Under restrictions we are to stay at home (except for essential shopping or work) , only go out once a day for exercise and can meet just one person from outside the household. This is a bit limiting for places to go where I can find subjects to photograph at this time of the year. Luckily we live on the edge of town and at the end of our street is the ‘Weaver’s Way’ footpath which leads into the countryside. A couple of Sundays ago it was bright sunshine after a frosty night so we took a wander.
The field paths were nicely frozen and made easy walking. The roads however were like skating rinks!
We made our way cautiously through the hamlets of White Horse and Spa Common. Amazing the amount of traffic on the country lanes considering we are in lockdown. More amazing was the speed they travel on the icy roads, wish I knew what tyres they use! We reached the canal bridge at Bacton Wood Mill and decide to follow the course of the disused waterway north. No cars and the going easier underfoot.
A short history lesson. The North Walsham & Dilham Canal was constructed in 1825 just in time for the coming of the railways to make it obsolete! It mirrors the path of the River Ant from it’s source at the spring fed Antingham Ponds for approx 9 miles (14km) to Smallburgh. This is the only man-made waterway in Norfolk with locks to raise and lower the boats, there are 6 locks in total. Cargo was mostly offal for the bone mills at Antingham but also other produce was transported both ways. One problem was inadequate water supply to operate the locks so only one boat could make the journey each day. The canal was a commercial flop and the last wherry the ‘Ella’ sailed here in 1935.
The canal soon fell into disrepair and nature took over. 20 years ago a volunteer group was formed to restore it. 2.5 miles were cleared of reed and scrub from Ebridge water mill to Swafield bridge. Half this stretch now has water in it whilst permission for the rest to be re-watered is on hold. The lock at Bacton Wood Mill has been completely restored and new gates put in at Ebridge. The locks are much bigger than those on other canals. This is due to the type of craft that plied their trade. On the industrial waterways of the midlands and north they were barges or narrow boats, here it is the unique Norfolk Wherry.
The wherry was the workhorse of the Norfolk Broads and rivers. About 50ft long, 12ft wide and with a draft of 3.5ft and made of oak. The single gaff rigged sail and forward mast were designed to be operated by just one man (though they usually had a boy as well), the sail and mast can be quickly lowered to allow the wherry to ‘shoot’ bridges. The keel could also be removed and towed behind to let the craft negotiate shallow water. The distinctive black or dark brown square sail was covered in fish oil for weather proofing. Only two traders are now afloat, carefully preserved. There are a handful of others that were turned into pleasure yachts for the growing holiday trade. The rest of the 300 or so built were unceremoniously sunk to block entrances to private waters or in mass ‘graveyards’, the remains of many can be seen at low tide in various parts of the Broads.
The photo above shows how quickly reed can take over. About three years ago this stretch was cleared and filled with water to make sure there were no leaks, it was then drained again. The bridge is the only one that has been replaced to help modern traffic and the the house on the left is the former ‘Wherry’ pub which closed in ’65.
Hope you enjoyed my slightly historical ramblings, as you might gather I have a fascination for this canal which goes back to boyhood days when we used to go and ‘explore’ or try and catch sticklebacks (little fish). Maybe one day restoration will be completed.