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Postwick Viaduct

Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridges

Reedham Swing Bridge

Breydon Rail Viaduct

Breydon Road Bridge

Haven Bridge

Proposed Third River Crossing

This is the second in a series of articles on the bridges past and present of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads which aim to provide a little bit of the history surrounding them, along with photographs old and new where possible. Alongside the articles you will also find an interactive map for each river which marks the positions of the bridges and gives brief historical notes.

Until the opening of the Postwick viaduct as part of the Norwich Southern Bypass in the early 1990s, there were no road crossing points on the River Yare until Great Yarmouth. The Yare does have a very long history of ferry crossing points however and, during the 19th century, there are thought to have been more than twenty of them operating at various points between Norwich and Great Yarmouth. Many of these were foot passenger ferries, where a ferryman would simply row you across the river.

An 1827 map marks there having been foot ferries at Whitlingham, Surlingham, Coldham, Buckenham, Cantley, Langley and Reedham amongst others. The last, traditional foot ferry to operate on the River Yare was at Coldham Hall. The landlord of the inn from the late 1930s was Harry Last who also ran the ferry, a pontoon on the opposite side of the river had a bell which could be rung should you require passage. In John May’s “The Norfolk Broads Holiday Book and Pocket Pilot” published in 1952 he makes mention of the ferry, the fare for which was one ha-penny for foot passengers or a penny if you brought your bicycle.  Harry Last continued to operate the ferry until the mid 1970s when he retired.  

In the early 20th century there were also three, larger pontoon ferries running on the Yare at Reedham, Buckenham and Surlingham. Often referred to as “Horse Ferries” because they were capable of carrying a horse and cart across the river, these were hauled from one riverbank to the other by a rope or chain, initially by hand but later by mechanical winch.

Surlingham Ferry c1900

It is thought that there had been a ferry operating at Buckenham since the middle ages, but just how vital a service these ferries provided, and how busy they were was colourfully illustrated by Peter Henry Emerson in his book “On English Lagoons” which was published in 1893. On mooring up at Buckenham he wrote: “Day and night the ferry-bell was jingling and the winch clanking as the actors of country life passed before us in endless panorama. Milk carts, carrier’s carts, wagons laden with grain, flocks of sheep attended by shepherds and barking collies, stylish ladies in smart Norfolk carts and herds of cattle. Those animals nearest the water stood with forelegs firmly planted and backs raised, bellowing with fright as they stared into the swift river as the ferry crossed over. After them passed and old granny with a child in a perambulator, a shy-looking couple with much luggage, a portly farmer going to catch a train, and lastly, the lord of the manor passed over.

The ferry at Buckenham ceased operating in the early 1938.

Surlingham Ferry pictured c1900 -  image reproduced by courtesy of http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

In 1806, Francis Blomefield wrote “The Ferry called Surlingham Ferry is a very great passage over the river and the ferry-boat is both large, safe and convenient.”  Again, this continued operating into the twentieth century, the horses and carts which once crossed being replaced by motor cars and trucks! I have seen reports that the ferry at Surlingham was involved in a collision with a coaster in the later 1930s, but evidence suggests that it was actually withdrawn from service c1943. The only surviving chain ferry on the River Yare, and the Norfolk broads, is found at Reedham. There are records of a ferry crossing at this point dating back to at least the 17th century, and a small foot ferry also operated here into the 20th century. It seems that many of the pontoon ferries in the UK were closed down in the 1940s after a report into ferry operations in Britain was commissioned by the Ministry Of Transport.

The Ferries Committee report in 1949 was quite scathing of Reedham, claiming that the wooden ramps used for boarding actually damaged vehicles and that drivers were detouring to Norwich or Great Yarmouth to cross the Yare rather than use it. They recommended that it should be withdrawn from service and that a road bridge should be built instead. Despite several calls over the years for a road bridge at Reedham, the ferry shows no signs of being replaced any time soon! It has been run by the Archer family since 1949; the ferry at that time was capable of carrying two cars across the river. It operated for nearly fifty years before being replaced in the early 1980s with the current one. It was designed and built by Fred Newson at Oulton Broad and is now powered by two Nanni diesel engines with a hydraulic winch. Rather than detour to avoid using it, the ferry has become quite a tourist attraction in its own right over the years.

Reedham Ferry - Carol Gingell July 2009

Reedham Ferry

Postwick Viaduct - clearance: 35’

Heading downstream on the Yare from it’s junction with the Wensum at Trowse Eye, Postwick (pronounced Pozick) Viaduct is the first bridge you will encounter,  and is only road bridge to cross the river until you reach Great Yarmouth. The bridge is part of the A47 Norwich Southern bypass which was opened in September 1992 at a total cost of £62 million.

Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridges – clearance: 6’

The rail bridges at Thorpe St. Andrew were originally built as part of the Norwich and Yarmouth Railway which opened in May 1844, engineered by George and Robert Stephenson. This line became part of the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1904, and then part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.

Cooke & Wheatstone telegraph machine

Whites Directory of 1845 said of the new line: “The Yarmouth and Norwich Railway is a single line, with electric telegraphs, and has commodious stations at each terminus, and smaller stations at the Brandon Junction, (one mile from the Norwich station,) at Brundall, Buckenham, Cantley, and Reedham, from the latter of which it is now proposed to make a branch line direct to Lowestoft. Its length is 20½ miles, and passing along the vale of the Yare, within a short distance of the north bank of the river, its gradients are so favourable, that Messrs. Grissell and Peto contracted for the execution of the whole of the works at the rate of £10,000 per mile. It was opened to the public May 1st, 1844, and the event was marked with great festivity and rejoicing; for, though there are different opinions as to the benefits conferred by railways, so general has been there adoption, and so effectually do they draw all inland communication into their vortex, that no place of consequence can rest satisfied without connecting itself with the main lines which now traverse the kingdom in all directions.”


The electric telegraph mentioned is significant because, on opening, the Norwich and Yarmouth Railway was the first in the UK to have a telegraph “block” system installed along its length to convey messages between stations. Prior to this, messages had to be written down and either sent with the next train or, if urgent, delivered via horseback. Whites Directory noted: “By means of the Electric Telegraphs on the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway, a question may be asked at one end of the line, and an answer returned from the other almost instantaneously.

The Cooke & Wheatstone telegraph machine installed on the Norwich and Yarmouth Railway in 1844

The Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph system used machines which had two needles which operated in a similar way to Morse code with each letter of the alphabet being represented by a different set of deflections of the needles rather than dots and dashes.


n crossing the River yare at Thorpe, the low, fixed rail bridges were obviously going to become a serious navigational hazard for river traffic coming in and out of Norwich and so a new cut was dug to bypass Thorpe Green, thus creating what we now know as Thorpe Island. The first bridges were built of timber and the line was single track. In the early 1870s, the track was widened to become double track, and the nearby Whitlingham station was built.

Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridge 1904

Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridge - Donald Shields 1904

In 1874, whilst still awaiting inspection before the new line could be opened, a tragic and devastating accident occurred near to the eastern bridge at Thorpe when two trains collided. The London to Yarmouth Express train had been delayed at Norwich and would usually be given straight passage through, any other trains heading from Great Yarmouth were held on a side track at Brundall until it had passed. Confused communications between stations meant that the mail train heading to Norwich was given the go ahead to proceed before the express train had gone though. Despite desperate attempts to telegraph messages of the error through to Brundall, it was too late to stop the mail train which collided at high speed with the oncoming express train. The explosion could apparently be seen in Norwich, 25 people were killed and hundreds of others were seriously injured.

Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridge East Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridge West

The eastern Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridge - Carol Gingell May 2009

The western Thorpe St. Andrew Rail Bridge - May 2009

The current rail bridges were constructed by the LNER (London & North Eastern Railway) which was formed after the railways company’s grouped together in 1923. As mentioned, the original course of the River Yare runs under the rail bridges and alongside Thorpe Green. Spanning this section of the river is another bridge which was constructed by the Jenner’s boatyard during their expansion in the late 1960s. At that time the yards of Wards, Jenners and Hearts were almost operating as one yard, the bridge was to provide a means of getting customers over the river to the island. Shortly after the bridge was built, Jenners was taken over by the Caister Group who redistributed the fleet and closed down the yard at Thorpe. The land where the yard once stood was re-developed and housing was built in its place.

Postwick Bridge Thorpe foot bridge

Reedham Swing Bridge - clearance: 10’ 3”

Reedham Swing Bridge c1890

The first swing bridge at Reedham was opened in 1847 by Sir Samuel Morton Peto on behalf of the Lowestoft Railway and Harbour Company. This line branched off of the main Norwich to Yarmouth line, crossed the Yare at Reedham, running alongside the Haddiscoe New Cut before crossing the Waveney at Somerleyton and heading into Lowestoft. The original Reedham and Somerleyton swing bridges were built at the same time and are thought to have been almost identical. They were attributed to George Bidder who was the principal assistant to Robert Stephenson.

The bridge had a cast iron deck with timber piles, was single track and was operated by a hand winch. A wire was attached to the bridge framework just below the deck, this ran from the winch to the central pier where it looped around a pulley and then came back to the winch.

The first Reedham Swing Bridge  -  image reproduced by courtesy of http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

When the Great Eastern Railway took over the line in 1904, they began a series of modernisation and improvements which included the replacement of the bridges at Reedham and Somerleyton. The line became double track, the new bridge at Reedham being built alongside the old one before the main line was finally realigned to connect with it. This bridge is the one which is still in use today over 100 years after it was first opened. The bridge rests on two end piers, with a central pivot pier constructed of brick with timber piles. The central pier is 27ft 6in in diameter and supports the central pivots when the bridge is closed. Three wrought iron girders measuring 139ft in length bear the live load and these rotate on 16inch cast iron wheels when the bridge swings to allow passage for river traffic. Two truss girders bear the weight of the bridge when it is open. The winching system is very similar to that which operated the original bridge, although this is now done by electrical means rather than by hand.

Reedham Swing Bridge

Breydon Rail Viaduct - closed 1953

The first bridge to span Breydon Water was a rail swing bridge which was built by the Midland and Great Northern Railway Company. Construction began in 1899 and the bridge was opened in 1903, connecting Great Yarmouth Beach Station with the Great Eastern Line’s South Town Station at Gorleston. At 800 feet in length, the Breydon Bridge was the largest structure on the MGN line, cost over £38,000 to build and consisted of five spans set on pilings, one span which swung open to allow passage for river traffic. The opening span swung centrally on a cast iron plinth which, when open, gave two 60 foot channels for vessels to pass through. The line was single track, with a signal box at either end and river traffic was given priority over the trains. The bridge could be swung by just one person, although it could apparently take up to ten minutes to open fully in adverse weather conditions.

Breydon Viaduct pictured in 1903  -  image reproduced by courtesy of http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

Breydon Viaduct 1903

The building of the bridge coincided with it the development of Gorleston into a major holiday resort, as between 1898 and 1903 the whole area of the seafront was remodelled by the borough surveyor, J.W. Cockrill. The beach gardens were laid out, the Cliffside was grassed, Marine Parade was extended and the shops on the promenade were built. A ravine was cut into the cliff with a bridge across the top and ornate “Roman Shelters” were constructed. With the expected influx of visitors the new rail bridge would bring, many new hotels and other buildings were also erected.

Aerial photographs taken during the war years showed that the bridge was heavily fortified to defend what was a major transport route. A large, barbed wire enclosure lay on either side of the line, immediately north of the bridge and a number of military buildings were erected along with a possible spigot mortar emplacement. What was considered to be the very real threat of an enemy invasion during WW2 led to all of the bridges within the area being heavily guarded. The remains of pill boxes can still be found in the vicinity of some of the Broadland river crossings and a few of the bridges are known to have had chambers fitted where explosives could be laid, ready to destroy them to try to hamper enemy troops should an invasion occur.

Breydon Viaduct 1903

Another photograph of Breydon Viaduct from 1903 - image courtesy of http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

In the years following the war, it was thought that the Breydon Viaduct would be likely to need some major and costly repairs due to its age. It was felt that this would not be economically viable and the bridge was closed in September 1953. It was left standing for ten years before finally being demolished in 1963 when it was then sold for scrap, although the pilings were left in situ until the building of the Breydon Road Bridge in the 1980s.

You can find out more about the Breydon Rail Viaduct and the history of the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston rail network on the Berney Arms website.


Breydon Road Bridge - clearance: 13’ 3” fixed and 11’ 6” lifting section

As road traffic around Great Yarmouth and Gorleston increased during the 1970s, the area began to suffer severe congestion problems with long queues of vehicles building up at peak periods. The construction of a new road bridge crossing Breydon Water began in 1984 as part of the Great Yarmouth A12 western bypass and the Gorleston inner relief road. The new bridge was supplied and erected by Cleveland Bridge Ltd. of County Durham and, although completed in 1985, it was not officially opened to road traffic until early in 1986 when the rest of the bypass had been finished. The bridge closely follows the line of the old rail viaduct and, during construction the original pilings were finally removed to make way for the new bridge. The lifting arm weighs around 500 tons and is raised by hydraulics, taking just 90 seconds to open fully. A standby generator was installed as a back up in case of power failure.

Breydon Road Bridge

Haven Bridge - clearance: 9’ 6”

The Haven Bridge connects the Southtown area of Gorleston to Great Yarmouth . The name “Haven” actually refers to the harbour, the history of which is rather interesting in itself. During the middle ages the River Yare exited into the North Sea at a more southerly point than it does today and the River Bure also exited into the North Sea between Great Yarmouth and Caister. Both rivers gave access to Great Yarmouth and had quays, but the mouth of the Bure (known as Grubb’s Haven) was the most important entrance into the port. Like Norwich, Great Yarmouth also began to construct a series of defences around the town during medieval times. Work began on building the town walls in 1276, with two large entrance gates to the North and South, and sixteen towers between, a task which was not completed until 1396. The mouths of both rivers became silted up during this period – with no dredgers to call upon, the only course of action that could be taken was to cut a new entrance by hand. The decision was made to maintain the navigation into the port along the Yare and to abandon Grubb’s Haven to the North. In 1346 the first new “Haven” was cut to the North Sea, further south than the present harbour entrance. This new entrance also silted up and, over the next two hundred years, a series of new havens were cut across the South Denes and then abandoned when they too formed sand bars across the entrance. Each attempt brought the haven closer to the town until finally, in 1560, the seventh and final cut gave us the harbour entrance we have today, completed by two stone piers at the entrance which were built under the direction of the Dutch engineer Joas Johnson. The South Pier, known as the Old Dutch Pier, was replaced by the current, concrete structure in 1962, having stood the test of time for 300 years.

The first bridge to cross the River Yare at Southtown was erected in 1427. There had been a horse, cattle and foot ferry crossing at this point since at least 1261 and in fact a foot ferry still continued to operate until the end of the 19th century. This was replaced in 1553 by a wooden drawbridge which was recorded as having been carried away by a high tide in 1570, a second drawbridge was built in the same year at a cost  of £403 15s 9d. Just how busy the port of Great Yarmouth was can be noted from the fact that 700 vessels were recorded as being in the Haven on one day in 1597.

The problems with silting up at the harbour mouth and in the Rivers Yare, Bure and Waveney continued during the 17th century and further trenches were cut through the sandbars which formed. In 1721 an act was passed which stated that half of the amount of harbour duties received by the port were to be spent on improving the Haven and it’s piers and jetties, a quarter spent on deepening and cleaning the three rivers and repairing the bridge and public quays at Yarmouth and that the remaining quarter was to be used in cleansing and deepening Breydon.

The fourth Haven BRidge

An illustration showing the fourth Haven Bridge  -  image courtesy of http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

Haven Bridge c1890

Presumably, the repairs were carried out to the bridge as it remained standing until 1786 when it was then replaced by bridge number four, another wooden drawbridge which cost just over £2,000 to build. In 1845 two tenders were received for replacing the bridge with a more solid structure, the first from Mr Peto quoted costs of over £32,000, the second received from Mr W.S. Simpson at just over £19,000. The Norfolk Mercury reported on the 19th July 1845 that Mr Simpson’s tender had been accepted by the ports commissioners but the plans had been postponed as he had not complied with their terms. In 1849 the “Yarmouth Bridge Bill” was passed and work finally began on the construction of the new bridge. It seems as though the old bridge was left in situ  whilst the new one was being built as the Norwich Mercury of the 8th May 1852 reported that the coffer damn at the new bridge works had blown up, whilst the following day the old bridge had been on fire. The works were once again stopped in the September of 1852 due to “quicksands”. Five years after construction had commenced, the new Haven Bridge was opened to the public on October 21st 1854. The total costs were around £60,000 and 2,600 tons of stone and 300 tons of iron were used. The central, lifting span rested on two stone piers and each arm weighed approximately 45 tons.

The previous Haven Bridge pictured c1890 by Thomas Ayers  -  image courtesy of http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

The current Haven Bridge was opened by HRH the Prince of Wales on the 21st October 1930 and thousands of people lined the quays and rooftops to witness the event. The double bascule lifting bridge measures approximately 230 feet in length, provides a navigation channel of 88 feet in width and was manufactured by Sir William Arrol & Co. Ltd whose portfolio also included the Forth Rail Bridge in 1890, Tower Bridge in 1894 and the Nile Bridge at Cairo in 1908. The 650 ton lifting arms are raised electrically, although can be operated manually in the event of a power failure. The bridge suffered severe congestion problems during the 1970s and 1980s until the opening of the Breydon Road Bridge in 1986. After 70 years of service, the Haven Bridge was restored for the millennium and new lighting was added at that time.

Haven Bridge

Haven Bridge 2006 - © Copyright Katy Walters and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The increase in population, and the development of road vehicles during the early part of the 20th century, meant that yet another new bridge would be needed. The old bridge closed in 1928 and a temporary wooden structure was erected to allow access in and out of Great Yarmouth until the new one was built.

Proposed Third River Crossing

There are proposals for a third river crossing on the Yare with the redevelopment of the outer harbour industrial area at Great Yarmouth to reduce the traffic congestion problems associated with the other road bridges in the town. The new crossing will connect the Southtown area of Gorleston with South Deans, four possible locations were looked at for either a bridge or tunnel crossing the Yare but it is likely that the cheaper, dual carriageway bridge scheme will be adopted. Estimated costs for the lifting bridge are between £112 to £122 million and would probably result in around 35 homes being demolished in Queen Annes Road and Southtown to make way for the structure. The alternative tunnel option has estimated costs of £376 million and would cross from Ballast Quay to the Harfreys roundabout. It is thought that funding is unlikely to be available for either option until 2016 at the earliest.

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Bridges of the Norfolk Broads

The River Yare