Of the rivers that connect the Norfolk Broads the Bure (from Coltishall to Aylsham), the Waveney (from Geldeston to Bungay) and the Ant (from Dilham to Antingham) were all canalised in their upper reaches. Created under an Act of Parliament of Charles II’s reign the Bungay Navigation is the oldest of these. The Aylsham Navigation was opened in 1779, and the Act authorising the North Walsham and Dilham Canal was passed in 1812, although the canal wasn’t opened until 1826.
The Bure navigation was closed by the flood damage of August 1912. The North Walsham and Diham Canal closed in stages. The one and a half miles above Swafield lower lock were abandoned in 1893, and closed completely in 1926. The 1912 floods damaged the canal banks above Bacton and repairs were inadequately done. The canal was last used by the wherry Ella in 1934. Also in that year the navigation rights above Geldeston on the river Waveney were removed and the waterway and the lock were closed.
The other waterway to be considered in this context is the New Cut between Reedham on the river Yare and Haddiscoe on the Waveney. This also included the sea lock at Mutford giving access from the freshwater at Oulton Broad to the salt water of Lake Lothing. The reasons behind this canal were rather different from the North Walsham and Dilham Canal as this was not, unlike the others, to extend the navigation upstream on a Broadland river. The Norwich and Lowestoft Navigation (its official title) was the most recent of the canalised sections of the Norfolk Broads. It was formally opened in September 1833 and it is still open for leisure boats unlike the other canals. The New Cut itself has no locks along its length which helps to explain this state of affairs, although, after the 1953 floods damaged the banks, there were attempts to close it.
Although it was an expensive piece of construction the New Cut was hardly ever used for commercial traffic. Unlike access through Lowestoft, the route from Norwich to the sea at Yarmouth does not involve going through any locks, and once Yarmouth had released its financial stranglehold on the way to the sea, this became the obvious route for commercial shipping. Perhaps the New Cut had done its job in freeing trade from damaging tolls, but it was an expensive way of achieving this end. For Broads cruisers it is ideal, providing a short cut from Beccles to Norwich without the hazardous crossing of Breydon Water.
Both the New Cut and the North Walsham and Dilham Canal were dug out as new waterways, while the other two navigations followed the route of the rivers concerned, with locks around the mills which had prevented keels and wherries past. In the case of the North Walsham and Dilham canal the cut bypassed a large meander of the River Ant.
There has been a lot of interest in reopening at least part of the North Walsham to Dilham Canal, and it is now possible for canoeists to use the water as far as Honing. The idea has not been without its critics, who are concerned at the effect that the increase in tourists will have on local wildlife. The river Waveney is said to be navigable to canoeists as far as Diss. I myself have canoed the river around Bungay many years ago. Similarly I have canoed the Bure from Coltishall to Buxton mill. People possess rowing boats along parts of the river beyond that, but it is very peaceful and not much used.
My father and I explored the route of the canal in the early 1970s, when this picture of the lock was taken.