Except in the very worst weather winter can throw the Aylsham Navigation would have stayed open as it is based on flowing rather than static water. Just as well too as the wherries would have been responsible for bringing fuel, animal feed and even human food in these conditions. Working boats in the extreme cold would not have been fun and I suspect that it was more a sense of communal duty than an economic one that drove the wherries forward in the depths of winter. Wherrymen were hard workers and regularly also hard drinkers as the plethora of wherry associated pubs demonstrates but they were also widely held to be religious men and therefore a sense of duty would have been felt when delivering coal to hard hit and frozen communities at this time of year.
We have grown used to relatively mild winters apart from the last couple but what we currently have is really nothing more than the norm over the season when averaged out. There is a school of thought which says that global warming will lead to cooler winters and wetter summers, an interesting mix. In my life, if I am totally honest, I can only remember one really severe and extended winter and that was the one of 1962/63. I am too young to remember 1947 but I have heard the old-uns debating the relative merits of these two events. The weather records show that 62/3 was more severe but some wont have it. I can offer a thought on this and that is the snow level in 1947 was actually greater than in 1962/63 but the latter lasted longer, much longer and the minimum temperature was much lower. Weeks in early 1963 were below freezing and even the sea froze. This is without doubt the only time in my life that this happened and at the time I was living near the Thames which froze over and people even drove cars across it (they should have been certified for such folly in my opinion). In 1947 however there was so much snow that a train got stuck in the cutting at Brampton and the local men got paid by the railway to dig it out.
Even now the snow levels are not great compared to how they used to be. When did you last see a drift of more than a couple of feet in Norfolk? I remember in 1963 seeing drifts just to the west of London that would have buried a cow – and did, or so I am told! I confess this winter I have seen an A road (the A140) in the worst condition of any that I have ever known – it helped keep me away from Ipswich and one day it took me an hour and a quarter to travel from Aylsham to Norwich Airport!
In my last blog I wrote about the footpath and its condition. We have since issued a press release (see the news page) about it and I am a little disappointed that it hasn’t been picked up by the media as it does cover a rather important point about the funding of local services in general. Perhaps it is another victim of the winter weather which appears to be dominating our attention.
BNCT is very concerned about the safety and condition of the footpath alongside the Bure between Burgh and Coltishall. In some places it is barely passable and in others legally settled routes are not being enforced. We also understand that there are only very limited plans to cut vegetation in 2013 and not along the entire route. We strongly advise walkers that are using this much loved path to do so with great caution and we have called upon the County Council to meet their statutory responsibilities – we have published a press release about this matter (see below).
Footpaths and access to the river are high on my mind this week as things seem to go from bad to worse. It has even reached the point where a private individual has had to resort to law to try and force the County Council to step up to the mark. The conservation Trust is dedicated to improving and promoting safe access to the river but we are not there to replace the statutory duties of the local authority. They are still required to keep footpaths open and safe; a duty that they are not doing at all well at the moment. We are there to do the extra that improves above and beyond that which the County should and must do. It would be wrong of us to spend our funds on projects which really should be done as part of the County Council’s statutory responsibility.
I have sympathy with the authority as we live in very challenging financial times particularly in the public sector. Footpaths have, quite frankly, fallen well down the agenda; they have made spending decisions which means that only the most basic will be done and not even that if the local people don’t make a fuss. The reality though is that these decisions have been made without due regard to statute. They should have started from a baseline of what they have to do to comply with the law and make that imperative expenditure and then make the harder decisions on those areas over which they have discretion. I also hate to think how much money has been spent planning for an incinerator which seems to have completely taken over County Council politics against the wishes of the local people and to the detriment of the remainder of the County.
Footpaths greatly add to the value of people’s lives, they improve health and encourage visitors to explore our lovely countryside. It’s time for the County Council to step-up to the plate and start complying with their duty. A good start would be to reinstate dedicated footpath officers who knew their “patch” and were often able to “source” solutions to problems before they even started. Our path is but one of many although being by a river health and safety is a much greater issue than on some others. Get it properly open and accessible in a safe environment and we would then be able to consider coming on board with some seats, interpretation boards and other discretionary improvements. What we must not do is spend money donated for our improvement work on maintaining the basics which is the statutory responsibility of the Council. One possible solution, if they are not prepared to re-visit their funding decisions (which I contend breach the law) is to campaign for the Bure path to get trail status as they have decided to fully maintain the dedicated trails. Although not long our path has all the landscape variety and history to make it a trail with many excellent circular route options. Please write to your County Councillors to make it clear that there are people out there who care enough to make the fuss that I think is going to be necessary to get things done.
As I write this we are awaiting the first real snowfall of the winter and it is not yet clear how it will affect us. Personally I think not too seriously which probably means we wont be able to move in a day or two for all I know about it. Snow would not have stopped the wherrymen of old trading to Aylsham although it would have made life difficult and cold. The work was hard at the best of times but in the winter it must have been harsh although the cuddy stove would have provided welcome relief from the worst of the elements. As far as we can tell the Navigation traded right through the winter and coal was one of the cargoes which would have brought relief to the villages and towns along the way. Likewise animal food and bedding would have been essential cargoes at this time of year. I have an overly romantic notion of life afloat in those days but duty and financial necessity would mean that even in the harshest weather the boats would continue. I know from some bitter experience in my youth that rivers, locks and winter weather make for a harsh and dangerous environment but they were real men in those days. I salute them ……….
We had run out of storage space on this site for images however some pruning has taken place and we are back in business. If you come across some text relating to a non-existent photograph and it deters from your experience of the site please let me know and we’ll try to restore it.