The River Lark was once navigable all the way to Bury St. Edmunds, a winding course of around 25 miles. The Romans straightened the lower 4 miles of the route from Isleham Fen to its confluence with the River Cam, which in those days ran through Prickwillow. In fact, up until recent centuries the River Lark was known as Pryckewillowewayter (Prickwillow Water). During the Middle Ages, after a number of waterway “diversions”, the River Cam at Prickwillow became the River Great Ouse. It is thought that the River Lark was used by the Romans to carry clunch from pits around Isleham. Later, Barnack stone was carried up stream to build the Abbey at Bury St. Edmunds.
1635 Henry Lambe proposed to make the River Lark navigable from the River Great Ouse to Bury St. Edmunds. A commission was set up to take a look at his proposals and they gave him permission to begin dredging, at his own expense. Lambe began the work but before he had completed a mile he was stopped by objections from two local landowner’s who claimed the work had damaged one of their mills. Two new commissions were set up, the first was wholly against the navigation, gaining support from Bury St. Edmunds, Thetford Corporation (who ran the River Little Ouse Navigation), local landowners, numerous mill owners and land based carriers (who feared loss of toll income). The second commission supported the navigation and told Lambe he could carry on so long as his tolls were set considerably lower than the land tolls. (Surely this could only disadvantage the land carriers even more). Lambe (not surprisingly) was happy to agree to this and he also said he would provide bridges and fords where appropriate. However, the two sets of opposing commissioners were not so eager to agree.
1636 Eventually it was decided that work could continue but more conditions were added to those that Lambe had already agreed to.Although Lambe would be responsible for the whole navigation he would only be allowed to charge tolls on the stretch from Mildenhall to Bury St. Edmunds (which is basically only the top half of the river). He would also have to agree to pay compensation at 3 times the cost of any damage caused to mills. A hefty rate of compensation would also have to be paid for loss of land due to the construction of a towing path. Lambe could not agree to these conditions (and who could blame him) so he petitioned against them. Strangely, this time he gained support from some of his previous opponents.
1637 Disagreement continued for over a year until (in December) all parties concerned were summoned to appear before the King in Council.
1638 In April, Lambe was given license to make the River Lark navigable. He could receive tolls for loads carried between Mildenhall and Bury St. Edmunds and he would pay the Crown a rent of just over £6 per year.
Despite Lambes’ attempts to secure the rights to the River Lark being well recorded, there are no details of whether he ever made the river navigable or whether it ever saw a boat in his time! Whatever happened, it is certain that the river was unnavigable by the end of the century.
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1700 Henry Ashley junior, who already had control of the upper River Great Ouse navigation, was authorised to make the River Lark navigable from Mildenhall to Bury St. Edmunds. A commission was set up to make a schedule of toll charges. Items carried included farm produce, groceries, oil, wine and coal. Some coal was to be carried toll-free for use by the poor in Bury St. Edmunds while “Gentlemen” were also allowed free use of the river – for their pleasure craft.
1716 Ashley had built 14 staunches and 11 locks on the river and the navigation was opened to boats despite it not being complete.Extra money was needed to finish the job but once this was done, the navigation was a reasonable success.
1742 The Master of Rolls became involved in a dispute over the ownership of the River Lark Navigation following the death of Henry Ashley junior. Both of his sons-in-law had claimed ownership and neither were prepared to share. It was decided that ownership should be given to Joshua Palmer and his wife Joanna (who – presumably – was one of Ashley’s daughters). For the next 4 decades the navigation continued to do fairly well though no improvements were made and only vital maintenance was ever done.
1781 Ashley Palmer, Joshua’s son, now owned the navigation (and controlled the River Great Ouse navigation as his father and grandfather had before him). Profits continued though these were only enough to earn a living rather than make a fortune.
1790 A proposal was put forward to connect Bury St. Edmunds to the Orwell Estuary at Ipswich. John Rennie surveyed a line which was 31 miles long and would cost £75,000. The route would include a tunnel 1½ miles long and a total lock climb of 315 feet. Sadly, the projectors fell way short of their money target and the idea was dropped.
1792 Ashley Palmer died though his widow, Susanna, kept control of the River Lark Navigation. During her time in charge the income from tolls increased but the cost of maintenance did the same and profits remained much as they had before her husband’s death.
1817 Although income, especially from coal, was still reasonable, it was clear that improvements needed to be made to secure the navigations future. An Act was obtained allowing tolls to be raised in order to pay for the necessary work. The new tolls increased revenue but no work was started at this stage.
1821 A new lock and staunch was added to the river near Isleham though this was not done to improve the River Lark. It was part of the Eau Brink Act which was authorised to improve navigation on the River Great Ouse which was struggling through lack of water.However, the River Lark was suffering equally badly with the lower sections often being completely dry. Most of this was blamed on the commissioners of the Bedford Levels who were responsible for land drainage and the building of sluices. Two extra staunches on the River Lark were recommended to help retain more water though I have no record of them actually being built.
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1827 The South Level Drainage and Navigation Act was authorised. Work was carried out on all of the River Great Ouse’s tributaries including the River Lark where the South Level Commission took over the lower half of the navigation (the portion where tolls were not collected). At Prickwillow, where the river ran into the River Great Ouse, the commissioners made large scale changes. A new cut was created on the River Great Ouse from below Ely to Sand Hill End, near Littleport, bypassing the meander through Prickwillow. This left the original River Great Ouse channel unused to the south of Prickwillow while the channel to the north now became an extension of the River Lark. Part of this was also realigned and all the work was completed by 1830.
1830’s Sir Thomas Cullum took over the River Lark from his Aunt Susanna Palmer when she died (he also inherited her share of the upper River Great Ouse navigation). Cullum immediately began a large (and costly) restoration programme which included rebuilding all of the locks and staunches. The work was a success and income increased for several years.
1846 Eastern Union Railway Company were the first to encroach on the River Lark. They built a line from the port at Ipswich to Bury St. Edmunds. The cost of coal dropped instantly and suddenly nobody wanted to know about the slow boats from King’s Lynn any more. The decline of the navigation was very quick.
1849 EUR took control of the River Lark and – presumably – speeded up its decline.
1856 The Bury St. Edmunds Navigation Company was set up in an attempt to revive trade on the river. By this time Bury St. Edmunds had been cut off from the navigation as the top 3 miles had become unnavigable. There was very little trade anywhere on the river and none whatsoever heading downstream. The new company proposed to reopen the route to Bury St. Edmunds railway station but they were unable to raise the necessary money. The scheme was abandoned and within a few years the whole of the top half of the route was unnavigable.
1888 The Railway and Canal Traffic Act was passed and the River Lark became one of only two rivers in the whole country to be issued with warrants of abandonment.
1890 New hope came to the disused route when Lord Francis Harvey and the Marquis of Bristol formed the Eastern Counties Navigation & Transport Co Ltd. They bought the river from Bury St.Edmunds to just below Mildenhall and began to restore the route. They removed 3 staunches, repaired others and converted one into a pound-lock. They also made Tuddenden Mill stream navigable by dredging it, straightening it and building a staunch.
1894 The work of the new company was completed and the River Lark Navigation was reopened. However, the work had cost the company everything; they had overspent, used up all their loans and within 3 months the business went into liquidation. The river from Icklingham to Bury St. Edmunds has not been used since.
The receiver sold the navigation to Parker Brothers of Mildenhall and they kept trade going for many years, charging 2s 6d per boat through the town.
1920’s The last commercial cargo to be carried on the navigation was gravel from Isleham which was used in the construction of some of Britain’s earliest highways.
1928 William Parker bought the navigation from Parker Brothers and he kept “control” until the Great Ouse Catchment Board took over.
1996 The River Lark is still navigable up to Mildenhall and is used by pleasure craft. In parts, the banks are lined with holiday cottages and lodges and the river is very popular. Above the town the old River Lark Navigation is not currently navigable but restoration plans have been mentioned over the years.
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The River Lark leaves the river Great Ouse at a junction about ½ way between Ely and Sand Hill. It starts by heading south east for its first 2¼ miles, a minor road appears to cling to the northern bank throughout this stretch though the river is obscured from view by the high flood banks. This portion of the river was once the River Great Ouse’s “main line” and before that it was part of the River Cam. At Prickwillow it used to meander around the town and then head south west towards Ely but now the southern line has completely gone.
Today, at Prickwillow the river still meanders severely. It turns from south east to north east and then, within ½ a mile, it bends back towards the south east. The B1382 crosses the river at Prickwillow and a minor road clings to the north bank from the point where it turns south east, but only for 1¼ mile – after which the road disappears!
The river now heads, dead straight, across Isleham Fen. There is no road access here though a track appears to run along each bank. The B1104 runs parallel about ½ a mile to the west.
After 5 miles the route eventually comes to a bend and turns east.This lasts just ½ a mile however before the river once again curves south easterly. Just around the corner is Isleham Lock beside the aptly named settlement of Waterside. Above the lock is an island formed by the original meandering route to the south and a straight artificial cut to the north. On the island are a number of holiday homes and lodges which I have recently seen in the Blake’s Holiday Cottage Brochure (1996/7). Such holiday sites are very common and very popular in these parts. The small town of Islesham is a short walk away and is said to be well worth visiting, especially a former church which is owned by English Heritage.
About 1½ miles east of Waterside is Lee Brook which enters the river from the south. This marks the spot where the commissioner’s control ended and the privately owned River Lark Navigation began. The current navigation ends about a mile further east at West Row where a minor road crosses beside a pub which provides moorings alongside its garden. This used to be a commercial wharf and was known as Jude’s Ferry.
Past West Row my road map shows the river thin and meandering, marked as unnavigable. Mildenhall is just 1 mile further east though the route is now very bendy. After about 1¼ miles, at Barton Mills, the A11 dual-carriage strides across the river on a relatively new and very low bridge. This would be a major problem for any restoration attempts – though it certainly wouldn’t be the only problem.
Past the A11 the river crosses Turf Fen and after 3 miles it arrives at the village of Icklingham where a minor road crosses over. A further 1½ miles up stream (still heading generally south east) the A1101 crosses and West Stow country park is past on the north bank.There are just 6 more miles to Bury St. Edmunds with 2 minor roads and the B1106 crossing the route at (roughly) 1½ mile intervals.