Sunday 1 April 2012

There Are No Mountains In Norfolk

"If you think Norfolk is flat - get a bike!"
That was once the advice given to tourists visiting our beautiful county for the first time.

It is true, there are no mountains in Norfolk but we do have our own "Little Switzerland".
"Little Switzerland" are old chalk excavations near Coltishall that were abandoned many years ago.
The entrance to the chalk workings  at "Little Switzerland" were entered from the river Bure near Belaugh.  A series of channels were carved out  over several generations as great volumes of chalk were extracted from the  site.

Evening at Belaugh
Because the channels were only suitable for wherries of very shallow draught smaller lighters were built to ferry the chalk to the "Traders" waiting at the mouth of the excavations.

Chalk or marl was used mainly for improving agricultural land, it was also an important component in the production of bricks.  Marl was used primarily on the land to reduce acidity and improve the texture of the soil.  Wherries were able to provide a constant supply of  this valuable resource to local farms.  Marl mixed with farmyard manure improved the fertility of the land so much that farmers and land owners on the upper Bure claimed  "The carrots had doubled in size and the land had doubled in value".
On the Aylsham Navigation and the North Walsham and Dilham Canal chalk or marl was toll free which guaranteed work for the wherrymen supplying the lime kilns and farms along these waterways.

There are an abundance of chalk deposits close to the river Bure around Coltishall and Horstead.  Wherries would load the marl until the water lapped onto the plank ways, then loaded to the bins, the the great black sail would carry the marl through the network of rivers and broads sometimes up to fifty miles away.

Around 1810, a cart load of marl cost one shilling but it cost another three shillings and sixpence to transport it along the notorious Norfolk lanes and cart tracks.  It is no surprise to learn that marl became one of the most common cargoes carried by wherry.  The cavernous hold of the "traders" provided farmers with an economy of scale that horse drawn transport simply could not.
A Bridge at "Little Switzerland
Today the steep banks of "Little Switzerland" bear the scars from whence the chalk was extracted.  Willows and Elders have colonised the slopes and whole area has become a haven for wildlife.   The chalk workings were abandoned around 1870, a date that coincides with an expanding railway network.  Until then "Little Switzerland" would have been at the centre of a thriving industry employing many local men.   Some would have travelled across the river in small boats from Coltishall and Belaugh, others would have trudged along Granny Bard's Lane through the morning mist.  Probably carrying a bottle of cold tea and doorsteps of bread and cheese with an onion for added flavour.
Before the days of mechanisation the chalk would have been dug out with picks and shovels working along  terraced levels.  It would have been thirsty work in Summer and heavy work in Winter.
One Of  The Dried Out Channels

We recently attempted to canoe along the old chalk workings.  We left the Bure at Belaugh but it was only possible to travel a few yards along the channels which have dried out and become overgrown.  Our canoe soon came to grinding halt and any hope of retracing the route of the wherries was very quickly ruled out.
"Little Switzerland's" Concealed Entrance
I have been told that there was once a small tavern on the site where the labourers and wherrymen would congregate after work.  If this is true there is no evidence to suggest where the tavern was located, but we did see several old, broken bottles on the bank close to the entrance.

 The old chalk workings at "Little Switzerland" are private property and not open to the public.  However it is possible to see parts of the old channels and a bridge from a public right of way that runs alongside the estate.  I took a camera along there a few weeks ago to take a look.   The brambles put up a very determined defence and  in spite of several life threatening scratches I did manage to get a few  photographs.
Private Property Notification
The area is a great example of industrial archaeology and a glimpse into the past. If only those channels could be opened up and re-watered they would provide a magical boat trip through an enchanted forest.  But I guess that is never going to happen.

Authors Footnote.
There is very little information available relating to the chalk workings at "Little Switzerland".  Any additional information would be most welcome in order to satisfy my curiosity.



  1. ive been going on holiday for years on the broads with my uncle. coltishall is always the first place we head to after we pick our boat up at wroxham. i have never heard of or seen anything about this before. I would love more info on this.

  2. Hi Ray
    The old canal and chalk workings can be accessed from Granny Bards lane in Horstead. The old chalk pits and channels are private property but can be viewed from a public right of way. They have become overgrown with the passing years, it is a pity that this chapter of our history will eventually be lost.

  3. If the channels were reopened , or even if the site was cleared a bit, access wise, it would make a brilliant addition to our local history spots.

  4. Hi nnice reading your post

  5. 70 odd years ago I was part of a group of youngsters that often took a trek to Little Switzerland, and I had (not sure whether I could still find it) a photograph of the group sitting and eating our packed lunches in a nearby haybarn. I have no recollection of ourselves being aware of infringing privacy and trespass.