With the members of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society I made a tour round Kings Lynn Docks in the spring of 2009. We went first to the offices of Associated British Ports at St Ann’s Fort, just outside the gates. There we were given a cup of coffee and a brief talk of introduction by a manager. I remember that this was mostly about the growing size of coastal shipping, which had already led to the disappearance of the Norfolk ports of Norwich and Wells. More and more vessels are too big to use the lock gate to Lynn Docks; these make it non-tidal. Instead these large ships have to be accommodated in the longer berths in the river.
On entering the gate we found ourselves by the railway entrance where formerly the trains would arrive for loading and unloading onto the shipping. Although the rails were unused and derelict, with soil covering parts of the permanent way, the line within the docks was still intact. Moreover, in the map we were given it was clearly shown and marked “railway”, so that a foreign merchant might imagine trade by rail was still a possibility. It was moreover a modern map, that had the company website on it! Outside the docks the rails had been torn up years ago, although the right of way still remains intact. The foreign trader would have had quite a job to bring his goods by rail!
We headed down towards the Alexandra Dock, past a huge silo full of malting barley. We could – and did – walk into the silo inspect the vast mountain of grain. I wondered what would happen to a visiting rat? Would it drown in the shifting grain, as undoubted I would if I stepped on the barley mountain, or would it be light enough to run over it? Probably the latter. (I must stress that I saw no rats and no signs of them at Alexandra Dock.)
We walked across the lock gates (which were closed of course) and went down to the river Great Ouse to see the outer berths; they were empty at the time of our visit. On the north side of Alexandra Dock was the now-derelict remains of the Skoda ro-ro (roll-on roll-off) berth that had brought all our automotive imports from Czechoslovakia (as it then was) in communist days. Obviously Slovakia and the Czech Republic are land locked countries, and I do not know which Baltic port the cars came from. As I have intimated, these were communist times and Skoda cars were a bit of a joke to us sophisticated Westerners. Skoda quip; ‘Why does a Skoda have a heated rear window?’ Answer; ‘To keep your hands warm while you are pushing i!’ Actually Skodas were never that bad, and although rather old fashioned (the type barely changed in 20 years), and had a rear engine that Western cars had long abandoned. They were very reliable (in spite of the jokes); much better than Russian cars of the same period which were genuinely terrible. The company now belongs to Volkswagen and is no longer the butt of jokes.
Next I noticed I was walking on a mass of cockle shells. This part of the docks is adjacent to the Fisher Fleet, a creek which still has a fair number of cockle dredgers. The catch is boiled on site and many of the shells end up here. The cockles are largely shipped to Spain. I had been to the Fisher Fleet many years before with my father to have a look; you can get to the north bank of the creek from the road without entering the docks.
The inner-most dock is the Bentinck Dock, used as the terminal for loading scrap metal and unloading petro-chemicals. It had the busiest appearance on the day we visited. All told there were almost 10 ships of various sizes moored the docks, loading or unloading their cargoes. At one time they handled a million tonnes of cargo per year, but in 2009 it was three quarters of that amount, and no doubt it has fallen further since then. What the future holds for Kings Lynn dock is uncertain. They had already begun to move downstream from the centre of town when Alexandra Dock was opened in 1869, Around the Custom House was the original Lynn docks, and in the nineteen sixties there was still an extensive network of railway sidings by he riverside there. They were no longer in use by then, as all the ships had been directed downstream. If current trends continue the Bentinck and Alexandra docks will go the same way as Cley and Blakeney, which were flourishing ports back in the 16th century. Now the only hint that the river Glaven (which flowed out to sea at Cley) once took sea going ships is the grooves their mooring ropes have left in the churchyard wall at Wiveton! Wiveton is now to all intents and purposes a quiet inland village.
The Palm Paper mill which has been built in the last ten years on the river bank at Kings Lynn is ideally placed to use water transport but it does not do so. Its raw material is waste paper and this all comes by road. The same is true of the way the finished product leaves.
For the time being the riverside dockyard retains a substantial traffic of chemicals and (most of all) grain. But for how much longer?
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