Saturday 15 December 2012

"Albion's" Home Run.

On Saturday, December 8th, I joined a volunteer crew from the Norfolk Wherry Trust to bring "Albion" home from Oulton Broad.  Albion had been at Excelsior's yard on Lake Lothing for winter maintenance. She became stranded at Oulton Broad due to bridge repairs on the Waveney and the Bure.

At 8am, seven volunteers and their equipment were dropped off at Oulton Broad yacht station and the cars departed leaving the crew to make "Albion" ready for her return to base.
The plan was to cross Breydon and reach Great Yarmouth at slack water, and be back at Ludham before dark.

Early morning at Oulton Broad

Every member of the crew knew exactly what was needed and set about their tasks.  Most of them had made this trip several times before.   The frosty morning had covered "Albion's" plank-ways and hatches with a  veneer of ice, making movement around the vessel quite treacherous.
Everyone of the crew were either Skippers or Mates - I was the only "Greenhorn" on board.
My job was to record the journey.  For my part in the proceedings conditions could not have been better.   No wind, crystal clear light and winter sun - absolutely perfect.

"Albion's" mast had been removed for overhaul some weeks earlier, so "Badger", a motor cruiser, was tied alongside to power the wherry on the return journey.

Making ready.

 "Badger" and "Albion" had an overall beam of twenty six feet, with "Badger" providing the power and "Albion" providing the steerage.  Additional power, if required, could be supplied from "Albion's" tender hitched to the stern of the wherry.  After about forty minutes preparation our little flotilla cast off.

The tender was quickly pressed into service nudging "Albion's" bow through forty five degrees until she came about and headed toward Oulton Dyke.

Great shots from the tender

I was able to get some some great shots from the tender as it manoeuvred around the wherry.  Then we were back on board and heading up the Waveney toward Great Yarmouth.

This was the first time I had travelled on this stretch of water so everything around me was very fresh and new.  From a photography point of view, if I did this trip one hundred times, the light and conditions would never be as good as this again.

River as calm as a mill pond

Ahead of us the river was as calm as a mill pond, golden coloured reeds reflected in the still water as we glided by - absolutely priceless!    Astern of us the wake from "Badger" glistened in the early morning sun.

Through St Olaves bridge and past Burgh Castle, "Badger's" engine never faltered, we were bang on schedule to reach the Breydon bridge at slack water.

St Olaves

There was a burst of activity on the plank-way as chains and mudweights were deployed, in case they were needed.

Chains and mudweights.

 Across the desolate, but strangely beautiful mudflats of Breydon.  Experienced eyes noted the tide was slowing by watching the current flowing around the navigation posts.   Under Breydon bridge at 12.10 - perfect timing.

Breydon - desolate and beautiful.

  Next, the old Vauxhall railway bridge, we were on time, on the Bure and on our way home.
 "Badger's" engine note changed tune as the "wick was turned up".  Behind our flotilla the wake was decidedly more agitated as our speed increased. Home before dark was the plan.   The sun was following an ever lowering arc creating longer shadows but still perfect for filming.

Albion at Acle bridge.

The cold air was beginning to nip fingertips by Stokesby and one last foray in the tender captured great footage of "Albion" shooting Acle bridge.  A setting sun made the water sparkle and "Albion's" crew became silhouettes against an evening sky of burnished gold and blue.

The crew became silhouettes

Into the Thurne and faithful old "Badger" was cast off and literally drifted off into the sunset.  The tender's outboard powered "Albion" on the last leg of the journey along the narrow channel of Womack water.  Six and half hours after leaving Oulton Broad "Albion" was home.

"Badger" drifted off into the sunset

For the folk who regularly sail the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways I guess this journey would be nothing out of the ordinary.  But for this "Geenhorn" sailor it is a trip I shall always remember.

Thursday 22 November 2012

The Last Norfolk Coypu.

The rain is driving across the Norfolk marshes on the leading edge of a strong "North Easterly", signalling the arrival of winter.   These cold wet days mean Filming opportunities become few and far between.   While we wait for the brittle light that comes with the winter sun we decide to empty our loft of items that have been stored there and forgotten.  We sift through the treasures that once seemed so valuable and important to us  - it is strange how they have gradually transformed themselves from treasure into junk in the darkness of the loft. 

Among the growing piles of “Tip” or “Charity shop” I find a little book that belonged to my father.  “As I was a-sayin” by Jonathan Mardle. (Mardle is Norfolk for gossip
Jonathan Mardle was the pen name of Eric Fowler a journalist on the local newspaper, the “Eastern Daily Press” (known locally as The Norfolk News), he wrote about all things Norfolk.   The little book was printed in 1950, marked seven and sixpence, and is a collection of Eric Fowler’s articles describing his travels around post war Norfolk.  He paints fascinating word pictures about the Broads of a time when they were vastly different than they are today.

Two articles were of particular interest to me – the first, his trip on the freshly restored “Albion” in January, 1950, carrying cargo for the newly formed  Norfolk Wherry Trust.   Laden with forty tons of sand, gravel and cement out of Norwich, bound for Berney Arms and crewed by Jack Cates and his Brother George.

The second article that took my eye was his visit to “Wheatfen”, home of Norfolk naturalist (the late) Edward (Ted) Ellis.  He describes a colony of Coypu living in the sanctuary of “Wheatfen” safe from the trappers.  Every Coypu had a price on its head, or to be more precise, a price on its tail.   “Ted” Ellis considered the Coypu gentle creatures that lived off waterside vegetation, and he believed that Coypu actually helped to keep the channels clear.  I suspect Ted had never harmed a living creature in his entire life, based on the times I have met and spoken with him.
Coypu or Nutria (Photo courtesy of Alpsdak)
 The Coypu had few allies and in the end it was the trappers who prevailed and by 1989 the Coypu had been eradicated from Norfolk’s waterways.   The rise and fall of Norfolk’s Coypu population is quite a sad story.   Coypu also known as Swamp Beaver or Nutria were imported from South America to the fur farms of Broadland in the 1920’s.  They were bred in captivity for the soft layer of waterproof fur under their coarse outer coat.  Inevitably some of them escaped into the yare valley which suited them perfectly.   Rivers, marshland and fields full of crops were ideal for the Coypu, it is no wonder that they thrived there. 

Norfolk’s waterways were a long way from Chile from where the Coypu originated. They were strange looking animals with large orange incisor teeth poking out of their white muzzles.  Their ears and eyes were set high on their head to allow good vision and hearing while swimming.  The females had nipples high on their flanks to allow them to suckle their young while travelling through the water, propelled by a pair of powerful, webbed hind feet.
Living in the wild they had a span of about three years providing they could stay clear of the trappers.   A female Coypu was sexually mature at about four months and could have up to three litters a year.  Baby Coypu were born with their eyes open and a full coat of fur, they could be feeding on vegetation within a few hours of being born.  The adults consumed one quarter of their body weight every day eating Sedge, Reed, Water Lillies and other waterside plants. 
Photo courtesy of Alpsdak
 In the sixties I was working on a pumping station on Cantley marshes with a gang of Irish contractors.  One of them took his lodging allowance to the local pub and he did not stagger out until he had spent the lot.
As he had no money for his lodgings he slept alone, in the cement shed, on the marsh.
During the night, amidst the popping Marsh gas and the rising mist he saw a rat which he claimed was "bigger than a cat".   Next morning when we turned up for work he asked me if all Norfolk rats were that big – what he had seen was a Coypu.  He left Norfolk at the end of the job believing that our county hosted the largest breed of rats in the civilised world.

Coypu are quite large rodents, adults could weigh up to twenty two pounds and could reach two feet in length with an additional twelve inches of tail.  It was their burrowing activities that brought about  their eventual eradication.  They created networks of tunnels in the river banks which filled with water and became prone to caving in, this increased the risk of flooding.
Coypu are large rodents (Photo courtesy of Schieber)

Nor were the Coypu a friend of the farmers.  When waterside vegetation became less plentiful the Coypu moved into the fields of sugar beet.  They would work along the rows taking a bite or two from each plant leaving a trail of worthless crops in their wake. 
So the death sentence was passed on all Coypu, “five bob a tail” was the bounty and by 1989 trappers had wiped out the Coypu in Norfolk. 
Trappers Harvest (Photo courtesy of US Government)

Coming from a tropical climate Coypu were susceptible to frostbite in their tails during the hard winters.  This lead to infection and eventual death, but the demise of the largest numbers of Norfolk Coypu was due to the trappers not natural causes.  The trappers used square, wire cage traps to catch the Coypu, then cut off the animal’s tail to collect the bounty.

I would like to believe that somewhere in the more remote parts of Broadland there just might be a small group of fugitive Coypu hiding out, living up to their outlaw status.

French Coypu  (Photo courtesy Tangopaso)

Authors footnote
1. Coypu are quite common in Europe and America

2. "As I Was A-sayin" by Jonathan Mardle is still available but no longer at 7/6d.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

The End Of Briggate Mill.

The remains of the old mill at Briggate have now faded into history and another small chunk of Norfolk heritage has been lost.  A variety of plans to convert and use the mill were put forward over the years but sadly none of them came to fruition and no reprieve for Briggate mill was forthcoming.   On October 30th this year the granary was demolished.

The End For Briggate Mill
Corn was first ground at Briggate mill in 1793, the early mill was powered by a breast shot water wheel (the wheel was removed in 1943). 
In it's two-hundred year history the mill was modified and altered many times, the original granary was destroyed by fire in 1890 and was replaced by the building which was recently demolished.  In the same year steam became the motive power which was eventually superseded by electricity.
Production ceased in 1969 and the mill changed hands a few times until it was purchased for redevelopment in 1975.   Six months after the purchase Briggate mill was destroyed by a suspicious fire.

As recently as 1983 it was proposed to redevelop the mill to generate electricity and produce paper.  But the project never got beyond the planning stage. 

Since the new millennium the mill site has survived an an attempted "land grab" and it has also been rejected as the site for a village green.   Conversion to a village green would have been a fitting memorial for the old mill instead of simply reducing it to rubble.

Falling Masonry
An early morning phone call on the 30th of October (2012) tipped me off that the old granary was being demolished.  This was confirmed on the local radio station by sounds of falling masonry.   My toast was abandoned in the toaster and a mug of tea was left steaming on the kitchen table.  Cameras and equipment were loaded in a matter of minutes and I was on my way to Briggate.  Since following the activities of the North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust, Briggate mill has formed an imposing  backdrop to that section of the canal.  To watch it being slowly erased from the landscape in the morning mist was quite a sad spectacle.  The entire sorry episode was captured on film.

The End Of The Granary
These type of events need to be viewed with perspective - and to do this it is necessary to remove the "rose tinted" spectacles.  The granary building had become, without doubt, an unsafe structure and needed some urgent attention.  The granary was, in fact, only built in 1890 after the original granary was burned down.  A mere one-hundred-and-twenty years, which is not a great age for a building.  It was, however, a link to the ruins of the original mill, parts of which still survive - for the moment.

To learn more about the very colourful and intriguing history of Briggate mill visit the excellent "Norfolk Mills" site.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Broadland Myths and Legends.

"Mist On The Marsh" is now well into it's third year in production - I originally thought it would take me about two years to complete.   There have been times when I have wondered if the film would ever be finished and periodically questioned my sanity for even starting it.

Thankfully persistence has paid off and the documentary parts of the film have been completed at long last.  We started filming the Myth and Legend sequences a few weeks ago.   A group of actors and actresses have enthusiastically bought into the project and breathed new life  into what was becoming a tired production.

We are currently shooting the legend of Christopher Burraway who is buried in St Mary the Virgin parish church at Martham.
The curious "Burraway inscription" has been the subject of conjecture for many years.

Martham Church
  "Here lyeth the body of Christopher Burraway, who departed this life ye 18th day of October, anno domini 1730 aged 59 years.
And there lies Alice, who by her life  was my sister, my mistress, my mother and my wife.  Dyed Feb ye 12, 1729, aged 76 years."

The legend claims that a child was conceived by a father and his daughter.  To avoid the scandal the child was quickly dispatched to another county, where he was given the name Christopher, and fostered until he "came of age".  He took to the road and earned his keep by taking farm work where ever he could find it.   Purely by chance he returned to Norfolk - looking for work.   Knowing nothing of his past or parentage it seems that fate drew him to Martham where he was offered work by a lady farmer named Alice.   Christopher was so diligent in his work that Alice made him bailiff and gradually Christopher  struck up a close friendship with his employer.  Although he was almost twenty years younger than Alice they eventually married.

Shortly after the wedding they were preparing for bed when Alice noticed a strange birthmark on Christopher's shoulder.  It was identical to the birthmark on the child she had abandoned all those years earlier, and yes, you've guessed it - she had married her own son.

Alice and Christopher in a scene from "Mist On The Marsh"
 This sorry tale raises far more questions than answers and there is more than one rational explanation for the "Burraway inscription".  Personally I prefer the folklore version because it makes the film much more interesting.

Martham is well worth a visit - if you are going by boat it means passing under the notorious bridge at Potter Heigham which guarantees a bit of excitement.  If you can make it under the bridge travel up the Thurne.  The stone bearing the inscription can be seen in the south aisle of the church.  If you do decide to visit Martham don't  go just to see the "Burraway" stone.  St Mary's is a beautiful church with many outstanding features.  It also has the alternative version of the "Burraway inscription" in the church guide.

Gargoyle On Martham Church

What's next - "Black Shuck" - now that is a legend.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

My Other Passion

When I am not chasing wherries or canoeing down abandoned canals I spend a lot of my time filming steam locomotives.   One of my favourite locations for this is the platform at Weybourne station which has a timeless quality about it.  When I am on Weybourne Station I wonder just how many people have walked  these same platforms before me, and what prompted their journey.  It is not difficult to imagine elegant Victorian ladies with parasols, groups of pallid factory workers from the midlands, tearful farewells between soldiers and their sweethearts and children arriving from London with labels pinned to their coats and gas masks hung  around their necks.

A few days ago while waiting for "Tornado" to make another pass through Weybourne my imagination began to follow this familiar path.  It was this most recent visit that once again aroused my curiosity and led me to research some facts relating to the station at Weybourne. In doing so I hoped to gain a clearer picture of those who had walked these old platforms over the years.

( To see a clip of Tornado at attached link)

The station is a mile from the village of Weybourne which has always seemed a bit odd to me until I discovered the station was built in 1901 to serve the "Weybourne Springs Hotel" and not the local community.

Weybourne Station

This up-market hotel was financed by a Mr Crundle who owned nearby gravel pits. 
Mr Crundle's business venture was seen by the M&GN as offering an opportunity to increase revenue on the line, so  they went ahead and employed local craftsmen to build the station.

It was partly due to the "Springs" that a varied assortment of people arrived and departed via Weybourne during the early years of the twentieth century .

In 1910 the "Springs" hotel was the chosen venue for a Theosophical summer school.  An international group of like-minded souls searching for divine wisdom in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe.   It sounds like a barrel of laughs to me.
The summer school ran from July 4th to the 18th,  guests were charged 35s per week for those sharing rooms with an extra premium of 5s per week for those who were fortunate enough occupy a room on their own.   Up to four people occupied some of the rooms, however there is no record to state if the occupants were of mixed gender or not.    The overflow of attendees were accommodated in tents pitched in the grounds of the hotel or in lodgings at Holt and Sheringham.   Some of the folks who attended the summer school travelled from Europe - one can only imagine the curiosity they must have aroused as they arrived at the station.  All this activity must have provoked a great deal of interest among the locals who themselves had,  in all probability, never set foot outside Norfolk.

A few years later, during the first world war, two companies the 2/25th County of London cyclist brigade were stationed in Weybourne at the "Springs" hotel. 
The deep water off  Weybourne and gently sloping beaches was recognised by the military as being an ideal location for a German landing.
Deep Water and Gently Sloping Beaches
 To counter this threat  look-out stations, manned by the Cyclist brigade, extended from Sheringham to Hun­stanton with two companies billeted in the "Springs" hotel.   With the hotel still relatively new the sound of army boots tramping through the corridors must have been perplexing for the owners even if there was a war on.   There were other army training camps around Weybourne and High Kelling which  increased military traffic and personnel through Weybourne station.

On Whit Monday 1915 - the "Springs" hotel was used to hold the cycle battalion's sports day.  Soldiers from as far away as Hunstanton, Brancaster, Wells and Snettisham were transported in, and assembled under canvas  in the fields around the station.
Weybourne Station

After a relatively short and unhappy life the "Weybourne Springs Hotel" was demolished in 1940.  Subsidence due to the light sandy soil was offered as one reason for its demise, another claimed it was an outstanding landmark for the Luftwaffe.  Whatever the true reason  the "Springs" was reduced to rubble at the beginning of the second world war.

Just as in the "Great" war, the coast around Weybourne was defended against enemy invasion. As early as 1935 an anti aircraft training camp had been set up.   Throughout the 1939-45 war Weybourne camp was responsible for generating a great deal of rail traffic.   Troop and munition trains arriving at Weybourne station created enough work to require six full time station staff.    Trains brought  ENSA concert parties to the camp, while soldiers and ATC girls used the trains to travel to and from Sheringham to visit the shops or spend an evening at the pictures.  The platforms at Weybourne provided the stage for hundreds of  forgotten little dramas played out against the backdrop of wartime Britain.
Wartime Britain - re-nactment.

Being stationed at Weybourne camp would have been considered a good war time posting but it had its down-side.  In the severe winter of 1941 it was so cold that the sea off  Weybourne froze.  In the Weybourne camp only one flush toilet for the entire camp remained in use, all the others were frozen solid.
The Royal Norfolk's were stationed there at the time, twelve months later they were sent from Weybourne to the Far East and soon after were captured at the fall of Singapore.  Many of them never came home.

A Mr and Mrs Dodds lived in the mill at Weybourne during the war.    Some nights flashing lights were seen from the top of the mill.  Later Mrs Dodds left her bicycle outside a tennis court, the bicycle fell over and a radio transmitter fell out of a leather shopping bag.   A few days later Mr and Mrs Dodds were taken away.
Weybourne Mill

After the war, before the advent of the family car, Weybourne station saw increasing amounts of holiday traffic as people from the midlands flocked to the Norfolk coast for their annual holidays.  In 1959 the "Beeching" axe fell on the former M&GN line and with it Weybourne station.  Fortunately the M&GN Joint Railway Society was able to preserve five miles of the old line between Sheringham and Holt.  Sitting proudly in between is the station at Weybourne.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

A Busy Ol' Summer

"Combines" drone across the East Anglian prairies as the long summer days diminish by degrees.  At sunrise Broadland is shrouded in morning mist and at sunset a chill pervades the evening air.   All these signs tell me   summer is rapidly coming to its end. 
 For me this time of year is always tempered with the slightest tinge of melancholy as the Swallows leave our shores and summer slowly fades away.    Very soon the rolling acres of golden stubble will be turned to brown by the plough and the entire county will melt from green and gold into an array of reds and browns.

Golden Stubble.

Looking back, summer has not been so bad in spite of the weather and quite productive even though good shooting days were few and far between.

By the beginning of  May we had finished a two part DVD set for the Aylsham Navigation centenary.  "A Wherry For Aylsham" and "The Aylsham Navigation".   The DVDs are currently on sale and raising urgently needed  funds for the fledgeling BNCT.  

On the North Walsham and Dilham canal work has been progressing at an astonishing pace.   The lock at Spa Common has been completely renovated and the lock gates have been built from scratch.  Both these items have been fascinating to watch and have produced some priceless archive footage.
Completed Lock at Spa Common
 At Ebridge the canal has been returned to its former glory and is teeming with wildlife.   I have never seen so many froglets at one time in my entire life.  The little critters were crawling over each other in their hundreds in the sheltered waters of the mill pool. This abundance of frogs will create a vital link in the food chain  - not the best news for frogs but it will please the Herons .   A Yellow Wagtail made himself at home on the dredger and a Kingfisher showed a great deal of interest as he sped up and down the renovated waterway, in a flash of iridescent blue.   It was at Ebridge that a (four spotted chaser) dragonfly kept me engrossed for almost two hours as it repeatedly skimmed the water and landed a few feet from the camera lens.  More great shots for the archive.

Further downstream  Briggate Mill and Honing lock are looking spruce and well cared for.   In fact the entire length of canal between Honing lock and Royston bridge has seen unbelievable progress which has been diligently recorded and safely stored.

A few miles away at WYCCT yard the wherry yacht "Olive" is undergoing some major surgery on the slipway.  My weekly visits have produced some interesting archive material.   Sister ship "Norada" was re-launched earlier this summer in time for her centenary year. Although the weather did it's best to spoil the day there was a gathering of wherries on Salhouse broad to welcome her back.
"Norada" On The Slipway

One of the highlights of the summer was the shoot on Wroxham broad,  I was invited as a guest of the Norfolk Wherry Trust.  The event was a celebration of the last Norfolk wherry to be built.  The wherry in question was the "Ella" now long gone - but not forgotten  -  sunk in Decoy broad some years ago when she reached the end of her useful life. Her skipper on that last journey, (Mr John Bircham) was among the guests. Five of the eight surviving wherries sailed into Wroxham broad in honour of "Ella"   Making a fantastic sight as they sailed in a loose formation around the broad.  It was a great filming opportunity which allowed me to capture some of my best wherry footage to date.
"Albion" Shooting Wroxham Bridge (Photo courtesey Chris Holloway)

Another highlight this summer was filming "Albion" passing under Wroxham bridge on her way to and from Coltishall where she was one of the star attractions of the BNCT centenary event.   In order to shoot the bridge it was necessary to flood the bilges to gain those precious inches of air draught that would allow her through.

 I am looking forward to Autumn and the softer light that comes with it and those sumptuous Autumn colours. 

If you would like to view clips of  the projects mentioned above click on the link below.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

The North Walsham and Dilham. Part two.

Like a vision from a Jerome K. Jerome novel, three men, a canoe and a camera set off from Wayford Bridge  to explore the North Walsham and Dilham canal and paddle up to Honing lock.   Dragonflies and Swallows swooped low over the water ahead of the canoe as we made our way into the main channel.  By sheer good fortune we had picked a perfect day for our trip during  the wettest June for thirty years, bright sunlight with just a hint of a following breeze .

To see a video of our trip along the canal click here.

Great tracts of the North Walsham and Dilham canal have remained derelict and untouched for years since the last wherry traded there in the 1930's.  As nature has encroached and reclaimed the banks and water margins only small craft  are able to navigate the waterway.  This splendid isolation has created a semi wilderness and provided a truly memorable journey for those prepared to make the effort.    The canal still has a generous width at the Wayford end with enough depth to allow cruisers up to the staithe at Dilham.  Fork right (or starboard) at the Dilham turn and the old canal sets off toward Honing, Briggate, Ebridge and Bacton Wood.  Built almost two hundred years ago the canal served the mills along its nine miles.    When it was first opened the canal reached as far Swafield and Antingham but this section was abandoned and de-watered  in 1893.   Currently the only navigable sections are between Wayford Bridge and Honing lock, with a recently opened section from Ebridge mill to Spa Common.

Wayford Bridge
 Our plan was to paddle from Wayford Bridge to the lock at Honing a popular trip for canoeists and the most accessible.   For the first mile or so the canal is fairly wide with overhanging trees, in spite of this prolific canopy  the canal flows beneath an open sky.  Lush green trees confused with blue sky and white clouds reflected in the water and rippled past the canoe as we headed west.   Fallen trees floated out  into the water anchored to the banks by their roots, there was ample clearance to pass them by on these wider sections of the canal.
Fallen trees anchored by their roots.

There are very few man made features along the this stretch of the canal, once the noise of traffic is left behind at Wayford bridge there is a sense of remoteness, of glorious isolation.   We were travelling back in time to the days of the wherries where no clocks or timetables held sway, only wind and tide. 

Our little canoe glided over the water toward Tonnage bridge where a toll keepers cottage once stood.  Every cargo on the canal had to pay tolls at this point with few exceptions.   The original Tonnage bridge collapsed in 1980 but was rebuilt in 1982 with a grant from the Broads Authority. 

Tonnage Bridge

 "Tonnage Long Reach" so named by the early watermen is the stretch of water leading up to Tonnage bridge.  This is a particularly picturesque section of the canal, it was like paddling through a John Constable landscape complete with long horned highland cattle wallowing in the shallows.   It is not difficult to understand why there is resistance to parts of the canal being renovated, who would want to share this idyllic stretch of waterway with the chattering masses if they did not have to?

Onward beyond Tonnage bridge great floating rafts of water-lily's slip beneath our canoe. Lush reed beds line the banks punctuated by overhanging tree branches that gently break the surface of the still water.
The canal winds through open country passing lush, rolling pastures.  Crows call out from a distant wood while a host of dragonflies fly alongside us, the only sounds are birdsong and the rippling water flowing out behind the paddles - priceless!

Around half distance the canal begins to narrow dramatically, the encroaching reed beds grow tall on both banks and threaten to choke the channel.   Decaying trees line the margins their skeletal remains stand stark against the sky.   The breadth of the canal recedes until there is barely enough room to continue.  The reeds stand taller than our canoe, whispering to us as they chafe the gunwale of our little craft as we push through   them.   

The Canal Narrows Dramatically
The channel is so narrow we begin to wonder if we will  be able to complete the trip.  Then to our relief the waterway begins to open out again. Small patches of  foam drift downstream warning us that Honing lock is ahead.  As we get closer to the lock the sound of rushing water grows louder and louder and the surface becomes increasingly turbulent.    Around one last bend and the old lock hoves into sight ending what has been a really enjoyable paddle.

Honing Lock

The impressions and views expressed in this article are solely my own and may differ to the views of  land owners and other interested parties along this beautiful canal.


Sunday 1 July 2012

The North Walsham and Dilham Canal. Part One.

Eighteen months ago I knew very little about the North Walsham and Dilham canal.  It was merely by chance that I stumbled on the EAWA website and saw a notice asking the volunteers to meet at Briggate mill for one of their fortnightly work parties   I thought it would be a good idea take a camera along and see what was going on.  I expected to see a handful of people in wellington boots armed with shovels and forks.   What I did not expect to see were two excavators and a hydraulic tipping dumper, all of them on caterpillar tracks.  By the time I arrived, at about ten o'clock, every machine and volunteer was industriously beavering away.    The task for the day was to continue excavating the old Briggate mill pool, work which had been started many months before.   The chain saws whined as they cut through the fallen trees that blocked the channel where wherries had once moored.  The excavators removed the tree stumps and widened the channel. This was surgery of a serious kind.  It has to be said the area was very boggy and cut up quite badly,  it was this unedifying spectacle that had alarmed some local people.  Now twelve months on the scars have healed and the area is a picture of peace and tranquillity - a beautiful spot to just sit and relax.  The whole place is alive with wildlife, the star turn are undoubtedly the pair of Egrets who fish there regularly. 

                                                             Snowy Egret
                    ( Photograph courtesy of Mike Baird - creative commons licence.)

Click the link below if you would like to see a video of the Egret fishing.

Before 1810 the river Ant was only navigable as far as Dilham but on May 5th 1812 an act of parliament allowed the river to be canalised.   However work did not begin until 1825 and the canal was not formally opened until 29th August 1826.   The waterway was nine miles long from Dilham to Swaffield boasting six locks which raised the water level by some fifty eight feet.  Each lock was designed to allow wherries to pass through them providing their maximum dimensions did not exceed fifty feet in length, twelve feet six inches in  beam and a draught of no more than three feet when laden.      The water source for the canal came from the Antingham ponds but there was never quite enough and there was constant friction between the Mill owners and wherrymen who both felt their need of the available water was the greater..

Freight on the canal included  flour, grain and bone-meal being transported from the mills along the canal to the port of Great Yarmouth. Building materials, manure and marl were brought in the opposite direction.  Coal never became the lucrative cargo that the share-holders of the canal had hoped it would be.   Colliers continued to unload coal on the beaches at Happisburgh and Cromer and from there it was brought overland by horse drawn waggons denying the canal significant income.

Tolls for all freight carried on the North Walsham and Dilham were collected at Tonnage bridge.  The bridge  collapsed in 1980 but was replaced true to its original design in 1982 with the help of a grant from the Broads authority.

Attempts were made to improve trade on the canal with the introduction of pleasure boating.
Edward Press a miller at Bacton Wood, (who later bought the canal),  owned  five wherries he converted some of them  to pleasure wherries and operated them out of his yard at Ebridge.
Ebridge Today
It was the East Norfolk Railway that signalled the beginning of the decline in the canal's fortunes when the line from Norwich to North Walsham was opened in 1874.   As a direct result of  diminishing returns the section of canal from Swafield lock to Antingham was abandoned in 1893.  Buried in Swafield church  is the grave of  Jack Gedge skipper of the "Gleaner". His headstone is inscribed "the last wherryman", he died in 1989 aged one hundred, a gentle reminder of the halcyon days on the canal.

Jack Gedges Headstone at Swafield
 The canal has changed hands many times, one of the most notable was the purchase by Edward Press who paid £600 for the canal in 1886.  A lawyer named James Turner was appointed to pay off the shareholders but he decided to keep the money for himself and absconded with the funds.
The North Walsham and Dilham escaped the great flood of August 1912 with relatively little damage , unlike the Aylsham navigation which was totally wiped out as a navigable waterway.   For the NW&D the only notable flood damage was a major breach in the bank at Bacton Wood and part of the road was washed into the canal at Ebridge.   None of the flood damage was severe enough to halt trade on the canal although the breach at Bacton Wood was never repaired successfully as there were never sufficient funds due to falling revenue.

Honing Staithe Today
 In 1921 Cubbitt and Walker bought the canal and formed the North Walsham canal company.
Trade continued on the North Walsham and Dilham - day books from 1923 show that six wherries hauled 2,300 tons of  grain and fertiliser.     By 1931 only one wherry was left trading on the canal, the "Ella", she completed 83 trips and moved 1,600 tons.  In 1934 "Ella" left Bacton Wood with a cargo of barley,  the very last load ever carried on the North Walsham and Dilham.
("Ella" was the last trading wherry to be constructed - built at Allens yard at Coltishall in 1912)

Restoration Work at Bacton Wood

The North Walsham and Dilham has a colourful past but what of its future?  The aim is to restore as much of the canal as possible to a navigable waterway, progress has been spectacular in the short time I have been following the project.  The enthusiasm of the volunteers is truly astonishing, whether they are up to the waist in muddy water or working in reedbeds infested by stinging insects their progress is unstoppable.    I believe the old canal is destined to become a priceless example of reclaimed heritage which will be enjoyed by generations to come. 

The EAWA are always pleased to welcome any folks who would like to be involved in this ambitious and exciting project.  For more details visit their website

To see a video clip of progress on the NW&D

Monday 28 May 2012


Recently I spent the day with the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust in Wroxham.  I went there to film "Norada" being hauled onto the new slipway for some dry dock maintenance before she goes out on charter. The equipment to winch "Norada" onto the new slipway had been tested and trialed but this was the the first time it had been used for real.     The wherry yacht was winched out of the water just far enough to attach the A-frame and the air jacks.  Then slowly but surely "Norada" was inched majestically up the slipway - fascinating!

I have a limited knowledge of boats and their design so it was curiosity that drove me to research "Norada's" pedigree.

There is a theory that the elegant lines of the old trading wherries can be traced back to the Viking long ships.  True or not, there is no doubt that the graceful profile of a trading wherry is very pleasing to the eye.    When freight shifted from the river to the railway many trading wherries were converted to pleasure wherries.  Then, as tourism on the broads grew in popularity, purpose built pleasure wherries were turned out of the yards to meet the growing demand.   The ultimate development of the pleasure wherries led to the  emergence of the lighter and faster Wherry yachts.   "Luxury afloat" was unashamedly built into these hire craft and the Edwardians loved them.    

"Norada" is one of three wherry yachts currently operated by the WYCCT,  her sisters are "Olive" and "White Moth".   All three of these vessels were built by Ernest Collins of Wroxham.    The origin of these elegant craft is a fascinating story in its own right.

Wherry Yacht "White Moth"
(photograph courtesy of Katy Walters )

In late summer 1903, the beach yawl "New Skylark" was carrying thirteen passengers on a pleasure trip from the beach at Great Yarmouth.   About a mile out she collided with the F E Webb, a steamer out of London.  The "New Skylark" was practically cut in half and sank instantly with the loss of six souls.

Almost a week after the accident the wreckage of the "New Skylark" was recovered and towed into Yarmouth harbour.  Ernest Collins learned of the "New Skylark" and bought the wreck.   He redesigned her with cabin accommodation for ten adults and added a counter stern.  With a gaff and boom rig she was  re-launched as the wherry yacht  “White Heather”.   "White Heather" could be hired for around ten pounds per week including a skipper and an attendant, she continued working as a hire craft until 1932.

In 1909 Ernest Collins built "Olive" a dedicated wherry yacht naming the vessel after his youngest daughter.  The interior layout used in "White Heather" had been so successful it was replicated in "Olive".    "Olive" weighed in at twenty one tons with a draught of three feet six inches.   She could only squeeze under Potter Heigham bridge if tidal conditions were perfect, and passing under the old Ludham bridge was out of the question.

Next came "Norada" she was named after the nineteen metre class, racing yacht of the same era.  "Norada"  was launched in 1912, the same year as "Titanic".  However the the wherry yacht proved to be infinitely more durable than the ill fated liner.    "Norada" weighing just sixteen tons was shorter than "Olive" by three feet, and twenty one inches narrower in the beam.   She was designed specifically to pass under the "Old" Ludham bridge by virtue of a lower cabin than her sister "Olive"   "Norada's" reduced dimensions would also allow her to sail freely and unhindered through the locks on the Upper Bure and the Ant.  Ironically many of the locks and bridges were washed away in the great flood the same year she was launched. 

Racing Yachts circa 1900.
 "Norada" continued working as a hire craft until 1950 when necessary economies to the Collins hire fleet led to her being sold into private ownership, her new owner renamed her "Lady Edith".   Then in 1964 Barney Matthews, once a skipper for Ernest Collins, bought and restored the wherry yacht.  In her seventy-fifth year she was once again named  "Norada". 

2012 is "Norada's" centenary year - watch out for this spirit of the Edwardian age sailing on the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways this summer.  

If you would like to see a short video of "Norada" being "hauled out" click here.

Friday 4 May 2012

Broads Under Threat

A great deal of time and money has been allocated to protecting the Broads and Broadland from flooding. One hundred and forty million pounds over twenty years to be precise. This is the Broadland flood Alleviation Project which has just reached its midway point.   Mile after mile of new dykes and banks now follow the course of the waterways - their presence may not please everyone but in the event of excessively heavy rainfall or tidal surges villages and waterside properties now have added protection.

Recently we had the cameras out at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast - we went to see the properties about to be demolished in Beach road.   The erosion of the cliffs along this stretch of the coast has been going on for hundreds of years and the "Powers that be" plan to allow it to continue for at least the next one hundred.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with the Broads?
The flood protection plans currently being carried out in Broadland involve a large number of agencies, but none of them are responsible for Shoreline Management.

Property On The Edge

There is a Shoreline Management Plan and when it is boiled down it amounts to an orderly retreat from the sea.  As far  as the elements are concerned we are not going to fight them on the beaches.    The architects of the plan have forecast  the degree of cliff erosion  up to 2025, 2055, and 2105.  Nobody can be sure if the experts have got their forecasts right, we just have to trust in "The Great God Computer" and hope they have.   The slipway for the Happisburgh lifeboat slipped away sometime ago and the Lifeboat station itself has been demolished.   The lifeboat station was not due to fall into the sea for another twelve years.   Similarly, the catwalk leading to the beach stairway has been removed from the crumbling cliff, seemingly in the nick of time, its demise also appears to have crept well ahead of schedule.
 Old  Slipway
Remains Of The Beach Stairway

Talking to local people only provides anecdotal evidence but it does graphically illustrate what is happening to parts of the Norfolk coastline. Like the fellow who told me he remembered having tea in his friends garden when he was he was a teenager - he is now well into his sixties and the garden now lies more than a  hundred yards out to sea.
Timber Sea Defences
The Road To Nowhere.

The timber sea defences at Happisburgh were constructed in 1959 between Ostend and Cart Gap.  By 1989 the sea had rendered sections of them in-effective and since then the erosion of the cliffs at Happisburgh have accelerated at an alarming rate.    Local government has been fighting a losing battle to maintain the depleted sea defences with limited resources  and without any financial help from Central Government.
Local government agencies simply cannot raise the funds required to finance a civil engineering project of this magnitude, while Central government feel it is economically unsound to spend large sums of tax payers money to protect a few clifftop properties in a remote Norfolk village.   The rate of erosion is being monitored  in case the heart of the village becomes threatened.  When that time comes it may well be too late.

In the 1990's there was a feasibility study carried out to stabilise the cliffs and funds could have been made available for the scheme.  Unfortunately the various agencies procrastinated for such a long time that the window of opportunity to launch the scheme was lost along with more large areas of Happisburgh cliff.  The lack of decisive action for whatever reason means we no longer have a defence against the sea on this vulnerable stretch of coast.
Unstable Cliffs

Now for the scary part.  The moorings at Stalham are only five short miles from those disappearing cliffs at Happisburgh.  The landscape between the cliffs at Happisburgh and Stalham is flat rolling farmland.    Unless something is done, it is not a case of if the sea breaks through, but when.   In this event there will be absolutely nothing to stop the sea reaching the Broads.

It will not be in my lifetime but unless some action is taken it could happen in less than a hundred years.  To someone in their twenties that must seem an inconceivable time scale, although in reality it is barely a lifetime away.   This subject has been aired in many forums over a number of years.  To some enlightened individuals it is dismissed as scare-mongering. To other, equally, well informed people it is just a theory and it may never happen.   The view of this old "Norfolk boy" is somewhere between these two extremes.   Rising sea levels and increased rainfall in the 14th century were responsible for flooding the peat excavations and creating the Broads - what bitter irony it would be if it is the sea that destroys them.  

Bless This House.

Author's note.
There is no political agenda attached to the above article.  I only observe what heritage is preserved and that which is at risk.   "There is nothing more powerful than the power of nature".

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To see a clip of the demolition at Happisburgh click here