Daily Archives: November 13th, 2014


THE RIVER WENSUM winds through West Norfolk until it meets the smaller river Yare just east of Norwich. There it changes its name to that of the lesser waterway and continues by that name to the sea at Yarmouth – Yare-mouth. Its source is rather less well-known; at West Raynham it trickles out of a pond, and upstream of that it disappears into a number of  ditches at Wellingingham to the south-west of Fakenham. Wellingham also owes its name to the river, or rather to the people who lived there. The word refers to where the river”wells up” out of the ground. Nowadays it is a peaceful and largely forgotten stream, especially in its upper reaches. But when the roads of Norfolk were almost impassable muddy tracks, crossing innumerable unbridged becks and streams, the river Wensum was a major route of commerce and communication. In Anglo-Saxon times the cathedral of East Anglia stood at North Elmham on the river. There it would only have been small boats that used the river, but when the Danes established Norwich as a major town it was as a port on a great waterway, the Wensum.

pulls ferry 1950411

Pull’s Ferry on the Wensum, 1950.

From about the year 1000 the improvement in the roads made them the main routes through much of northern Norfolk. The upper reaches of the Wensum became blocked by the construction of watermills , needed for grinding corn for the increasing population. The river became mainly a source of water power for driving industry, instead of a route of trade and communication. The most downstream mill on the river was Caulk Mill, which was already in position by the time of the Norman Conquest. This mill stood near the western walls of the city of Norwich. A cut allowed some small boats through, but the associated weir must have made this extremely difficult. In the 15th century this mill was rebuilt and called the New Mills, which name it retains to this day. From the nineteenth century New Mills housed a water pumping station, which it remained into my lifetime.

After the Norman Conquest the Yare/Wensum saw many vessels coming from Normandy as far upstream as Norwich. Both Norwich Castle and Norwich Cathedral were built of stone from Caen. The blocks of stone would have begun thoeir journey on the river Orme in modern day France. Now a canal, this would have been similar to the Wesum/Yare river system in the middle ages. In theory the heavy stone blocks could have been trans-shipped to larger vessels to travel up the English channel, but in the days when such manipulation used just muscle power I am sure these small river vessels sailed across the channel and round the coast to Yarmouth [then just beginning to a settlement on the Yare estuary]. From there they went up the rivers to Norwich. Otherwise the stone would have again required reloading on to smaller river vessels. Once more I think this unlikely. The frequent moving of heavy stone blocks would have been done as little as possible.We even retain the beginnings of the short canal that enabled these blocks to be unloaded yards from the cathedral. This is now known as Pulls Ferry. The stone for the castle would have been unloaded somewhere near where Prince of Wales Road now runs.

Within the last thirty years sea-going ships regularly used the Wensum. These coasters brought grain from places in England, coal from Newcastle, timber from Sweden, and orange juice from South America. Exports were latterly restricted to scrap metal, but in the earlier 20th century they included many manufactured goods from Boulton and Paul and Laurence Scott.

Sailing craft were square-rigged until the fore-and-aft rigged wherry  was introduced in the 18th century. Square rigged vessels will not sail as close to the wind as fore-and-aft rigged boats, so the use of the quant was indispensable. The twisty waterway from Yarmouth was always bound to be bringing keels or wherries into a direct head wind, which demanded the use of the quant to punt these craft. Similarly when the wind dropped completely the quant was needed to propel the vessel through the water. The marshy river banks of both the Yare and Wensum made the use of a tow path impossible, but the banks were kept tree free to enable the sail of the wherry to overhang the land.

Today the river is still very important to the city. It no longer sees the trading traffic that once it did, and the many mills which once used water to power their machinery fell silent long ago. It is now the main source of the drinking water that passes through the pipes of Norwich and beyond. From Victorian times onwards vast quantities of water have been extracted from the reservoir at Waterworks Road on the river Wensum. These have been augmented by other reservoirs constructed from sand pits dug i the Second World War. I wonder how this has effected flows and water levels in the river? Although much of the water returns to the river at the sewage outflow at Whitlingham, a certain amount must also disappear through evaporation.