West Somerton – Land of Black Sails and Giants

The tranquil delights of the Upper Thurne are no great secret. For centuries, the low, medieval road bridge at Potter Heigham has acted as a barrier which limited the numbers and types of waterborne vessels which could pass beyond – a blessing for some, a curse for others! Year upon year, the amount of craft which are able to get through the bridge seems to decrease and the debates on rising water levels, sinking bridges and unsuitability of boats rages on ad infinitum.

When my friend suggested a boat trip over the recent Bank Holiday weekend, the thought of battling with the crowds in the popular tourist hotspots didn’t really appeal, so I asked whether we could head up to West Somerton. Thankfully, he has a “suitable” boat which, combined with the recent low water levels, meant that bridge clearance wouldn’t be an issue  I love West Somerton, the water is so clear and it is such a delight to sit and watch the fish darting amongst the water plants. It almost feels like stepping back in time to me, as this is how I imagine most of the Broadland rivers would have been when the Victorian pleasure seekers first discovered the area. It must have been around two years ago when we last made the trip up to Somerton Staithe, only we were disappointed that time to find that the work to replace the quay heading up there had turned the crystal clear water into something which resembled oxtail soup. Thankfully, we found that everything was back to normal this weekend and  aquatic life was seen in abundance.

West Somerton Staithe

West Somerton Free Staithe 1930s & 2013

Whilst there, I decided to try to get a couple of photographs for the “Then & Now” section of the Broadland Memories website. Rather stupidly, I had forgotten to bring along copies of the old postcards that I wished to recreate so ended up having to do them from memory. I’ll get the results onto the main website when I can but, in the meantime, my best effort of the day can be seen on the right, showing the cottages on the green at the end of the dyke, with the original image dating from c1930s. The main reason for starting this blog post was to show what is a fairly unchanged “Then & Now” comparison, but a search for information on West Somerton to accompany the photos revealed that it seems to have been a much maligned destination on the Broads over the years. The village is most famously known as the birthplace of Robert Hales, “The Norfolk Giant”, and there will be more on him later, but one of my first ports of call for historic information is often the various guide books which have been written about the Norfolk Broads from the 1870s onwards. It’s always fascinating to compare how the descriptions and views on the towns and villages have changed through the years. In the case of West Somerton, it seems that there has been little to say which was particularly favourable, although I do wonder how much of it might have been the writers trying to keep this peaceful spot to themselves!

Passing Martham Ferry, the river leads up to a tight bend to the right known as Dungeon Corner, although I’ve not been able to discover from where this curious name originates. Straight ahead here is the un-navigable Hundred Stream which it is believed was the original course of the River Thurne which flowed out to sea between Winterton and Horsey. As we follow the current course of the dyke round to the right, the channel narrows before crossing Martham Broad, a once open and expansive body of water which is now a nature reserve under the care of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, navigable only via the marked channel. The Victorian guide book authors also referred to this as Somerton Broad. Peter Henry Emerson spent some time moored here in 1891 during his year long tour of the Broads in the converted wherry Maid of the Mist, and in his book “On English Lagoons” he wrote; “Somerton Broad , with its reed-bed and trees, makes a picturesque spot in midsummer, but the narrow Dungeon Dyke makes the water difficult of approach, so this broad is not so frequently visited as the others, and indeed I do not think a visit will repay the ordinary tourist.

In the 1880s, George Christopher Davies described it as “another reed-surrounded lake, possessing no particular merit.” Very little is noted about the village itself, although the church of St. Mary was worthy of a mention for the late 13th century murals depicting the Day of Judgement which had been discovered hidden beneath plaster and whitewash during restoration in 1867. The church stands on raised ground known as the Blood Hills, said to be the scene of a bloody battle between the Vikings and the Saxons. The early guide books also made mention of St Leonard’s Leper Hospital which had been founded at West Somerton by Ralph de Granville, Lord Chief Justice of England, in the late 12th century. It seems to have been in use for over 200 years, but by 1397 “only four lepers remained” and in 1399 was “desolate“. The hospital is beileved to have stood on the site of a modern day farm although, apparently, there are no remains or indications as to its exact position.

By the 1950s and 1960s, it appears that navigation to West Somerton had become difficult at anything but high tide, the guide books noting that Dungeon Dyke was shallow and overgrown. It would be interesting to know from those who remember the Upper Thurne during these decades whether passage to West Somerton was indeed that problematic. J. Wentworth Day painted a rather charming picture of Martham Broad in “Broadland Adventure” in 1951; “with its duck and nesting bitterns, its black terns, graceful as swallows, in September, its occasional wild geese in winter, its snipe and springing redshank, its huge pike and lazy, golden-sided tench, its pretty Victorian echo of a thatched summerhouse built upon an island called with a charming sense of Victorian ‘water frolic’ gaiety, ‘The Pleasure Hill.’ ” In “Broadland Tour”, published in 1968, G.A. Tullett wrote; “West Somerton has its back the the Broads and its face to the sea. In winter in this desolate spot the sea fog comes down so quickly that within ten minutes the sun fades and one can barely see the end of one’s nose. They say that in this wild country the weak die off and the average man lives to ninety.

The decline in the quality of the navigation from the late 1800s, through the early years of the 20th century mirrored the decline of the wherry trade and was echoed throughout the upper reaches of the rivers of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. As road and rail transport became more viable options for the movement of goods, the dykes and streams that had once been important arteries for the rural economy of these less accessible villages became neglected. West Somerton had its fair share of wherry owners over the years, the most well known of which were probably the Thain family. The 1881 census shows that Dionysius (Di) Thain was living at Staithe House with his wife Lydia and eight children, Di Thain was listed as being a coal merchant, whilst two of his sons, Joseph aged 19 and Dionysius jnr aged 12, were listed as being wherrymen. 22 year old Robert Powley was boarding with the Thain family at that time and was also listed as being a wherryman. Another of Di and Lydia’s sons, William, was living elsewhere in the village and was recorded as being a wherryman too. The book ‘Black Sailed Traders”, written by Roy Clark, includes some interesting memories from William Thain in 1946 as he recalled his life working on the Broads.

Black Prince - Blakes 1935 boating brochure

Amongst the wherries owned by the Thain family over the years was the Waveney built by William Brighton at Bungay in 1863 and renamed Eva Rosa by Di ThainBilly Brighton went on to build the more famous Albion in 1898. Eva Rosa was later converted into the motor pleasure wherry Black Prince – seen on the left as listed in Blakes 1935 Norfolk Broads yachting list. In his book “Wherries & Waterways”, Robert Maltster mentions that Black Prince was eventually broken up at Allen’s boatyard in Coltishall c1945. The trading wherry Lord Roberts was built at West Somerton c1899 by Great Yarmouth boat builder Ben Benns. Benns was a ‘journeyman’ builder who traveled to wherever he was needed to build boats. Robert Maltster believes that she actually took Benns around three years to complete as he would probably have been working on more than one project at the time. The Thain family were also the last owners of the Lord Roberts which continued to be used on the Broads until the late 1960s.  There are a series of photographs on this gallery page of the Broadland Memories website which shows the Lord Roberts being used as part of dredging operations on South Walsham Broad in 1961 (scroll down to the bottom of the page). In 1969, she was donated to the Norfolk Wherry Trust but a lack of funds saw her lying submerged at Womack for the next 13 years. In 1983 she was raised and towed to Wroxham where she has remained, under water in a private dyke, ever since. A newspaper article at the time stated that the cost of maintaining  the Trust’s existing wherry, Albion, meant that the planned restoration of The Lord Roberts would be unlikely to go ahead at that time. Again, there are a series of fascinating photographs of the Lord Roberts taken by Pete Sanders in 1983, shortly after she was moved to Wroxham which you can find on this page of the Broadland Memories website.

The 1881 census also provided a little insight into the area around West Somerton Staithe and it appears that the cottages on the green seen in my “Then & Now” photographs were part of the area known as Free Staithe. In 1881 the dwellings here seem to have been occupied largely by agricultural labourers, amongst those were Henry Broom and his wife Mary Ann (a dressmaker) who lived with their three children and Sarah Rodgers (a nurse), in another property was Sarah Tibbs aged 74 (formerly a laundress) who lived with her son James ( a gardener). Interestingly, the wherry Onward was moored at the staithe on the night of the census – on board were 29 year old wherryman James Betts and his wife Elizabeth. Also living in the village were members of the Hales family, which brings me nicely round to West Somerton’s most famous resident.

Robert Hales "The Norfolk Giant"

Robert Hales was born in 1813, one of nine children all of whom grew to quite extraordinary heights for the time. All were said to have been over 6 ft 3 inches tall, but Robert measured an astonishing 7 ft 8 inches whilst his sister Mary was 7 ft 2 inches. Relatives in the village on his mothers side, Mary and Anne Laskey, were recorded as being 8 ft and 7 ft 6 inches tall respectively. Robert initially became a wherryman before joining the Navy at the age of 14. It was a short lived career move however, as just three years later he was paid off having become too large to move around below decks. Weighing 33 stone, and with a 64 inch chest, one can see how life aboard ship might have been rather difficult! Returning to Norfolk, Robert decided to cash in on the public fascination at the time for “curiosities” and began to exhibit himself at local fairs and, later, on Britannia Pier at Great Yarmouth, becoming known as “The Norfolk Giant”. In 1848 he was paid the quite considerable sum of £800 to travel to America for two years with the famous showman P.T. Barnum who had assembled a variety of human curiosities including the legendary “Tom Thumb”. Returning to England, Robert eventually became a publican in London before returning to Norfolk during the latter years of his life. His last days were spent at Great Yarmouth, where he died of bronchitis in 1863, aged 50. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in his home village and his tomb still attracts many a tourist to this day.

Our river trip to West Somerton was delightful, the sun was shining, the wildlife was out in abundance and there were just two other boats moored at the staithe when we arrived. It’s an idyllic spot and one of my favourite Broadland locations. Of course, I really shouldn’t be telling you all of this should I? What I should be telling you is that it’s terribly narrow, full of weeds and there’s absolutely nothing of interest up there ……

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