Category Archives: January 2011

Early Beginnings

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting where somebody, I can’t remember who, remarked that the real start of the Aylsham Navigation was the Black Boys Hotel.

The initial proposers of the Aylsham Navigation Act 1773 were all local landowners with extensive farming interests. Initially, it is said, they planned to open the Navigation as far as Ingworth but in the end settled on Aylsham as the upper limit of navigation. These men all met in the Black Boys Hotel to settle their plans.

The Black Boys has an interesting history in its own right which I might blog about at a later date but suffice it here to say that it was right at the heart of the town and was a stop on the Cromer to Norwich Mail Coach in the days of old. It remains a hostelry where both food and drink can be obtained by the weary and hungry. The food isn’t too bad either and quite reasonably priced. Interestingly it remains on the passenger route between Cromer and Norwich although no Mail Coaches these days as the journey is now done by huge six wheeled buses operated by Sanders Coaches. Services are frequent during the day but less so in the evenings and on Sundays. The current buses are direct descendants of the original public transport in this area. The only things that have changed are speed, scale and frequency.

I like the concept that the Black Boys is the real start of the navigation although I would prefer that it were the end rather than the beginning.


Locks on waterways are dangerous places that you wouldn’t want to fall in to and if you get the process wrong could end up by sinking the boat. On the narrow canals there are a number of sinkings each year mostly caused by inexperienced hirers getting it wrong. I don’t actually know the exact number but I wouldn’t mind betting that it’s in the 20 – 25 region. It’s an expensive mistake that also blocks the waterway whilst engineers refloat the boat which then has to be dried out. Now in case anybody is wondering this is not from personal experience but I have seen more than one incident and been involved in a couple of close calls. Going downhill the danger is in getting the stern stuck on the sill of the upper gate whilst locking up you can get the bow stuck under a gate cross beam causing it to be pushed under water if action isn’t taken quickly to reverse the direction of locking.

Don’t get me wrong they are dangerous places but they are also fun and for many make a canal holiday. Waterways are places where the world slows down. Locks can be hard work but somehow it is pleasurable and steady even though the paddles and gates can be very difficult. Working boat crews however do not have time to consider the esoteric merits of a rural idyll. They have to get from A to B as quickly as they can; locks are a necessary evil to be endured. Often only a man and a boy crewed the wherries – locks would have been hard work for them. Made all the worse I suspect by poor maintainence particularly towards the end.

On the other hand locks were places where boats were forced to stop albeit for only a few minutes. It was therefore an opportunity to grab a few words with other wherrymen waiting at the lock or the lengthsman who maintained that stretch. It was where news and gossip was spread, tobacco smoked and calls of nature answered. Cups of tea or stronger would have been consumed and the boatman would always know how he was doing for time as the locks were his guide. On the narrow canals they had a lock mile measure whereby you could rely on a speed of 4 lock miles per hour. that is to say 4 locks or 4 miles or combinations thereof such as 2 locks and 2 miles in an hour. It was crude but remarkably reliable when planning a journey. I don’t know what the lock mile rate was on the Aylsham Navigation but a ratio of 4 would give a passage time between Aylsham and Coltishall of between 3.5 and 4 hours.

The above photograph, one of my favourites, shows Buxton Lock in 1910 as it would be seen when approaching upstream. The photograph below is the same lock in a sorry state after the flood. The gates are still in situ after a fashion and the gates furthest from the photographer are the upstream ones. The sill which had to be avoided can be seen and the gates had cross beams under which the bow could get caught. I doubt however if such things ever happened to experienced professionals.

There is precious little left of this lock now; if you know what to look for you can just see where it was but the chamber itself was completely filled in to allow a road to be built over the top in the 1930’s. This blogger does not advocate any return to navigation but were one ever to be considered the loss of Buxton Lock and the building of the subsequent road is a not inconsiderable hurdle to be overcome. Along with all the bridges that would need to be rebuilt/raised and the fact that the A140 Aylsham by-pass now cuts right across the Bure in a most unhelpful way; Buxton Lock is probably the biggest obstacle. Although I’m conveniently forgetting the fact that the last mile or so in to Aylsham Staithe was a canal cut which has now completely disappeared and the terminus itself built over.

A muse of fancy

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the Navigation had not been wiped out in 1912. Potentially it would have survived until this very day and Aylsham would be a Broads Holiday destination. There would undoubtedly be a boatyard at Aylsham if not elsewhere on the navigation where tourists could hire holiday cruisers and day boats. Tour boats could do a trip to Wroxham and back which would take the best part of a day. There would be all the paraphenalia associated with tourism like gift shops; to some a nightmarish thought but it would also have brought fairly safe employment, albeit seasonal.

Aylsham and the communities along the navigation would undoubtedly be part of the Broads National Park area and all that brings in terms of planning restriction and habitat preservation. To some a mercy but restrictive to others. The one thing I am certain of is that things would be different here if the Navigation was still open.

Realistically even had it survived the flood in 1912 I doubt if it could have continued beyond the second world war. Advances in road transport and, as important, the roads themselves would have made this waterway redundant for the carriage of goods in the same way as other waterways died on the vine in the same period. By the end of the 30’s the Navigation would have been reliant on the tourist trade which was about to cease for the duration. A locked waterway not used soon dies so I doubt if it would have survived but I can always dream.

The above photograph shows Aylsham Staithe looking sorry for itself in 1928 the year that the navigation was formally abandoned. Imagine the presence of hire boats here – I think not !!!!

History alive

As I write this I have in front of me an extract from the Day Book of the Navigation for February 1907 which has been provided courtesy of the Aylsham Town Archive. A copy can be found in the “Our Files” link. It shows passages by the Wherries Zulu (3 times), Kate (twice), Cyprus (twice), Volunteer (3 times), Mayflower (twice) and Palmerston (once) between February 1st and the 9th carrying cargoes of Barley, Wheat (suprising given the month), Maize, Flour, Manure and Cake which I assume was animal feed. On the 9th the Volunteer, for example, had a mixed load consisting of 6 tons of Maize and 8 of Manure. with presumably nothing between them. The Palmerston carried the Cake and the Zulu had two loads of Barley each of 15 tons and one load of Wheat of the same size.

This indicates to me two things; firstly the navigation was still relatively busy in 1907 but also that the writing was on the wall. A load of 15 tons is under half of that which a modern lorry would carry and even then road transport would have been capable of loads of that size and that doesn’t even mention the bulk loads which the railways could carry.

The Zulu was, of course, the famous boat owned by the Cook family and under the control of a Mr Wright which escaped the flood damage 5 and a half years later.

This sort of detail is not only academically interesting, it also provides a snapshot of times gone by. If you like it adds colour to our understanding. For example I’m sure that a wherry full of manure must have left a reminder of its passing in its own wake. Mind you the Barley carried with it in the Volunteer, if used for brewing, would have given a new meaning to the term “full bodied” ale!

The photograph below is another from the Benson collection and reproduced here courtesy of the website Broadland Memories. It shows a wherry under sail but also being poled passing an unknown spot on the Bure. Note the two men fishing in a boat !! If you can identify where this is please let me know.


The morning after the night before

I bet you thought that this was going to be some admission of a debauched night – well I’m sorry to disappoint although …. on second thoughts.

Yesterday evening we held a Project meeting in Coltishall Village Hall which was well attended by a delightfully diverse body of people all linked by the vision and dream of doing something about and for the Navigation. The meeting was interesting in one other respect in that we were in verbal competition with a variety of sweaty bodies doing noisy keep fit type things in the adjacent room. I got tired just listening to them. On a serious note it was really nice to see a Village Hall being used by and for the community. It’s what they are for and if we don’t use them we lose them (Brampton please note).

So where are we now. Well, the minutes will be circulated shortly and they will also be posted on this site at the same time. They will be in the “Our Files” Section to the left. The headlines are that the historical research is up and running with a grant from the UEA; the wildlife aspect is still being discussed but will take shape later this year; the comemmoration event in 2012 continues to come together and I hope to be able to give more exciting information on this shortly and the legacy in the form of a waterside trail suitably way marked could become a reality although a charitable trust will need to be formed to bring it to fruition.

We are doing this because in our different ways and from different perspectives we can come together with a common aim of preserving the history, flora and fauna of our river. Cue a photograph I think –

This is one of the photographs we have courtesy of the Broadland Memories website and taken in about 1902 by a Mr. Benson. This is a boat locking downstream at Coltishall and Horstead. It looks to me to be summer and the water level is good.

Somebody was very kindly to me the other day and complemented these blogs. If you want to see previous examples the various monthly links are to the right (at the top of the page) and they will eventually lead you to every one I’ve done and a cornucopia of photographic memory. Having said that I don’t have to blog exclusively – you can register with the site and upload your own blog if you want subject to the normal rules of decency etc.



Every river has a complex relationship with the weather and in particular rain in which I include other forms of precipitation such as snow. The Bure is no exception; it is, after all, rain fed. The water in the river at one time fell out of the sky so rainfall is extremely important to the health of the river. Not enough and flow slows, the river height falls and habitats are damaged as oxygen levels are lowered and more toxic chemicals rise. Too much precipitation and the river becomes a torrent and flood occurs. Historically and in the natural world some flood is a good thing as it spreads alluvial material far and wide. Flood however is something to be avoided if at all possible on a navigable river and around habitation. One of the side effects of introducing locks, mills and weirs is the ability to control flooding to some extent.

I crossed the river by Oxnead Bridge yesterday afternoon and Brampton Common was clearly very wet, the river was high but still some way below the top. In these conditions it is possible to see that the river at this point is constrained by the most subtle of levee’s. In normal conditions you don’t notice it but yesterday the river level was higher than the general height of the common. Without this control by man the common would have been flooded. When the river does come over the top here serious flooding can occur. There have been several flood events in living memory but none to compare with 1912.

The above photograph shows the Bure at Brampton in the 1970’s with two young people taking advantage of a flooded common. The lad on the oars still lives in the village and can trace his ancestry back to wherryman and prior to that the operator of the paper mill at Oxnead.

In August 1912 when Norfolk suffered what was described at the time as “phenomenal” rain something like 6 inches of water fell in about 12 hours. This is worse than monsoon levels and probably hasn’t been seen in this area since. Quite simply the river couldn’t cope and something had to give. Because of man made constraints the river actually had more force than it would have had naturally and therefore it washed away anything it found in its way including the locks and bridges.


Coastal Connection 2

The whole purpose of the navigation was to connect Aylsham and the other communities on the navigation with the sea at Great Yarmouth. This was a port of altogether different proportions to Cromer (see Coastal Connections 1) having a long and distinguished trading history. Also, of course, for most of its history it was also known for the fish that was landed there.

The traditional (river) port at Great Yarmouth is not an easy one to navigate as there is a considerable tidal race at the river mouth and dangerous shallows off-shore. This did not prevent it becoming one of the most important trading hubs on the east coast. It also had a large water borne hinterland in the shape of the Broads. Much cargo would have been trans-shipped here in both directions and it was a very busy place. Now it is less so, the traditional cargoes have all but gone. There is no deep sea fishing and very little inshore. Even the late 20th century salvation of rig supply is in decline.

However the port does attract cargoes and there is a small ship building and repair yard which is still with an economic upturn it may have a renaissance.

In the navigations day it was the destination for most of the agricultural produce carried which would have been trans-shipped in to sea going vessels such as those in the photograph below for onward transport to London or the industrial cities of the north-east. Likewise bulk cargoes for transport upstream would have been brought to Yarmouth by sailing ship and latterly steamer.

This photograph was taken by Donald Shields in 1904 and is reproduced here courtesy of the Broadland memories website ( )

If anybody knows Great Yarmouth this scene will be instantly recognisable as, sailing ships apart, the quay has not changed much over the last 100 years. This photograph was taken at a time when the navigation was open and some idea of the scale of business enjoyed by the port can be seen.

Coastal Connection 1

Before it all started the nearest sea port to this area was Cromer which is a little hard to believe as it is not a natural harbour but at one time it was bustling with cargo ships. With no harbour or jetty system the Colliers and other trading vessels (mostly coastwise I suspect) would beach and the cargo would be unloaded in to carts.

All of this used to happen on the beach below The Gangway which is still there today. Many of you will know it but in case you don’t it is a narrowish cobbled hill where the carts of centuries of trade have left ruts in the road. At its base is now the inshore lifeboat house and the Henry Blogg Museum (well worth a visit). Henry Blogg was, as I’m sure you know, the coxwain of Cromer lifeboat and the most decorated RNLI lifeboat man ever.

There are no trading vessels on the beach today but all of Cromers’ crabbing and fishing fleet still lies on the beach at this point and the small inshore boats are launched and recovered from the sea here during the season.

Coal and other bulk materials for the area served by the navigation would have been landed at Cromer and then carried inland by cart. The navigation would have killed this trade dead locally but Cromer did survive as a port into the late 19th Century as the photograph below shows which is reproduced here courtesy of Poppyland Publishing (

In the photograph above we can see ships beached sensibly well below the high water mark and the carts coming and going. The Gangway starts just at the extreme bottom left of the picture. The photograph was taken more or less where the museum now stands.

This trade whilst very important to both the town and the wider area must have been heavily dependant on the weather. Any kind of blow from the east or the north would have made it all but impossible and indeed highly dangerous. The ships whilst beached are sitting ducks to the worst that the weather can throw at them and they would also need relatively benign conditions to manouver back out to sea as vessels of this size so close inshore would need to be handled with a very high level of seamanship to get back under way. Also cargo handling entirely by hand must have been labour intensive and hard physical work for those employed on it. All cargoes had to be handled without the use of the aids which were available, even then at safe harbour ports, such as cranes. The cargoes were all bulk in nature and therefore heavy to move.

Above the Henry Blogg Museum is a very reasonable cafe where panoramic views over the beach and pier can be found. I know from bitter experience that the hill is steep and slippery when wet but you may not know that from the top of the hill one can take a lift down in to the cafe and museum thus saving your legs and (in my case) back.


An intriguing piece of information

Well that’s it – all over for another year and now back to business. Talking of which we have our next meeting on the 18th January at Coltishall Village Hall (7.30pm) at which a variety of interesting matters will be discussed.

One of the joys to me of this project is the way in which slowly a picture emerges of the navigation as an entity. It’s history once seen, by me at least, in black and white is now taking on an altogether more colourful hue and the wildlife is also emerging as being both rich and diverse. I live in the village of Brampton and our own website has a wildlife blogger who has recently turned his attention to the river. I can commend the most recent entry to you as it concerns the “Island” between Oxnead and Burgh and can be found at

On the history side a nugget came my way over the holiday period courtesy of a former Aylsham resident who now lives in Great Yarmouth which is really the two extreme ends of the navigations extent. It appears that there is a possability that 1912 wasn’t the complete end of navigation above Coltishall as a toll collector continued to be employed at Coltishall & Horstead lock for some years after this date. Nothing could have got through Buxton lock but a wherry could have reached Buxton Mill. I wonder if they did? If you have any family photographs, memorabilia or stories relating to the navigation or other aspect of the Bure please get in touch (