will be taken forward by the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust.

The video can be found here

Retirement – isn’t always the end !

Now I am a certain age, certainly not young and not (in my opinion at least) old either . I still work for an employer but am coming towards the end of that phase in my life although I have more than enough to keep me busy after I retire officially in a few years (or longer if the pension age keeps getting later). What is true for humans can also be true for the machines that we build to serve us, particulatly, in the context of this site, to transport us and / or the goods we require moved.

It may not come as a shock for you to learn that my interest in transport is somewhat wider than the Navigation. In my youth I was an avid rail enthusiast although that waned as the trains became, in my opinion, more alike and boring. No character like the steamers and early diesels both of which I remember as steam didn’t end until I was a formative 14 year old. In the world of diesel traction I, like every youngster with this interest, found the Deltics a particular favourite. They were built by Brush Engineering in the early 1960’s with the specific purpose of replacing mainline long distance steam on the east coast mainline. For an internal combustion engine they were the nearest thing to steam without actually having a boiler. They had enormous power and the most reassuring roar. In the greater scheme of things they didn’t have a long life as they were retired by the mid- 80’s. It wasn’t the complete end as a few fine examples were preserved.

Imagine then my pleasure and surprise to learn that one of these beautiful monsters has been brought out of retirement to perform useful, indeed essential work. Alright it isn’t 100 mph stuff, nor is it passengers but it is genuine revenue earning labour hauling freight as there are insufficient suitable loco’s available for the contract it is working on. For more detail’s see here

This is the future catching up with the past (again). Perhaps there’s hope yet for Palmerston (see below) and her like again.

Wherry at Aylsham Mill copyright Aylsham Archive
Wherry believed to be Palmerston at Aylsham Mill copyright Aylsham Archive

Where bound?

Wherrymen would often be asked “where bound”; it’s part of human nature to be nosey about other peoples business particularly if they were in competition with you. The question would have been asked from the bank or at bridges, when wherries passed each other and, on the Navigation, at the locks. It is 99 years since Aylsham would have been the reply. We plan, as you know, to commemorate the 100th anniversary in just over a years time so that is where we are bound at the moment. We are, however, also bound for much further distant waters with the setting up of the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust. This will ensure that the history is remembered and celebrated. The flora and fauna protected and the river made accessible for all of us to use in an environmentally sensitive way. We will do this co-operatively with landowners, anglers and other interest groups. I believe that there is only solutions and that anything is achievable if you stick to the cause.

I know that there will be difficulties down the way but they are only sent to test us so my reply to “where bound”? The future!!

It would be lovely though to go back in time if ever that were possible and to say that I was bound for Aylsham like this un-named wherry on the Burgh reach. She’s under way by sail with the skipper on the tiller. There would have been one other on the crew, probably a lad, who may have been down below making tea or preparing to drop the mast at Burgh bridge. She’s enjoying a good wind and is not fully loaded which is probably deliberate. Wherries on the Aylsham Navigation had to contend with quite shallow water on the higher stretch so they needed to load light in order to make it all the way. We don’t know which wherry this is but I’d like to think it was the Hilda because if it was she was so nearly home being based at Burgh itself.

A Wherry under sail on the way to Aylsham at Burgh