Aylsham Navigation (Bure River) Norfolk Broads
Although the Norfolk Broads appear to be completely natural, they are actually completely man made, their creation was not for the use of boats however. The Norfolk landscape was rich in peat and hundreds of years of digging left great quarries across the countryside. In time these filled with water creating small lakes which we now know as the Broads.
Today, the Norfolk Broads are one of Britain’s most popular holiday destinations though the Broads themselves provide only a part of the attraction. Norfolk has a whole network of rivers which connect the Broads to local towns and to the sea. These rivers are now festooned with hire boat bases and holiday cottages but before the holiday onslaught there was a thriving commercial trade which often provided small communities with their only means of transport.
The heart of the Broads network is Great Yarmouth and, in particular, Breydon Water where the River Bure, River Yare and River Waveney all meet to run into the sea. The river Bure (also sometimes known as the North River) is the most northerly of the 3 main Broadlands rivers. It is also probably the busiest river in Britain, seeing thousands of boats every month including cabin cruisers, yachts, rowing boats, speed boats and dinghies.
The lower reaches of the river, from Great Yarmouth (ref TG521081) to Coltishall (ref TG271193) (a distance of about 30 miles) have always been navigable and it is along these stretches that the main bulk of the navigable Norfolk Broads are situated. In its time, the River Bure has been navigable much further upstream than its current head of navigation at Coltishall. At one time it reached Aylsham, (TG197275) a further 9 miles upstream.
This stretch is generally known as the Upper River Bure Navigation though it is also sometimes called the Aylsham Navigation
In the 1600’s the head of navigation was very close to the navigable limit of today at Coltishall…
The first detailed mention of the River Bure as a navigation described goods being delivered to Mayton Hall (or Meyton Manor). Goods were carried from Great Yarmouth for 31¼ miles to Horstead Mill, just above Coltishall, where they would then be carried by land to towns such as Aylsham. It was also possible to navigate right up to Mayton Hall which still stands near the water’s edge at Little Hautbois, about 1 mile upstream of Horstead. Marl (used as fertiliser) was the main cargo heading downstream. This came from the Mayton Hall estate and was distributed to farms close to the river.
A plan was put together by John Adey to extend navigation beyond Horstead to Aylsham, a further 9 miles upstream. The scheme would include the building of new cuts to avoid mills and the construction of 5 locks. A Bill went to Parliament in January and an Act was authorised in April.
Within 14 months all preparations were completed and enough money raised to allow work to begin. John Smith was appointed engineer on what was to be known as the River Bure Navigation, sometimes referred to as the Aylsham Navigation (i.e. the upper reaches of the River Bure from Horstead to Aylsham).
The first lock was completed on the new navigation. This was at Horstead on a brand new cut which bypassed Horstead Mill at the previous head of navigation.
Work on the new navigation was always very slow but it came to a complete stop when the commissioners ran out of money.
Local landowners and traders rallied together to provide a loan so that work on the navigation could restart.
In March, when the navigation was almost complete, John Green of Wroxham became joint engineer with John Smith. In October the whole route was complete from Horstead to Aylsham. However, the commissioners made a survey just one month later and found the 3 feet depth had already diminished due to shoals, thus the new route had to be dredged within weeks of its completion. Silting up was a major problem in the following years with the riverbed having to be cleared many times.
Agricultural produce and bricks were among the main cargoes on the new navigation, carried by 26 wherries of which many were built on the river at Aylsham and Coltishall. Not everybody was happy with the success of the new navigation however. One critic, a Dr. Gaye, complained that trade to Horstead Mill and other such mills had been prejudiced, great damage had been done to the meadows of T.J.Batchelor Esq. and flooding was common between Coltishall and Mayton Bridge, causing fish and swans to be disturbed or stolen.
There are not a great deal of stories or events mentioned in the reference books about the commercial days of the River Bure Navigation – it apparently ran smoothly for many decades. Something which was mentioned was a unique – though rather ponderous – method of toll collection where boatmen had to collect a ticket at the start of their journey from the first lock keeper, wharfinger or some other designated navigation official and then hand it in to the official at the end of their journey. Detailed notices were posted giving the names of the officials who gave out and collected the tickets.
The River Bure Navigation enjoyed a monopoly in the Bure Valley for 110 years but this ended with the opening of the first railways in the area. Although it was a late arrival compared to elsewhere in the country, as soon as the East Norfolk Railway (later part of Great Eastern Railways) opened, it soon took the majority of trade away from the navigation. The new railway ran along the River Bure valley between Wroxham and Aylsham, creating direct competition for the navigation. This railway line still exists today and is now the Bure Valley Tourist Railway.
Other railways soon provided more competition for the navigation and for the lower reaches of the River Bure. These included the Yarmouth & North Norfolk Railway which later became Eastern & Midlands Railway and then became part of Midland & Great Northern Railway. Income on the River Bure Navigation began to drop annually though the route was still fairly busy for another 19 years. About this same time the lower reaches of the river experienced an unexpected boost. A boat yard in Wroxham began to hire out boats to holidaymakers. It is probable that many people saw this as a strange idea which would never take off – but it did and it eventually turned the River Bure into the busiest waterway in Britain.
Disastrous floods caused major damage to the locks on the River Bure Navigation (from Horstead to Aylsham). It was estimated that £4,000 was needed to repair the damage but the commissioners, with their ever reducing income, knew they could not afford to fix them. The navigation was never repaired and Aylsham never saw another wherry. Official abandonment came in 1928.
Above Coltishall the old abandoned navigation remains closed though restoration would certainly be a popular move. All but one of the locks are still on site though all have had their gates removed and have been replaced by sluices. The river below Coltishall has remained open and is now very popular and often incredibly crowded. The towns and villages along the route are jam-packed with hire bases and holiday accommodation.
River Bure Route
The navigable River Bure runs from a junction with the River Yare in Great Yarmouth (ref TG521081) to a former mill at Coltishall (TG268192). Formerly, the navigation continued to the north side of Aylsham (TG197275) though this stretch is now closed to boats.
The River Bure is (in effect) a tributary of the River Yare although it only joins the River Yare for the final couple of miles to the sea. To the west of the confluence of the two rivers is Breydon Water which leads to the upper reaches of the River Yare and to the River Waveney. Following the River Bure upstream from Great Yarmouth it immediately passes under the disused Vauxhall (railway) Bridge with Vauxhall Station on the west bank.
Within a few hundred yards is Acle Road Bridge which carries the A47 (TG521081). A little further north Great Yarmouth Yacht Station is on the east bank and Vauxhall Holiday Camp is on the west bank. At the end of the first mile the Great Yarmouth Port Authority’s jurisdiction ends at the point where the river curves around to head west away from the coast.
The next 5 mile stretch is devoid of any features other than the typical flat landscape of Norfolk. There are no villages, roads or mooring points on this stretch. In fact the waterway is very shallow off the navigable line and boats are advised to stick to the marked route.
For most of the stretch there are footpaths along both banks and it is via the south bank footpath that the isolated Six Mile House (TG459100) can be reached. About 4½ miles along this stretch the river bends south westerly and comes very close to the A47, as it does so it curves around to head north west. On the bend the river passes the Stracey Arms wind pump and pub (TG438090) which are both accessible from the river and from the A47.
The Norfolk Broads is home to hundreds of wind pumps (more commonly – but wrongly – referred to as wind mills). They come in all shapes and sizes and all states of repair. They were built to pump water from the low lying land. The Stacey Arms wind pump is open to the public, it contains photographs and a history of land drainage in the area.
One mile upstream of Stracey Arms is the village of Stokesby (TG430105) which is on the north bank. In the village is a candle makers workshop which is open to the public, the Ferry pub is on the river bank. At Stokesby the river turns west and just ¾ of a mile further on is the entrance to Muck Fleet. This is an unnavigable dyke which heads north east for 2½ miles to the very popular landlocked Filiby, Rollesby and Ormesby Broads. These are all interconnected and are well used by yachts. There are numerous picnic areas and a caravan site on the banks as well as other attractions nearby such as the Bygone Heritage Village, Horse Mill Plantation and the Norfolk Rare Breeds Centre.
Back on the River Bure, within another ¼ of a mile the route bends around to the north. On the west side of the bend is the entrance to Acle Dyke (TG413106). This is just ¼ of a mile long and heads straight west into the village of Acle. Although the Rebas Riverside Inn is at the head of the dyke, no public mooring is allowed due to the narrowness of the channel.
However, Acle Marina (belonging to Blakes) is situated at the entrance of the dyke. Just over ½ a mile north of Acle is a bend to the west and then the first road bridge since Acle Road Bridge at Great Yarmouth. This one is called Acle Bridge (TG414116), it carries the A1064 into Acle though when I was here in 1997 the original old bridge was being replaced by a new wider one. There are a number of hire bases near the bridge as well as the Bridge Inn. About ¼ of a mile north (along the road) is a small restaurant situated within St. Margaret’s Windmill.
The next mile sees the river curve back around to the north, passing Clippesby Windmill on the east bank and then the entrance of Upton Dyke (TG408131) on the west bank. This dyke heads south west for about ½ a mile to the village of Upton. There is a hire base, car park and moorings at the head of the dyke but the nearest pub marked on my Broads map is ¼ of a mile to the west at Upton Green.
The River Bure continues north to the entrance of South Oby Dyke which is on the east bank about ¾ of a mile past Upton Dyke. Just before South Oby Dyke is Upton Windmill (also on the east side) and just past the dyke is Oby Windmill (on the west bank). Both mills are isolated from roads though there is a footpath on both banks of the river along this stretch. The east side footpath goes right around South Oby Dyke which is very short and narrow and probably not navigable.
Another ¾ of a mile brings the river to a major junction (TG400152). Straight ahead to the north is the River Thurne while the River Bure turns sharp left and heads west. At the junction, called Thurne Mouth, on the east bank there is a caravan park with a small inlet alongside it. Just ½ a mile north on the River Thurne is one of the Broads most photographed items – Thurne Dyke wind pump. Beyond it the River Thurne is fully navigable as it heads off to the north east.
The next 1¼ miles of the River Bure meanders westward. One mile along this stretch brings the river to St. Benet’s Abbey (TG382155) on the north bank. The remains of the Abbey have stood ruined since the reign of Henry VIII though what you see today is actually only the gatehouse (entrance to the grounds). The actual abbey stood on a small hill about 600 yards north east.
A large cross stands in the field to mark the spot and once a year the Bishop of Norwich arrives by boat to conduct a service. At one point the remains of the gatehouse were used as a wind pump. Strangely the pump building (also now in ruins) was built inside the walls of the gatehouse and the two structures stand together, one poking out from the other. Like so many buildings on the river banks of the Broads, the St. Benet’s is completely isolated from major roads and can be reached only by boat or on foot.
Shortly after passing the abbey the river reaches the entrance to Fleet Dyke (TG378157) on the south bank. Fleet Dyke heads south west for one mile to South Walsham Broad. Differing from most other dykes, this one is not dead straight though its meanders are very gentle. This is because the dyke was originally the River Bure as it curved round on a southern loop.
Half way along the current dyke is a junction with an unnavigable dyke, this was where the original river curved around to rejoin its current course which now bypasses the loop. At the end of Fleet Dyke is the entrance to South Walsham Broad where there are some moorings and a hire base on the east side bank. A road runs along the eastern edge and there are two pubs away from the broad in South Walsham village. Upton Nature Reserve is along another minor road about one mile east of the village.
On a map South Walsham Broad is shaped something like a high-heel shoe with the spiked “stiletto heel” being a narrow inlet leading to South Walsham Plantation. This area is clearly a successful garden district as Fairhaven Garden Trust and Foxboro’ Plantation are also to the south of the broad. South Walsham Broad was described in 1972 as the most “unspoilt” of all the broads. The “toes” of the afore mentioned high-heel shoe is known as South Walsham Inner Broad which is said to be a haven for wild life enthusiasts. Motor boats are allowed on the inner broad though mooring is prohibited.
Back on the River Bure it is less than ½ a mile to another junction, this time on the north bank. This is Ant Mouth (TG375160), the entrance to the River Ant which heads north for several miles and is very popular with pleasure craft. It used to link with the North Walsham & Dilham Canal (now disused) and has a number of broads and dykes along its route. In fact, the junction with the River Ant is a “cross-roads” though the southern route from the cross is not navigable. This is the western end of Fleet Dyke, the original course of the River Bure (as mentioned above). Just past the cross-roads is another short dyke on the north bank leading to Horning Hall which overlooks the river.
The meanders of the River Bure are now getting steadily larger as the navigation continues upstream in a generally westward direction. To the south are Hadney, Waldron, Ranworth and Bure Marshes. After about one mile Ranworth Dyke leaves the river (TG360157) and heads across the marshland in a southerly direction. This dyke is less than ½ a mile long and leads to the navigable Malthouse Broad and the unnavigable Ranworth Broad.
At the southern end of the dyke, between the two broads, is the Broadland Conservation Centre which is unique in that it is a thatched timber building floating on a pontoon! The centre is home to a permanent exhibition depicting many aspects of the Broadlands natural history.
It is accessible by boat or on foot via a short nature trail from Ranworth village and is open every day except Friday. There are moorings on the north and south shores of Malthouse Broad and boat facilities on the south side at Ranworth Staithe. The Maltsters pub is also on the south side just across the road which runs along the southern edge of the broad.
Back on the river, half a mile upstream of Ranworth Dyke on the north bank is St. Benedict church. On the south bank there are nature trails around Bure Marshes Nature Reserve. About ¾ of a mile further on the river takes a sweeping right hand curve from south west to north. On the south side of the bend is the entrance to Cockshoot Dyke (TG347161). This is on the south bank but is only a few hundred yards in length. It leads to the unnavigable Cockshoot Broad which is more like a wide dyke than a broad. Cockshoot Broad Nature Reserve is at the southern end. Opposite the entrance to Cockshoot Dyke, on the north bank of the river, is Hobb’s Windmill and a number of inlets which lead to hire bases and holiday homes.
The entrance to Cockshoot Dyke marks the start of the north westerly stretch through Horning, the largest town on the river since Great Yarmouth and thought by many to be the prettiest place in the Broads. Along the south side is Riverbank Walk (TG344164) which takes a footpath from Cockshoot Dyke to a car park and river moorings beside Horning passenger ferry. Although my 1972 reference book reported that the ferry was no longer in use, I can confirm that it is in service during summer. It is just a small open decked boat which takes less than a minute to cross the river. Across the ferry on the north bank is Helska Leisure Centre with Horning Ferry Inn on the waters edge. This Inn was damaged during the war and was damaged again in the 1960’s when its thatched roof caught fire. Despite all this it is open today and is very popular.
The north westerly course of the River Bure through Horning is about one mile long. On the north east side there are a numerous small inlets while on the south west side is Fenn Wrights Dyke heading into Woodbastwick Marshes. However, almost all of the inlets and the dyke are private. The New Inn (the oldest in town!) is by the waters edge about ¾ of a mile upstream from the Ferry Inn. Between the two is a rather strange holiday home. It would be quite normal if not for the windmill on its roof!
The first official moorings come at the one mile mark (from the Ferry Inn) in the centre of Horning. The Swan Hotel, Horning Sailing Club and Mississippi Riverboat Trips are all situated on the acute left bend (TG339176) which sends the river out of town in a south westerly direction. Throughout the passage through Horning, the northern banks are lined with expensive looking holiday homes. Many of these appear in the Hoseasons and Blakes brochures.
Half a mile west of Horning is the entrance to Hoveton Little Broad (TG332173) on the north side of the river. This is also known as Black Horse Broad (named after a local pub) and is navigable only in summertime. Another ½ a mile westwards is Decoy Broad though there is no boat access from the river. Despite this, the broad is popular for sailing. The River Bure takes another sharp bend just past the north west corner of Decoy Broad, changing its course from west to south in one 90° turn. On the bend is yet another isolated windmill, Didlers Mill.
The river now takes on a large meander lasting over 3 miles. In the heyday of commercial operation wherries did not usually sail around this long loop because Hoveton Great Broad (TG324161) was then open to navigation, boats could cut across it to a dyke which ran into Hudson’s Bay and then back into the River Bure opposite Wroxham Broad.
Nowadays Hoveton Great Broad is closed to navigation and boats must travel around the long meander though of course this is not a hardship as there is plenty to see. The river starts its meander by heading south for one mile with Sedge Fen to the west. At the end of the mile the river turns west with Hoveton Great Broad to the north. While the broad is no longer open to boats, it is open to the public and is home to Hoveton Great Broad Nature Reserve. There is a “fascinating” nature trail around the broad which is open every day except Saturday, admission is free.
To the south of the river is Salhouse Broad (TG322157) which is not separated from the river by a dyke in the usual way. Instead, the separation between the river and the broad is made up by a number of small islands and by Salhouse Spit which is a thin stretch of land sticking out into the river. There are moorings on one of the islands and on the end of the spit.
A little further west on the south side of the river is Salhouse Little Broad. This is actually so little that it would be best described as an inlet. Past Salhouse Little Broad the river turns sharply right round from west to north east. Along the whole of the next one mile north easterly stretch the river is bordered on its west side by Wroxham Broad, the largest broad on the River Bure. It is about ¼ of a mile across and one mile long. It is separated from the river by one long thin island which has moorings on it. The broad is home to the Norfolk Broads Sailing Club and is open to all pleasure craft.
The river ends the long meander and curves west around the northern edge of Wroxham Broad (TG311164) to enter the stretch which passes through Wroxham itself. The area which is generally known as Wroxham is really two separate places.
The town of Wroxham is really only on the south side of the river with the area on the north officially known as Hoveton. Wroxham (TG302180) claims to be the Centre Of The Broads and while it is well off centre geographically, it is certainly the home base for the vast majority of Broads holidaymakers. In fact, it was here that pleasure boating began over 100 years ago. As the river travels through the town it passes numerous inlets which lead to well over a dozen major hire bases, many holiday homes, houseboats and apartments.
There are also lots of boating opportunities for those who have not actually come for a full boating holiday. Day boats or rowing boats can be hired from a number of places and trip boats run from a number of locations. Along the river and in the town there are lots of pubs, restaurants and shops including Roy’s “the largest village store in the world”. Wroxham road bridge (A1151) is the first vehicle crossing since Acle.
It is a rather low structure which can cause problems for boats after heavy rainfall. When the water rises boats can be stranded above the bridge until the level recedes. If this happens (or even if it doesn’t) visiting boats can make use of the large mooring area just above the bridge known as Hoveton Horseshoes. Just past the moorings is Wroxham railway bridge (TG301183) with Hoveton Viaduct adjoining it on the north bank. The viaduct carries the railway across dry land into Wroxham & Hoveton Station from where the Bure Valley Tourist Railway runs to Aylsham.
To the south of the river the railway also crosses the centre of the aptly named Bridge Broad. Although there are two connections to this broad from the river, only the western third of the broad is navigable with the two thirds nearest to Wroxham being closed to boats. Above the railway bridge there are more moorings on the north bank just before the river bends south and leaves the urban areas behind.
The river now loops round over a 2 mile stretch beginning by heading west but eventually ending up heading north east. On the loop are a couple of small unnavigable broads and numerous narrow dykes (or “cuts”) which are also off limit to boats. At the end of the loop the river arrives at Belaugh (TG288184) though it is just 600 yards west of a point that it past nearly 2 miles earlier. In Belaugh there is a hire base and moorings by the old staithe. This village has a very rare feature for the broads – it is built on a hill!
In Belaugh the River Bure turns north west and heads for one mile to Coltishall, continuing to bend and meander all the way. In Coltishall there are a number of mooring points, a car park and the Rising Sun pub by the waters edge. Beside the moorings is Coltishall Common (TG275196) which is very popular with visiting boat crews.
Beyond here the river takes an abrupt turn to the south west and travels for ½ a mile to the last turning point for large pleasure craft (TG271193). This is at the entrance to the “new” cut which was created in 1774 when the upper reaches were made navigable for the first time. The new cut takes the route west while the original course, which used to pass Horsetead Mill, loops around to the south.
This southern loop was the head of navigation before the new cut was created though it has been unnavigable since the 1770’s and, sadly, Horstead Mill burnt down as recently as 1963. The head of navigation is now just a few hundred yards along the new cut at Coltishall Lock (TG267194) which has been converted into a fixed sluice.
The lock has been out of operation since the floods of 1912 which caused the closure of the upper reaches, or River Bure Navigation. I visited this area in 1997 and found that the remains of the lock and the mill can be explored. The mill straddled the river and it is still possible to stand in the mill grounds and watch the Bure rushing beneath your feet.
The now unnavigable navigation from Coltishall Lock to Aylesham is about 9 miles long. Just above the lock the old course of the river rejoins the new cut and the river then passes under Horstead Bridge (TG266197) which carries the B-road from Horstead to Coltishall. Mayton Hall, which was mentioned in the river’s history in 1685, is one mile further upstream.
Three miles above Coltishall Lock is the site of Buxton Mill (TG237228) which is now a popular restaurant (despite claims of its destruction in one particular “authoritative” book). The mill is a four-storey white wheatherboarded building which, like the ruined Horstead Mill, sits astride the river.
Also similar to Horstead, there was a canalised cut here which avoided the mill stream. Buxton Lock was situated on the cut but it has now been completely wiped out, it stood directly beneath the new road bridge (the road having been widened in the 1960’s). A semi-detached Lock Cottage with adjoining “Weir Cottage” can still be seen close to the cut at the side of the mill.
The river stretch from Lamas to Oxnead is very pretty as the river loops around taking 2½ miles to cover about 1¼ miles as the crow flies. Oxnead lock is still standing though the bottom gates have been removed and the top gates have been made into a dam.
It is situated right alongside Oxnead Mill (TG226240) (another huge white weatherboarded building). The surroundings are very pretty though the grounds of the mill and the lock are on private land. The river above the lock runs right alongside a private drive (which leads to the mill) and then the former navigation passes under the road running from Brampton to Oxnead.
The penultimate lock is about 1½ miles further on at the strangely named Burgh Next Aylsham. This lock is even harder to locate and was presumably not built in the obvious place – beside the village road bridge. In 1972 it was described as a “teaser” to find as it was little more than a heap of rubble surrounded by trees. Unfortunately I think even this has gone now – or at least – I couldn’t spot it! I have since seen it listed as being at grid ref TG222249 which places it about 500 yards downstream of the pretty church in Burgh Next Aylsham. (I was looking in the other direction)!
The last lock is/was about 2 miles further on near Dunkirk on the northern outskirts of Aylsham (TG209271). Once again I could not reach it but the grid ref places it about 800 yards downstream of the A140 road bridge.
I did reach the end of the old navigation in Aylsham. The site of the wharf (TG197275) can still be seen with a number of old warehouses nearby. However, the wharf is now a lorry park and houses have been built where wherries once docked.
Very small craft (dinghies, canoes etc.) can still use the River Bure Navigation all the way from Coltishall to Aylsham, the local council has provided slipways at both ends for this purpose though boats will have to be lifted over the disused locks and/or around mills and new bridges.
The River Bure is incredibly popular with boaters but it is also fairly isolated. Views of it can be seen from all road bridges but footpaths are a hit and miss affair. The lower end of the river is easier to access but never assume that a path which starts at a bridge will continue along the banks. The above description includes info on many access points but here are some of my favourites…
Stacey Arms (TG438090), a large windmill (pump) and pub stand between the river and the busy A47 just east of Acle. The pump is very interesting and very well situated as the landcape is flat and always windswept.
Acle Bridge (TG414116), a pub and easy access on the A1064 just north of Acle.
Salthouse Broad (TG359146), popular mooring spot with a green on the staithe, a post office, shop, restaurant and pub. Situated on the south bank at Ranworth on a narrow country lane just north of South Walsham. Also here is Ranworth Broad including a visitor centre and nature trail.
Horning, a long linear village with numerous holiday homes on the north bank. Best access to the river front is at either end of the village beside the Ferry Inn (TG344164) and the Swan Hotel (TG339176). The village is situated on the south side of the A1062.
Wroxham (TG302180), the capital of the Broads, a tourist centre with shops, pubs, take-aways, restaurants etc. Although the area around the bridge is entertaining, access to the water front is limited.
Coltishall Common (TG275196), a large grassy area on the riverbank much populated by ducks, geese and humans. There are two pubs at the moorings. Situated just east of Coltishall where the river and the B1354 run side by side.
Horstead Mill (remains) (TG267194), can be reached by walking from Horstead bridge (TG266197) (800 yards) or from the minor road heading south east out of Horstead.
Buxton Mill (TG237228), now a restaurant on the minor road between Buxton and Lamas.
Oxnead Mill (TG226240), a beautiful little area on the minor road between Brampton and Oxnead. The mill and lock are on private land but the owners (who live in the adjacent house) are friendly and do not own a big dog!!!