River Ant History

Today, the Norfolk/Suffolk Broads are one of Britain’s most popular holiday destinations though the broads themselves provide only a part of the attraction. The area 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 River Ant begins at a junction with the River Bure in the heart of the Norfolk Broads (ref TG375160). The head of navigation is at a staithe in Dilham (ref TG332255), 8 miles north of the junction with the Bure. North of here, what were once the upper reaches of the River Ant, are now known as the North Walsham Canal. The river’s source is at Antingham Ponds (ref TG257353).

Apparently, the River Ant has been navigable for many centuries, it connected Dilham and North Walsham to the River Bure, creating a direct link to the sea at Great Yarmouth. The waterways reference books do not give a full history of the river other than in the sections on the North Walsham & Dilham Canal which used the River Ant for part of its route. Today the river is very popular and is an important part of the Norfolk Broads network. In fact, there are a number of broads on the river itself.

River Ant Route

Following the River Ant upstream, the route begins at Ant Mouth on the River Bure (ref TG375160) to the east of Horning.

The junction has changed over the centuries with the river Bure now running from west to east whereas it used to turn south where the River Ant ran into it. The old southern course of the River Bure can still be seen along the unnavigable part of Fleet Dyke.

About ½ a mile north of Ant Mouth the River Ant reaches another unnavigable dyke. This one, named Hundred Dyke, heads east for about a mile and then enters the River Thurne. Past the dyke, the River Ant bends north west and comes to Ludham (road) Bridge (TG372171) within a few hundred yards.

Just before the bridge there is a boat yard on the east bank and there are public moorings on both banks above the bridge. The village of Ludham is 1½ miles east along the A1062 while Horning is 2 miles to the west. The nearest pub is the Dog Inn, about 800 yards east.

North of Ludham Bridge the River Ant meanders about but is ultimately heading north. After 2 miles it straightens out a little and passes Turf Fen Wind Pump on the west bank. The settlement of How Hill (TG369191) is a few hundred yards further upstream on the east bank. There are a a number of attractions in this tiny place, including How Hill Nature Reserve & Environment Centre, Boardman’s Trestle Mill and Toad Hole Cottage Museum. The latter is a tiny cottage in the nature reserve which has been preserved as a museum showing the living standards on the Broads about 100 years ago. By the river there are moorings, a car park and there is an information office inside the cottage.

One mile further north, on the west bank, is another small settlement. This is Irstead (TG366204) where there is a pretty church overlooking a green and a tiny staithe (wharf). To the north and south of this are some of the most attractive riverside residences to be seen anywhere in the country.

Half a mile further upstream the River Ant enters a very narrow and quite shallow section which lasts about 100 yards as it passes the unnavigable Turkey Broad and then broadens out into a wide pool of water known as Barton Broad (TG362210).

Although this broad is fairly wide the navigable channel for powered boats is limited. The routes across the broad are marked and must be followed. A major dredging and restoration plan is underway which will eventually allow much fuller use of the broad, a visitor centre is also planned. Barton Broad is almost unique in that it has an island, named Pleasure Hill, though (as far as I am aware) this is not open to the public and is currently quite overgrown.

In February of 1997 it was announced that a grant of £1.15 million had been awarded to the broad by the Millennium Commission to help fund the restoration work. The broad is already a very popular spot, much used by yachts and it is an excellent place to learn how to sail – in fact this is where Horatio Nelson was taught.

There are a number of navigable routes across Barton Broad, the first of which takes boats across the south west corner into Lime Kiln Dyke. This route across Barton Broad passes the north side of Turkey Broad and then heads west for about a mile to Neatishead. Near the entrance to the dyke is the Nancy Oldfield Trust Pontoon while half way along the dyke is a tiny inlet heading a few hundred yards south to Gay’s Staithe.

There are public moorings at the staithe and the Barton Angler Country Inn is at its head. Just before the head of Lime Kiln Dyke is Neatishead Staithe where there are also moorings. Boats must turn here as the last few hundred yards of the dyke are unnavigable. In Neatishead village is the White Horse pub.

Back at Barton Broad, the River Ant’s course heads north on either side of Pleasure Hill Island. Half way across the broad – in the middle of it – is the Norfolk Punt Club Pontoon. At the north end of the broad (which is about ¾ of a mile long) there is a v-junction. The River Ant exits and returns to a more river-like waterway heading north while a relatively wide dyke heads north west towards Barton Turf village.

At the head of this dyke (which is about ¼ of a mile long) there is a mooring point at Barton Turf staithe (TG356224). There are a number of small inlets off the south west side of the dyke and these are home to a number of boatyards. The way back to the River Ant does not have to be a return journey along the same dyke because another dyke (known as Paddy’s Lane) heads east (again for about ¼ of a mile long) to rejoin the main river. There are public moorings on the north bank of this dyke. These 2 dykes, together with the river, create a triangular island which is known as The Heater.

Back on the river and continuing north it is just ½ a mile to the entrance of the next navigable dyke, this time on the east bank of the River Ant. This is Stalham Dyke which runs for just over a mile in a north easterly direction towards the large village of Stalham. Half a mile along this dyke is an entrance into what looks like another dyke heading east.

However, this is actually the remains of Sutton Broad. It stretches away to the east for a mile though it is no wider than a large river. At its head (TG382237) there is a staithe, a boatyard, moorings, a car park and a long, low building which was once called the Wherryman’s Arms. The old pub was once described as a “smuggler’s den” but when it closed in the 1840’s the building became Sutton Staithe Farm. Some 80 years later it was in a very sorry state but in 1928 it was fully restored and became the Sutton Staithe Hotel. The busy A149 passes right by the staithe and the hotel (now a rather nice pub with modern extensions).

At the head of Stalham Dyke (TG373246) are numerous small inlets holding numerous marinas and hundreds of boats. The main hire boat bases are situated on the new A149, about ¾ of a mile short of Stalham village centre while a small settlement of houses and a farm (known as Chapel Field) are situated alongside the head of navigation on Stalham Dyke just beyond the hire bases.

Beyond the entrance to Stalham Dyke the River Ant meanders around on its narrow course northwards. Less than ½ a mile north of the entrance to Stalham Dyke, Hunsett Mill (TG361241) is situated on the east bank. In 1972 this windmill was described as “the most beautiful mill in Broadland”. It is a brick structure with a white cap and sails. Of course since 1972 many windmills in the Broads have been restored and opened to the public but this one remains a popular subject for photographers. Sadly, for those without a boat, it is well out of reach but, anyway, it is a private building in private groiunds.

Past the mill the river is narrow (though deep) as it curves left until it is heading north west. After 1¼ miles it reaches Wayford Bridge (TG347248) where there are boat yards and day boats which can be hired as well as public moorings and the Wayford Bridge Hotel (formerly the Woodfarm Inn).

During dredging work here in the 1970’s workmen came across solid ground on the river bed near Wayford Bridge (which carries the A149 to North Walsham). Closer attention revealed a road which turned out to be the original “Way Ford”. While this was a nice historical find, it means the river is very shallow here at only 3 feet deep.

Above the bridge there is mooring space on the west bank and holiday “house boats” on the east side of the river. These, basically, are holiday lodges looking like garden huts, standing in the river. They must be popular as they have been in use for decades but from the outside they always remind me of the swamp-hut prisons in the film The Deer Hunter!

About ¼ of a mile above the Wayford Bridge is a junction (TG345249) where the unnavigable Upper River Ant heads straight on towards the north while the navigable route is to the north west. The Upper River Ant is also the course of the North Walsham & Dilham Canal but sadly this has not been navigable since before World War 2. Up until recent years the first mile or so to Honing Lock was still navigable though hire craft are not allowed on this section today.

Beyond the junction, the navigable route continues north westward for just one more mile. Strictly speaking this waterway is the Smallburgh River though the first ½ mile is known as Dilham Dyke and the final ½ mile is known as Tyler’s Cut. This section has been used by boats for many centuries though during the 1900s it became disused and silted up. It later became the first stretch of Broads waterway to be restored by an independent society.

The village of Dilham is at the head of the navigation, there are moorings at the tiny staithe (TG332255) alongside Brick Kiln Bridge and the Cross Keys Inn is in the village. Beyond Brick Kiln Bridge there used to be a private canal which ran to a brick yard where most of Norwich’s early building material originated. The canal’s remains can still be seen, through trees, from the bridge but boats cannot pass through the bridge.

The small village of Dilham has a place in canal history for it was here that the engineer Sir William Cubitt was born. Among his works were the River Severn Navigation, a number of Irish canals and the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal which he completed following the death of Thomas Telford. Cubitt was the son of a local miller and ancestor of E.G. Cubitt who once owned the North Walsham and Dilham Canal. In fact, E.G. Cubitt’s defunct company still officially owns the canal today.

Access Points

Ludham Bridge (TG372171), on the A1062 between Wroxham and Potter Heigham. A footpath runs south along the west bank to the River Bure. (Footpath north uncertain). Parking spaces are available on the main road and the Dog Inn is a 5 minute walk (eastwards) along the road.
How Hill (TG369191), a minor road runs to a car park beside How Hill nature reserve.
Iirstead (TG366204), there is a small car park beside the church close to the river bank.
Neatishead (TG341210), access to Lime Kiln Dyke can be gained from the minor road in the village. Also, Gay’s Staithe is situated near the Barton Angler Country Inn.
Barton Turf (TG356224), a minor road runs to the waterside.
Sutton Broad (TG382237), on the A149 beside the Sutton Staithe Hotel.
Stalham Dyke (TG373246), there are numerous hire bases just off the A149 at Stalham. Also, access from the minor road beside Chapel Field Farm at the head of navigation.
Hunsett Mill (TG361241), no access.
Wayford Bridge (TG347248), A149 with parking places close by, near the Wayford Bridge Hotel.
Dilham Staithe (TG332255), a minor road crosses the head of navigation to the north of the village.
North Walsham, most minor roads heading east off the A149, south of North Walsham, cross the disused North Walsham Canal (Upper River Ant). Although the canal can be seen from bridges there is no access.
Antingham Ponds (TG257353), on a minor road North East of Antingham (off the A149). There is no access to the land at the derelict head of canal and there is not a lot to see anyway!