Is change always good?

I am sometimes accused of being a bit stuck in the past. An accusation I totally refute whenever it is made. I do however admit to making long admiring glances over my shoulder at some aspects of life as they were. This does not mean I want to go back but it does mean that I recognise what we’ve lost often with some regret. Don’t get me wrong I would not like to return to harsher times – I’m far too comfortable for one thing but simpler times do have their attractions. I think we should recognise what it is that we’ve lost and consider whether the change that caused the loss is actually for the better. My employer is always changing – it is perpetual and ceaseless in its drive to ceate new structures and systems and to drive out the old. I happen to think that change for its own sake is totally wrong and just creates the worst of all things – a system that doesn’t recognise the best of the past and embraces all aspects of the future without a chance to assess whether it’s for good or ill.

History teaches us that nothing is new. Granted the technology is always new and the people are different but the circumstances are not new. We are currently in an economic turmoil which has been repeated many times down the ages; food prices have risen in the past and then fallen back (eventually) and riots in the streets go back to roman times. The situation at Dale Farm is not new as the settled community have always had issues with the travelling one as far back as the collective memory of the Roma exists. The problems in the middle east were first documeneted in biblical texts thousands of years old. So what would I like to see retained from the past here and now?

A difficult question as there is much that I am glad to see the back of mostly, it has to be said, to do with equality and social justice. I mourn the slow lingering death of the  pub; not for reasons of consuming alcohol but as a centre to local life. My own village of Brampton had two pubs and now has none. You can travel through large towns, Norwich included, where you will see the rotting remains of once vibrant centres of communal life. I can’t help it but I just know those communities are poorer without those public houses. Likewise I mourn the loss of our rail network in the 1960’s following the short sighted campaign to force people and goods on to rather than off the roads. Once closed and lost such infrastructure is very difficult to re-instate. The railway preservation movement does a good job at creating tourist attractions but they are not lines part of a larger network and capable of sustaining mixed traffic.

The Old Maids Head, one of Brampton's lost pubs courtesy of J Spinks

In the context of this blog I also mourn the loss of facilities such as the Aylsham Navigation. I know it would have a role were it still here and not just as part of the tourist industry. This is not an appeal for restoration, I don’t have the energy for it and, in my judgement, it is un-supported locally. However if it were still here we could campaign for it to carry sugar beet again and get those juggernauts off our narrow country lanes. It might also carry gravel and, of course, people. It would create jobs both on the water and at its edge. Would I want to skipper a modern cargo carrying barge on the Navigation for long hours and relatively poor money? You bet your life I would.

The local environment would be different and I suggest better for a working Navigation even now in 2011. On the theme of there being nothing new; a pleasure wherry (see below) was available for hire from Buxton in the last years of the Navigations existence.

Buxton Mill with pleasure wherry for hire moored to the right

Mellow fruitfulness

So it appears autumn is upon us which is a good thing for me as it is my favourite season. The wonderful colours matched with the lowering sun make for spectacular effects and great sunsets. The trees already shedding their leaves go in to the season fully clothed and finish stark naked allowing renewal to occur. It is preparing us for the chill to come before new life dawns next spring. Rivers at this time of year, particularly in the mornings, take on a very special air especially when the mist just hangs like a mysterious curtain and, saving when the wind blows, all seems stiller somehow. Even the rivers flow seems less pronounced. So it is and always was on the Bure.

Autumn cargoes would include the last of the summer harvest, the first of the sugar beet along with hay in preparation for winter and coal to keep us warm in the days to come. So it would have continued year on year right through to 1911 which was 100 years ago when it would have unknowingly enjoyed (if that’s the right word) its last autumn.

It is also a season when maintainence would have been a serious issue getting things ready for winter and clearing the drainage channels that were so essential to maintaining both a navigable depth and a healthy flow. The dydlers who did all this work would have found this the busiest time of their year. The wherry captains too would have had a haste about them as the hours in the day shortened they needed to make the most of the daylight whilst it lasted.

The photograph below was taken in autumn and is one of my favourites as regular readers will know as I’ve used it once or twice before. It shows Buxton Mill and lock looking upstream from the point where the lock cut and mill stream divide. It was taken I think in or around 1907. The wooden box like structure is thought to belong to the local eel catcher but I have no further details on who that may have been.

Buxton Lock when in use

In too few weeks we give way to winter and all the uncertainties that brings with short days and freezing weather. There are few photographs of the Navigation in winter but I do have this one taken, I suspect, in 1962/63 at Oxnead. An important year as that was the 50th aniversary of closure and we have now travelled the same distance again and I for one wonder where that time has gone as it has passed with indecent and quickening haste. My recollections of that winter are very clear although I was at school. Where I lived in Buckinghamshire near the Chiltern hills it started snowing and freezing on Boxing day 1962. The temperature did not get back in to plus figures again until the following March. The start of last winter reminded me a little of those days but it fizzled out after Xmas although the freeze did come uncommonly early.

Winter view of Oxnead taken from the bridge courtesy of Mr J Spinks

Memories of water time past

I am feeling very guilty as I have done very little for the Navigation Project or the embryo Charity in the last week. In my defence however I can tell you that my paid employment has been very taxing both in terms of mental effort and time.

One of the highlights though was a road trip around parts of the West Midlands with a colleague where we spent a lot of hours on the road and made a number of calls. Some of that brought back happy memories of my times on the narrow canal systems around the Midlands. We crossed numerous canals; you can’t go far in that part of the world without finding navigable water. In particular the Coventry, Oxford and Grand Union Canals, all passed over at least once and navigated in my past brought back great memories. Likewise parts of the Birmingham Canal Network were also encountered and the quick glance over the bridges from the car revealed a vibrant and well used community facility. Oh how close we came in the 50’s and 60’s to losing it all; just thank the Lord we didn’t.

We did lose the Aylsham Navigation though as its demise came a couple of generations before anybody might have thought about restoration or amenity value. Although there is unlikely to be any person alive today who actually remembers boats on the Navigation there is still something there which I cannot describe or define. I look at some places and I see boats laden with cargo and working men toiling to make their deliveries. I’m not going mad as I don’t actually visualise them but I do see them in my mind. It’s some kind of informed memory, or is it a longing for the past?

Most man made things detract from nature and the landscape but I don’t believe that to be the case on the Aylsham Navigation which is much more man made than it appears at first sight. The vast majority is man made; the old natural river is but a ghost in the landscape and being built for the purpose of trade it isn’t really complete without the boats for which it was designed.

This is not a call for restoration he said limply as I do realise that to be an impractical and mostly unsupported aspiration. Instead I am trying to say that there will always be something missing even though what is there is more than beautiful as it is. Putting a wherry on it would be the icing on the cake or the cherry on top.

Wherry (unknown) under sail at Lammas courtesy of Norfolk County Council

Invasion of the balsam

Until I started to take a close interest in the Bure I had never heard of Himalayan Balsam or it’s invasive ways. It is an introduced and now out of control feral species. Having the genus name Impatiens Glandulifera it is a relative of our very own Busy Lizzies. This plant loves waterways and quickly takes over choking out native flora. It can grow to over 6 feet tall and as high as 10 feet. It has a well deserved reputation for spreading like wildfire and needs controlling.

Himalayan Balsam in flower

Control measures however have to be undertaken in such a way as to ensure that the seed pods dont burst open and spread the species further. Control means eradication; this is not a native UK plant and it is damaging our environment.

Himalayan Balsam

We know that this plant is in the higher reaches of the Bure around Blickling and Itteringham however we now also know that it is on the Aylsham Navigation stretch as it has been reported close to the Cradle Bridge and also, possibly, around Mayton Bridge. The Bure Navigation Conservation Trust (our embryo charity) wants to see this weed eradicated from the Bure as it could change the character but we implore that you do not take matters in to your own hands (as it were) as the weed spreads by expelling seeds and on rivers they migrate downstream very quickly and easily. Instead we ask that if encountered the weed should be notified to us and if you are so minded then you can take part in eradication parties led by those that know what they are doing.

A single Himalayan Balsam plant

The Balsam is not the only invasive species we have on the River. There are patches of Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia Japonica) along the river with particularly bad areas around Mayton Bridge. This also needs to be dealt with and I am hoping that if identified you will also report it to us via

Japanese Knotweed

The health of our river is all of our responsabilities. Sounds like the start of some 1950’s sci-fi movie – The Invasion of ………. at a river near you.

Japanese Knotweed in Autumn