THE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE
Before the war was over Frank was again looking to move outside the city and by chance the bungalow that the family had been living in at the beginning of the war was again to let. They returned to Poringland. After VE day peace returned to Europe, and after the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945 the Second World War was over. In 1947 an optician called Alfred William Oxbrow had died at the age of 74, and my father bought his stock and business goodwill from his executors. The Oxbrows hailed from Essex where they had been a family of watchmakers: Alfred was born in Kent. He had started his employment as a watchmaker in Canterbury, but in 1900, having qualified as an optician, he set up in business in Norwich. My father was able to sell his stock-in-trade to various opticians for a good price, so that he effectively got the goodwill for nothing. The additional records he now possessed brought him a useful amount of extra business, as he wrote to all his patients every two years to remind them to have their eyes tested again.
Six years of total war had reduced the economies of Europe to tatters. The Marshall Plan directed billions of US dollars to the UK and other devastated Western nations, but even so things were difficult. The war was over but the hardships of wartime continued. Rationing remained, and in some cases got even more restrictive in the immediate postwar period. In 1946 even bread was rationed, although it had been not been during the war. This lasted for two years. The last commodity to come off ration was meat, which finally became freely available in 1954. This was nine years after the war ended, and fifteen after it had been introduced. In the hard winter that began towards the end of January 1947 the coal shortage meant the people could only shiver. Potatoes perished in the frost.
Nevertheless the Labour Government was pressing ahead with transforming the land. Nationalised industries were being created to produce a new socialist utopia in Britain. They have almost all been privatised again in the years since then, and even some which had always been in public ownership (like the postal service) are now no longer National Industries.
Who now remembers British Road Services, whose red trucks and green vans, with their BRS roundels, used to carry freight along our highways? It was hard to run any kind of road transport business as a private concern after he war. The travel agent Thomas Cook and the furniture repository Pilkington’s used to be part of the great Nationalised Industry sector. Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution called for the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. Electricity supply had already come under national control before the war. The concept of nationalisation was not fully developed as the Socialist agenda until the late 1940s, but many services like water, gas and electricity were under local authority ownership (rather than private companies) almost from the start. In these cases public ownership makes sense; it may have its inefficiencies, but at least we are not in hock to a capitalist oligarchy. For example Anglian Water is owned by a Jersey based company; why does it have to hide itself away in a tax haven? The idea of something as basic as water being sold for private profit still seems shocking to me. We say ‘free as air’, but if only someone could devise a way of making us pay to breathe they surely would. Virtually the only Nationalised Industry that still remains is the greatest of them all: the National Health Service. This behemoth, with well over a million employees, was created in 1948 and it had a pivotal role in my father’s business career. It was into this world of grand schemes and practical hardships that I was born in February 1949.
Foot care and chiropody are among the latest areas to cease to be financed by the NHS, but it has been withdrawing from its responsibilities almost from the start. Prescriptions and dentistry used to be free at the point of use, whereas now we have to pay for these services as we need them. For the first few years everything was free in the optical business; glasses were supplied gratis to whoever needed them. This led to a huge increase in demand; members of the public, who had formerly seen but dimly, queued up at their local optometrist to have their vision restored. As you can imagine, everyone took part in this frenzy, customers and suppliers alike. My father was rushed off his feet. Not one to let a good chance pass him by, he had already begun to make spectacle frames before the end of the war. His workshop was in the basement of his shop in Orford Place. He was soon employing two or three young men to make them, while he tested eyes upstairs. There were many more frames being produced than he need for his own use, and these were sold far and wide. The postwar boom was getting under way; John Gantlett bought a boat which he sailed on the Norfolk Broads. After the war my father was able to buy a car once more, the first since he had been forced to sell his Morris in the 1930s. He invested in a Wolsey. It was an elegant car, but he could not drive it very far as petrol was still rationed, and it only did 14 miles to the gallon.
The introduction of free spectacles meant my father was not content with merely making spectacle frames; he turned his attention to making the lenses too. He began to do this in the basement too, but it was too small to accommodate his growing ambition, and he had a factory built in Hall Road (where Homebase now has a store). At the Menistor Works (as he named it) he employed many more people, busily producing frames and lenses in a full range of shapes and powers for short sight, long sight and astigmatism. While all this was going on in Lakenham, he and John Gantlett (who was now a partner in the limited company they had set up) continued to test eyes at Orford Place. Still not content with business activities, to the making of frames and lenses he added the manufacture of lens cutting machinery. His first machine he called the Versator. In designing this he found his wartime training as a hands-on instrument mechanic of great value. War, horrible and unnecessary as it is, leads to many technical and social changes that have great relevance in peacetime. War had once again thrown up unexpected advantages for my father.
The Versator had just gone on the market and my father was planning his next move when the government started to charge for spectacles. That was in 1952, and sales came to a complete standstill. Once again in his career the ground was cut away from under his feet and business collapsed. My father had a nervous breakdown and John Gantlett had to leave his employment in Norwich. The Works had to be sold and my eldest sister, who had just reached the age of fifteen, was to leave school to work as a secretary. The prospects were bleak, but my father was soon back on his feet. The business of sight testing at Orford Place soon revived, and within a few years he was running his family about in a succession of brand new cars, while my mother had a little Austin Seven for her own use. Instead of working as a pen pusher at Norwich Union my sister had begun a degree course at Oxford University. Things had again turned out well for my father and his family.
Next time we will follow my father as the lease expired on his premises at Orford Place, and he purchased an eighteenth century townhouse in the city centre. These years saw his sight testing business continue to grow, and he finally became financially secure.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
To read my initial thoughts on Norwich’s Northern Distributor Road you need to read my earlier blog. CLICK HERE to read THE NORTHERN DISTRIBUTOR ROAD. We are now several months down the line, and some things are becoming clearer. As far as I am concerned (living as I do at the western extremity of the route) it appears to be of little relevance to me and my travel needs. I will have to use the first few miles to reach Norwich Airport in future, because they have now permanently closed the road that I have previously used, to enable the construction of the new road.
I had hoped it might provide a speedier way to get to the London bound trains, but the nearest the NDR comes to the railway station is miles out in the countryside, and I don’t think it will be any quicker. It will certainly be much further to drive than going through the city centre. The road goes quite near Salhouse station, so that would be the place to get the train to Cromer; unlike Norwich station, the car parking there is free but the service is two hourly; only every other train stops there.
The NDR will provide a quicker route to Wroxham and North Walsham, but I seldom go that way; maybe with the NDR making these places more readily available my travelling habits will change. The main destination which it will be much easier to access will be Great Yarmouth. It is a shame that my days of riding the roller coaster on the Golden Mile are well and truly over. It will perhaps make it slightly easier to go to Lowestoft and Bungay too, and a visit to Whitlingham Broad might be bit easier by the new road. Otherwise I do not see myself making much use of it.
What would make my life much easier would be if the bridge over the river Wensum near Ringland were built. This would also relieve Costessey of much through traffic, but this is not part of the current scheme. It seems likely that such a crossing will eventually be built, and only then will the NDR be a useful road. For us residents of Taverham this would mean we would no longer have to thread our way through unsuitable roads to get to the Longwater retail park; and reaching the A47 would be a piece of cake. This would also be the case for travellers from Fakenham, Reepham, Holt and Cromer. To get to the A11 at present these drivers have to make their way into Norwich as far as the Ring Road and then down the Newmarket Road to the Southern Bypass. That is unless they do as I do, and go through the narrow roads and speed bumps to the Royal Norfolk Showground. Even with the opening of the NDR next spring this will still be the most direct and quickest route for them to take, although I am sure the road signs will direct them to take the huge diversion east along the NDR.
The dual carriageway is already complete at the western end, and the construction traffic has moved on. We are not yet allowed to drive along it, but there is talk of the first part from the Fakenham road to the Cromer road opening as early as October; we shall see. One thing is sure; even when it is ‘complete’ there will still be much work to be done.
THE BLOG FOR EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
We have no rocks here, except for the carstone of West Norfolk, and that only appears through the topsoil to reveal itself in the stripey red and white cliffs at Hunstanton. The stones found in Norfolk are nearly all flints. I recently had an interesting correspondence with a lady in the US about flint; it is strange to consider that this material which is so pervasive in East Anglia is so rare in North America. Flints are produced over millions of years by the rainwater seeping through the chalk. The quartz-rich sediment is absorbed by fossilised sponges which are normally found in layers in the chalk. The flint grows around these sponges, and if you break one open you will normally find a formerly porous part at the centre. Chalk is formed from the shells of myriads of sea creatures, and the sponges represent an ancient seabed. In the neolithic flint mines of Norfolk known as Grimes Graves the best flints are found in the third layer from the top, which lies about 40 feet below the surface. Two of these ancient mines have been excavated and are open to the public. These stone can grow to 50 cms or more in length, although the stones and pebbles found on the surface are much smaller. Flint is a very hard material, but a sharp blow will shatter it; this process is known as flint knapping. The ancient miners tunnelled along this third layer to extract the flints which they made into tools – axes and spears. The use of flint as a building material came much later, but its appearance in the middle ages gives the landscape much of its distinctive character, particularly in the many churches of Norfolk.
Outside the Lake District there are no mountains in England; you might characterise the flat landscape of Norfolk as dull, but that would not be true. Mudflats are not the most romantic of surroundings, but the profusion of seabirds that gather in huge numbers to search out their food by the water’s edge have a certain grandeur. Inland the remaining expanses of sandy rabbit pastures interspersed by Scots pine, that mark out Breckland, have a bleak charm. The acres of forest around Thetford, that have replaced much of this heathland, stretch for miles; but being Forestry Commission plantations they are not the most interesting of woods. The marshland, heathland and woodland are all typical parts of the Norfolk landscape, but its real beauty lies elsewhere.
There are tree-lined commons, gently rolling hills and copses, and many acres of pleasant cornfields bordered by little becks. Many hedgerows have been grubbed up since the war; I can remember when the large field behind my childhood home was three smaller fields, all divided by hedges. The blackberries and field voles that once lived there had been banished long before it became what it is now; a housing estate. This building activity had been talked about for at least 50 years before it actually happened, so the changes to the landscape are slow in coming. We always moan about new houses, but they is still plenty of land left in Norfolk. However I would far rather see one or two new properties across fifty villages, and not have one community swamped by 100 new houses; that however is not the way things are done nowadays.
I have not yet mentioned the Norfolk Broads. If you like waterways, reedbeds and the wide open sky then this is the landscape for you. The Broads are a phenomenally popular holiday destination, so they must float many people’s boats; a high proportion of the country’s boating holidays are spent on the Norfolk Broads. I think the lack of landing places rather restricts the possibilities of Broadland holiday. The canal system allows you to get out of the barge anywhere you want and walk along the towpath as a companion steers the narrowboat. The Fens are even more of an acquired taste than the Broads. Although some are closed by sluices, many of the waterways are open to boat traffic; the prospect of miles and miles of dead straight drains with high banks that make distant views impossible is a daunting one. These high banks are a necessary part of the landscape, for the water level in the channels is many feet above that of the surrounding countryside. This Fenland landscape is a relatively recent one, having been created in the last three or four hundred years. In those places where the old vistas have been restored you may get a flavour of the old Fenland.
Of all our many landscapes in Norfolk I like the coast the best. I love the cliffs and sand dunes that run for miles and miles around our county. For my holidays give me the seaside at any time of the year. The sandy beaches give way from time to time to pebble banks and mudflats. After the cliffs of Hunstanton the coastline soon changes to creeks and islands that run from Thornham through Brancaster to Burnham Overy. At low tide the sandy expanse of beach at Holkham goes from the pine trees on the dunes to the distant waves. Salt marshes and sand spits suddenly change at Weyborne to the steep glacial hills of the Holt-Cromer Ridge. This in turn gives way to the flat sandy expanses that run down the east coast to the raucous holiday fun of Great Yarmouth’s Golden Mile. Whether your delight is bird watching, gathering samfer, cockling, shrimping, digging sand castles or playing on the funfair you may do it here. Roll out the pleasures of the Norfolk landscape!
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
[TO SEARCH FOR A SUBJECT IN THIS BLOG ENTER ‘joemasonspage’ and the subject from the list on the right into Google; this should show the relevant blogs]
The first hint of the coming revolution in road transport came with the Puffing Devil, a steam-propelled road engine built by Richard Trevithick early in the 19th century. This was in Cornwall, where Trevithick was also engaged in the development of the high-pressure steam engine. Steam traction engines were being built all across the country (including East Anglia) by the middle of the 19th century.
There were several producers of this invention in Norfolk, and two firms in particular produced many machines. Charles Burrell of Thetford was making self-propelled road engines by the 1850s. Burrells did not survive and went bust in the first half of the twentieth century, but at one time their Norfolk built traction engines were exported all over the world. Frederick Savage of Kings Lynn’s steam Juggernauts were in production by 1855; the firm moved on from making farm equipment to corner the market in fairground rides and showman’s engines, even before the 20th century dawned. They were still in business in 1973, when the firm closed.
Norfolk is a rural county, which may explain the early enthusiasm for steam engines, that were used in farms to power threshing machinery. Traction engines, which were self-propelled versions of the stationary engine, were later employed to move goods about the farm and drive ploughing machines. The steam-powered wagon made by Samuel Soames in Marsham was an early example of an automotive road engine for personal transport, but it was a one-off.
Norfolk is not particularly notable for its place in the history of the motorcar, but that does not mean it was not involved at all. The firm of Mann Egerton in Norwich was involved deeply in the production of motor cars, building the bodywork for Rolls Royce chassis before the First World War. With the coming of war the firm moved into the production of airframes for the burgeoning aircraft industry. Two Norwich firms were involved; as well as Mann Egerton, who were commissioned by the Government to build aircraft to the deigns of others.This activity ceased with the coming of peace, but the other company who made aeroplanes during the First World War continued making aircraft throughout the Second World War. This was Boulton and Paul, whose Defiant was the most famous British night fighter of the Second World War, although by then production had been shifted to the midlands where the factory was deemed less exposed to enemy action. Earlier planes designed by Boulton and Paul had been the Overstrand and Sidestrand biplane bombers, and they had been made in Norwich.
Even railway locomotives were made in Norfolk. The Great Eastern made all its own locos, but their workshop was at Stratford in East London. When the M & G N was formed their works was in Melton Constable; although mot of their motive power was provided by other manufacturers, they did produce some of their own design of locomotives under their Chief Engineer William Marriott.
Before the coming of these mechanised forms of transport, the horse was the beast that moved men and goods on land. Before that it had been the ox, because horses were only used by the most exalted travellers; for the use of oxen as beasts of burden we must cast or eyes back to the middle ages. The great East Anglian horse was the Suffolk Punch, but this breed was apparently not popular in Norfolk.
With all the waterways in Broadland, water transport was the way we carried out trade before the coming of the railways. The high point of the development of boats for this trade was the Norfolk wherry. With just one sail to handle, this vessel could be sailed by one man, although the assistance of boy was helpful. Wheat and malting barley were taken downstream for transhipment to larger craft, or upstream to Norwich, while coal was carried by wherry upstream from Yarmouth. Lime was another common cargo.
Although the use of the wherry for transport had ceased by the middle 20th century, the importance of water transport continued on the river Yare well into living memory. Sea-going coasters carried coal and timber up to Norwich, and fruit juice from South America to Carrow Works for Robinson’s Barley Water; scrap metal was exported from Wensum wharf. This trade petered out about thirty years ago, and now all the river transport beyond the sea ports is leisure craft.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
There used to be many ferries across the rivers and estuaries in Norfolk. Now there are only a few; Reedham ferry across the Yare and the ferry across the Great Ouse from Kings Lynn to West Lynn. There are also the ferries to Blakeney Point; these popular trips to see the seals leave from Morston Quay and Blakeney Harbour. Going back into history, in Roman times Holme-next-the-Sea (where Peddars Way reaches the coast) used to be the base for a ferry across the Wash. Its destination was the Roman station of Vainona (now called Wainfleet) in Lincolnshire. About forty years ago Norfolk Line used to run two ferries a day from Great Yarmouth to Holland; these ferries, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Holland, were mostly for commercial freight, but they were also used by the general public.
In Suffolk, since the MoD left the Orfordness peninsular in 1973 there has been a ferry service to allow people from Orford to explore the sand dunes and derelict military buildings across the river Ore in the Nature Reserve. There is a ferry service between Felixstowe and Harwich on the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour, linking these major ports of Suffolk and Essex. There is still a rowing boat that ferries people across the river Blyth from Walberswick to Southwold, though it only operates in the summer season. It only costs a pound. I have used the Walberswick ferry (many years ago) and also went across the Deben ferry which goes across the Deben estuary from Bawdsey to Felixstowe, with my new wife (and our bikes) in 1986.
The rowing boats that used to ferry people across the river Yare were common before the 20th century. They had all been abandoned by the time I was aware of my surroundings, but many of the boats themselves survived, as battered and unloved hulks pulled up on the riverbank. One such boat was at Pulls Ferry on the river Wensum in Norwich (it was broken up by vandals around 1970). Why a ferry had lasted so long there is something of a mystery. Bishops Bridge is only a few hundred yards away, and it had ceased to charge a toll in the mid 19th century; yet Pulls Ferry only ceased to operate within living memory, during the Second World War.
The boat which used to link Brundall with Surlingham at Coldham Hall was by repute going into the 1970s, but whenever I saw it the boat always appeared disused. I was a not an infrequent visitor to Coldham Hall in the 1960s, where my father would buy his half pint on a Sunday. I dare say we should have gone during the week to see the ferry in use. There was also a ferry that linked Surlingham with Postwick at the suitably named pub, the Surlingham Ferry. Between there and Norwich was Whitlingham ferry, and although I have never heard of a ferry at Bramerton, I am sure that at one time you could take a boat from the Wood’s End (as the riverside pub used to be called) to Hall Lane in Postwick.
The ferry at Buckenham was always remote from human habitation, although across the river was the Ferry Inn. The Ferry Inn (now rebuilt and called the Beauchamp Arms) figures prominently on this picture from 2oo years ago. It is across the river from Buckenham in Langley near Loddon. It is still a popular place of refreshment, although it draws almost all its trade from thirsty holiday makers who arrive there by boat. The only difference with the nineteenth century is that then its customers were working wherrymen. Note that in 1826 ten sheep, two cows and three people were waiting for the ferryman to pull the pontoon across the river to pick them up; two sailing boats are tied up at the pub. I went there as a teenager with my cousin Andrew, when we spent day sailing my dinghyfrom the Buckenham Sailing Club. Despite being an almost uninhabited location, the hamlet of Buckenham still boasts its own railway station, although it served by only a couple of trains a week.
The layout of the roads shows that once it was possible to take a ferry from Cantley; in fact there were two routes across the river Yare from there, but all traces of them have been lost. Reedham car ferry has already been mentioned, and it remains in use. It was almost the last ferry before you reached Great Yarmouth; the last one was a marshland ferry near the Berney Arms pub. Heaven only knows who used it, as the pub must be accessed by railway or river boat, unless you walk for miles across the marsh from the A 47; what sort of income did the ferryman earn I wonder? The steamer which used to ply the river between the South Quay in Yarmouth and Gorleston saved holiday makers a long walk via Haven Bridge.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
THE AUGUSTA was Sheringham’s first purpose-built lifeboat, launched in 1838 and condemned as unseaworthy in 1894.
The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (which later became the RNLI) had been founded a decade before the Augusta was built, but this lifeboat was privately financed by Abbot Upcher’s widow Charlotte. The 33ft 6in open boat with 16 oars and a lugsail was called Augusta in memory of Charlotte Upcher’s daughter, who died aged 20 in 1836. The organiser of the project to build the new vessel was Harry West. He was a fisherman and leading member of the lifeboat community. The Wests have been a leading Sheringham family for centuries, and for more about them I refer you to my blog on David West. The Wests have been dedicated Salvationists for generations, but in 1838 the founder of the Salvation Army was still a little boy of under ten years old. The Augusta was built in Sheringham Park, the home of the Upcher family, from local timber. The Augusta was used as a lifeboat for 56 years, and in retirement she was used by the Sea Scouts on the Broads. She survived into the 1950s.
The launch of the Augusta, 14th November, 1838
Come comrades, gather to the boat, the rocket line prepare
For many a gallant man tonight is battling despair.
The squall comes roaring onward, driving right across the sea,
And who’s the craven that shall say “no call is there for me”.
The sky is black, iced is the wreck, yet shrink not you aghast,
And think what they are feeling who are clinging to the mast.
The sturdy tiller of the soil can lend a hand or pair
And who has not hand to lend can bring an eye to bear.
All eyes to be on that glimmering line of lurid tossing foam
So he who will not now turn out, may bide henceforth at home.
The hands of mercy’s sons are firm, their hearts are firmer still,
The Augusta mounts the billows for they pull with might and will;
Their craft is true and evermore to deeds of rescue braced,
She meekly bears the cherished name upon her quarter traced;
Oh lift up our hearts to Him who bade the storm subside,
Who in the water makes His path, who reins the foaming tide.
So may the God of heaven e’en now their earnest efforts bless,
May He who prospereth our way now give them good success.
The writer of this verse was the Quaker philanthropist Anna Gurney, born in 1795 at Keswick Hall near Norwich. She was the youngest child of Richard Gurney of the banking family. When she was still a baby she lost the use of her legs through illness. She was a great scholar, becoming fluent in Latin, Greek and Old English from an early age; she published a translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which ran to a second edition. In later life she learnt the Scandinavian tongues and also Russian, and she studied the literature of these languages.
As an adult she made her home just to the east of Cromer in the viilage of Northrepps. Her house, Northrepps Cottage, is now a hotel; as you can see, the word ‘cottage’ hardly describes this commodious country residence.
Anna Gurney took a great interest in life saving at sea, and bought one of Captain Manby’s rocket lines. She would be carried down to the beach to direct the operation of the Mortar when there was a shipwreck on the coast. (You will note that she could not resist a reference to this apparatus in her poem.) Despite her disability, she travelled widely in Europe. She became the first female member of the British Archaeological Association and, together with Amelia Opie, had established the Norwich branch of the Anti-Slavery Society. She died at Keswick after a short illness in 1857.
To read more on East Anglian lifeboats click here.
THE STORY OF NORFOLK
This water-mill stood on the river Bure at Coltishall until it was burnt down in January 1963. Horstead mill in Norfolk was the upper limit of navigation on the river until March 1775, when the wherry Grampus became the first vessel to use the newly constructed lock at Coltishall . The town of Aylsham was reached by the canalised stretch of the river in 1779. Coltishall was an important inland port on the Norfolk Broads until that time, being the principal unloading place for coal from Gateshead-on-Tyne. Oats, barley and malt made the return journey to Great Yarmouth and by sea-going craft to points further away. Lime from riverside kilns was also carried down the river. The lock enabled river traffic to pass beyond the mill, but it made Coltishall a less busy place (as a surveyor from Cambridge noted in 1805).
Near the King’s Head, a pub a bit further downstream from the mill on the common, the boatbuilder Stephen Wright laid down the keel of a new wherry on April 11th 1776. The growing timbers were regularly inspected by the new owner William Hardy, and on Sunday he went to the boatyard twice, on the second occasion accompanied by his children. A wherry was the most up-to-date form of river transport in the 18th century. Most water traffic from Coltishall still used the older ‘keels’ to transport grain from rural Norfolk and return with bricks or sand. These vessels had square sails, while the more efficient wherries had fore and aft sails.
The new wherry was ready to launch in late August, and the owners entertained their friends to tea on board. Back at home they had a good dinner and then the gentlemen drank large amounts of alcohol until well after midnight. Needless to say William Hardy had a dreadful hangover the next day. Meanwhile his wife Mary had to go and pay for all the wine glasses and crockery that the revellers had broken the previous night. The new vessel was named the William and Mary, not after the late King and Queen, but after owners William and Mary Hardy. It was soon loaded with malt to be taken downriver to Yarmouth.
Horstead mill was rebuilt in its final form a few years after the completion of the new lock. It was built of white painted weatherboarding. The mill had belonged to St Benet’s Priory until the Reformation (together with Coltishall and Horstead Manors), when this was all given to King’s College Cambridge by Henry VIII. The mill remained in the college’s ownership until 1910, when it was bought by the local millers Reads of Norwich. I remember Reads, and the packets of their flour that you could buy at local shops. A video that includes views of the mill in operation is available on the Suffolk Local History website. The canalised section of the river Bure from Horstead mill to Aylsham remained in use until the floods of 1912 damaged the lock at Buxton. It proved too costly to repair; by then there were two railway lines to Aylsham and the canal was no longer essential.
The nearby pub in Horstead, the Recruiting Sergeant, was where the local Lodge of Freemasons met in the eighteenth century. It is still a popular watering hole, and the King’s Head in Coltishall is even more so, especially on a summer’s evening. Then you can sit by the river’s edge enjoying an evening drink, while the light drains from the sky. In the eighteenth century both pubs were frequently visited by William Hardy, for he was the local brewer, besides running a farm. He was a Yorkshireman who had been living in East Dereham as an Excise Officer; there he met Mary Raven, a Norfolk farmer’s daughter, and they married before moving to Coltishall.
I was a regular visitor to the parish of Horstead about ten years ago, when my son was himself rather keen on a farmer’s daughter. Her father worked the land around Lound Hill, where over 200 years before William Hardy’s men had sown their oats and barley. Unlike William Hardy’s attachment to a farming family, nothing came of this liaison. He is now in a long-term relationship with a charming Dutch girl who is training to be a lawyer. One of William Hardy’s descendants went into the law in London and eventually became Master of the Rolls in 1907. He was ennobled in 1914.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Flooding has been in the news a lot recently. This new year the downpours in the north of the UK have flooded properties in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire among other places, but last year it was the south of England that saw the worst of the flooding. The river Thames and the Somerset Levels were both badly effected.
In East Anglia, although there have been many river floods over time, it is tidal surges from the North Sea that do the greatest damage. Although the surge of December 2013 was in some cases more extreme than the surge of 1953, improved sea defences and early warning measures meant that this time it passed off without loss of life. On the night of January 31/February 1 1953 over 300 Britons were drowned in the floods. It is strong north easterly winds coinciding with spring tides that cause these surges, not rainfall.
Fortunately for me I live on top of a hill, so the possibility of flooding does not worry me greatly. This is not true of my sister who was flooded out of her home in 2013; this happened in Canada, so as you can see flooding is a problem across the world. In Norfolk the Broads and the Fens are the two area which are most at risk of river flooding. In the Fenlands it is not really a risk at all, but a certainty; controlled flooding is part of the management of the annual rainfall. The Welney Washes on the border of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are the principal place where the flooding is concentrated. Nearly every year the ‘A’ road adjacent to the Washes is closed by flooding, often for weeks at a time.
Norwich has not suffered from flooding for over a hundred years, but in August 1912 the lower areas of the city were inundated by rainwater. As you can see from the date, floods are not always a winter phenomenon. All of Broadland suffered too in 1912, and damage caused to the lock at Buxton ended river navigation from Coltishall to Aylsham on the canalised section of the Upper Bure. Nowadays when you look down on the tiny stream that runs under the Aylsham bypass, it is incredible to think that wherries once used to navigate this river. It was obviously wider then.
The 1912 Floods; CLICK HERE to view a photo gallery.
Flooding is not always a bad thing; water meadows receive the benefits of annual flooding and this improves the grass that animals rely on for food. Wetland floods are regarded as essential habitats for our winter visiting birds from the Arctic. It is when places that are normally not flooded get unusually heavy rainfall or swollen rivers that the floods become a real threat.
The damage is not always from the water itself soaking people’s homes; the rushing torrents can sweep away roads, bridges and buildings. Abergeldie Castle in Aberdeenshire came perilously close to falling into the river Dee in early 2016, but as it has dropped out of the national news headlines I assume that it must have survived.
The flooding has been blamed on global warming. We have been warned to expect more flooding in the years to come, as the warmer air will hold more moisture. This sounds reasonable, but only a few years ago, when we experience a particularly dry spring, we were told by the experts that droughts would be much more common in future. We have since been told to anticipate variable extremes of weather, which covers just about every possibility except a period of moderate weather. I wonder how the experts would explain that? The fact is that climate is a very complicated subject that defies simple explanations. It is the jet stream rather than the global temperature that determines the weather in individual countries. In the past ice ages have come and gone, to be followed by tropical periods, with no help from human intervention. Clearly climate change is a natural phenomenon, although it may well be that human activity is speeding up global warming. It is undoubted getting warmer at present, and the glaciers are shrinking, but I have noticed no dramatic rise in sea levels. It is fashionable to worry us about all this, but there is absolutely nothing that I personally can do about it. Even on a national scale we are pretty powerless; if the whole of the UK went carbon neutral tomorrow, there is no sign of the much larger countries like China reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases. India continues to burn ever greater quantities of coal. The results can be seen in frequent smogs which regularly descend on the large cities in both countries.
We know that whatever the future may hold we will have more floods; but flooding goes back to the time of Noah, so there is nothing new about that.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The nearest “Broad” to Norwich is either Whitlingham Broad or the University Broad; both lie on the outskirts of the city. But these recent additions to the expanses of water in Norfolk ought rather to be called lakes; they were dug out to provide sand and gravel for large construction projects (the Southern Bypass and the University). This is not an irrelevant consideration, because the shores of these broads are of shingle, not the reed beds which are so emblematic of the Norfolk Broads. As everyone should know, the Broads are surrounded by peat. Since the discovery by Joyce Lambert, as recently as 1952, the Broads have been accepted as medieval peat diggings. Before that everybody regarded them as natural phenomena.
Leaving aside these new “broads” then, the first real Broad we come to as we go down the river Yare is Brundall Broad. This is not a well-known broad; it is no longer navigable, as since 1845 it has been divided in two by the railway line from Yarmouth to Norwich. The next Broads are in Surlingham to the south of the river, and to the north lies Strumpshaw Broad. These broads are all much smaller than they used to be, the reed beds having encroached on the open water. Some of these broads are now managed as Nature Reserves, and to provide a variety of habitat some reed beds have been cut back. Strumpshaw Broad, for example, is visible as open water once more, having been almost totally obscured by vegetation, until thirty years ago.
The broads at Buckenham and Hassingham are a long way from the river, and are connected to it by narrow dykes which once gave access to river boats, but appear to have been obstructed for centuries. All broads must once have had access to the river system to carry away the peat by boat, and the destination was the hearths of Norwich and Yarmouth.
Going upstream along the river Bure we come to the Broads of Flegg; Ormesby, Rollesby and Filby. These were once navigable along Muck Fleet. The river Ant has Barton Broad, and the Thurne has Hickling Broad, but the largest area of Broadland is on the higher reaches of the Bure. Wroxham Broad, Hoveton Great and Little Broads among many others (some so small they do not have names) all crowd in cheek by jowl. With so many broads Wroxham is naturally the centre of the Broadland holiday industry.
I wish to return to the subject of the digging of the broads; the pits would have flooded very soon after they were excavated. Therefore only a small pit was dug, to provide turf for the coming winter season. The blocks of peat were stacked up on the bank to dry during the summer months, while the pit filled up with water. Keels (the predecessors of wherries) came up the dyke to load the turves and when they were gone the bulwark could be breached to allow the passage of boats through to the next year’s pit. In some places you can still see the channels made through the peat. The industry was effectively ended by the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, which reduced both the demand for winter fuel and the number of workers available to dig it out. Wood had always been a common fuel, and as deep mining grew in popularity in the midlands and in Yorkshire, coal became universally employed. Newcastle was where our coal in Norfolk came from, brought by collier brig to coastal ports for distribution inland.
After the excavation of peat had ceased, some broads (or rather the dykes associated with them) became important watercourses for the growing trade in agricultural goods. Such produce as wheat, turnips and wool were loaded onto vessels at the New Inn quayside on Rockland dyke, to be transported upstream to Norwich or down to Yarmouth. Coal would travel up from Yarmouth. Filby Broad became the unloading point for wherries bearing nightsoil from the privies of Yarmouth. Many of the broads fell into disuse however, except for the occasional shooting expedition by wildfowlers in their gun punts. Since this use disappeared, the smaller and more remote Broads have slipped out of sight and out of mind.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
I understand that the medieval walls of Great Yarmouth are the second most complete in the country. I could not tell you off-hand which place has the most extensive walls, but it will be either York or Chester. These two northern cities are well-known for retaining their ancient defences, which both date back to Roman times. York’s walls retain little Roman stonework, but in the north-western section of Chester’s walls you will see Roman ashlar in the lower courses. Yarmouth town walls date from well after the Roman period; nearby Caister and Burgh Castle have the ruins of Roman walls, but Great Yarmoth was little more than a sand spit at the time. Yarmouth has always had special relationship with Norwich since the town was first formed at the mouth of the river Yare. Norwich too has medieval walls, although less extensive than the other cities mentioned.
The river Yare is the thing which both unites and divides the two Norfolk communities. It provided quick and easy communication when the roads were slow and difficult; but although goods could pass between Norwich and the various places on the river banks between Norwich and Yarmouth without let or hindrance, any goods being brought in from the sea had to first pass the port of Yarmouth. The town could not resist the temptation to impose excessive harbour dues on goods passing upstream to Norwich. This state of affairs continued until the Port of Norwich was established by Act of Parliament in 1827. With a flourishing trade in sea-going vessels, the Norwich City Guild found the imposition of Yarmouth’s harbour dues intolerable. They drove a canal from the river Yare at Reedham to the river Waveney; with the opening of the dam at Mutford (literally mud-ford) to provide a lock to Lake Lothing at Lowestoft, sea-going vessels could journey to Norwich avoiding Yarmouth altogether.
From Yarmouth’s point of view the loss of trade was a disaster, and immediately all toll were lifted. With the straight-forward route to the sea now passable without the payment of excessive dues, the New Cut was almost redundant from its first opening, but in a way it had been a necessary (but hugely expensive) undertaking. Although not much used in the 19th century, it had freed Norwich from Yarmouth’s tyrany. Today the Port of Norwich has been completely taken over by leisure craft, and these make more use of the New Cut than ever commercial shipping did.
As I pointed out, the towns of Norwich and Yarmouth were inextricably linked by the river. At Norwich the river became an essential part of the city’s defences. The wall still marches down Carrow Hill, and where it meets the river two boom towers stood. A study chain was passed between the towers to prevent ships of war entering the city. The river became the defensive alternative to the wall for about a mile. until Norwich-over-the-Water need walls to defend it. They were continued to enclose Fishergate and Coslany. At Bishops Bridge, where access across the river was possible, this was heavily defended by a gate house.
These walls were built in warlike times, when the threat of civil war, if not of invasion, was very real. The Wars of the Roses was the most violent of these civil wars, but although it produced numerous attacks on country manor houses, the towns remained unscathed. The walls were never used in anger, but they served a useful purpose in protecting the townspeople from the depredations of nefarious night-time prowlers from the countryside. The gates were locked at dusk and the walled towns and cities became relatively safe places to sleep the night.
The picture above shows a section of Yarmouth’s walls. In an imaginative development this ancient tower on the town walls has been sympathetically converted into a home for holiday makers. This had been made possible by the fact that 300 years ago some Georgian windows had been inserted on the tower. Modern necessities like a kitchen and bathroom have been included, but the flint walls retain the authentic medieval flavour of the holiday home. If it were not spread out over five floors I would almost be tempted to stay there myself. This picture was taken over forty years ago, and you can see from the fact that a tree was sprouting from the roof that the tower was then in a derelict state.
As you can see, there is much more to Great Yarmouth than hot dogs and sand castles. It a place that has a great history.