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.