Only two main rivers flow out to sea in Norfolk; the Yare and the Great Ouse. I know some minor streams do make their way into the sea along the North Norfolk coast; the Stiffkey, the Glaven and the Mun must be mentioned, although the last one disappears into the sand on Mundesley beach before it even meets the breakers. In contrast, the much shorter Suffolk coastline has the rivers Blyth, Ore, Deben, Orwell and Stour, all of them major waterways by the time they reach the sea.

Several tributaries of the Great Ouse are part of the West Norfolk river system. The  Babingley river flows through Castle Risingin to the Wash where it meets the estuary of the Great Ouse. The river Gaywood, after being culverted for much of its passage through Kings Lynn, emerges before meeting the Great Ouse at South Quay. The mouth of the river Nar was diverted north long ago, and now joins the Great Ouse near the mouth of the Gaywood river. It rises to the east of Castle Acre. Further south the river Wissey flows its whole length through Norfolk. The Little Ouse river has its northern bank in the county for most of its length, but for the last few miles before its confluence with the Great Ouse  river it flows through Cambridgeshire.

The waterways in the Fens are almost all man-made, either being rivers with altered courses or long channels where the waters which used to be marsh and fen are now confined in drains. Some, like Ten Mile Bank, which runs alongside the Great Ouse river, are diverted sections of age-old waterways, and some, like the Middle Level  and Forty Foot Drain, are man-made efforts to impose a pattern on the meres and lakes which existed in the area from time immemorial.

The Fens as they have appeared a thousand years ago.

The Fens as they would have appeared a thousand years ago.

Great efforts were made to reclaim land in West Norfolk and Huntingdonshire as long ago as Roman times, but the modern system of pumps, washes and drainage canals was instituted in the seventeenth century by the Flemish migrant Cornelius Vermuyden. This system remains today, the wind pumps now replaced by less green electric-powered ones. A consequence of the drying out off the land has been the shrinkage of the peat, resulting in large parts of the reclaimed land, (which has always been below river level and indeed below sea level) sinking even lower.

As the Fens were drained the inhabitants, the ‘Fen Tigers’, had to change their way of life from one of wild fowling and eel trapping to farming and market gardening. Perhaps their health improved too, as the mists and damp were to a certain extent mitigated as the land became less of a swamp; the ills associated with such a lifestyle diminished.

It is now the vegetable growing capital of the country; huge fields of cabbages and onions fill the air with their unmistakable smell. The Wisbech and Upwell tramway carried fruit and vegetable traffic until 1966 but passenger traffic (which was always an afterthought) ended in 1927.  Before the coming of the railways the omnipresent waterways provided transport for agricultural produce en route to the hungry, more industrial areas of the land.

Sea going vessels still go up the Great Ouse river as far as the Bentink Dock in Kings Lynn; until the Second World War they would venture even further, to docks round the 17th century Custom House. Before the river bridge was built the smaller sea going vessels of the day could venture even  further upstream. West Lynn was reached by a ferry from Kings Lynn since houses were first built to the west of the river, certainly since 1285. It still runs and carries the best part of 100,000 passengers a year.




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