Summer finally arrived in Norfolk last weekend and it provided the perfect opportunity for a Sunday afternoon boat trip along the River Bure. It doesn’t matter how many times you travel along the same stretch of river, there’s always something different to see, be it the changes of the seasons, the wildlife or just indulging in a spot of people and boat watching.
The most noticeable change in recent months has been the erection of what I can only describe as a most impressive array of scaffolding around the ruins of the gatehouse and drainage mill at St. Benet’s Abbey. This historic site is now owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and the scaffolding is part of a two year project which aims to conserve and repair the standing remains of the abbey and improve access to the site for visitors, funded with the aid of a £671,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Over the summer the specialist building firm of John Hogg will be renewing the crumbling lime mortar on the gatehouse and replacing some of the brickwork on the mill. This apparently has to be completed by September to allow the mortar sufficient time to set before the winter. Work to preserve the other remains will continue next year and there are also plans for a riverside footpath between the abbey and Ludham Bridge.
Seeing the scaffolding reminded me of the photograph on the right, taken in the late 1850s, which shows a rather rickety looking walkway on poles which presumably provided access to the mill. The cap and sails were still intact at this point – these were lost during a gale c1863 which is when the mill ceased working. It is thought that the mill was originally built during the mid to late 18th century, the surviving remains of the upper story of the gatehouse were removed at this time to allow room for the sails to turn. There are lots more images and information on the history of the mill on the Norfolk Mills website. Interestingly, it is believed that it was actually built to grind colza seed but was converted to a drainage mill in the 1800s. Colza (Brassica Rapa) is closely related to the oilseed rape plants which now dominate the Norfolk landscape with vast swathes of yellow during the late spring. The crushed colza seeds produced oil which was used for lamps and lubricating machinery.
The rest of the site remains open to the public whilst work is underway, and on the afternoon of Sunday 5th August the Bishop of Norwich will arrive by wherry for his annual church service there.