Our trip up to West Somerton last weekend gave me my first glimpse of the new swing bridge at Martham Ferry – a distinct lack of boating on the northern rivers over the last couple of years is really beginning to leave me out of touch with all of the changes!
The new, steel decked bridge was installed by Jackson Civil Engineering early in 2012 and provides access to the 500 acre Heigham Holmes nature reserve which is owned by the National Trust. As previously mentioned on the blog, this remote location is reputed to have been used as a secret airbase during the Second World War, with black-painted Lysander aircraft flying Special Operations Executives in and out of Europe across the North Sea. The new swing bridge, which was manufactured in Norwich, is mounted on two floatation tanks and was craned into the water at Hickling before being floated down river to Martham. The previous bridge was installed in 1987 and this had replaced an early 1920s bridge, which was subject a Grade II listing but, after over 50 years in service, it was felt it was coming to the end of its working life. It also required quite a reasonable amount of effort to swing it into position across the river. Once a vehicle had crossed to Heigham Holmes, the operator had to return to the other side of the river, open the bridge to keep the navigation clear and then row back across the river again. The new bridge is automated, reducing the physical effort needed to swing the bridge into position and negating the need for a rowing boat!
The 1920s bridge had itself replaced a 19th century pontoon bridge, which can be seen in the old postcard on the left which dates from c1915, and seemingly required three people to manoeuvre it into position across the river. In the 1880s, George Christopher Davies gave this wonderful description; “The ferry is a large raft, which is kept in a recess on either side of the river, and floated across, reaching from bank to bank when required. There is no one to tend it, and if it happens to be on the other side, a wayfarer must wait until someone appears on the other side to get it across. It is a wonderfully clumsy thing to look at, and is not regarded with friendly eyes by the wherrymen, who run their wherries full tilt against it too often at night, or when, with wind astern, they are unable to stop. One wherryman, exasperated beyond endurance, let his wherry go at it with all her force when running before half a gale, but only smashed the bows of his vessel, not moving the ferry a bit or injuring it, for it’s heavily bound with iron to withstand such experiments.“
There is a lovely film about Heigham Holmes and its alleged wartime role, The Secret Airfield, which has been uploaded to YouTube as part of the Martham Stories history project. In George Christopher Davies time, there were three houses on the island – two small marsh cottages which were occupied by families, and a farmhouse for the marshman who tended to the cattle and looked after the drainage mill which can be seen from the river on the approach to Dungeon Corner. Heigham Holmes is still a working farm with cattle grazing on the marshes, but the National Trust are working together with the tenant farmer to restore the natural grassland and re-instate water levels to create a natural wetland habitat. The nature reserve is open to the public on just one day of the year – follow the link above to the relevant page on the National Trust website for more details.