A Charity will be born and you are invited to the birth

We are finally at the point of being able to launch the BURE NAVIGATION CONSERVATION TRUST at a meeting on November 22nd 2011 at the Burgh Reading Room. This charity will promote the interests of the river and have a longer term aim of establishing a footpath along the entire length from Aylsham to Coltishall. You will be made very welcome if you would like to attend. The meeting starts at 7.30pm.

The ghost of Burgh Reach

There slipping forward slowly in the early morning mist heading north from the Oxnead lock cut is the ghost of a wherry. She’s small, only 13 tonnes and built originally in Aylsham many moons ago. The sail lowers to pass under the bridge and her long gone hands on deck raise it again as she passes under so as not to lose the momentum. Under sail now in the barely discerned autumnal mist she glides on her ever onward way towards her supposed resting place. The “Prospect” is the ghost wherry of this part of the river and she doesn’t sleep easy.

Her ghost rises on all hallows eve along with the humans she knew and those that worked on and loved her. Small even for this navigation her cargo is probably animal feed or is she empty and headed for the old boathouse off the Brampton Island to load sugar beet? Her way is silent and sedate and she is a sight to behold but only the lucky and blessed can see her. She tries to hide as she has lain hidden all these years – the water gently lapping her bow as she makes a slow and sedate headway against the current. The mist swirls affording only the briefest of glances of her tell tale black sail confirming her trading status.

If you see her count your blessings and be lucky as she only reveals herself to the deserving few. She has rested from her labours for 100 years and according to legend lays asleep in the Bure where she was so shamefully abandoned all those years ago. She rises but once a year to carry her cargo again and establish her right to be called a trader although she does this under cover of dark and damp making it almost impossible to see her. However feel free to go and look both she and I wish you well.

Momentous Times

There is news to impart so here I am sat waiting for my car to cost me a fortune as it is serviced and gets a set of new boots – time on my hands I think therefore why not share a few views and make a couple of announcements – it’s time to do a blog. I can’t escape the assistance of Bonnie the kitten who is now, astoundingly, 6 months old and currently recovering from surgery as she’s had her “bits” done. She’s a funny little thing, black domestic shorthair – a moggy if ever there was one but she is very special as she was born with a deformed stump of a tail that is only about 2 inches long with a full 90 degree kink in it. We love her and she does seem to get on all right with all of the other cats except for Bella but then she doesn’t really get on with another living thing; she lives in her own little world but is contented enough to do so. Bella is the kind of cat that dogs (as a red setter once found out to its cost) are afraid of but not for the first time I digress.

BELLA in 2007

So what of the news, firstly I am to be a grandfather which is a bit of a shock although I see no good reason why it should be. I am very critical of my skills as a parent as my sons would no doubt agree but now there’s a chance to do better. I am really pleased by this news and it has caused me to reflect on the times of my life. For a large part of it we all lived in fear of nuclear holocaust and then more recently global warming, climate change, population growth and the totally unfathomable scourge of international terrorism. In my life I’ve lived through at least three major recessions, strikes, strife and not a little poverty at times. Why would you want to bring a child into all that and the answer quite simply is they are the hope. We survived and so will they to hopefully improve things and see an end to war and poverty. I was ever the eternal optomist.

What of other news – well I suppose I should talk of the Navigation and in particular the legacy of our project. The charity we have talked about and discussed at length came a step very much nearer the other evening. We are now at the point where we have a constitution which is agreed except for a couple of relatively minor points which require tweaking. The charity will be formally born on November 22nd 2011 at a meeting to be held at the Burgh Reading Room starting at 7.30pm and you are all invited to attend. This is in time for the 2012 anniversary and one of the first acts will be to organise the event next August to mark the closure to navigation following the flood in 1912. This charity will promote and improve a footpath along the river and will also do conservation work to help preserve the environment, history, flora and fauna of this our river along the length that was once navigated by the working boats. We have formed a sub-committee to help organise the event on Coltishall Common on August 26th 2012 where we will be joined by the Wherry Albion to celebrate what once was but also to look forward to ensure this beautiful jewel in Norfolk’s crown is kept as perfectly as it can be. If you wish to help or take part please email me on stu.wilson100@btinternet.com. We really do live in the most momentous of times.

On top of all this the reality of my own looming retirement came a bit closer this week when for the first time I had to identify a possible date for that event. Thankfully it’s still a small number of years away.

Our beautiful River BURE - a few years ago at Oxnead copyright Chris Goddard


It’s finally turned as cold as it should be and this morning saw the first rather poor attempt at a frost although that wont have deterred the all night party goers in Brampton. In the days of old when the wherries made their way up the Navigation this was an interesting time of year as the last of the harvest needed carriage and supplies of winter warmth in the form of coal had to be delivered along the way.

The dydlers, the Navigation’s maintainence men, will have been busy preparing for winter and an overall air of expectation settled over the river. The shortened days soon to be more dark than light meant that everything had to be squeezed in to the time available. It’s a really magical time particularly first thing in the morning around and just after dawn as the mist hangs thick and grey giving everything a sparkling and mysterious appearance. The boats would have gently emerged from the misty curtain as they wound their way from collection to delivery. The crews quanting when the wind dies or sailing with that crisp but cold East Anglian wind that cuts across the valley. Fuelled by hot tea or even coffee from the stove these men knew the meaning of hard work but also the beauty of living in tune with the changing seasons.

The other thing about autumn is the certain knowledge and anticipation that things will get worse before they get better. It is a time of cold which leads to greater cold. Brrrr !!!

Oxnead before the flood copyright Norfolk County Council


Oxnead in the snow possibly 1960's courtesy of Jon Spinks

Better late than never

I’ve always tried to do at least one blog a week and sitting at the keyboard and banging one out has become part of my Sundays or at least it had until yesterday when circumstances conspired against the creative juices. So this is being penned on Monday and like all things is better late than never.

During the last week I had cause to meet with someone who did not know the Navigation but wanted to write an article about it. Along with Peter from Coltishall we set off on an afternoons tour in delicious autumnal sunshine which came coupled to a stiff but not particularly chilly wind. I’ve always liked autumn and this was a particularly good day and the Bure was resplendent throughout. We started at Horstead / Coltishall lock and then drove to Aylsham working our back along the country lanes that criss-cross the Navigation and the villages that kiss its banks. Oxnead, as usual, did not fail to impress; I think it is really the very best time of year to enjoy this delightful location.

Cradle Bridge as it appeared during the time the Navigation was open courtesy of J. Spinks
Cradle Bridge 8th April 2007 copyright Stu Wilson

We crossed every bridge, I think, including the footbridge between Burgh and Brampton known since it was built as the Cradle but the reason for this is lost in the mists of time. The river water was clear and the flow reasonable. In places we could just imagine the wherry sailing along but in others it had to be admitted that things had changed so much since 1912 that it is difficult to see how boats ever managed it. I speak of the encroaching vegetation which would have been kept in trim when in use. These changes are well illustrated in the comparisons between the two photographs above. I also speak of what has been lost such as Buxton Lock which has been wiped from the landscape although it’s mark is still there if you know how to read it and not just in the name of the surviving lock cottage. We then ended up at Mayton which can have an air of mystery about it even on a good day before returning to Coltishall.

We hope our guest enjoyed himself – I know we did.

Oxnead early Spring 2007 copyright Stu Wilson

In the beginning

Everything has to start somewhere; I think we can accept that as a truism but where did the Aylsham Navigation begin? The answer to that could fill a room with debate for hours but physically there is little dispute that it began at Horstead / Coltishall lock. Going upstream this is the first lock and the point at which the Aylsham Navigation began to collect tolls. It remains the existing head of navigation for the lock free Broads cruising area.

The Navigation was complete and open in 1779 but we know that this lock was operational three years earlier from 1776 as wherries needed to pass through it to serve the neighbouring and sadly no longer standing Horstead Mill. We also know that the very first wherry through was the Grampus – I wonder whatever happened to that?

The area around the old mill and the lock is now one enjoyed by many and incorporates slips for canoes and on hot days (such as today) the local youth can be found swimming here. The old lock chamber is still very evident as it has been preserved as part of the flood control scheme. The other evening I found a fisherman dangling his line in the chamber and catching fish too. He told me that he has seen Otter here in the recent past and was very complimentary about the water quality. Looking upstream however it is possible to see that time has ravaged the Navigation since it ceased to be used by working boats. Vegetation is encroaching  where  once was clear deep water. I suspect that the Navigations navigable depth of 3’6″ is not as certain now as it once was.

If you enter the woods on one side of the lock you will see lumps and bumps in the ground. This is, I think, the remains of the toll keepers cottage that can be so clearly seen below.

Horstead Coltishall lock in the late 19th Century courtesy of Norfolk County Council - the toll keepers cottage is to the right

Now in my little mutterings I often go off on sidelines, today I’m going to make a giant leap in both subject and scale. I have always wanted to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) although I would be very lucky to do so this far south it isn’t an utterly unknown phenomena. I subscribe to an aurora alert website and have just (Oct 2nd) rec’d an alert suggesting that the lights are a possability so like the Navigation look north. This has been a kitty powered blog (I haven’t mentioned the little one for a while) but I’ve had to type one fingered as she has been on my lap demanding strokes with the other hand. Now it’s off to Cromer and the seaside for lunch with my sister who is travelling up from London on the train for the day.

Horstead lock chamber today copyright Stu WilsonThe lock chamber today looking upstream copyright Stu Wilson
Looking upstream from the lock chamber Sept 2011 copyright Stu Wilson