A canal in Nor­folk?

It’s in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to rivers and some­times mis­taken for a river, but the North Wal­sham & Dil­ham is not only Nor­folk’s only canal, it’s on the way to be­ing Nor­folk’s only nav­i­ga­ble canal


Acanal in Nor­folk? Are you sure? That might be a rea­son­able re­ac­tion on hear­ing that there’s a group of peo­ple who have set out to re­store a canal in north Nor­folk. After all, the county’s fa­mous for its sys­tem of rivers, for the as­so­ci­ated large ex­panses of wa­ter that give the Broads their name, and for its sea­side.

But it’s re­ally not what you’d think of as canal coun­try. And per­haps that’s one rea­son why those in­volved in the North Wal­sham & Dil­ham Canal restora­tion have had a bit of a strug­gle at times to per­suade the rel­e­vant bod­ies that yes, it re­ally would be a good idea to put wa­ter and boats back in the canal – and no, let­ting its wa­ters flow freely doesn’t rep­re­sent ‘restora­tion’.

In fair­ness, though, it is a rather un­usual canal with one or two quite river-like fea­tures: it has mills along­side some of its locks, its lower reaches are tidal and its route is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with one of the Broadland rivers, the River Ant.

The Ant was nat­u­rally nav­i­ga­ble to near Dil­ham, and the aim of the canal was to ex­tend nav­i­ga­tion up­wards fol­low­ing the higher reaches of the river to­wards North Wal­sham. It took 15 years from the first pro­pos­als un­til it reached the stage of work be­gin­ning, but once the gang of 100 Bed­ford­shire bankers, ex­pe­ri­enced dyke dig­gers who could shift ten tons a day, ar­rived on site in April

1825 they didn’t hang about. The canal was com­pleted in just 14 months.

Just un­der nine miles long with six locks, it fol­lowed the Ant from above Way­ford Bridge via Hon­ing, Brig­gate, Ebridge and Swafield to Ant­ing­ham. Although it fol­lowed the river, used the Ant and its trib­u­taries as its wa­ter sup­ply, and fea­tured wa­ter­mills along­side sev­eral locks, it course was al­most en­tirely in­de­pen­dent of the nat­u­ral river route – jus­ti­fy­ing its sta­tus as a canal.

Oh and in­ci­den­tally, just in case you were won­der­ing why nei­ther North Wal­sham town nor Dil­ham vil­lage fea­tured in the list of places on the route, well, it didn’t ac­tu­ally pass through ei­ther of them. In fact its route is en­tirely ru­ral and in very at­trac­tive coun­try­side.

Although not a prof­itable con­cern, the canal ful­filled a use­ful role car­ry­ing grain and other agri­cul­tural prod­ucts for sev­eral decades un­til the ar­rival of the rail­ways in the 1870s be­gan to take trade away from the wa­ter­way.

The up­per­most length in­clud­ing Swafield Locks was closed in 1893 but traf­fic con­tin­ued on the re­main­der of the route, grad­u­ally de­clin­ing un­til the mo­tor wherry Ella car­ried her last load of bar­ley from Bac­ton Wood in 1934.

While the con­di­tion of the locks and chan­nel de­te­ri­o­rated with dis­use, as a ru­ral wa­ter­way run­ning through a quiet area the canal didn’t suf­fer the dam­age from road im­prove­ments or com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ments which have made restora­tion dif­fi­cult for more ur­ban or in­dus­trial wa­ter­ways.

In fact when wa­ter­way restora­tion leg­end David Hutch­ings (who mas­ter­minded the Strat­ford and Up­per Avon re­open­ings) took a look at it in 1972, he felt that it would be one of the most straight­for­ward to re­store. How­ever al­most three decades would pass be­fore prac­ti­cal restora­tion work be­gan.

That’s not to say that noth­ing was done: the Norwich Branch of the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion car­ried out clear­ance of the lower reaches and var­i­ous at­tempts were made to nav­i­gate as far as pos­si­ble up the tidal length.

From the 1990s it was the East Anglian Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion (and in par­tic­u­lar Alan Faulkner, to whom a great deal of credit is due for get­ting things mov­ing) which was tak­ing a lead in pro­mot­ing restora­tion. This led to meet­ings, re­search, sur­veys (of the state of the chan­nel, the struc­tures, and the

‘Although it fol­lowed the River Ant, used the Ant and its trib­u­taries as its wa­ter sup­ply and fea­tured wa­ter­mills along­side sev­eral locks, its course was al­most en­tirely in­de­pen­dent of the nat­u­ral river route – jus­ti­fy­ing its sta­tus as a canal’

en­vi­ron­ment), and even­tu­ally to restora­tion work­ing par­ties be­gin­ning in 2001 – just in time to be stopped by the foot-and-mouth dis­ease out­break.

When work was per­mit­ted to be­gin again, the EAWA vol­un­teers con­cen­trated on the lower end of the canal, with work­ing par­ties at Brig­gate Lock aimed at pre­vent­ing fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the struc­ture by con­trol­ling veg­e­ta­tion and re­mov­ing tree roots.

Clear­ance also took place at Bac­ton Wood Lock – where the site had be­come so over­grown that the first work­ing party failed to find the lock at all – but Brig­gate and Hon­ing were the fo­cus of much of the early at­ten­tion. The short arm lead­ing to Hon­ing Staithe (wharf) was com­pletely cleared, opened to ca­noes and other light craft, a path was cre­ated along­side it.

The re­sult was a great deal of lo­cal in­ter­est and an en­vi­ron­men­tal award. And Brig­gate saw two years of work to clear the mill pond, which had been un­der threat of in­fill­ing for car park­ing. Fi­nally, up at Ebridge Lock, the large spillway built to carry sur­plus wa­ter around the lock was re­dis­cov­ered un­der 2ft of mud.

Up to now, work had been car­ried out un­der the aus­pices of EAWA, an or­gan­i­sa­tion with a wide brief cov­er­ing many eastern wa­ter­ways, but in 2008 the North Wal­sham & Dil­ham Canal Trust was founded to con­cen­trate on the canal.

In the fol­low­ing year came a change of own­er­ship which would have a ma­jor ef­fect on the canal.

The owner of Bac­ton Wood Mill bought the up­per length of canal be­tween Ebridge and Swafield from the North Wal­sham Canal Com­pany. His in­ten­tion was to re­wa­ter it, to en­able him to re­store the wa­ter­mill to op­er­a­tion.

But as this work went on, he be­came more in­ter­ested in restor­ing the canal it­self. This work be­gan with the mill pond but ex­tended to de­silt­ing the chan­nel, re­pair­ing the banks and look­ing to re­store Bac­ton Wood Lock.

Prospects were look­ing good for the restora­tion. But then the En­vi­ron­ment Agency im­posed a stop or­der pre­vent­ing any fur­ther work. Why? Be­cause, in the agency’s view, the canal wasn’t a canal at all but a river which needed to be re­turned to its nat­u­ral state in line with Gov­ern­ment pol­icy. No mat­ter that the wa­ter­way was 90 per­cent man-made canal – an ap­peal led to a pub­lic in­quiry, which the EA won. There was a feel­ing in the trust that the EA staff in the area were sim­ply un­fa­mil­iar with canals. There was even talk of the agency in­sist­ing on an ab­strac­tion li­cence be­ing needed ev­ery time a lock was filled.

Not­with­stand­ing the de­ci­sion, the sec­tions that had al­ready been re­wa­tered were left in wa­ter and en­joyed by ca­noeists, peo­ple used the paths, wildlife

be­came es­tab­lished and the part-re­stored length be­came an as­set to the lo­cal com­mu­nity. But un­for­tu­nately the EA rul­ing also had an ef­fect on the lower sec­tion, where NWDCT (and be­fore them EAWA) had been con­cen­trat­ing their vol­un­teer ef­forts.

In the light of the rul­ing, the canal com­pany, which still owns this length, was no longer so happy to see vol­un­teer work on the canal. So the trust’s work has been re­stricted to reed clear­ance, bank main­te­nance and lit­tle more.

The EA stop or­der was al­most five years ago. Since then, re­la­tions with the agency have im­proved con­sid­er­ably – not quite to the point of ad­mit­ting that the de­ci­sion was wrong, but to the point of agree­ing to a one-month trial re­wa­ter­ing of a fur­ther length of canal reach­ing right up to Swafield, in or­der to test the banks with a view to per­ma­nent re­wa­ter­ing and also be­ing help­ful with per­mis­sion to work on locks and spill­ways

Mill owner Laurie Ash­ton has con­tin­ued his work at Bac­ton Wood. The lock which was so over­grown that a work­ing party ten years ear­lier had failed to find it has now been com­pletely re­built. Top gates have been built and fit­ted (in­cor­po­rat­ing the orig­i­nal iron bal­ance beams which were an un­usual fea­ture of the canal) and bot­tom gates will fol­low.

Down at Ebridge, the huge over­flow spillway that had been buried un­der 2ft of mud has been ex­posed and is sched­uled for work this sum­mer.

This will be the site for the canal’s first ever Wa­ter­way Re­cov­ery Group Canal Camps. Teams of vol­un­teers will de­scend upon the site for a fort­night, with the plan be­ing to re­move the con­crete re­pairs dat­ing from the Sec­ond World War (when the canal formed part of one of a se­ries of de­fence lines across the coun­try) and re­build the spillway in orig­i­nal brick.

That brings the story up to date but what of the fu­ture? As­sum­ing the au­thor­i­ties can be kept happy, the re­gat­ing of Bac­ton Wood Lock and the re­moval of a tem­po­rary dam above the lock will open up a nav­i­ga­ble length from Roys­ton Bridge to Ebridge of around a mile and a quar­ter with one work­ing lock.

Ex­ten­sion be­yond that length will re­quire one of two things: at the up­per end, Roys­ton Bridge (the only bridge on the en­tire canal to have been cul­verted – ap­par­ently il­le­gally) will need to be re­built. At a cost of over £2m that might sound a tall or­der – but the cul­vert is show­ing signs of need­ing at­ten­tion, and with the county coun­cil (which is very sup­port­ive of the canal restora­tion) hav­ing agreed that any re­place­ment will be fully nav­i­ga­ble, there re­ally is a good chance of it hap­pen­ing in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.

And (as­sum­ing the suc­cess of the trial re­wa­ter­ing) that opens up nav­i­ga­tion through to Swafield – which NWDCT sees as the limit of fu­ture restora­tion.

At the lower end of the cur­rent sec­tion, at Ebridge Lock, fur­ther ex­ten­sion will re­quire the lock to be re­stored (and it doesn’t look to be in bad con­di­tion) – but also the North Wal­sham Canal Com­pany (whose sec­tion be­gins there) to come around to the idea of re­open­ing their lengths of the canal.

If that can be achieved, then with the Broads Au­thor­ity al­ready sup­port­ive of any ex­ten­sion to its wa­ters and the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties all in favour, per­haps David Hutch­ings will one day be proved right. Maybe a ‘straight­for­ward’ restora­tion will see boats from the Broads cruis­ing through onto the canal that leads nei­ther to North Wal­sham nor to Dil­ham, but to the quiet and at­trac­tive scenery of the up­per Ant val­ley.

‘As­sum­ing the au­thor­i­ties can be kept happy, the re­gat­ing of Bac­ton Wood Lock and the re­moval of a tem­po­rary dam a lit­tle way above the lock will open up a nav­i­ga­ble length from Roys­ton Bridge to Ebridge of around a mile and a quar­ter with one work­ing lock’

The new bot­tom gates go in at Bac­ton Wood Lock

This sum­mer’s project is to re­store Ebridge Lock spillway

After: The mill pond has now been com­pletely cleared

Be­fore: Ebridge Lock mill pond had to­tally silted up

The old days: sail­ing wher­ries at Bac­ton Wood

Build­ing new gates for Bac­ton Wood Lock

The re­built Bac­ton Wood Lock and cleared sec­tion of canal

Up­per reaches of the canal near Swafield

Well pre­served orig­i­nal bridge at Brig­gate

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