Category Archives: April 2011

My sore finger

I have a sore finger and typing is painful so this will be short and sweet; I also apologise in advance for any glaring typos. The young child maskerading as the emergency doctor I saw earlier this afternoon says he thinks it’s osteo-arthritis – as if I want that on top of everything else?

To be honest until he started pulling and prodding around it there had been a minor improvement overnight and I was able to drive with only the minimum inconvenience. Hurt on the way home though!!

All of this leads me to the point of today’s blog. On my way to North Walsham Cottage Hospital to meet the said young doctor I drove via Buxton and went over the Bure by the mill. Looking downstream from the mill I really noticed for the first time the effect of our current drought as the river level was very low indeed. Hereabouts it hasn’t really rained since very early March and the farmers are all complaining which is nothing unusual of itself but this time I think they may have cause. I did notice a few days back that the level had dropped at Oxnead but it didn’t seem enough to cause concern but the effect I saw today was quite marked. I would appreciate reports from elsewhere on the Navigation just in case this is an abberation.

Normally I would have shot out with the camera but quite frankly my sore finger is getting to me so as a one-off you are being treated to a blog with no illustration; sorry. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Restoration or Conservation

I could write an entire book on this topic but fear not dear reader I will not subject you to that. I have been asked several times though if this project is about restoration by which I take it that the questioner is implying the return of navigation via restored locks, raised bridges and new canal cuts between Coltishall and Aylsham. I will readily admit that I find this an attractive idea; the thought of boats once again using the Upper Bure is an exciting one. It is however also an impractical one. There are many seemingly impassable obstructions to the restoration of navigation. Now purists in the world of inland waterways will say that they are nothing compared to the difficulties faced by the Huddersfield Canal and I agree but I also believe that by raising millions and introducing the communities along the river to Broads tourism, as attractive as it is to purists is not what I believe that the majority of local people actually want. I certainly don’t get crowds of them knocking on my door to turn this into a restoration project.

The difficulties involved in restoration do not frighten me but I would I think lament what we would have to lose to bring it about. Compromises between existing landscape and the restoration to allow through boating would mean that we could lose something precious. It is for this reason that I am against restoration whilst being in favour of conservation. This approach will protect the environment as it is, will hopefully allow local people to appreciate what it is that they have on their doorstep and prevent the loss of any further history from the route.

Having said that even I accept that there may be a commercial case made to restore Coltishall and Horstead Lock to allow partial navigation at the lower end but I will leave that to others and would absolutely insist that were it ever to happen it should be done with care and sympathy to the existing environment.

This is an artists impression of Horstead and Coltishall Lock in about 1907. It was published by the Great Eastern Railway and whilst it has always been a beautiful spot this does take a few slight liberties with reality in order to sell the location as a place to visit by train. Ironic really that if the flood hadn’t happened in 1912 the self same Railway company would have contributed to its eventual demise shortly afterwards. I doubt it would have lasted beyond the first World War as maintainance would have been put off even more than it already was being by the time of this image. It is however the one lock which may be easily restorable. Although a part of me would love to see it in use I really do hope that I never have that pleasure – or do I? My head hurts !


Water Levels

One aspect that intrigues me is that the water levels in some of the old photographs look different to those of today and in some cases the river looks wider. This has led to some debate as to the veracity of locations where photographs were taken as the river’s appearance then was rather different to that of today.

Now in my usual unscientific way I would like to suggest a couple of reasons for this. I stress there is no right or wrong answer but I suspect that a combination of my explanations will not be far from the truth. Firstly when the Navigation was fully functioning the locks would have had an important role in maintaining a navigable depth of water and this may have been slightly higher than it needs to be today. This had to be done artificially by man on the locked sections as below Cotishall the Bure was still tidal and that presented different problems then and even today for large vessels like the Albion.

The other primary reason is the spread of vegetation encroaching on what was the navigable waterway. The reed beds look attractive and provide a magnificent habitat for our wildlife but in the navigable days they were cut back more than now and this would have the effect of making the river appear to be wider.

There may be another partial reason but of this I am less sure. East Anglia is the driest part of the UK and the trend is downward for rainfall. The river today has quite a range depending on rainfall and temperature triggered evaporation. It may be that the river simply doesn’t get as much water today as it did pre-1912. Agricultural extraction can be added to this as ironically the drier it gets the more call there is for river water and something of a vicious circle starts.

The photograph above taken just above Mayton Bridge demonstrates the point about encroachment by vegetation. In the “working” days a lot of it would have been kept back but now it just grows naturally and very attractive it looks too. I suspect though that the wherrymen would be horrified at all this obstruction to easy navigation, Perhaps some things are for the better but then again who can really tell.

Tizer and Anzac biscuits

I was shopping the other day and found Tizer and Anzac biscuits on the shelves. I couldn’t resist as both were childhood favourites and I haven’t seen either in the shops for years. They didn’t disappoint either although I swear they’ve tinkered with the flavour of Tizer.

This shopping expeience got me thinking about other products that you don’t see today; leastways not everyday. When it first opened the Navigation would have allowed the distribution of goods in this part of Norfolk with an ease not seen before. When I first moved to Brampton there was an old lady in the village who had a grandfather clock in her living room which was made in Great Yarmouth and was, apparently, delivered to the village two or three generations previously by wherry.

There was marl used for making bricks, whatever happened to that trade I wonder and an early toll book lists amongst other things a product called “Buck” which attracted a toll of 1/6d (7.5p) per ton. It’s listed in the same category as Wheat, Barley and Malt so I’m guessing it is agricultural and I bet somebody out there can tell me what it was. Likewise there was “Cake” – which I know was for the cattle.

More mundane items carried included Manure, Hay and Bricks (both white and red seperately rated).

The above wherry is thought to be the Palmerston which was built in 1898 and owned in Aylsham by Stanley Bullock. She is pictured moored with her hatch covers off ready to receive cargo at Aylsham Mill. I’m assuming she will be loaded with something agricultural probably for Yarmouth. I wonder what she had on the way up – I bet it wasn’t Tizer or Anzac biscuits and just in case you’re so minded I do know they were still several years in the future.

Getting on with it

The Project was born in September last year, seven short months ago, but they have gone alarmingly quickly. The next 12 months, I suspect, will pass even quicker as we have within that time frame the completion of the historical research, the publication of the definitive history, a celebratory event to organise and a charity to set-up and start raising funds for the future. If you, dear reader, have some time and the inclination your assistance with organising the event or getting the charity off the ground would be much appreciated (contact me, Stu Wilson, with any offers). The historical aspect of the Project is, thanks to the UEA and Aylsham Local History Society, doing very nicely thank you.

Research continues and I’m sure that things are on track. The “Our Files” link on this website lists various documents about the progress if you want more detail.

This last week I was looking forward to actually getting involved in the fieldwork myself for the first time. I had arranged work so that I was off at the appropriate time and cleared my domestic desk. However somebody must have a law about unintended occurrences and their effect on the best laid plans; I’m sure his name is Stephen Oswald Dennis!!!

I put my back out a few days before the fieldwork and was in such agony I even had to have a couple of days off work; something I don’t like doing. It certainly put an end to any plans I had vis-a-vis the fieldwork but I was able to make myself useful on the day by meeting the party at Oxnead Bridge, a place I know well and then ferrying one or two about in the car. The day was a wonderfully warm and sunny one, rather unseasonally so and I hate to tempt fate but the last time I recall it being so good so early ended up with a dreadful summer but I’ll cross my fingers and touch wood so as not to put a hex on things.


I think everybody enjoyed their learning experience and the gentle stroll through some of Norfolk’s (and by extension Britain’s) finest scenery. The debate was interesting and I was intrigued to find that I didn’t know everything about Oxnead Bridge after all. The above photograph was taken from the bridge looking out over Brampton Common. The path dates back to the beginnings of the Navigation and new evidence suggests that there was a coal yard somewhere near the bridge. A little further upstream but not far out of this view on the opposite bank was a brick works which would have sent its produce to market by wherry. It’s altogether more rural now!

Anyway I must go and rest my back.



Bridges are an essential part of river landscapes; it is overly simplistic just to say they exist to get from one bank to another. They beg the question, why go there? Why are bridges built where they are?

I think that the answers to those questions are more complex than they first appear and I’m no expert on this (or any other) subject. It is not good enough just to say that they exist to link communities or to provide a through route. Seperate communities spring up either side of bridges and the existence of one is directly due to the other. Where bridges exist for roads or tracks it is relevant to know why the road or track was built in the first place. The building of a bridge is a complex exercise and not undertaken in any age without good reason.

In some case I think the trackway may have preceeded the bridge and that originally it would have forded the river at a shallows. I can see that the construction of a bridge in shallow water has to be easier than where it is deeper. Likewise some bridges are clearly built where rivers narrow and again the ease of build is clear for all to see. Other reasons could include local geology and defensive imperative particularly where bridges have a long history.

There are many bridges on the Aylsham Navigation of varying shapes and sizes but the biggest and busiest is the Horstead to Coltishall bridge carrying, as it does an A road with all the comensurate traffic that designation brings. It is the primary road route to the regions capital in Norwich from North Walsham and an entire stretch of coastline. If the bridge wasn’t there a very long detour would be involved. Imagine then the effects of the flood in 1912 which did wash this bridge away as the photograph below (courtesy of Norfolk County Council) shows.

This photograph, I believe, was taken very soon after the flood as the river hasn’t yet returned to normal flow and it is still attracting spectators on the opposite bank through the bridge. My guess is that this is an inspection party assessing the damage and if I’m right I wonder if they had any inkling that it would take three years to rebuild. It’s destruction caused economic and communication difficulties throughout until it was re-opened.


Life on the GO !

It’s all go !

I have a hectic life or so it sometimes seems and always travelling; mostly in the worst way possible and that, at the risk of being controversial, is on the A140 between Ipswich and Norwich; a road deserving of dualling if ever there was one. Stop, start, tractor, heavy lorry, caravan at any time of year and a succession of villages divided by this dreadful road all contrive to make my regular commute the journey from hell but one has to work. I have little choice, living where I do but to use the car as public transport simply does not exist at the time I need it or as conveniently as the door to door metal box on wheels. Cost is however becoming the nightmare factor and if it wasn’t for the occasional car share with a colleague who lives on the outskirts of Norwich it might become the proverbial straw to break the Camel’s back (poor Camel).

The journey does however give you time to ponder  (I know you should be concentrating on the road ahead but I swear my car could find its own way between home and work). One of the little mind games I’ve played over the years is to count how much former transport I pass en-route. There are certainly three ex-railway lines (one occupied by a narrow guage tourist railway), an airship station (really) and the River Gipping Navigation. The last of these has similarities with the Aylsham Navigation but there is an active group working hard but sure and slow towards restoring through navigation for boats between Ipswich and Stowmarket although I doubt it will ever see commercial traffic again as the industry which originally supported it has simply gone (see

My hectic life is not all travelling and paid work. When home there is the Parish Council of course and now also this project and soon the charitable trust which we hope to form. If there’s a hole in your life it is by no means too late to get involved with this aspect from the start – just let me know (

Many moons ago I used to navigate the narrow canals and navigable rivers of England and Scotland (I have a very hairy tale to tell about navigating the Caledonian Canal through Loch Ness) and the real over-riding memory for me was the feeling that time slowed. Quite literally in fact to 4 miles per hour. Time to take in where you are and enjoy the ever changing vista. It sure as hell beats the A140.

This old photograph could easily be the Grand Union mainline where double locks were the norm to allow for the wider beam of the canal craft using that particular waterway. It isn’t there though as this is on the Aylsham Navigation taken just below Horstead and Coltishall lock. The lock keepers cottage is on the right although his principle role was to measure and charge tolls on the various cargoes carried. We can see a loaded boat moored possibly ready to enter the lock but more likely being unloaded here to avoid the additional tolls incurred by entering the lock. There is an on-looker on the over-bridge and I wonder if this is the lock keeper himself enjoying one of millions of quiet moments. Oh how I would have loved that job !


A new book

I’ve finally done it !!

Done what I hear you ask?

Well, I’ve acquired my very own copy of an important book. Ever since I started looking at the Aylsham Navigation I have been aware of a book described by those that know as the definitive work on the Norfolk Wherries and Keels that traded the Broads. The book is “Black Sailed Traders” by Roy Clark published by David and Charles in 1961 and my copy is a second impression from 1971.

I found my copy almost by accident by perusing a secondhand book site on the web. Finding a copy in this area is near nigh impossible. Mine came from the Sussex coast and, don’t let the dealer know, cost less than I was prepared to pay. Now I have to make an admission; I’ve had the book a few days and have barely looked at it let alone read it – how sad is that but in my defence I have been very busy at work and have been very tired. I did however do what I suspect every new owner of this book does and turned to the appendices where every Wherry and Keel is listed including those actually built in Aylsham. So in one go there is plenty of material for later blogs; the difference between a Wherry and a Keel being one and boats built in Aylsham another.

The title may intrigue but there really is a simple explanation and that is that invariably the sails were black and they were traders – simple. Now let’s look at a black sailed trader in action.

So what can we see here. She’s a black sailed trader at an unknown location although my gut feeling is that this is on the Bure. She’s under sail but look carefully and you’ll see she’s also being quanted to help her make the bend. Note the fishermen in the small boat, presumably recreational – I wonder if they caught anything?

Isaac Helsdon – a wherry at Burgh

Sometimes you see a photograph which really makes you realise what the Navigation was like when working. The photograph below is one such and is reproduced here courtesy of Michael Grix. It shows a wherry at a staithe by Burgh Bridge – there is precious little evidence left now that it ever existed but it is remembered through the family ties of the owner, one Isaac Helsdon. I was talking the other day to a descendant of Isaac Helsdon who tells me that he was also related to the Bircham family who are still hereabouts. We don’t know but it would be nice to think that Isaac is actually in the photograph which I think dates from about 1905 -10. The wherry is moored with the bow facing downstream but this is a photograph which tells us much more than the simplistic.

We can see that the wherry is moored and the hatch covers are off and she is therefore being loaded or unloaded. The water line suggests that she is nearly fully loaded and I think the cargo must be hay from the quantity lying on the staithe. This would be a totally consistent cargo with the use made of the Navigation. Such a load may not have gone far, possibly only to Buxton which would have enabled more than one trip per day. Alternatively it could have gone a long way to an urban centre, Great Yarmouth or even Norwich as fodder and bedding for the horses.

The hatch covers are interesting and you can see that they are neatly stacked. Each one is uniquely numbered often with roman numerals according to Michael Sparkes from the Norfolk Wherry Trust and they will only fit properly in one place. They must therefore be taken off in an order and put back in the same way.

The photograph also clearly shows that the wherries would have to drop their mast at each and every bridge, even then it would be tight if the water levels were high. Boatmanship of the highest order was demonstrated by these wherryman. The boats were mostly crewed by a man and a boy and it must have been a hard but also a rewarding life although I doubt they viewed it through the same rose tinted spectacles that I do 100 years on.


The purpose of locks

At a recent meeting there was a discussion about the role of locks and in particular on the Navigation the reason for Aylsham Lock. This needs a little explanation. All of the other locks on the Navigation are associated with Mills where the water has been artificially held back to provide sufficient force of water to drive the machinery. It is necessary therefore to put a lock in place between the two seperate levels of water to enable through navigation by vessels. Aylsham Lock, on the other hand, is not associated with a Mill it is, in fact, in the middle of nowhere with no immediate explanation as to its purpose.

The normal reason for locks on waterways in general is to manage water levels to ensure sufficient depth of water exists to facilitate navigation. In its simplest form it is a way to go up and down hills.  I contend that is the explanation behind the location and the reason for Aylsham Lock; it was simply required to maintain a sufficient depth of water for the final mile of navigation along mainly a canal cut in to the staithe at Millgate. In fact the existence of Locks around mill races is the exception rather than the rule although obviously they do exist elsewhere. In that respect the Aylsham Navigation was a slightly unusual waterway in that 80% of the locks are to circumvent mills. Having said that if the mills weren’t there I suspect that locks would still have been required for ther traditional purpose but their locations may very well have been different. It was the mills which dictated the location of locks to the constructors on this Navigation.

In 1928 when the above was taken Aylsham Lock was abandoned although in relatively good order. It was, I would say, repairable even at this late stage. This photograph is looking upstream towards Aylsham. Another lock is shown below which illustrates the close link with the mill races.

This photograph is also taken in the upstream direction. Two channels are clear and the one to the right leads to Buxton Lock in around 1910 when the Navigation was still in use. The lock can be seen at the head of the channel lying with Buxton Mill to its left in this view. The left hand water channel is the mill race. Interestingly today the mill race survives but the lock cut does not and the wooden hut believed to belong to the Eel catcher is a long distant memory. This is one of my favourite Navigation photographs and always makes me wish whenever I see it that boats could still navigate that lock – c’est la vie.