Halloween by the river

It’s that time of the year again when the trees are busy shedding their leaves via a riot of colour, the clocks have reverted to real time and the weather is starting to feel as it should for the season. Damp, cold and with a hint of winter to come – we see the mist rising from the water and on a clear night the stars above seem to have that extra twinkle caused by colder air rather than convecting warmer air. If we are lucky the Milky Way will be out in all its glory and the river is a great place to see it away from any light pollution.

As we approach all hallows eve the spirits of boats long gone rise and sail their routes of old with ghostly cargo long past its usefulness. Their crews are those that loved these boats and the river taking the opportunity afforded by eternity to sail this way one last time.

It’s a black night, the air is still and we can just hear the water flowing through the mill race at Horstead as we stand on the Coltishall side by the lock by the bumps that were once the toll keepers cottage. Close your eyes and that home will rebuild itself brick by brick and the lock will come back to life just for this one night but remember only you can hear and see what is happening. Every boat that uses the Navigation passes this point and has done so since it first opened ahead of  the rest in 1796.

The lock as it was when the living navigated the waterway

The Grampus, Volunteer and Prospect are all afoot tonight with their cargoes of Marl, Manure and Coal.  Each of these loads have their own distinctive smell mostly of the earth but we will be pleased when the Volunteer takes her Manure on to Aylsham. Prospect has coal for Oxnead and then a little further on she can return to her watery grave until she next rises to taunt those gifted with the ability to see her. Grampus on the other hand is older, much older and carries her Marl we know not where for she too can only sail for a matter of minutes on this night.

We hear the exchanged messages and pleasantries of the wherrymen interspersed with their complaints of eternal toil as they too go about their work this night which has a chill that cannot just be explained by the temperature. The toll collector is here too and he cajoles and measures the cargo as he works out the charge for carrying them in to the future.

Now hush, there is another noise coming from downstream. It is a vessel working her way up to the lock. It’s the last of the Keel’s and you feel really uneasy now as she exudes that sense of not resting easily after her horrible demise at the hands of fire raisers. She turns and heads back to oblivion never to be seen again in this life. It is fitting that she has come to Coltishall but her sadness will never let her admit the purpose of this her last journey although just in the air you can sense that perhaps, just may be, one more of her like will be seen again in the future.

This is a fleeting moment in a year but you are privileged to share it. Treasure the moment and then sleep well and long when home you go to a nice warm bed.



A great day out in London

Well it’s done and dusted and we can all move on. At our recent meeting (see “Our Files” for the minutes) we said goodbye to the Aylsham Navigation Project that had consumed our time and energy for very nearly two years. BNCT will of course continue as a lasting legacy and thanks to the event at Coltishall we are now that little bit richer. We certainly have funds to start doing things on and around the river and our first standalone meeting on November 27th will start to consider our priorities and what is practical. From now on these will be members meetings for BNCT although guests and anyone interested in what we’re doing are still very welcome to attend. Membership levels are a concern that we will need to address fairly urgently as they are not quite as high as I would like to see if we are to be truly effective – so come on there’s no excuse.

The Aylsham Navigation Project was by any measure a resounding success that brought together a coalition of interested parties who worked together for the common goals with a remarkable degree of success. We knew our limitations and at the end there was a parting of the ways which was managed and planned. Oh that our politicians had not made coalition a dirty word as I fear that their example will end in tears before bedtime. I don’t propose here to go back over our successes as all but one of our goals which were all challenging were met in full. However I will take yet another opportunity to thank all those involved for their help and input. We literally could not have done it without you. BNCT is one legacy but so is the excellent book and Video produced as part of the project. Copies of both remain available through BNCT and, in the case of the book, from local bookshops.

The Coltishall Event photo courtesy of Margaret Bird

In my last blog I wrote about the suspected burning of the Keel, I can confirm that this deed did take place and I am in sensitive enquiries to establish exactly what happened, when and why so watch this space.

I have written before about my headlong race towards retirement well that took a farcical step forward this week. Apologies, this has nothing to do with rivers or boats but I just need to share it. My employer decided to send me on a pre-retirement course in central London last week and they allowed my wife to also attend so long as we paid her fare. Well I can only travel 2nd class on the tax-payer but to make a day of it I splashed out on 1st class travel (whilst only claiming the second class fare) however we had to be on peak trains because of the course timing so it wasn’t cheap. Up at 4 to get washed and dressed and to feed the animals before making our way to Norwich to catch a train before 7 – so far so good except it is autumn and there are leaves and the train was slow. As a result at Liverpool Street I decided to get a taxi costing £20 – no I’m not made of money but my mobility is such that I can’t rush anywhere.

We arrived at this tower block not too far from Marylebone and having checked in and passed the security checks etc. were escorted to the training room however just before arrival I came over with an urge I had been suppressing since about Ipswich on the way down and diverted to the gents. Whilst in full flow this alarm started “WAH WAH WAH – this is an emergency please evacuate – WAH WAH WAH”. At this point I had not been given any of the usual domestics at these things about fire alarms and evacuation procedures and I was separated from my wife. A quick check with a local elicited that this was not a drill so I just followed the throng and was eventually re-united with my dearly beloved milling about outside. Pretty quickly it became apparent that this event only affected one of the 22 floors, the one I was on!

After about 30 minutes we were told it was a false alarm so we could re-enter the building only to find that on our floor we were still subjected at great volume to“WAH WAH WAH – this is an emergency please evacuate – WAH WAH WAH” which made any attempt to work or hold a course impossible so our tutor spent time trying to get it turned off rather than training us. After about 30 minutes there was a change – a real voice was heard saying “all floors – this is not a drill EVACUATE, EVACUATE, EVACUATE”. Out we go again still totally unaware of where we’re meant to be going so I find myself a cold, hard, marble topped wall and sit down waiting for instructions. Three hours later it started to rain and my backside had gone to sleep; I had definitely had enough. A couple of calls on the mobile and I elicited the information that the course was to be cancelled – we could go home.

There was a bus service from where we were to Liverpool Street so that was the chosen mode of transport unfortunately in the 30 minutes the journey took (it would have been 10 without the traffic) the driver was racially abused twice. What is it about people – the poor chap was just doing his job! So to the station just in time for the 14:00 train to find that our tickets were for the 17:50 and Mr Jobsworth   was saying it would cost us to change. Cost us – I ask you – we had already paid a fortune for the two main peak time services in to and out of Norwich. They should have been paying us to change! I have to say though that a degree of common sense then crept in to the discussion and we were able to negotiate a change of journey at no cost to anybody. So to Norwich and hunger relief at one of the restaurants at Riverside before turning out of the car park in to one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever seen in our fair city.

Of course the real problem is that we’ve got to through it all again ……..

The Bure near to Mayton Bridge



The Vandals were a tribe originating in the east of what is now Germany who, in the mid-400’s AD, contributed greatly to the fall of Rome by establishing a kingdom which squeezed their borders gradually depriving them of possessions and in 455 (or thereabouts) entered Rome itself although in fairness to them the Visigoths had been there some years before. It should not be forgotten that by this time Rome was already in decline and the empire lay in tatters.  The Vandals had a few bad habits by modern standards and of course their tribal name has been used as the root of the word vandalism which has a clear meaning today. However what is perceived as vandalism by some is not universally the case. For instance the artist known as Banksy is now described as a street artist (and very clever he is too) however initially he was seen as a dauber of graffiti and a menace to society. The breaking of environments by vandals often highlights deprivation and ultimately leads to renewal. I am not defending vandalism, far from it as I view wanton destruction and defacing of the environment as crimes of an extremely anti-social nature that require a zero tolerance policy from the authorities. I am however open-minded enough to acknowledge that what is vandalism to some is not always perceived that way by others.

The recent cutting down of trees in the Bure valley and the known plans to cut down many more at a spot currently seen as very tranquil and beautiful is considered by many as visual vandalism. Indeed it does change the view permanently and, in my opinion, for the worse in the short term. Others however point to the fact that many of these trees are only 50 years old and the natural environment of the valley which would be restored is open views un-confined by trees. This is certainly how it was in the time of the Navigation. Balancing these seemingly opposed views is a challenge we must face up and rise to.

More trees are due to go in the next couple of years thereby opening up the view

Another act of apparent vandalism has been on my mind in the past week. Regular readers will know that I have an interest in the Norfolk Keel as a class of boat that has now gone and I would dearly like to see it back. There is a Norfolk Keel Trust and they have done little for many years towards getting an example sailing again. A long time ago they did manage to find, survey and raise an example of this class with a view to restoration. Sadly once lifted very little happened and it slowly decayed to a point where restoration would have been an impossibility. This hulk remained decaying until, within the last two weeks it was torched, or so I am reliably informed. I must say that I cannot actually confirm this as I haven’t seen the remains for myself or the evidence of the fire. There is a back story here that I do not want to go in to as I don’t think it would be helpful but on the face of it the destruction of these remains is an act of vandalism and one which was avoidable and furthermore should have been avoided. It has however happened and now we must move on.

Are these the sad remains of the last Keel waiting to be burnt? I believe that they very well may be.

I believe that it is still possible to see a Keel sailing again and I also believe that it is a desirable thing to complete the family of historic boats on the Norfolk & Suffolk Broads in this way. There are a variety of ways to achieve this although I have come to the view  that a new built replica equipped as a community resource capable of allowing those in wheelchairs or with visual impairment to enjoy the local sailing experience is the best option. These are easy words to write but the concept is extremely difficult to actually deliver not least because it would cost a very great deal of money and an organisation would need to be formed capable of raising the funds, designing, building and operating the finished boat.

I feel myself being sucked in by this idea but I cannot let the opportunity slide and therefore I will be organising a meeting in early 2013 probably at the Maids Head (where the Norfolk Wherry Trust was born), this will hopefully be the springboard from which such a project can start. From vandalism comes regeneration and I really need your help dear reader to make this happen. Firstly if you are at all interested in the Broads, boats and their history please consider coming along or getting involved. Secondly pass the link to this blog on to anyone else that you think might be interested. Thirdly if you, or someone you know, have some funds (the odd million or two?) looking for an idea to support please let me know. It is a project that will require a lot of fund raising and at a difficult time in the economic cycle. There will no doubt be grants available but we will need from pennies to pounds from interested well wishers money and hopefully the odd benefactor or two.

As for me – my first loyalty is to the Bure and the navigation but I can’t sit idly by and see nothing done about this so I see my role, initially at least, as a catalyst to get things started. As for anything else we will have to see …………………………………………

Model of the Dee Dar – the Norfolk Keel RIP

The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not represent BNCT policy.