Category Archives: May 2011

From the Cradle to the Grave

First things first – it’s finally rained albeit only a little but hopefully it will arrest the fall in water levels at least temporarily and that has to be a good thing. It might even cheer the farmers up a little.

Now the title of this blog is a little confusing but quite literally on the Aylsham Navigation you can go from the Cradle to the grave. The Cradle bridge that is which links Brampton and Burgh churchyard. I don’t know why it’s called the Cradle bridge but it’s been there from the start linking the two communities.

Cradle Bridge 1 courtesy or Jonathon SpinksThis is an old photograph of the Cradle bridge and dates I believe from the time of the navigation. The path can clearly be seen and it is obviously heading to the churchyard over the water. The bridge is a certain height to allow the passage of boats underneath.

Cradle Bridge 2 courtesy of Jonathon Spinks

This is the bridge at, I suspect, around the same time with some of the local young men although one is more a child, perhaps a younger brother of one of the others. I wonder what they were doing and why this photograph was taken?

Cradle bridge now looks very different; for one thing it is lower as boats no longer need to pass underneath. For another the river itself is different as it’s not so clear and wide as the vegetation has encroached considerably particularly on the open path seen in the first photograph above. Those that have known Brampton for far more years than me will tell you that the bridge has had several re-builds over the years since the Navigation closed.

Although not the best of photographs this does show the vegetation growth and the lowered height. It’s worth a walk down here as it is a tranquil spot.

Going to the Dog’s

I quite literally went to the dog’s last evening; greyhound racing to be precise. It’s not something I go to regularly, except many years ago when I was working undercover at the old White City Stadium in west London but that is definately a story for another time and place. My wife and I had our wedding anniversary earlier this month and we decided to have a night out somewhere to celebrate so somehow the idea of going dog racing reared its head. We booked for the restaurant, had a lovely meal, watched the racing and the tote came to our table to collect our bets. I’m not a gambler, normally the Grand National and perhaps the Derby and that’s it but my previously mentioned experience has equipped me with a knowledge of the procedure and language at least enough to not look out of place. We bravely settled on £100 betting money and came back with £120 so I call that a result !

Now what has all this to do with the Navigation? The answer lies in the location of the stadium, Great Yarmouth. I did the journey from Brampton to Great Yarmouth in well under an hour sticking carefully to speed limits. I compare that to the days of the wherries when that journey would have taken very many hours, in some circumstances days. Of course the journey there was a little easier as you were going quite literally with the flow of the river. However from Coltishall onward they also had the tide to worry about. It is barely noticeable in Coltishall although a little more so by Wroxham and the nearer you get to Yarmouth the greater the effect. The clever wherry skipper would have tried to time his journey to catch the height of the tide at Coltishall or Wroxham and then ride the fall as far as possible towards Yarmouth. It wouldn’t get him all the way but it would make the majority of the journey easier. Likewise on the return he would try to catch a rising tide for as long as possible.

The tides did create some other issues for him particularly at some of the lower bridges as at the height of the tide he simply couldn’t get under.

The above picture may illustrate this point. It shows the Zulu and another un-identified wherry at Acle by the old bridge. The Zulu has featured elsewhere in these blogs and was a frequent trader to Aylsham. It is likely therefore that she is on her way to Yarmouth from there when this picture was taken. It is speculation but she may be waiting for the tide to drop a little to allow passage under the bridge.

Above Coltishall the differing water heights mostly did not occur as the locks and mills kept an even level except at times of spate, flood and serious drought. The above wherry, un-named but possibly the Mayflower or the Hilda is under sail approaching Burgh bridge in 1907. She would have sailed right up to the bridge and then drop her mast at the last minute to allow her momentum to carry her forward. Once through the bridge the mast, which was on a pivot, would be raised again and she would sail on as if nothing had happened.

What a life of luxury we live today in comparison – I jump into my box on wheels and do in less than an hour what this wherryman would have taken hours or even days and great skill over. No wonder the world’s going to the dog’s.


Early interest

I don’t know if you caught it but on Tuesday evening there was a wonderful documentary on BBC 4 about the golden age of canals and their renaissance as the restoration movement took hold in the 1950’s and 60’s. It was a wonderful programme of the sort that only the BBC seem able to produce. It was an emotional experience for me as I have explored many of the narrow canals and have benefitted from the hard work of the restorationists. This programme had much old film of working boats and pleasure craft from just after the last war. It almost brought a tear to my eye.

I did have one criticism though – they showed a map of the canal network in the 1840’s which they rightly identified as the high point. This map showed the whole of eastern England as a waterways desert which was unfair and misleading. Now I will excuse them because they were concentrating on the main narrow canal network but I would have liked to see a moducum of honesty in their map if nothing else.

A lot of the canals were in a state of very poor repair before the war and afterwards only essential maintainence was done on those canals that still had traffic which was really quite a small percentage of the total mileage. Those that fell into disuse faced a grim future unless the restoration movement rescued them. In the late 1930’s there was a small band of dedicated navigators who somehow forced their way through seemingly impossible obstructions to prove navigation was still possible and to prevent abandonment.

The Aylsham Navigation might just have been savable in the very early 1930’s if somebody had taken that interest here then but they didn’t. The final demise came with the final filling in of Buxton Lock and the construction of a road over the site. It was a final full stop.

This was Buxton Lock in 1928 before it was filled in. 1928 is an important year as that is when the navigation was formally abandoned but there is persistent comment that this was not done properly and a right to navigation might still exist. Right or not the practicalities are that once this lock was filled in and removed from the landscape navigation by anything other than canoes was impossible. The sad fact is that this photograph suggests to me that a restoration movement in the 1930’s might have had a chance of success.

Stop the World I want to get off

This curiously titled blog is being penned as the Eurovision Song Contest is on the television although I wont be publishing it until later. The title is a reflection of my feelings about this particular televisual feast.

So what did the wherrymen do when they wanted to stop in their world? The answer is that some went home to adoring families, some went to chapels built especially for them and others still went to any one of the number of pubs that dotted the route. Nearly all of these public houses have now gone although they survive as dwellings. They came from a time when the pub had a role in society of some importance. Pre-televison and radio it was where news was exchanged, stories told and cares forgotten. On a night like this I wish I was back there ! You might say but there’s the off button, well there would be if I could get control of the remote from my wife.

One of these public houses was the Old Maids Head in Brampton run by the Seaman family whose descendants in the Spinks family still live in the village today. It appears that the wherryman would use this establishment when moored at Oxnead as it was but a short walk from Oxnead bridge.

This is the Maids Head with the landlady, Mrs Seaman standing at the door. She doesn’t look the sort to stand any nonsense. I don’t know but I guess that the wherrymen of old were like their virtual cousins on the narrow canals; hard working, hard drinking, god fearing men. Mine’s a pint.

Another day another dollar

What a crowded day I had yesterday juggling a navigation meeting with a medical appointment and the needs of my paid employment. Then in the evening an enjoyable time was had ploughing through some of the photographs collected over the years by Mr Jonathon Spinks of Brampton. Jon is a very keen and knowledgeable local and family historian for his village; he has amassed an enviable collection of photographs some of which he has kindly shared with us. I felt bushed but happy at the end of the day except for the blood test when they couldn’t find any to take, I kid you not. I have uploaded a few of Mr Spinks’s photographs to the site and more will follow.

Also during the day I kind of fell in to researching and writing up a piece for the eventual book on the pubs along the navigation so if you have anything at all that would help it will be very gratefully received. I don’t know how people seem to think that pubs and myself go together so easily. I am, after all, practically teetotal these days although I still enjoy the odd (and I do mean rarely) glass of ale.

Funnily enough pubs featured in another way yesterday as talking to a colleague I finally settled on a date for the first meeting to launch the Trust – this will be June 1st and hopefully in the Alby Three Horseshoes (the landlady tells me that they sometimes get confused with another pub so it is the one on the A140 between Aylsham and Cromer and not at Scottow). There is a symmetry to this as it was there I first met Jim to kick this whole thing off and where the idea of the linear path was born. Another day, another dollar and seemingly another pub!!

If you would like to be involved in setting the charity up please (that’s a begging please) let me know and you would be made most welcome.

Pubs are predominantly for pleasure and that leads me to one of Mr Spinks’s photographs which was of the pleasure wherry Victory moored at Lammas Church. This is an incredibly rare photograph but it does show that the Navigation was clearly used for pleasure as well as trade although the Commissioners of the Navigation discouraged it as they made no money from it. Just down from where the wherry is moored was a wherryman’s pub, the Anchor (sometimes called the Anchor of last hope) in Lammas and now long gone along with the majority.

Also see the Legacy news page for more details (navigate there from the left hand column). Now perhaps, mine’s a pint !

Thought for the day

Well that’s it the local elections are done and dusted for another four years. I had an interesting day at the count and congratulations to those elected including, I have to say, a few supporters of our little project.

Politics have collided with us slightly this week as Norfolk County Council as part of their cuts agenda (over which they have more control than they admit to in my opinion) have decided to cancel their subscription to the community project that hosts this website and we will therefore have to close unless we do something pretty quickly. Rest assured closure will not happen but we will, at least, have to change hosting platforms and that may bring about a few other changes but I will keep you informed of these as the thing develops.

Now to navigation; I had cause this last week to remember one of my earliest memories of rivers and boats. At the time I was but a wee lad (obviously) and we lived close to the Thames just upstream from Windsor. The Thames was full of boats but the ones I was always in awe of were the largest of them all, the Salters Steamers. The Salters fleet covered nearly all of the non-tidal Thames but their home base and boatyard was in Oxford. These magnificent old ladies, many dating back to the 1920’s or earlier, majestically made their way up and down on extended trips. It was and probably still is possible to get on a Salters Steamer in the morning and cruise all day in the same direction alighting 8 or 10 hours later many many miles further on. I myself have cruised on one from Staines to Reading – a really magnificent long day out.

The very first of these steamers that I can recall with any clarity was the “Mapledurham” a grand old lady now sadly the first of the fleet to be scrapped.

Above “Mapledurham” lies alongside her younger sister “Hampton Court” in Windsor. Had the Aylsham Navigation survived I imagine that there would be passenger cruise ships on it now and somehow I can see that they would have to have been built along similar lines as these two gorgeous ladies in order to deal with the locks. A little shorter perhaps and a bit wider too no doubt but just as elegant I’m sure. In keeping with the Salters tradition of naming their boats after great houses we’ll name ours “Blickling”.

Situation Vacant

At the time of writing this I still have a swollen and painful middle finger on my left hand which has reduced what I can do with that hand. It’s only when you can’t use it that you fully realise how much you do with the “other” hand.

Now I have had more than my share of health problems over the years but we soldier on. However my current little difficulty has given me cause to consider a couple of things and the first of which is this website. Effectively I manage it alone and don’t mind as I enjoy doing it but the project is bigger than any one person so what would happen to the site if I was suddenly incapacitated?

The answer, sadly, is nothing as I have to give administration rights to whoever takes it on in my abscence so if I’m incapacitated I would be unable to give those rights to anybody. I have therefore decided that I need to address this matter now. So there is a vacancy for a volunteer webmaster prepared to take over the role fully if I was not around for any reason. I think it’s also good to spread the load anyway as it gives fresh voice and insight; it will help keep the site fresh particularly as things speed up as they are inevitably going to shortly. Blogging is not obligatory but I would willingly give way to let others have a go every so often.

Would you be interested in taking this role on; let me know via

After the flood the wherry Zulu was stuck upstream of Buxton lock but her owners were not prepared to let her working days end with the death of the Navigation so she was man-hauled from the water and “walked” around the obstruction. It is an uplifting tale of human endeavour in the face of adversity.