Viewed from the water, the river Wensum above Bishop’s Bridge is almost unknown territory. It is still rather unusual to explore the river through Norwich from a boat. Since the day of this family expedition to do just that (more than half a century ago) it has been possible to board a river cruise at Elm Hill Quay and go down stream from Fye Bridge, but beyond that the upper reaches of the river are still virtually a mysterious waterway. In fact you can navigate all the way through the City as far as the New Mills which form a barrier between the upper and lower reaches of the river Wensum. The problem with venturing above Bishop’s Bridge is that all the major boat hirers prohibit taking their craft above this point. We got round this difficulty by hiring our launch from Nobby Clarke at Thorpe, who wasn’t so fussy.
These pictures were taken coming down stream. Duke’s Palace Bridge is the first bridge I photographed, although there is a bridge in Coslany which is further upstream. Dukes Street Bridge was a narrow structure which has been replaced by a modern, wider bridge. This happened long ago in the 1960s, and the work in demolishing the old bridge can be seen online on a video by the East Anglian Film Archive. The cast iron span which you see here was kept, and has been reused as the entrance to the car park to the Castle Mall. Last time I looked it had been rather obscured by ivy or some similar creeper.
Then we went under Fye Bridge. Here the wood yard which you can see to the left has been replaced by up market residential housing called Friars Quay. The wood yard was a relic of the days when timber was brought up the river by wherry. By the 1950s it would have been transported to and fro by road. Wherries were no longer in use by then, and nothing larger could have gone under Bishops Bridge. One firm of wood merchants further upstream in Coslany predicted during the Second World War that with the coming of peacetime conditions they would regularly receive 2000 tons of timber by barge. This was not a prediction that came true. Although with the funnel down a tug could probably have got under the bridge none did so, and even the coal barges for the gas works on Gas Hill were unloaded opposite Bishopsgate, just before you get to the bridge.
Downstream of Fye Bridge you come to St Edmund’s Wharf, once a busy part of the river but deserted by traders many years before I appeared on the scene. St Edmund’s church can be seen from the river. It was one of the first city churches to be declared redundant. It was unusual in having the main altar in the south aisle I believe.
The next Bridge you come to is White Friars Bridge. You can see how overgrown and unloved the river banks looked before the building of the Riverside Walk. Plans were afoot however when I took this picture, for the construction of a Riverside Walk was suggested in the City Plan of 1945.
The next reach of the river takes you past the Old Silk Mill. When this photograph was taken it housed Jarrold’s printing office. It is now known as St James’s Mill and is in multiple occupation by start-up firms. As the old name suggests this was originally built when the city was attempting to be a major producer of silk, and mulberry trees were planted in Thorpe to feed the silk worms. This was in the first part of the nineteenth century and for a time during Victoria’s reign Norwich silk shawls were nationally famous.
Cow Tower is part of the medieval defences of the city. It stands on a sharp bend on the river on the city side. It is the only tower made of brick, making it a unique part of the city defences, and I suggest that it was built somewhat later than the walls and other towers. At Cow Tower the river forms the boundary of the old city and there was no wall between Carrow and Whitefriars. This is now a pleasant part of the Riverside Walk, but at the time we made the trip it was a rather wild part of the riverbank, although not so unkempt as St Edmund’s Wharf. There is a painting by John Thirtle (of the Norwich School of painters) of a boat builder’s yard opposite Cow Tower showing the construction of a wherry. It is dated approximately 1812 and shows that the river above Bishop’s Bridge was then a busy place of industry.
Bishop’s Bridge is the oldest of these bridges. It is a medieval structure which was for centuries the last bridge across the river before the sea, over 20 miles away. Even today only the A 47 at Postwick and the Breydon and Haven bridges at Yarmouth cross the river Yare between its confluence with the Wensum and the sea. As I have already mentioned, in the 1950s the river through Norwich was very overgrown. The boats that had once made it a busy thoroughfare had gone, and the leisure use that now make it a feature of the city for walkers had not yet arrived.
Finally we visited one more bridge, not on the Wensum but on the Yare at Trowse. This quiet waterway is only navigable as far as the site of Trowse mill just beyond the bridge. This is the most downstream bridge on the Yare before it joins the river Wensum. Until the 1980s this bridge carried the A 146, the main road from Norwich to Lowestoft, but since then it has been a side road with its only exit along White Horse Lane to Arminghall.
Hardly anybody goes along this part of the river Yare because it goes nowhere. The short length of river beyond the bridge before your way us blocked by the mill is very shallow. We made this journey right round Trowse Eye (the island or ayot) just downstream of the mill by canoe in 1965, several years after the motor boat journey under the bridges of Norwich. Even with such a shallow draft vessel we nearly went aground several times.
I am glad I was encouraged to take my new camera. It was an excellent Voigtlander Vito II 35mm, and this must have been about the first time I took it out. All the settings were manual; exposure, shutter speed and focusing all had to be adjusted before you took the picture but I would have had help in choosing those. The photographs were not all as good as these ones, but for a young lad of about 10 years old they are not too bad. Today with digital cameras I doubt that anyone has clue what exposure settings and apertures mean.
This was a family trip which included the Masons, i.e my mother and father, my sister Margaret and me; my eldest sister Christine had already married and was living in Canada. My cousin Andrew Anderson and perhaps his brother David and their mother my Aunty Olive came too. Andrew (an architect student at the time) wrote an article about our adventure which was published in the Eastern Daily Press. Here are some extracts:
It is a familiar sight to see the black hulled, yellow funnelled steam tugs making their way upstream under Foundry Bridge with a string of deeply laden coal barges in tow. For most people however, the memory of these slow convoys is strictly confined to the stretch of the river which runs with the road from Carrow to Bishops Bridge, and the destination of the tugs and barges (if you stop to think about it, which you never do) is a complete mystery. . .
One day we got a family party together and took a motor launch from Thorpe under the nine bridges of the port of Norwich to the narrow upper reaches and the very end of navigable water at the New Mills. We took our time and explored every water gate; the placid weedy water, the rotting mooring posts, the dark undersides of the bridges and the grimy gasworks…