Time for another delve into recent postcard additions to the archive, most of which will eventually make their way onto the main website. As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to gather at least four or five of one particular town or village together before I update the respective postcard pages and must be getting to the stage where I need to have a sort through what I’ve got over the last six months with a view to getting some more on to Broadland Memories. It’s surprising just how large that section of the archive is getting!
I’ve recently found two postcards of the River Bure at Horstead which date from the very early years of the 20th century. The first, on the left, was posted in 1904 but I think the original photograph was probably taken in the late 1800s – I wonder if it was actually by John Payne Jennings? The bowler-hatted gentleman in the rowing boat is sitting at the entrance to the cut which led up to Horstead mill, the branch on the right leading to Coltishall/Horstead lock. It’s remarkable how wide the mill cut looked back then, but it would have been a busy stretch of waterway at the turn of the century with wherries transporting goods to and from the mill and also through Coltishall Lock and on up to Aylsham. Today, the entrance is almost hidden by overhanging trees and signs warn that the channel is extremely shallow and it can only be negotiated by canoe or rowing boat. The postcard is definitely another interesting candidate for a “Then & Now” photograph.
On August 26th, the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the closure of the Aylsham navigation with an event which will take place on Coltishall Common. The wherry Albion will be in attendance and a “token cargo” will be carried by canoe from Aylsham to Coltishall in memory of this once important trade route. The family event will include games, exhibitions, and a variety of stalls, with refreshments available. Keep an eye on Stuart Wilson’s Bure Blog for further details!
The Aylsham Navigation opened in 1779 and followed much of the existing course of the River Bure between Coltishall and Aylsham, although some sections needed to be canalised to ease the passage of trading vessels. Even so, the trading wherries which used the navigation were restricted to a maximum length of 54ft with a 13ft 9in beam up to Buxton Lamas, reducing to a 12ft 8in between Buxton and Aylsham. It is said that, at one time, up to 26 wherries traded along this section of the River Bure. Along with the lock at Coltishall, the wherrymen also had to negotiate four further locks on the Upper Bure at Buxton Lamas, Oxnead, Burgh and Aylsham, and there were also a number of bridges which meant that frequent stops were needed to lower the mast during the journey. Although the navigation was also used by pleasure boaters, the guide books of the late 19th century did little to encourage them. In “Land of the Broads“, Ernest Suffling wrote; “The first lock is at Coltishall, and I would advise visitors who have viewed the beauties of this truly delightful village, with its red-roofed houses, thrown into relief by the sombre green pinewood background, to take the train to Aylsham rather than pass through the never-ending locks and bridges.” We did just that last year and followed in the footsteps of those Victorian holidaymakers by making the train journey between Wroxham and Aylsham on the Bure Valley Railway. The tanatlising glimpses of the river as the steam hauled carriages made their way along the rail track did make me wish that I was making the journey by boat rather than by train.
In the early hours of the morning on August 26th 1912 a great storm hit the region, and over eight inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours causing the rivers of Broadland to burst their banks, flooding towns, villages and vast swathes of the surrounding countryside. Huge amounts of debris was carried down the Upper Bure and the lock at Buxton collapsed, causing an even greater surge of water which also destroyed the road bridge at Coltishall. The resulting damage was catastrophic for the Aylsham Navigation, the Commissioners were unable to fund the estimated £4,000 repair costs, and the navigation was closed. The trading wherry Zulu was famously trapped upstream of Buxton Lock during the storm and was hauled out and dragged round the damaged lock on rollers before being relaunched below.
There is a wealth of interesting information about the history of Horstead Mill on the Norfolk Mills website. The site is believed to date back to at least Saxon times and became part of the lands owned by St. Benet’s Abbey. It was then given to King’s College by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and their ownership continued right up until 1910 when it was sold to R.J. Read, the Norwich flour mill owner.
The postcard on the left also dates from around 1905-1910 and shows an idyllic view of this iconic watermill. It has to have been one of the most photographed buildings on the Broads over the years, and a popular subject for artists too. Originally, the stones driven by the waterwheel were used to grind wheat for flour, but Reads began to produce animal feeds instead (apart from a brief period during the First World War when their Norwich mill broke down), and continued to do so up until the 1960s. The winter of 1962/63 was the coldest on record, with temperatures during January 1963 being around 5 degrees centigrade below average. In Norfolk, the coldest night of the year was recorded on 23rd January at Santon Downham at -19. Perversely, it was on this very day that Horstead Mill was destroyed by fire. Thought to have been caused by an electrical fault, three fire engines attended the blaze having to cut holes in the ice, which was over a foot deep, in order to provide water for their hoses. The mill was ruined and what was left of the wooden structure was demolished, leaving just the brick arches standing.
There is lots more information on the Aylsham Navigation on the Bure Navigation Conservation Trust website, linked to above, along with a wonderful collection of historic photographs of the waterway. Although I have a number of old news cuttings relating to the possible re-opening of other stretches of lost navigation on the Broads, such as the Upper Waveney and the North Walsham and Dilham Canal, I don’t think I have come across any which mentioned the possibility of restoring the Aylsham Navigation as yet. In the 1960s, there was a real concern that the Broads were becoming overcrowded and there were calls to either limit the number of hire craft or restore sections of the waterway which had closed. In the mid 1960s, this even went as far as costing out the restoration of the Upper Waveney from Geldeston to Bungay, the NW&D Canal and also the creation of a new cut to link the Bure at Tunstall with the Yare at Reedham. Strangely, the report didn’t include the Upper Bure between Coltishall and Aylsham. Maybe the number of locks and low bridges made it a non-viable proposition? It’s wonderful that so much is now being done by the Trust to gather together the history of the Aylsham Navigation and raise awareness of the important role that this stretch of waterway once played in the local economy and in the lives of the people who lived alongside it.