Blyth Navigation History

The River Blyth Navigation was about 7 miles in length and was located in the Southwold area of Suffolk. The navigation ran from the river’s mouth (grid ref TM507747), through Blythburgh to Halesworth (situated on the A144, TM388772).

1757
The Act of Parliament was passed and work began.

1761
The Blyth Navigation opened. The completed waterway contained 4 locks – all situated on the upper part of the river, beyond Blythburgh. (Note: Some sources claim there were 5 or even 6 locks).

1930
The Land Drainage Act ordered the closure of the 4 locks on the upper part of the navigation – though this did not happen straight away.

1934
The locks were closed, and the upper 3 miles of the navigation to Halesworth were closed along with them. This left about 4 miles of navigation (tidal throughout) between the mouth of the river and Blythburgh (situated on the A12 road). This stretch is still navigable today and can be used by sea-going craft.

1990’s
In 1993, after almost 60 years of decline, the section of the navigation which ran into Halesworth (known as Halesworth Reach) was cleaned up, dredged and restored with the backing of the local council.

Although there was still no chance of boats reaching the town, small boats could now use the newly restored section. Bank clearance and a new towpath turned the river and its surroundings into an attractive amenity and its completion was well celebrated.

However, the events that were to follow this happy occasion are somewhat reminiscent of numerous similar stories concerning river navigations.

The big difference here being that normally the following behaviour occurred in the 18th century when land owners and millers were not intelligent enough to know better, and in days when surveys and equipment were rather rudimentary. This is not the kind of thing you expect to read about in the 1990’s…

During a day of very heavy rain, Halesworth was flooded and many shops suffered damage. The blame was immediately (and almost certainly wrongly) passed to the river and the restoration project lost the backing of both the local council and the National River Authority (now the Environment Agency).

To add to this, farmers who owned flood marshes bordering the river blamed the newly installed lock gates for causing flooding on their land. Saddest of all, essential boarding which maintained water levels in the restored section was removed, thus allowing the river to revert to little more than a muddy ditch. A situation which continues to this day.

Blyth Navigation Route

The River Blyth runs into the North Sea on the Suffolk coast one mile south of Southwold (grid ref TM507747).

There is a harbour near the mouth and a minor road runs south out of Southwold to the north bank of the river mouth. Possibly the best access on the south bank of the mouth is at Walberswick on the B1387 (TM500749).

The entrance to the river is relatively narrow as it runs between Reydon and Tinker’s marshes. After the first 2 miles the river widens out into a large saltings pool.

This can be seen from the A12 bridge which crosses the river at Blythburgh (TM452755) some 4 miles upstream from the river’s mouth.

Blythburgh is situated on the A12 (TM452755) and is now the furthest upstream that powered craft can go. The most notable thing in this medieval town is the magnificent church which dates back to 1330.

Upstream of the A12 bridge there were 4 locks (though some claim 5 or 6) but I currently have no information on exactly where these were situated. They are said to have had galley beams similar to those found on the (Suffolk) River Stour.

About 2 miles upstream of Blythburgh is the small village of Blyford. A minor road heads south out of here and crosses the river (TM424764). Within another 2 miles the river reaches Halesworth. There is a bridge (at TM405769) on the minor road to Mells, just south of the B1123. There are other bridges within Halesworth itself (on the B1123 and the A144, TM388772)