Sunday 26 June 2011

The Volunteer Wherryman.

Rain was spilling from "Albion's" great black sail, cascading across the hatches and collecting on the plankways.  The helmsman steered the wherry through the squall while on the foredeck a group of volunteers clad in waterproofs of every colour seemed largely unconcerned by the weather.   For my part in the proceedings I had the camera safely cocooned in a "High Tech" bin bag and continued filming "Albion's" progress along the Bure.

The "Volunteer's" charter was my fifth trip on "Albion" since I joined the trust a year ago.  It all began with a visit to "Albion's" yard at Ludham to have a look round.   In no time at all I had a mug of tea thrust into my hand and soon after agreed to work as a volunteer.   Being totally unskilled I was a kind of  "Odd Job".   Painting, rubbing down,  black leading the old wherry stove and checking life jackets.  All these tasks no matter how menial are all part of  "Albion's" preservation.

The best way to get sail on "Albion" is to sign up for crew training.  I thought I would give it a go and registered as a trainee mate.   Taking "Albion's" twenty six tons out on a charter is a serious business, safety  for passengers and crew is paramount.  This was constantly emphasised throughout my first training session.
The trainees were shown how to use the quant,  quanting is a very physical discipline which requires technique over brute force.  Personally I found it was somewhere between "very difficult" and "almost impossible".   If you didn't get the quant into the mud on the river bed it just floated up to the surface.     I wondered just how the old wherrymen could maintain this effort  for hours at a stretch  with a fully laden wherry and not even a breeze to assist them.

Raising and lowering  the mast is a drill that has to be carried out in strict order.  The ton of lead at the base  of the 42 foot mast is so finely balanced it takes surprisingly little effort to raise and lower the three tons of Pitch-Pine. That is, of course,  assuming all the necessary locks and pins have been removed .  It is claimed that working wherrymen could lower a mast and shoot a bridge without losing headway - it took we trainees slightly longer.

Next instruction was rigging and raising the sail.  I found raising the sail by far the most difficult of all the tasks, winding the winch saps the strength from your arms and drags the air from your lungs.
By the time I had learned about Gaff lines, Winches and Reefing points it was time for lunch.
After lunch we did a "man overboard" drill.  Recovering the dummy that had fallen overboard - it really was a dummy,  not one of the trainees.  For the recovery drill the wherry was brought to a standstill and anchored with mudweights while the tender was despatched to recover the "man overboard" 
This is one skill the original wherrymen never had to learn - they neither had lifejackets or tenders with outboard engines.  The truth is many of them could not swim and drowned as a result - tragically some of the deaths were  wherrymen's children.

Progression from Trainee Mate - to  Mate - to Skipper takes as long as takes in true wherry fashion.  There is no hurry so it is best to enjoy the experience.

To sail on "Albion" is to experience living history,  an insight into a forgotten way of life.  It is hard to believe that some families actually lived within the confines of these vessels, cooking meals in the tiny cuddy, with some of their children sleeping in the foredeck.   A time when the waterways were major transport routes  and wherries were a common sight.

To see a short video of  "Albion" on the voluteers charter go to.

or use youtube link in my favourite links  (opposite).

Visit the Norfolk Wherry Trust website for more information

Monday 6 June 2011

Coltishall to Buxton by Canoe

Coltishall, Norfolk, May 1st 2011.

I guess the people who need to know are well aware that the navigation for larger craft on the river Bure ends at Coltishall - or to be precise - Horstead Mill.   Beyond this point flows a tranquil stretch of river largely undiscovered - The Aylsham navigation.  It was used by trading wherries until the great flood of 1912 when many of the bridges and locks were washed away.  In order to retrace the route of the old wherries all the way to Aylsham we needed to get a camera along these upper reaches of the Bure.  I reluctantly agreed that the most suitable craft for this task would be a canoe.    I have never made a secret of the fact  that I am not a natural sailor, nor have I spent a lot of time on the water.  Since I started making this film recording the history of  the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways I have found myself in a number of different craft.    But a canoe!  I must be partly Red Indian or completely mad.    

Initially the plan was to fix two canoes side by side to create a stable camera platform (and to make the old chap with the camera feel a lot safer) - the idea was like the "curates egg" - good in parts.   Unfortunately this meant we would have to get two canoes and the camera equipment in and out of the water to negotiate the  locks along the navigation.  My advisors (son Andrew and his mate) came up with a revised plan, all three of us would go in one canoe. Being the lightest, I would be in the middle to balance the canoe.  I pointed out this would mean I would be filming the back of someones head instead of the river.   So the plan was revised for the second time, I would go in the  front seat with the camera and equipment and the two heavyweights would sit amidships and astern.     Once the seating arrangements had been finally agreed the canoe was launched and I was nominated to load first.   The canoe looked very narrow, the river looked very wide and the water looked very wet.   The little craft rocked violently as I took my place in the front seat and stowed the camera equipment.   My knuckles turned white from gripping the sides of the canoe when both oarsmen took their turn to clamber aboard.   This was my first trip in a canoe and I promised myself, if I survived, it would be the last.
A few minutes later we had shoved off the Horstead slipway and were paddling towards Aylsham on the first leg of our assignment.   Deep down I knew I would eventually have to release my grip on the sides of the canoe and start shooting some film.

The first part of the navigation meanders through a canopy of trees that overhang the river - quite surreal - it is not difficult to imagine a heavily laden wherry nosing its way along this part of the river.

By the time we got to Coltishall bridge I was beginning to enjoy the trip.  I must have crossed Coltishall road bridge hundreds of times but this was the first time I had ever passed under it.  Bathed in sunlight the bridge looked a picture with its gentle arch mirrored in the water.  The bridge was rebuilt in 1913 after the great flood had washed away the original.

Paddle blades broke the surface of the river with a gentle splash.  The water rippled softly along the length of the canoe as we passed through Largate and on toward Mayton Bridge.    The lush green scenery glided past our little craft, a clear blue sky left its shimmering reflection in the river.  Perfect peace!  In no time at all I had become a committed fan of the canoe.  My fingers had returned to their normal pink colour and the camera was recording some mesmerising shots of the river.

As straight as an arrow the "New Cut" stretched out ahead of us,  on either side the trees had given way to verdant green pastures.  In the open water of the "New Cut" a stiff breeze met us head on as we approached Mayton bridge.

  On the the far side of the bridge the breeze freshened to a fairly brisk "Northerly"  making the water quite choppy.   Our little canoe glided serenely over the ripples through "Buxton Long" reach and past the romantically named "Goose Turd Hill".  One can only imagine why the old wherrymen gave it this name.

The  "Great Eastern" railway bridge lay ahead of us.  This three span girder bridge over the river Bure was built in in 1878 and carried trains on the "Bure Valley" line until it was closed to passenger traffic in 1952   freight trains continued to use the line until 1982.    Since 1990 the bridge has been used by the narrow gauge trains of the "Bure valley" railway running daily services between Coltishall and Aylsham throughout the summer.

As soon as we had cleared the railway bridge Buxton mill was in sight.  The white painted building standing out against the trees that border the mill race.   The approach to the mill was very shallow, we tried to pick out the channel until a grating and crunching beneath us brought the canoe to a standstill.  I guess it was the combined weight of the three of us that eventually grounded our gallant little canoe.  Donning my rubber boots I abandoned ship and carried the camera and equipment to the bank while the two lads recovered the canoe.

Part one complete I am really looking forward to part two.  Buxton to Aylsham - by canoe.
To see an edited video go to.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Reed Cutting On The Waveney.

Monday 14th February 2011.
A brisk Easterly wind sweeps across the Waveney marshes. The same Easterly that not so long ago powered merchant ships, ground  corn and drained  pastures.  Today the same Easterly with no real work to do mischievously scurries through the reed beds.  The reeds turn away and bend  their heads to mark its passing as it hurries down stream whipping the water into sunlit liquid crystal.
There is an excessively low tide this morning, the reed cutter's boat lies almost six feet below the landing stage.  I am not a natural sailor or as nimble as I used to be.  I peer over the edge of the timbers and lower the camera and equipment into the hands of the men already in the boat.  Then trusting in God and providence I make my leap of  faith into the dinghy  - a few minutes later we are rowing toward the reed beds on the far side of the Waveney.   

A small number of  people still harvest reed, but to make it viable  and compete with imports from Eastern  Europe, the reed is cut mostly by machine.
Today I am filming one of the last marshmen to harvest reed by hand in the traditional way.  I feel compelled to record the process before it disappears forever - as it surely will. 

The marsh is waterlogged, every footstep fills with water as I follow the reed cutter and his son across the reed bed.  The wind coming off the sea is cold and biting,  there is no welcome on the banks of the Waveney this morning.

Historically Reed-cutting provided an income in winter when no other work was available.  Farm labourers, marshmen and fishermen would seek employment on the reed beds.  The season was short but intensive, beginning around December after the first frost of winter and ending in March when the new reed colts appeared.  In shallow, slow moving rivers men would stand up to their thighs in the freezing cold water cutting reed at the water's edge.  Or they would scythe their way across the ronds in majestic sweeping actions, the spiteful Easterly wind a constant companion.  Reed would be bundled into shooks and loaded onto reed lighters then taken downstream to staithes, from there Wherries would carry them away.   As I film the process it seems very little has changed.

One hundred and fifty years ago reed cutters would have been a common sight on the river banks except there were few people to see them, apart from maybe an eel catcher or a passing wherry.   Leisure craft were the preserve of the wealthy and only took to the water in summer long after the reed harvest was over.

A roof thatched with Norfolk reed is warm in winter and cool in summer and it can last up to seventy years.   Reed  is graded by annual growth.  Single wale is a single years growth which produces the best quality Reed.    Double wale is growth that has been left for two years.
The reed is cut close to the ground with extremely sharp hooks,  then the cutter gathers enough reed for a bundle, roughly a circumference of  about twenty-four inches.  Equivalent to three hand spans.  The bundle is raked clean and loosely tied with twine.

When every bundle is free of debris  it is dropped onto a "knocking" board forcing  the twine to tighten around the reed butts .  What appears to be a simple method is a very skilled process learned over many years.  Unless each bundle is a uniform size and density  the quality of the thatch will suffer.  

By mid afternoon we had finished filming and the dinghy carried me back across the Waveney toward the stacks of reed safely stock-piled on the river wall.  The oars creaked in the rowlocks as the dinghy returned me to the 21st century.

To see the Reed cutters working on the Waveney in April at the end of the harvest go to.