A toast

On Friday evening just gone I attended at the monthly opening of our village social club bar. The date was August 26th 2011 and I raised a glass of Marstons Pedigree (out of a bottle; not quite so good as well kept draught but very passable) and offered a toast to the Navigation it being 99 years to the day since the flood denied it of life. This was a symbolic and rare event as I rarely drink these days but my melancholy at all that was lost was too great to ignore.

The Navigations life was ended by the flood but it did not change the economy of the area as that had already happened with the coming of rail. It may however have added to the growth in this area of the then infant motor trade.

Now forward 28 years to the dark days of 1940 when our river, the Bure, was being prepared for being in the front-line of what was then seen as the forthcoming battle with German land forces after an invasion. The Bure was ro be what is loosely called a stop-line. The destruction of all bridges and crossings would slow and even temporarily stop a German advance. All the bridges were prepared for demolition and many pillboxes and other defensive structures were built to support this line.

Pill-Box by Oxnead Bridge - copyright Stu Wilson

One of the pill boxes (see above) was by the bridge at Oxnead but there were many others including the one seen below at Aylsham Mill. Chris Bird is an acknowledged expert on these defences during WW2 and he has recently unearthed some interesting detail about them at the National Archives. Included in this was the existence of a camouflaged pill-box at Buxton Mill that he did not know about previously. I wonder if there is anybody out there that remembers it and can throw extra light on its existence and appearance, Maybe somebody even photographed it – who knows. Please let me know if you have anything to help on this by contacting me on stu.wilson100@btinternet.com

In the meantime it is easy to look back and think how pointless these defences were but we do that with the benefit of hindsight. To the people concerned they were frighteningly real as they prepared to fight for the defense of their homeland. I toast them too.

Pill-Box at Aylsham Mill copyright Evelyn Simak


There are times when considering these little twitterings that an idea clearly forms and the words flow and others when I can sit at the computer and wonder what the heck to say. Normally at such times I take heed of the maxim which says if you’ve got nowt to say keep it buttoned. Today however I have sat here with not a clue and started to type and I bet it shows.

During this week a friend has loaned me a copy of “Norfolk Shipping” by Michael Summers published by Tempus in 2002. This book, if you don’t know it is worthy of a look. It is not a weighty tome and consists much more of pictures than text. Some of the pictures though are wonderful and in one section serve to remind that Norwich, not that long ago was a sea port. You could never get really big ships up but it was as late as the 1960’s and early 70’s the destination for cargo vessels of coaster and slightly bigger size. I worked with somebody who was once a Customs Officer in Norwich based at the Airport and he could recall boarding ships in Norwich that had arrived from overseas. I am also  reminded of this history on my frequent trips to the Mountergate area where there is a road going off called, quite accurately, “Baltic Wharf”. This suggests a Baltic trade probably of wood or paper. A trip along the river in Norwich still reveals some of the old wharves and warehouses.

The point of all this is that the waterways of the Broads were extremely important to the development of the area and the historic evidence for all this is still there to see today. The Aylsham Navigation was a small but nonetheless important part of the system. Aylsham’s importance as a centre for agriculture owes much to its existence although the farming came first and survived the decline and fall of the wherry. During its day however the Navigation gave Aylsham and the villages along the route a link to wider markets and also allowed for the cheaper and more efficient carriage of a whole manner of goods essential for life to improve in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Without it development would have been slower and different – it would not be today as it actually is.

Now you haven’t heard me mention kitty for a while – well she is doing fine and I am alone at home with her as I write this and she is causing absolute mayhem. Everything is done at the double and boundaries are there to be tested. Thankfully Poppy, one of our older cats has taken little Bonny under her wing and from time to time hands out a little bit of pussycat discipline in a way only they can. It’s done the kitten a power of good. She’s still tearing about though.

Todays photo shows the staithe area in Aylsham a few years after closure. This is very much, to my mind, an industrial scene and serves to illustrate the point that it was, like Norwich, very much an inland port. This area would have bustled all the way through the 19th century and served the Aylsham economy well. Now it’s all covered over and built on. The staithe itself is a housing development; ever onward ………

Aylsham Staithe well after closure in 1928

99 years and counting

99 years ago today people hereabouts would have been going about their business without knowledge of the catastrophy that was about to biblically engulf them. The wherrymen were still navigating their craft to Aylsham and servicing the communities along the way such as Burgh, Brampton, Oxnead, Buxton, Lammas, Hautbois and Horstead. It was just post-harvest and agricultural loads would have been available to increase what was now becoming a meagre trade. The wherrymen would have cursed their way through the locks bemoaning the lack of maintainence and water levels particularly approaching Aylsham were barely sufficient to allow navigation.

Outwardly it was still an idyll; the river was teeming with life and trade still existed even if it wasn’t as it had been in the heydays of 30 or 40 years previously. The mills at Aylsham, Burgh, Oxnead, Buxton and Horstead were still essential parts of the local economic landscape and the boats on the Navigation provided a service to each in turn. The eel catchers of which there were several still plied their trade on the Bure although this was mostly a second income business even then.

It was 14th August 1912 and within 12 days life would be changed forever. It started with the rain; unbelievably heavy with over 6 inches in 12 hours and then came the flood sweeping down the valley almost tsunami like sweeping bridges and locks before it. The Navigation died there and then never to be resurrected, the damage was just too great to economically repair. Communities were rent apart by the destruction of bridges. Most notably the main road bridge over the Bure between Horstead and Coltishall was destroyed splitting those communities for three years before it could be rebuilt.

The photographs below give some indication of the extent and damage caused by the flood. The economic and physical disruption to lives was enormous. It is a pity, in my opinion, that the Navigation Commissioners were not sufficiently far sighted to invest in the repairs. I believe that they were actually grateful for the excuse to close the Navigation which is a sorry indictment. Now if I had a Tardis ….. !

We plan to remember these events next year, the 100th anniversary; please feel free to join us.

The flood thought to be at Lammas
Horstead - Coltishall Bridge was to remain broken for 3 years
Oxnead Lock just after the flood had subsided
Damage caused to Buxton Mill stream by the flood


There are various bits of Navigation news to impart but beggar that I want to tell you about my dream. It was seriously weird and I went to bed stone cold sober. I had however attended an event where a rather delicious strawberry ice cream went down rather well.

My dream and this is genuine took place at an indeterminate but modern time (for me that’s almost anytime from 1955 onwards) at Oxnead Lock. Well it would be wouldn’t it? Any regular reader will know of my particular liking for Oxnead on the Navigation. It was summer and hot. The Navigation was miraculously working and there were full black sailed wherries in the picture but there was also pleasure boaters and people enjoying the river and the tranquility of the spot. This is the weird bit I was selling ice cream from a specially adapted boat such as the one in the photograph below which I had moored between the bridge and the lock just short of the start of the lock cut. I had a queue of customers and somehow the wherry captains would also stop and buy one. I was only selling strawberry ice cream in cones, very big cones.

I wouldn’t actually wish my dream to ever come true – there were far too many people and it all seemed very  out of place but if there’s anybody out there that would like to take an interpretive guess feel free.

Ice Cream boat on the Broads

Now the news very briefly. Thanks to Pete and Sue Baker and others (you know who you are) for having the Navigation stall at the recent Coltishall and Burgh fete’s. This was a good means of spreading the word and raising our profile and I know from talking to them that Peter and Sue thorougly enjoyed themselves. We also have news on the footpath by the Island in Brampton. The route of this path had been in dispute and went to a planning enquiry which has now reported and decided the issue in favour of the riverside route which has been enjoyed by generations.

To return to my dream for just a minute please see the picture from the Norfolk County Council archive (thanks to them for allowing its use) below showing Oxnead Mill pre-1912.

Oxnead Mill before the flood courtesy of Norfolk County Council

The lock cut is going off to the right and in my dream I was just this side of the junction moored on the right hand bank which is where the riverside path still is. This photograph was, I think taken from the bridge area and the view is much different today as you can see below in one of my own photographs. The modern view is nearer to how it was in my dream although perhaps it was something in-between. I think I should stop eating ice-cream. Finally I haven’t mentioned the kitten for a while – well she’s growing and far more interested in the other cats than me now although I became her friend for life yesterday when I saved her from a working washing maching . Miaowwww

Oxnead taken in April 2007 copyright Stu Wilson

Island Footpath DECISION

The planning inspector has found in favour of the position taken by Brampton Parish Council in respect of the Island footpath which will now form a definitive route along the river. The original order was however modified to show a width of 1 metre for the new path. Thanks to all those who gave evidence and supported this issue.