The Inland Waterways system links much of the country by canal, and narrowboats may make their leisurely progress from the Thames to Birmingham and on to Liverpool or York; but one does not normally associate them with Norfolk. The Norfolk Broads make their own independent system of waterways, with no link to the wider canal network. They used to be synonymous with the Norfolk wherry, a type of trading vessel unique to the Norfolk Broads, and now they are typified by the broads cruiser, a leisure boat of restricted headroom to negotiate the low bridges. The absence of locks on the Norfolk Broads means they are not restricted to 7 ft wide, as narrowboats are.
However West Norfolk is bordered by the Great Ouse, and that river is part of the national inland waterways system. To gain access from the Great Ouse to the canal network you must use the Middle Level Navigations to the river Nene, and thence to the Grand Union Canal at Gayton Junction. There is a proposal to build a 20 mile link from the Great Ouse at Bedford to the Grand Union at Milton Keynes. There are no towpaths through the Fens, and before powered craft became common all progress depended on sail.
In theory the Norfolk town of Downham Market has access to the world of the canals, although in practice few narrowboats venture there. The river Wissey, which joins the Great Ouse at Fordham just south of Downham Market, does have some moorings for canal boats however. Perhaps the nearest place to central Norfolk that has resident narrowboats is Wissington, some ten miles upstream from the confluence with the Great Ouse. This hamlet is adjacent to Stoke Ferry, the upper limit of navigation on the river Wissey. Together with the light railway the river was once the only way to access the large Wissington sugar beet factory; there was no road until 1942.
Brandon on the Little Ouse is accessible by narrowboat. Athough Brandon railway station is in Norfolk, Brandon town is in Suffolk, so even that rural county of minor streams may lay claim to a link with the inlaid waterway system. Until 1920 the river Lark used to be navigable right up to Bury St Edmunds (in the middle ages the stone for the Abbey was brought that way from Barnack) although now navigation ends on the river just beyond the River Island Marina, which is in Cambrigdeshire.
In Norfolk at Thetford you can see a narrowboat on the river, but the Little Ouse is no longer navigable to the town. The upper reaches of the river needed staunches (a primitive form of lock), and these fell into disuse in the 20th century. It used to be a major waterway, bringing rags for the paper mill and many other things like coal for the town. In the 19th century a paddle steamer ran trips to from Thetford to Cambridge. This was before the arrival of the railway in 1845 brought a faster route for traffic. The upper limit of navigation is now Stanton Downham Bridge.
Hockwold-cum-Wilton is a small village on the southern border of Norfolk, some miles downstream of Stanton Downham; it was an important place in Roman times, and the Hockwold Treasure of second century silver tableware may be seen at the British Museum. Hockwold Fen on the Little Ouse river is another place in our county with a clear and indisputable claim to connection with the inland waterways of England. Canal boats regularly cruise to the village, and there is even a public mooring place for narrowboats, but I doubt you have ever heard of Hockwold Fen. It is scarcely a hub of nautical activity!
Sunday 4 May 1980.
Our canal holiday did not start in Norfolk. We picked up our canal boat (named Chelmer) in Northamptonshire, from the boatyard on the Grand Union Canal in Weedon. This is very near to Daventry, the geographic centre of England. The party consisted of my friend Bill Wragge, my sister Tig, our two dogs Fido and Suki and me.
We were complete novices, but after a short spell being shown the ropes by the man at the marina we set off along the canal. The operation of the locks was a skill soon mastered; the most tricky thing was the mooring spike. This had to be hammered into the bank, and I left our hammer behind at Norton, the first place where we stopped. I was unable to buy another one, and had to resort to bashing the spike in with a large piece of driftwood. Then Tig, who had for some reason removed the spike from its mooring line, dropped it in the canal! By the greatest good fortune I was able to fish it out again.
After spending Sunday night at Norton Junction we went through the one and a quarter-mile long Braunston tunnel. It seemed a long way in the dark, proceeding at no more than 4 miles per hour, and it was. Emerging again into the daylight is like being reborn; after endless darkness the light returns, and all is once again bright and fine. Braunston is a major junction on the canal network, where the Oxford Canal meets the Grand Union.
We had all mod cons on the barge; hot and cold running water, a shower, a gas hob, electric light and even a telly. When moored up for the night we erected the TV aerial, and after a bit of fine tuning we could settle down for the night’s viewing. We were watching the events unfolding that were later known as the ‘Iranian Embassy Siege’. The stand-off involved six armed Arabs seeking independence from Iran, and the siege had begun when they seized 26 hostages at the embassy in South Kensington. Events had begun on the 30 April, reaching their climax on Monday the 5 May. Mooring up for the night we watched spellbound as the SAS men stormed the embassy, live on television. They abseiled down from the roof and forced their way in through the windows. We saw the whole building apparently well alight. One hostage had already been killed and one died in the assault; five of the six hostage-takers were shot dead and the sixth was prosecuted and imprisoned for 27 years. The refusal of the government to negotiate with the terrorists was an early indication of Mrs Thatcher’s firmness in the face of violence. Although we did not realise it at the time, this was to be a feature of her premiership. It was shown unmistakably by the Falklands War in 1982, and the Brighton bomb outrage in 1984 was another example of Maggie setting her face against adversity.
We had all felt rather cold on Sunday night, so we put the central heating on for Monday night. We walked in to the village to have a drink at the Kings Head and when we returned played dominoes. The next morning we has bacon and tomatoes for breakfast. We had to work 22 locks that day. In the afternoon we moored and walked into the Post Office at the village of Itchington and did some shopping. I found some wild thyme which we rashly ate with Irish stew for supper. We were really living off the land! I saw many more cowslips than I had ever seen before in my life, and a water vole.
On Wednesday we had one lock to work before reaching Leamington Spa. I walked ahead to operate it, only to find that Bill and Tig had run aground! Tig’s resulting headache was cured by our cruise into Leamington. We moored very near the centre of town and explored the Pump Room and Jephson Gardens. (I had been there some years before, with my pal Andy Parkes and his wife Ros, who still live there in 2016.) The wallflowers and tulips made a fine display. We went as far as Warwick and glimpsed the castle from the canal. We filled up with water at the boatyard. Then we turned back through Leamington Spa. Fido was getting very bold at balance walking across the lock beams, rather to Tig’s annoyance; he was much better at it than she was. There were lots of sedges along this stretch of canal bank. As we played cards in the dusk a nightingale sang sweetly to us. Rather less romantically the frogs were croaking loudly in the canal.
Before we could cook breakfast on Thursday the gas cylinders needed changing over. Energetic Bill went for a run along the towpath; last night’s nightingale was still filling the air with his song. We went up the Stockton flight of locks with a family from Ipswich. The banks of the canal are a mass of apple blossom, the trees no doubt grown from the many apple cores cast aside by bargees as they worked the cut. I stood on the deck steering, but the others (including the dogs) walked along the towpath all day. I saw many more cowslips (and cows as well). We had a cheap and cheerful bottle of wine with dinner; Bill had bought it in Leamington Spa. There were no nightingales on Thursday night, only the hooting of owls.
Friday was a very warm day and Tig had to walk down to the lock to buy a bottle of milk before we could have our breakfast of Alpen. We met a dredger filling up some barges with mud, but little else as we made our way along the canal. We went shopping in Braunston and Tig dropped a tin of dog food into the canal while going aboard. She is quite good at losing things in the water.
We went for a walk along the Rugby section of the Oxford Canal. In places the towpath had almost fallen into the canal; it was a lovely day for such a walk, but because of the bad state of the towpath we decided to return from Willoughby via the A45. We ate ice creams on the way. The day’s wildlife included several rabbits, a dead stoat and a Jackdaw. The hedges along the canal had recently been neatly laid. We decided to go through a couple of locks before nightfall, but were told by a Waterways official that we had to go through them all or none! We went through them all, and consequently it was 7.30 before we moored for the night. After omelette we walked to the Admiral Nelson for a drink.
On Saturday I got up soon after dawn to the song of the cuckoo. Bill took the helm through the Braunston tunnel and in spite of meeting two narrow boats coming towards us did not collide with either of them, nor with the wall. We explored up the Leicester arm, a shallow canal and very peaceful, despite being sandwiched between the mainline railway to the north and the M1 motorway. The Stags Head pub was kept by a Portuguese man, dressed impeccably in a dinner jacket and bow tie.
And so our holiday ended at half past nine on Sunday morning. We bade farewell to Bill who drove off to the hospital where he was manager in Whitby, while my sister and I (plus dogs) drove back to Norfolk. What strikes me now is how delightfully rural it was, with wildlife in profusion; flowers, mammals, birds and doubtless fish too (though these were harder to see). And all this was so near the midland towns and transport arteries. I hope this is still the case, and I believe that this is so.
MEMORIES OF TIMES PAST