Category Archives: February 2011

A time of innocence

Spring is just around the corner if it isn’t already stirring and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of …. well you know what young men turn their thoughts to! I’ve been thinking too about the formation of a Trust and I can tell you that it can be a considerable weight on the mind. A timetable to the formation of a Trust has been published and we now have a webpage devoted to it so no excuses for not at least looking and if the fancy takes hold getting involved (follow the link top left).

Spring is a time for getting out and about and blowing away the blues of winter. In an age of innocence long gone one way of doing this for a certain class of society was to get out the Broads Yacht and go for a cruise. Since 1912 the head of navigation on the Bure has been Coltishall and Horstead Lock which is a little way upstream from Coltishall Common where the photograph below was taken in Edwardian times or thereabouts. In all probability the Aylsham Navigation was still open when this picture was taken but I doubt if many yachts made it up there but I am open to be persuaded otherwise by research or photographic evidence.

This seems to be something of a gathering all dressed in their sunday best but the exact time of year is a little difficult to judge. The trees are all in leaf but there’s still a certain chill in the air so I guess it’s early Spring, possibly a May bank holiday or even a late Easter. I wonder who these people were but I can assume quite safely that they had a life of privilege and that they little knew the disaster that was coming their way in the form of World War 1. Many thanks to Brian Kermode for permission to use this photograph which was originally part of the Jarrolds range.

Those that know the Common at Coltishall will clearly identify this as the location but I wonder what happened to the boats and the people?


World War on the Bure

Firstly let me apologise for the slight departure from the norm in my previous blog however normal service is about to be resumed. The issue I was highlighting is now covered by the Legacy sub-page (see the website navigation column top left) which I would urge you to read and get involved with if you feel able.

World War 2 saw desperate times and they called for desperate measures. During the ever present prospect of German invasion particularly in 1940 the very real threat existed that the Norfolk Coast would be used for landings either by a main force or diversionary elements designed to draw our forces away from the South East. My wife has an uncle, now in his 90’s, who was in the Hertfordshire Regiment at this time and he was posted to what might become the coastal front line between Cromer and Mundesley. What is now a cafe on the clifftop at Overstrand was his guard house. The troops regularly got strafed by Luftwaffe fighters but thankfully saw no other action although there was some sporadic bombing. The aforesaid uncle went out to the far-east later in the war and became a Chindit but I digress (again).

Had a German invasion succeeded in Norfolk the River Bure was to become a defensive line and every bridge between Ingworth and the sea would have been blown. Evidence of these defences can still be seen today. There is a fortification by the Mill in Aylsham (see the photograph at the bottom of my last blog) and another very obvious one at Oxnead from where that bridge would have been blown. A footbridge over the river in Aylsham was actually removed although it is possible to see where it was. I doubt any of this would have held the German’s up for long but it kept Captain Mainwaring (or his local equivalent) busy.

A helping hand

We have our next meeting on March 3rd at Buxton Village Hall at 7:30pm. This is the co-ordinating meeting pulling the various strands of the project together and you would be very welcome to attend.

The way this thing has taken off has suprised all concerned but now there is a need to take some stock and also take some decisions relating to the longer term. The historical research is well underway and almost taking care of itself. There is a logo competition underway and the ladies from the WI are doing a navigation tapestry. The wherry Albion is pencilled in for late August 2012 and we’re thinking about the future. We’ve started to talk about the wildlife issue.  There is however something missing and that is the need for a body to carry forward the legacy of this project and also to be able to receive and disburse funds. A body that could take responsibility for obtaining grant funding for the legacy and also things as simple as taking responsibility for the comemmorative event itself which will need insurance and have other expences.

In short we need a charitable entity, possibly a Trust and we need it sooner rather than later. In order to get that off the ground we need a few people prepared to give of their time and energy. We already have many keen and dedicated people involved in their particular aspect of the Project but many of them do not have the time or inclination to take on something additional. I would find it hard myself as I work full-time, often a long way off and I also have local Parish Council responsibilities. Having said that I am prepared, indeed feel obliged, to get this charitable entity up and running but I cannot do it on my own so in this somewhat unusual blog (certainly a departure from the norm) I am appealing for some help. If you feel that you can assist to get a charitable trust off the ground please let me know. (

Now I can’t do a blog without a photo so this one will be an appetiser for the next blog which I am planning. The photograph below from the Evelyn Simak collection shows a WW11 defence at Aylsham Mill on which I will expand later.

It’s a Dydle

My old grandfather used to say that something which was easy was a “doddle” and if he wanted to know how you were he would ask “how are you diddling”?  The latter term, I now realise, can be misinterpreted but he meant no harm or offence by it. I will declare at the outset that as far as I know neither word is Norfolk in origin not the least because my grandfather was a yorkshireman albeit one far removed from that county for many years. In this county one could be employed as a “Dydler”; indeed the Aylsham Navigation permanently employed two of them and gave them a boat.

“Dydler is local to the Broads; it comes from the implement that the worker uses, a dydle, either a sharp triangular spade or a metal scoop or dredge fixed to the end of a long pole. (The first part is said to rhyme with died.) To dydle is to clean out the bed of a river or ditch. The Oxford English Dictionary (which spells dydler with an i instead of a y — the latter spelling may be a mock archaism) guesses it is a cut-down version of dike-delve, but nobody really knows”.

The above definition is reproduced courtesy of Michael Quinion from his excellent website,

A Dydler Boat

The photograph above is reproduced courtesy of the renowned local author Robert Malster and it comes from his personal collection. I have no knowledge of where this photograph was taken and neither does Robert but there are some intriguing clues. The banks are straight and the water is still. There is also very little depth, I know this for reasons I will explain in a minute. All in all this suggests that the photograph is taken on a man made cut somewhere on the wider Broads network but it could just as easily be the Aylsham Navigation. The usual pint to anybody who can positively identify the location.

The man stood at the stern is a Dydler and the long pole he is handling with what appears to be a large spoon bowl on the end is a Dydle.  The whole device pivots and excavator like digs in to the silt to dig out a navigable channel – well eventually ! It must have taken an age and was back breaking repetitive work. By looking at the pivot point and angle of the Dydle it is possible to get an idea of the depth. Also I think, unless I’m mistaken, that the waterline can be seen on the pole about a third of the way up. Not all Dydle’s were attached to boats and could be used as standalone tools. Bob Malster writes of the Dydle that it was-: “”a long-handled tool with a metal ring at one end on which is fastened a piece of net, used to dredge out mud from a broad or a dyke. The same word is also used as a verb to describe the operation of removing mud using such an implement. It was known to Thomas Tusser, who was born at Rivenhall in Essex about 1524 and farmed at Brantham, overlooking the River Stour:
A sickle to cut with, a didall and crome
For draining of ditches that noyes thee at home.”

The Aylsham Navigation advertised a maximum draught for vessels of 3 foot 6 inches which is not much. It must be borne in mind that this would have been the low water maximum after a period of drought. However my guess is that in order to acheive that they would probably have dredged to a depth of nearer 4 feet as there would always be some silt which would back fill almost as soon as the channel was cut.

Although I doubt they were ever paid much the life of a Dydler on the Navigation must have been a healthy outdoor one although their boat as can be seen offered absolutely no protection from the cold and wet in foul weather. All in all it’s a job which I could see myself doing providing there wasn’t an “R” in the month.


Postcard from the Navigation

If you were so minded there was a time when you could have sent a postcard from the Aylsham Navigation. Postcards are invaluable sources of historical information from the second half of the 19th century onwards and they are particularly useful up to the end of the second world war as before this time cheap, reliable personal cameras were not so readily available and sometimes it was the only way of recording where you had been.

Cards were also sent more frequently, not just when on holiday. They were a means of sending an abbreviated message or simply to let a loved one know you were thinking of them. Today we would send a text; the real difference being that in 100 years time the postcards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries will still be in existence whereas todays text messages will be consigned to the digital grave although by then something else will have replaced them.

Some postcards were produced as a simple record of a place such as the charming photograph below from the Aylsham Archive of the Millstream in Aylsham. Others however were more designed to attract a visitor. An example of this is the other postcard below originally produced, ironically, by the Great Eastern Railway in the noughties of the 20th century and depicting Coltishall / Horstead Lock. Whilst being an accurate depiction it shouts rural beauty and sleepy backwater. The viewer is not invited to consider that this is, in reality, an industrial scene. The Great Eastern’s interest is in saying to the viewer that they can catch our trains to see this. The irony being that had the flood not occurred in 1912 it is doubtful if the navigation would have been able to continue for much longer in any case as it was losing its trade to this very railway. We thank the excellent Norfolk Mills website for permission to use this image (

What a tranquil and peaceful setting this is, it is clearly mid-summer and, if my geography is correct, the direction of the shadows suggest late morning.

The house at the lock was occupied by the toll collector who kept 5% of all receipts in lieu of a wage. Contemporary photographs show a boat house to the right but this was stylised for the viewer.

Do you have any old postcards with a Navigation theme or showing any of the wherries which may have traded this route. We would love to see them – please contact



I’ve previously referred to the Zulu, a navigation trading Wherry, as it was at the centre of a very human story after the flood which destroyed the locks. She was small compared to some wherries, she had to be in order to trade up to Aylsham which she did with great frequency. Her cargoes were mixed but mainly agricultural produce. In one week in February 1907 she traded on the navigation on three seperate occasions with cargoes of Barley twice and wheat once.

The photograph above shows Zulu in about 1890 and another unidentified wherry moored at Acle Bridge on her way to or from Great Yarmouth; it is probably safe to assume that Aylsham was at the other end of her route. It will be seen that the mast would need to be lowered to pass under the bridge at Acle (and others along the way) and even then there may not be much room.

The surviving trading Wherry Albion is owned and operated by the Norfolk Wherry Trust who are planning to run her up to Coltishall as part of our celebrations in August 2012. One of the issues with such a run is the problems associated with getting under Wroxham Bridge. The state of the tide and water height has to be just right or she wont go as it is a very tight fit. These considerations were part of the Wherryman’s daily duties as he navigated his way to and from. Getting it wrong risks the boat and its cargo / crew. Skippers learn with experience how to read the water and can fit their craft seemingly with no difficulty in to spaces that look impossible; a true skill.

The Zulu got caught through no fault of its own on the wrong side of a destroyed Buxton Lock in August 1912. This was not however the end as she was pulled from the water and manhauled around the obstruction before being reunited with the water where she sailed to her freedom. They were men in those days!!!

All aboard

I had always believed that the Wherrymen kept their home and business lives seperate. I know that in these blogs I keep referring back and making comparisons with the narrow canals; there are good reasons for this. The Broads and the narrow canals have different origins but both were predominantly used initially for cargo and from around the same point in the industrial revolution namely the mid to late 18th Century onwards and were at their height before the coming of the railways which quickly robbed their trade. The Broads and the narrow canals have this in common but obviously they also have their differences. The obvious difference is that (with a few exceptions) the narrow canals are uniform in size using locks and tunnels to overcome geographic obstructions. The Broads also bear the influence of medieval man’s peat cutting but mostly they are rivers; there was very little canalisation although the Aylsham Navigation, because it needed locks and lock cuts, was nearer to a narrow canal than most of the remainder of the waterway. There was of course the Dilham Canal built off the Broads that was a full canal whereas the Aylsham Navigation was more of a half way house. However, not for the first time, I digress.

The working boats on the narrow canals were also the homes to the boatmen and their families. Few actually had any land base at all but lived and raised their families in the small but cosy rear cabins which must have been so crowded when there were little ones. As I said at the beginning I always believed that the Wherrymen were able to keep their homes on land and their boats as a base for working. They always had a back cabin known as a cuddy but this wasn’t really meant for a family although it would have had a stove for heat and cooking and bunks to sleep on. I met Mike Sparkes from the Norfolk Wherry Trust the other day and he was able to put me right on this matter as his own great grandfather had been a wherryman who always sailed with his extended family. I am told that he was not the only one to do this although most did have some kind of land base.

The above drawing which appears here courtesy of Mike shows his great grandfather sat on the stern of the Wherry “Johnhenry” and his great grandmother peering out of the cuddy.