History is not bunk – even in the rain

My blogs are like buses – you wait an age then two come along together (more on buses, or one in particular, in a later blog). To be serious the reason is that I’m having some computer problems and I might have to go offline for a short while so I thought I’d do this one whilst I can.

Henry Ford is once alleged to have said that “history is bunk” – well I profoundly disagree. It is a lively modern subject that we ignore at our peril. We learn it to appreciate the past and its achievements but also to understand that the essential nature of human life is always the same just set in a different technological age. People over the years do not change but the technology which surrounds them does. Henry Ford is also alleged to say of his Model T that you can have any colour “so long as it’s black”. Well in my opinion life without history and its innovative teaching is like Henry Ford’s car – mono-coloured and drab.

Throughout this project I have tried to engage with the community mostly with success but it is a matter of regret that the young and those that teach them have not embraced the historical significance of the Aylsham Navigation. It was really important in the development of the town we now know and also the communities along its route. It is a model of how new ideas and technologies were adopted and exploited and also one of how infrastructure is ignored and allowed to decay at your peril. We have a slavish curriculum that doesn’t allow for deviance and insufficient time for teachers to engage. I am not criticising teachers as in other aspects of the project they have given magnificent support and seen the full potential of what we’re doing. Some of our greatest and most active supporters are teachers. I am instead commenting on a system that doesn’t allow the flexibility or time to take advantage of local opportunities and I think that is to the disadvantage of both themselves and the young people they teach. However we move on – if any teachers out there would like a presentation for either themselves or their pupils please let me know and we’ll see what can be arranged ( stu’wilson100@btinternet.com ).

It has continued to rain and we are on course for the wettest spring in decades although they say the underground aquifers are barely replenished. Frankly I find that hard to believe – all this rain must be having some benefit. I do know that the river flow has returned to normal and even beyond. Levels are also up and continue to rise to the point where we are now on flood watch. How ironic a flood would be in 2012 100 years after the innundation that killed the Navigation overnight. It is good to see the river in good health but it is worth noting, the lack of locks apart, that it really doesn’t look much like it did in 1912. Back then the river was maintained for navigation at a greater depth and width than it is now at. The old photos are striking in the comparison with today but the encroaching vegetation does mean increased habitat and that is to be applauded but it must not be allowed to strangle the river. Fish stocks are returning and in places are being nurtured to allow for angling enterprise and they in turn attract other wildlife such as Otters, Egrets and Herons. The increased flow also rejuvenates the mill streams and I sometimes wonder if they could still be utilised in an environmentally friendly way to, as one suggestion, generate electricity.  As I’ve said before in my blogs these are personal views and do not represent BNCT policy.

I am passionate about the past but I always keep one eye on the future and that includes the clock which tells me the Archers omnibus will be on Radio 4 shortly. Bye for now.

Buxton Lammas in the flood of 1912

Acts of defiance

Enjoying the river at Cradle Bridge many moons ago

We have just passed the 80th anniversary of the great trespass by Ramblers on Kinder Scout in the Derbyshire Peak District. The purpose of this act of defiance was to eventually lead to the opening up of our countryside for the enjoyment of all. I think those who took part are owed a debt of gratitude by the present generation as walkers rights are now recognised and enshrined in law. However with the right of access comes responsabilities to respect the land and those that earn their living from it. It is also placed upon us to respect the privacy, within reason, of those that live in the area we wish to access.

These are principles that carry in to the river. Firstly, landowners have the right to enjoy privacy around their homes as the rest of us do. They must also be allowed to earn a living from the land they own so long as in doing so they do not damage the environment or act in a cavalier or illegal manner. I believe that landowners have the right to enjoy their land but they also have responsabilities. They might own the land and indeed, in the case of the river, the riparian rights but they are more stewards, or custodians if you will, than actual owners of anything as permanent as the land upon which we stand. The land and the river will out survive them and their heirs which means that they must keep it in good order for the rest of us to enjoy whilst, at the same time, making a living from it. We, in turn, must be allowed access in a responsible manner that doesn’t infringe on anyones real privacy or create a health and safety or environmental problem. The river is there to be enjoyed by walkers and those that wish to sail upon it. It is even there for those that wish to fish it so long as they do so in accordance with custom and practise and that includes paying all dues to those that nurture the stock and issue the licences. These are sometimes competing rights and privileges that come up against one another head to head. The real trick is finding a way to live together without having to resort to the kind of mass popular action which took place in Derbyshire 80 years ago.

I advocate walking, I actually wish I could do more than I do but my health gets in the way. I also respect the right to navigate so long as the ground and water over which boats or people pass is respected and does not suffer as a result. I think that people are inherently sensible – the vast majority anyway and they should not have a thing of beauty and wonder ruined by the minority. Our river is a place of wonder and home to much that is beautiful and precious – we should embrace it and enjoy the time we can have in its company. I should add that acts of defiance in its interests are not to be encouraged lightly but should never be ruled out.

The views in this blog are entirely my own and are not BNCT policy. Above everything I believe in a quiet life with all being able to go about legitimate business with responsability and care for those around them. We should respect the rights of those that earn their livings from the land and the river but they in turn need to understand that our forebears stood up for the rights of access and that they will not be given up easily and nor should they. I really respect those “wage slaves” in 1932 that became “free men on a Sunday”.

Looking back

There I was 100 years ago this week stood by Horstead Lock and watching Zulu locking through bound for Aylsham with a load of coal. That April the weather was dull and wet, much as it is now and I wouldn’t have failed to notice the paucity of maintainance on the Navigation. The lock gates were leaky and clearly past their best. The water levels were just sufficient to maintain a navigable depth despite the recent April showers. Of course I know nothing of what is to come later in the year in the form of the flood which engulfed Norfolk in August and in doing so caused the destruction of the waterway and havoc amongst the communities along its course. Also we mustn’t forget that flood also cost lives in Norwich.

In my newspaper 100 years ago I would be reading about the sinking of the Titanic in the north Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. It gripped and shocked the nation all at the same time. It also changed ocean travel forever as the Board of Trade report into the tragedy made it a requirement that all ships carry enough lifeboats for all on board. The fact that they didn’t previously says something about the class system which presumed that the crew and 3rd class could swim for it and also the Edwardian delusion of British supremacy. They genuinely thought this ship was unsinkable.


I could also have read a story that pointed to the future in that Harriet Quimby the aviatrix had just become the first woman to fly across the channel in a flying machine. Within a few short years they would become sophisticated war machines but the audacity of a mere woman flying over the open sea would have been very newsworthy. 

Back to the now and we continue to progress towards our event commemmorating the events of August 1912 which will be held at Coltishall in 2012 on the exact date 100 years on, August 26th. We still need a lot of help with this so if you feel you can help please feel free to join in. We also need to find one or two old buses in private or commercial hands that are able to to take a vital role in this event. If you know of one or anybody that might help please let us know (stu.wilson100@btinternet.com ). Your assistance is greatly appreciated.

I can’t finish this blog without a final, for the moment, comment about the Oxnead Trees. This has been a big learning curve for me and one of the lessons is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time. The majority that have corresponded are sorry to see the trees go but not all – some have welcomed it and think that what replaces them will be better. The landowner has not broken any laws and cannot be blamed for what he has done. The trees were after all planted to eventually be cut down it’s just they have become part of the landscape and many will miss them. My objection is really with the system, as if you wanted to so dramatically change the landscape in other ways you would need to get planning permission. I don’t advocate that for felling trees (except where there are TPO’s) but I do think the Forestry Commission should consult before granting felling licences in the way that District Council’s consult over planning matters. If you agree please write and tell your MP as we need to change the national rules and frankly that will take more pressure than I can muster.

Finally I haven’t mentioned kitty for a while, actually we have 5 but I am referring to our youngest now one year old and called Bonnie, this has been a momentous week for her. She has caught her 1st mouse which is rather worrying as she is a self appointed house cat who will not go outside. You would think with that many cats we wouldn’t get mice indoors. C’est la vie.

Millstream Aylsham courtesy of the Aylsham Archive
Bonnie, I wonder what she’s seen?

Aylsham Navigation and BNCT comes to Burgh-next-Aylsham

On Friday May 11th we will be attending Burgh Reading Room at one of the regular social evenings there to introduce people to the Navigation and the work of BNCT and to show our DVD which will also be on sale. People will also have the opportunity to join if they wish.

Please see the poster relating to this event. Burgh Bure Navigation Poster[1]

Hope to see you there.

Burgh Lock as it looked in 1927

Beauty and the Beast with a dose of Keels

What a week !!!!

Personal news out of the way first – I met my grandson for the first time and took the opportunity of getting an all important 4 generation photograph taken. A wonderful family occasion and he is beautiful. Thankfully he has not inherited my looks.

Then there were the trees (see news page) – an avenue of some 40 poplars have been felled at Oxnead making what was a beautiful and tranquil spot look like a wasteland. This is creating some heat and interest. The reality is that the land owner was probably well within his rights to cull these trees as they are likely to have originally been planted with that in mind. The trouble is they have lined the river and become much loved and their loss has ravaged the view. We are told that they will be replaced with indiginous species and hedgerows but we will have to wait and see. Any new planting will take some years to establish and the view as it was will never be restored. As one correspondant said it will not be the same “…. in my lifetime”. Sadly that is probably true. We must seek to ensure that all involved with the river consider amenity and visual value along with profit and to that end we will be looking to see what formal measures might be taken. The before and after shows the effect this has had.

The before courtesy of Chris Goddard


The after courtesy of Jim Pannell


Now for one of my gear changes. I promised sometime ago to talk of Keels and have recently been gently reminded of that. A Norfolk Keel is an older style of vessel to the wherry and their design may even go back to the Vikings although medieval times is certain. They were square rigged with a transom stern and could carry approximately 30 tonnes. The last of the Keels was finally abandoned in the 1890’s although most had gone much earlier than that. They were limited in their cruising area as they were less manouverable and needed more water than the Wherry which followed them. The Wherry was a more rounded boat, some were bigger but all were able to go to places that the Keel’s couldn’t. The principle improvement to the Wherry was the rig that was designed to be operated with the minimum of fuss and by only one or two people. Wherries also had keels as part of their construction but most that used the further extremities of the Broads such as the Aylsham Navigation were able to detach them thereby improving their draft for the shallower rivers. The detached keels would be left sunk in water so as not to dry out and were attached to the bank. On the Aylsham run they would detach just before entering Horstead Lock and recover their keel on the return.

There are next to no images of a Norfolk Keel but my favourite is a painting (below) by the Broads artist David Dane whose website can be found here. David had to go to the Science Museum in London where there is a model of a Keel to get the details right for his picture. There is also an interesting history to that model involving the raising of a sunken Keel to take measurements but perhaps I will tell that another day. 

Now I think I’ll go and hug a tree.

Heading for Breydon, a Norfolk Keel painted by David Dane and reproduced here with his permission.

Trees at Oxnead 2

Please also see the previous news item.

This is a difficult situation for us as the landowner has not, as far as can be ascertained, committed any offence and, indeed, may over time be improving the site and will also be returning it to some state more in keeping with its origins. However it cannot be denied that the visual landscape has been ravaged and this has, understandably, upset a lot of people. Given the beauty of the spot we would have much preferred the trees to remain if at all possible but we now have to face the reality of their loss and move forward to ensure that what replaces them restores the visual landscape to its original beauty or as near to as can be best achieved. Land owners and riparian rights holders have rights but they also have responsabilities. We hope that any future plans anywhere along the river will be discussed with us and local user groups before any similar wholesale destruction in future.

UPDATE (10/04)

There is a Forestry Commission licence to fell 50 poplars at this location. The licence is conditional on replanting with indiginous species and hedgerows. The removal of poplar trees from the banks of rivers is, apparently, a national policy promoted by Natural England.

The scale of the destruction is fully illustrated here courtesy of Jim Pannell.

Trees at Oxnead

We are aware that a number of beautiful riverside trees have been felled at Oxnead and have received complaints about it. We are making enquiries in to this attack on the landscape and will publish more information when it is to hand. On the face of it this is unacceptable but there may be good reasons for it that we are currently unaware of and must keep an open mind until the facts are known.

The loss of these trees has changed the nature of the Oxnead stretch of the river and not for the better but it has happened and we need to understand why. We also need to ensure, as far as possible, that there are no more trees felled immediately alongside the river unless there is good reason. It would be helpful to establish what plans, if any, exist to re-plant this stretch although no matter what efforts are made it will take many years to replace the maturity level of the trees now gone. We regret that we had no prior knowledge of this operation as we would have made strong representations had we been told in advance although we are not saying that Landowners need to consult us on every decision – we do think this one should have come with prior warning. This represents a challenge to us for the future. We must hope that some kind of  restitution is made by, at the very least, re-planting in the same location.

Chairman of of the BNCT, Stuart Wilson, said “we cannot condemn outright until the full facts are known although on the face of it this is an attack on a much enjoyed beautiful place however we will keep an open mind whilst making our enquiries”.

Since writing the above we have received some advice from a local resident with a keen interest in and a working knowledge of the environment; it is worth reading as it reinforces the view that we need to establish the facts before condemning the action outright.

“Felling of Poplar trees can appear to be fairly drastic, but they have reached the end of their natural period – many of them have already been blown over in recent years (a sure sign).  I suspect that the felling is part of a conservation scheme. These usually include a replanting programme, so this is probably creative work rather than vandalism. The scale of poplar trees is really out of proportion to the local scene, we have become used to them but if they are to be replaced with native species that must be applauded.

So I think we must be careful not to jump to early conclusions. We may be seeing the replacement of an industrial crop from the 1970’s with something more in keeping with the landscape.”

UPDATE (9th April) : We understand that this area was indeed planted as a cash crop but the trees had been allowed to go on beyond their normal felling date and that some were becoming unstable and therefore a danger in a high wind. They will be replaced by a mixture of indiginous trees and hedgerow. This does impact negatively on the visual landscape – there’s no getting away from that but as it’s happened it is gratifying to know that there are plans to re-plant in a way that will produce a new and hopefully equally beautiful, if different, view.

Please let us know what you think by clicking more (below the images) and filling in the comment card.

This was the beauty of the Oxnead stretch

A momentous week

Well here I am again having survived an afternoon of medical poking and prodding at the N&N and remarkably maintaining enough fuel to get me to where I needed to go in the desert that North Norfolk became due to some governmental inspired collective madness.

This has been a momentous week for us all but I will get my personal news out of the way first as I then want a clear run at the Navigation. In this week I became a grandfather for the first time. So raise a glass to Alec and then we can move on.

Also this week we had our meeting at Burgh and we crossed a threshold. We completed the process of setting ourselves up as the BNCT by adopting a series of policies which we must have and an operational model for how we will do our work. We can now set sail in to the future. From now on we will be talking about what we can do and also be having some guest speakers rather than the navel gazing that the setting up process felt like towards the end. As part of that meeting we set the membership fee at £12 per annum for a full working adult with £7.50 for juniors (under 18) and concessions. We also have a family membership rate for 2 adults and 2 juniors of £30. A membership form will shortly be available on line but if you would like to join before then please email me at stu.wilson100@btinternet.com

We also have for sale at the very reasonable price of £7.99 + £1.50 p&p (local delivery free) a 2 DVD set produced for us by a local film maker (see below). Those that have seen this film have all remarked on the quality and the beauty of the local scenes shown here to their best advantage. This film set my dream juices flowing and after watching it I could clearly see a wherry emerging from the Brampton end of Oxnead Lock and progressing peacefully past the Common and on towards the Island. It was the Mayflower, possibly with Isaac Helsdon at the helm, and she was heading for Burgh Staithe. It really is a televisual feast crammed full of the local beauty that is all around us.

Were I able to ride on the Mayflower it would be a truly remarkable week but the DVD is a very close second best. Apologies if you were expecting a blog on the Keels and wherries but I haven’t forgotten you it’s just I thought this was a week worth commenting on.

The DVD cover