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