Sunday, 10 July 2011

Buxton Mill to Aylsham Mill by Canoe.

Wednesday June 29th 2011.

It was barely nine - thirty in the morning and the sun was already uncomfortably hot.  Insects rose in coloured profusion  from the lush vegetation on the banks as our canoe cut its way through rafts of water lilies and floating grass.  Birdsong echoed around the reed beds and from trees overhanging the river.   This was not a remote mangrove swamp in some far off tropic - it was the river Bure running through Buxton Lamas in deepest Norfolk.

This was the second part of our  journey along the upper reaches of the Aylsham navigation, part one had ended at Buxton mill just shy of halfway.  The second half of the journey resumed at Buxton mill,  and barring obstacles on the navigation, we hoped  to make it all the way to the mill at Aylsham.  When planning the film, against all advice, I had decided to head upstream and finish at Aylsham as this seemed the most logical direction for the film to make any sense, after all it is called the "Aylsham" navigation.  Had we taken the easier option starting at Aylsham and heading downstream it was difficult to decide on a suitable finishing point?     It should be noted that the river is also known as the "Bure" navigation - but  for clarity of purpose I felt the film had to terminate at Aylsham.

Whatever name is preferred the second leg was five and half miles of paddling against the flow on a scorching hot mid-summers  day.   I was very fortunate to have Son Andrew and his mate Andy,  both experienced canoeists,  providing the motive power.  Just the same as the first trip I was up front with the camera, but this time I knew what to expect and was really looking forward to retracing the route of the old wherries

The Bure is surprisingly wide upstream from Buxton mill where, I guess, the water is held up by the restriction at the mill race.   "Bream Corner" so named by the wherrymen is a reasonably fast flowing reach making the the first part quite a tough stretch to paddle.  The water was crystal clear and  I could see fish darting beneath the canoe weaving in and out of the aptly named "Bur Reed"  (I know, it's spelt differently)
We glided past pretty riverside properties set in colourful gardens and dinghies and canoes tied up to lush green waterside lawns.    As we passed Lamas church, secreted amongst the trees, we saw several young jack Pike hiding in the reeds at the waters edge.  We left Buxton behind us and the river wound its way into the countryside through pastures fringed by reed beds and flag iris'.
For the entire five and a half miles we were accompanied by turquoise Banded Demoiselles (Damselflies).  They seemed to be everywhere, landing on the reeds and water lilies as we paddled by. 

Birds warbled all around us as the canoe pushed through the water  leaving Eddy's rippling in our wake.  Dragonflies hovered inches from the surface of the river while butterflies fluttered erratically above the river bank.  We had this little slice of English wilderness all to ourselves - priceless!

It took just under the hour to reach Oxnead Hall,  it's castellated tower looking slightly surreal and out of place against the other red brick buildings.   We passed under a  low bridge, tall trees lined the bank, behind them dense woodland shielded us from the sun until we reached Oxnead mill pool where we beached the canoe.  This was the first obstacle and possibly the most challenging.

It was easy enough getting the canoe out of the water but getting it over a stile and along a woodland path did increase the pulse rate.   Fifteen minutes later we were back on the river and paddling under the bridge at Oxnead heading toward Brampton and Burgh.  This bridge is where the wherrymen would moor their vessels and visit the Brampton "Maids Head" just a hundred yards from the bridge - sadly no longer a hostelry.   In the Brampton meadows a group of curious Hafflinger horses checked our progress as we paddled by.

Several swans had made themselves at home on the navigation, each with a clutch of young.   The Pen would hustle the brood into the bank while the Cob hissed and looked ready for a fight.   If the Cobs looked moody and menacing  we did the same.  This approach seemed to work as we achieved an honorable stand off  every time but if  I was really honest and it had come to a conflict my money would have been on the swans.
We had been on the water about two hours when we reached the deep water at Burgh lock.  The canoe was unloaded very carefully and and the old chap with the camera was assisted onto the bank.  We re-launched our little craft off the wall of the old lock, it was quite a drop.  I sat on the wall ready to lower myself gently into the canoe.  A large thistle biting my rear end did accelerate my embarkation much faster than I had intended.
Burgh church, partially hidden behind burgeoning willows drifted by on our right, there was no time for sight seeing,  "Cradle bridge" the wooden  foot bridge that links Burgh with Brampton was dead ahead forcing us to lie flat in order to pass safely beneath it.   Many years ago "Cradle bridge" was  much higher to allow the wherries to pass unhindered en route for Aylsham.

A little further upstream we approached Burgh bridge, once the site of wherry owner Isaac Helsdon's staithe. A large dog on the opposite bank barked at us, probably not used to people on his turf.  

After Burgh the river narrows markedly,  much of it choked by the encroachment of vegetation.  In some places  rafts of floating grasses reach out from the banks threatening to close the channel completely.   Three hours into our journey we decided to find a suitable place to pull in to stretch our legs and have a cup of coffee.  During this spot of recreation we spotted another three man canoe approaching from upstream, the first people we had set eyes on since we left Buxton. The only living things we had encountered up to then were several angry swans and an angry dog.   They pulled in and chatted with us for a while telling us there was a tree across the river about five hundred yards ahead.  They had only just managed to get under it.  Looking at our slightly larger canoe they thought we would find it difficult to get past. They added that  because of the dense undergrowth there was nowhere to leave he river to get around the tree.  This was not what we wanted to hear, providing we could keep to the correct channel we were less than a mile from Aylsham mill.   It would have  been extremely disappointing if we had to give up when we were this close.

After fifteen minutes we bade the other canoe farewell and headed off upstream.  We soon  found the fallen tree and it was big.  There was only one place we might get under it and that was close to the bank where the trunk formed a natural arch.   I was advised to lay flat.  Like a water-borne limbo dancer I leaned back as far as I could then collapsed onto the bottom of the canoe, wedged tightly and unable to move with the camera on my tummy the trunk of the tree passed an inch above my nose.   Willing hands grabbed branches and boughs and slowly passed the canoe under the tree.   Once clear of the obstruction Son Andrew helped me back into my seat and we set off for Aylsham.

Very soon we were paddling under the by-pass and we could see the the silos at "Dunkirk".   There was one last obstruction to overcome, a fast running weir.   Once again the canoe was unloaded and carried over land,  commando style.

Not surprisingly the engine room was beginning to feel the effects of what had been quite a long haul against the flow.   Soon after the weir we encountered three possible channels, hoping for the best we took the one in the centre which brought us up to the old wherry staithe which is now a very nice housing complex.   Around one last bend and we could see white water coursing through the mill race.  It was job done!

It is almost one hundred years since the navigation was ruined by the floods of 1912.   The locks and bridges were washed away and the days of the wherries on the Aylsham navigation were over.  We are not the first to make this journey and it is not a major achievement in itself, but by completing the route I felt we had relived a little bit of history - and recorded it.

If you would like to see two short videos of the canoe trip from Buxton mill to Oxnead and Oxnead to Aylsham mill the link is attached.
Or you can use the youtube link under my favourite links above right.

Thankyou for looking.

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