Although the River Nar was diverted slightly during the Middle Ages, it follows much the same natural route as it always has. Unlike other navigable rivers in this area, it did not have a major influence on local trade and it has never been used by pleasure craft. This is mainly because it runs into the River Great Ouse on the tidal stretches of that navigation.
1751 An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the River Nar to be made navigable from its outflow at King’s Lynn to the village of Castle Acre. In June the newly appointed commissioners, who included the mayor of King’s Lynn, employed John Aram and Langley Edwards to survey the river. Their report included the construction of canalised sections, the building of 7 staunches, the building of one pen-sluice and the excavation of a basin at West Acre. However, following the survey, no work was begun for several years.
1757 In May – completely out of the blue – the commissioners sprang into action and announced that work on the river would begin. Langley Edwards was appointed to oversee the construction and work began in September.
Twelve months after the start of work two thirds of the £2,500 estimate was spent with the navigation nowhere near complete. The commissioners gave Edwards till February 1759 (4 months) to finish the work, telling him that he would be penalised at £20 per week for any delays. He was only promised £100 in total in the first place and that included the money to pay his own assistants!
1759 Early in the year it became obvious that 2 extra staunches would be needed. The commissioners decided that Edwards should be charged for these as he had done the original survey – a staunch usually cost £50 to build. Edwards appealed against the commissioners’ decision (I’d have told them to get stuffed)! They allowed him an extension till August to complete the work and to justify his appeal. The work was done by August though there is no record of who paid for the extra staunches.
1760 The commissioners decided to apply for a new Act which would allow them to build a link to the River Great Ouse near Wigenhall St. Peter. This would have cut out around 10 miles for boats heading upstream to Ely and Cambridge. However, after thinking about it for a while, the idea was dropped.
Over the next 2 or 3 years it would appear that the navigation was fighting a losing battle over the repayment of debts. Tolls were increased a number of times but profits were very small. By June 1763 most of the commissioners had given up the ghost and it was not possible to form a quorum for that month’s meeting. No further meetings were minuted.
1765 Rev. Henry Spelman took over the running of the navigation. After struggling for a number of years to improve matters – but failing – he decided it was time to complain.
1770 Spelman petitioned against the original commissioners who had abandoned their positions and left a debt of over £4,000. He said the commissioners had left the river in such a state that parts were completely useless and only further borrowing of money could put matters right. An Act was authorised allowing the money to be raised which allowed Spelman to put the river into a navigable condition.
1815 The River Nar Navigation did fairly well once it began to be run properly. Coal, timber, corn and malt were among the main cargoes, with Narborough being the main port. During this year a new Act was passed allowing drainage improvements to be made in the local parishes. The Act included provisions for widening and deepening the navigation, creating new straight-cuts and repairing staunch gates with Oak, replacing the existing Fir gates. Charles Burcham, “civil engineer and land surveyor” drew up the plans and probably did the work.
1840 Railways were on the way and the navigation’s owners – who were now Marriott Brothers (coal, corn and malt merchants) of Narborough – put up a strong resistance against the new rival form of transport. They claimed that the proposed line from King’s Lynn to East Dereham was “unnecessary and without any promise of return”. Eventually the Marriots lost their battle and the railway was authorised. The railway opened in 1848 and the navigation took an instant nose-dive.
1881 Use of the river had become so small that a newly authorised drainage Act stated that the river (or parts thereof) need not be kept navigable.
1884 Navigation to Narborough came to an end although the lower reaches of the river, near King’s Lynn, were used for many more decades.
1932 The West Norfolk Farmers Manure Company stopped using the river to carry its cargo of ammonia-gas from Cambridge gasworks to their factory on the river near King’s Lynn. (The factory now belongs to Fisons).
1960’s The final cargo was delivered (carried by coasters to a wharf on the lower reaches of the river). Following this the only boats to be seen on the river were moored fishing vessels. Because the River Nar connects only to the tidal stretches of the River Great Ouse, it has never been used by pleasure craft.
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I need to make it clear that I have not visited very much of the River Nar myself. However, with the help of the few books that mention the Nar, some very old maps, aerial photos and some local knowledge, I can at least provide an outline. Maybe you can help further. Please get in touch if you can.
My description is based on maps and photos rather than experience. I used old OS maps dated around 1891, a much older tithe map, aerial photos from 1946 & 1988 and of course current day maps and photographs. Maps on the Internet can be found in the following places… Old Maps UK, Norfolk County Council Historic Maps and MultiMap.
The former 12 mile navigation included just one lock as we know them today, but it also had 10 staunches which were a more primitive way for boats to move from one level to another. A Staunch had 2 sets of “piers”, one set on the river bank and the other in the river. Large oak guillotine gates would be fitted between the piers to create a primitive form of pound lock. The boatman would have to climb a ladder at the bank-side pier to reach a massive spoked wheel with a diameter of about 13 feet. He would turn the wheel by standing on the spokes, stepping up it like a moving ladder or treadmill. Chains were attached to the wheel and these would lift or drop the heavy staunch gate. Alongside each staunch there would be a weir to maintain water levels in the river above. One of my aims in this research is to attempt to locate the position of each River Nar staunch. As yet I have not been able to complete this – once again, your help would be much appreciated.
The River Nar is no longer navigable. It begins at a junction on the east bank of the River Great Ouse (tidal section) on the south west side of King’s Lynn (OS Grid Ref TF 617 195). The waterfront at King’s Lynn (along the River Great Ouse) has been “cleaned up” in recent years. That generally means that most of the industry has gone and restaurants etc. have opened up. All the same, the feeling of a “proper” quayside still exists and there is much to see.
Near the entrance of the River Nar there used to be manure factory which took deliveries up to the 1930’s. Opposite the factory site there are now 2 sluice gates which regulate the water. The river here is often completely dry, leaving just a muddy bed. I assume the sluices prevent boats entering the river.
When I visited King’s Lynn recently I was surprised to find that the junction and the first few
hundred yards of the current day River Nar are relatively new. Where there was once a short loop just above the entrance of the river, there is now a new straight cut and a new parkland is being created on the old loop. A car park on Boal Street is situated immediately north of the old river loop.
As we follow the course upstream, the Nar heads south east through the town in a relatively unremarkable urban stretch. Leaving the town it heads south for about 4 miles with only one road (the busy A47 dual-carriageway) and the railway from King’s Lynn to Ely passing over.
The old OS map from 1891 marks numerous sluices along the course of the river. These are not all sluices as we know them today, used for drainage etc. Old OS maps often mark the word “sluice” where there is/was a weir or a lock. Therefore any mention of a “sluice” on these old maps could be a former staunch and needs investigating.
Outside of Lynn the first mention of a “sluice” on the old OS Map appears to be literally just a sluice, taking in water from the fields on the west bank (TF 617 170) opposite White House Farm. Another sluice is labelled further south near Saddle Bow, before the railway is reached.
Near Wiggenhall St. Peter the river comes alongside a minor road and turns east to run along the north side of it. This minor road (which runs east to the A10 at Setchey) meanders about like a river and is almost certainly following an original course of the river here. All OS maps show a new straight water course though a much older tithe map shows one section of the old course in water (TF 628 134).
The A10 crosses over just south of Setchey. About 1200 yards east of the bridge, on the south bank, is the former junction where a branch to Wormegay began (TF 647 134). It appears that the junction was once a triangular shape to ease the tight turn when sailing onto the branch from up stream. The old OS map shows the branch heading south east, between flood embankments.
The branch ran sort of straight for about a mile, with a series of zig-zags just north of Wormegay. I don’t know where the branch ended though I expect it was at the bridge just west of the village (TF 658 117), right beside the castle (site of). A 1946 aerial photo shows there was still water in the branch (or it was still a ditch at least) but on 2003 aerial photos the whole line is dry, but still easy to see (once you know what you’re looking at). South of the village a water course continues on the old OS Map and on the 1946 aerial photos but I don’t think this was ever navigable?
Back on the main river, the Blackborough Priory Branch was about a mile and a half further east but this time on the north bank (TF 669 135). It began immediately east of New Road bridge (labelled “Highbridge” on the old OS map). The branch ran north and dead-straight, parallel to New Road (which becomes Wormegay Road) for a few hundred yards towards Blackborough. At Priory Farm it turned sharp right to head north east. The old maps and old aerial photos show a ditch continuing on to the east but I think the branch ended at the farm. On the modern aerial shots only the dead-straight north/south section can be seen (right beside New Road). The section into the farm has gone – replaced by a farm road.
On the main river, just a few yards up stream from Highbridge the old OS map seems to show a possible staunch .The 1946 aerial photos appear to show some sort of feature on the north bank in about the same location. The maps do not label it as a sluice but the markings on the old OS map are very similar to those further along the river which are known to be staunches. Modern maps and photos show nothing of significance here.
About half a mile east of Highbridge a drainage pump is labelled on the south bank on the old OS map (TF 676 133). Immediately east of this the old OS map shows a narrowing of the river. All aerial photos (including current day ones) also show a sudden narrowing of the river here. This may have been the site of a lift/swing bridge or may be the position of a staunch? Today, there is a large lake on the north bank just to east of this location (TF 680 133). This, I believe, is a former gravel quarry which hugs the river’s north bank as the waterway bends south eastwards. This lake does not appear on the old OS maps or any of the old aerial photos – not even in 1988.
The next area of note is on the approach to Pentney Mill. I think I have found a possible staunch site here. This can be seen (possibly!) on the old OS maps and on 1946 aerial photos. It is about 100 yards down stream of the former Pentney Mill at grid ref TF 696 121. There is a definite narrowing of the river which may well be the site of a staunch. This narrowing can just be detected on current day aerial photos.
Another possible site for a staunch is at Pentney Mill itself (TF 698 120). I have been told that the wall alongside the mill site (below the current footbridge) looks like it may be the remains of a lock though I think this is too close to a severe bend on the river situated alongside the mill. Having said that, locks in the Fens have been known to be built on the curve of a bend. One such example can be seen on the River Lark at West Stow.
The Shell Book Of Inland Waterways by Hugh McKnight mentions an Abbey Farm Staunch. Abbey Farm (sometimes listed as Priory Farm) is a little further east, up stream of Pentney Mill at TF 701 121, but I see no evidence on maps or aerial photos of a staunch or narrowing of the river anywhere near the farm.
The next possible staunch is a hard one to pinpoint on a modern map though it is marked as a sluice on the old OS maps (TF 715 119). I make it exactly one mile east of Pentney Mill, just west of the lane called Hogg’s Drove which runs north to the river from near Marham. There is no sign of this staunch on any aerial photos.
The next feature on the River Nar is just north of Marham Fen where the river bends from east to north east to head for Narborough. On this bend (TF 724 119), modern aerial photos show there is a bridge with a clear road heading north and southeast from the river. Modern OS maps label “sluice” here but I think this one is a modern feature?
A few hundred yards north east is another “sluice” marked on the old OS map of 1891. This is also marked on a much older tithe map as a line and can be seen as a narrowing of the river on the 1946 aerial photos and maybe also on the 1988 aerial photos. It’s difficult to tell if there are anything here today (TF 726 122).
A few hundred yards further up stream is the site of a Bone Mill (TF 732 125). The word “sluice” does not appear here on the old OS map though there were two staunches close to the mill. The mill has long since gone, even in the 1946 aerial photos it is nowhere to be seen but these photos appear to show something on the river alongside the site of the largest mill building. I believe this was Lower Bonemill Staunch. Modern aerial shots show nothing at all here. It’s amazing how the mill has been wiped out without a trace. Is there anything of it left on the ground?
The old OS map shows that the mill stretched up stream along the river bank. The old OS maps, the 1946 and 1988 aerial photos all appear to show a narrowing of the river alongside the northern end of the mill. This could well be the site of the upper staunch. Whereas all the other staunches had guillotine gates, it is said that Upper Bonemill Staunch had mitre gates similar to those on traditional canal locks. It is thought that these were kept closed and the chamber left empty (except when in use) to hold a good level of water in the river above the staunch. In other words, it was used as a damn.
Following the river up stream from the bone mill, it bends eastward and directly south of Pentney Villa (at TF 740 131) the old OS map marks another sluice and this is clearly marked as something(!) on the old tithe map. Another possible staunch?
Next is a former railway bridge and then a junction (TF 744 131) as we enter Narborough. The river course that heads east leads to (an through) Narborough Mill, a very pretty sight indeed. This mill has a long history and was one of the reasons why the river was made navigable though it is not clear if the stretch of water leading to the mill was ever navigable.
The known navigation course of the Nar heads northeast into the village. The old OS map labels a “sluice” just past the junction of the mill stream. The tithe map shows a line across the river here (which I believe denotes a staunch or weir)! Current aerial photos show a clump of trees obscuring the river in this spot (at TF 744 132) though it is known that a staunch definitely was situated here. Only a scramble into the trees will tell us if anything has survived.
Just yards to the Northeast of here is the centre of Narborough, the main “port” on the navigation. It was here that Marriott Brothers owned a wharf. The most detailed map of the river at Narborough (for clarity at least) is the oldest – the tithe map. It shows a broad pond (maybe a turning point) just east of the staunch site. The river is surrounded by a maltings which straddled the river – in fact it still does though it is in a very poor state at present. The tithe map shows that the river was very narrow here until it passes under the one-time main road, the old A47 – now the quiet main road through the village.
It was beneath this bridge (TF 746 133) that the River Nar’s sole “pen-sluice” (proper lock) was situated. In fact, its remains can still be seen from the road bridge. It is somewhat ironic that this lock is not marked on any map, yet it is the only one that we definitely know still exists!
(Narborough Mill, mentioned above, is just a few yards south along the road beside a second bridge).
The new A47 (Narborough bypass) crosses the river about ½ a mile further up stream. This is an area of ponds, flooded fields and former gravel pits etc. The original line of the river is impossible to ascertain though the navigation’s route is easy to see on a map. How much of the bank can be walked on this section is not clear?
The river continues easterly through “The Carr”(a wooded area at TF 772 147, part of a private estate) and eventually reaches River Road at West Acre. Nothing is marked on the old OS maps along this stretch and trees obscure the view on aerial photos. It is thought (local knowledge) that 2 locks may have been situated on the stretch in The Carr though I have not found anything to confirm this on a map or in any book…. yet!
We have now reached West Acre (TF 779 147) where it was intended that the navigation should end. Some books mention a wharf, there was certainly a mill in town but I can find no confirmation that boats ever reached it. To do so they would have to have been hauled across at least one ford (possibly more). This is not unheard of on shallow rivers where flat bottomed boats were used.
Although there is no real evidence that any boats came this far, the construction of the lock at Narborough suggests boats did use this stretch. Castle Acre, which was listed in the very first Act, is a further 3 miles up stream though boats almost certainly did not venture that far.
Many thanks to Greg Chapman for his help and interest – and future research – regarding the River Nar Navigation!