Cantley – the day the landscape changed

Many consider it to be an eyesore, but I quite like the juxtaposition of modern industrial buildings against reed fringed countryside that is Cantley sugar beet factory. There’s no doubt that it dominates the landscape, seemingly changing sides of the river as you make your approach along the Yare, it’s tall chimney filling the sky with huge plumes of white smoke during the sugar beet season. Catch it when the light is just right and it can look quite striking and extremely photogenic.

The factory has stood alongside Cantley Reach for just over 100 years now, a fact that I was reminded of last week whilst looking through some new additions to the Broadland Memories archive. I was contacted by Peter Punchard who kindly offered to scan a collection of old postcards of Norfolk and Suffolk which had belonged to his mother. There are some very interesting Norfolk Broads views amongst them which will eventually make their way onto the postcards section of the main website, but there are a few which deserve previewing on here. Which brings me back to Cantley, as amongst Peter’s postcards were two very early photographs of the sugar beet factory.

Cantley Reach c1905

Before the factory was built, the riverside at Cantley was a very different place, as illustrated by the postcard on the left. It was taken around 1905 and shows the view looking downstream from outside the Red House (now the Reedcutter pub). Cantley had long been a popular fishing resort and sailing centre, and the Red House Hotel was noted for its accommodation. In the 1880s, George Christopher Davies wrote: “Cantley Railway Station is very close to the river, and as the water is deep close to the bank, and there is some fairly firm ground, this is a favourite yachting station, with good mooring to the banks. Comfortable quarters may be had at the Red House, and the fishing is good all about. A little lower down, on the same side of the river, is another house, “Pearts,” where one may obtain comfortable accommodation and a dock where small boats may be safely left.

Cantley Riverside - Donald Shields 1904

The postcard also shows some of the boathouses which lined the riverside at this time. The boatyard of Woods & Newstead was amongst these and the photograph on the right is a rare image of that yard, captured by Donald Shields in 1904. The “Woods” was Ernest Woods, brother of Walter, and uncle to the more famous Herbert Woods. It was at this boatyard in Cantley, that Ernest began building his Yare and Bure One design “White Boats” in 1908. In the background you can see the old drainage mill which, along with the boatsheds, was demolished to make way for the new factory in 1912. A long established foot ferry was still in operation at Cantley at this time too, running between the Red House and Langley Round House, further downstream. Foot ferries, as the name implies, carried foot passengers and were usually a man with a rowing boat, as opposed to the pontoon type “horse” ferries which were in operation on the Yare at Reedham, Buckenham and Surlingham, and on the River Bure at Stokesby and Horning.

These views were typical of Broadland at this time, but just a few years later the landscaped at Cantley was transformed when the Anglo Netherland Sugar Corporation bought up land belonging to the former Cantley Grange estate and built what is cited to be the first sugar beet factory in the UK. Earlier attempts at processing sugar beet had apparently been made, including a short lived factory which had been built at Lavenham in Suffolk in the 1860s, and Cantley itself was not an initial success either. The growing and processing of sugar beet was long established in mainland Europe by the time the Cantley factory was built, the first factory having opened in Germany c1801. By the 1830s, France had become the biggest producer of sugar beet and the crop was being widely grown and processed in Europe.

Cantley sugar beet factory under construction in 1912 - by courtesy of Peter Punchard

In 1909, the National Sugar Beet Association was formed with the aim of encouraging British farmers to grow sugar beet and to establish sugar beet processing plants in the UK. Several sites were considered for building the first factory, but Cantley was eventually chosen because of it’s proximity to the river and a railway line, both of which would provide vital transport links. In 1912, construction began, as illustrated by the photograph on the left from Peter Punchard’s collection. Note the men standing on top of the chimney! Local farmers were offered good financial rewards for trialing sugar beet as a crop on their land, and the waste pulp produced during the manufacturing process would be returned to the farms as valuable cattle fodder. Dutch workers were brought over to teach the Norfolk farm labourers how to harvest the beet properly, all pulled by hand in what must have been backbreaking work.

The factory opened but apparently failed to make a profit in it’s first few years, largely due to the fact that not enough sugar beet was being grown in the area. Many considered that the Norfolk soil wasn’t suitable for beet growing and farmers were reluctant to experiment with the new crop. The outbreak of the First World War saw sugar production at Cantley cease and the factory was shut down.

Cantley sugar beet factory c1913 - by courtesy of Peter Punchard

The photograph on the right shows the factory before WW1. The foreground is dominated by the wonderful steamship moored alongside, but on the far left you can see a trading wherry too. After the war, there was an acute shortage of sugar and, as demand rose, do too did the price. The machinery at Cantley had been maintained throughout the war and, in 1920, it was taken over by the English Sugar Beet Corporation and production resumed. During that decade a further 17 sugar beet processing factories were built around the UK to keep up with demand. During the inter-war years, the wherries bringing the beet to Cantley became few and eventually ceased as road networks improved. The tradition was revived briefly during the 1950s when the newly restored trading wherry Albion began delivering sugar beet to the factory once again, skippered by Nat Bircham. Her log book, extracts of which can be found within the “Archives” section of the Norfolk Wherry Trust’s website, mentions that she sank twice whilst undertaking this task. The first time, in Hardley Dyke, was thought to have been caused by her bow being held up when the tide fell. She was pumped out by the Loddon fire brigade and refloated. The second occasion, in December 1959, was a little more serious as she sunk in deep water at Berney Arms whilst moored overnight. The services of May Gurney & Co. were called upon and it took three days to get her back up again. Once afloat, she was towed to Lowestoft where a thorough examination revealed only superficial damage. However, the Trust decided to retire her from such heavy cargo carrying duties in future.

The sugar beet factory at Cantley today

The factory at Cantley continued to expand over the years but is now one of only four sugar beet factories remaining in the UK. Between them they process around 1.3 million tonnes of sugar beet from over 750 British growers.  It must have been quite an astonishing sight to the old wherrymen and pleasure boaters when it first appeared on the landscape in 1912 and was probably as controversial back then as it is today! I still kind of like it though.

Update – March 12th 2014 Memories of Cantley Ferry in the 1950s from Patrick Brister in a blog update on the River Yare ferries.

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