Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Wensum: Going with the flow

Cost to Hellesdon 176

TO the untrained eye there appears little wrong with the River Wensum upstream of Hellesdon Mill on the northern fringes of Norwich. Lush vegetation grows underwater and the river’s banks are lined with a mixture of mature trees and fast-growing plants. Certainly it looked good enough from a canoe when I took this picture back in August.

But according to the experts, the Wensum could be in a lot better nick. Working out how to fix it is the job of a group of scientists from organisations like the Environment Agency and Natural England, working under the River Wensum Restoration Strategy umbrella. And according to their latest newsletter (scroll down the page from here) their latest trick has been to reduce the level of the river at Hellesdon in a three day experiment carried out back in September.

The mill might be long gone, say the experts, but the structures left behind still have quite an impact on the way the river behaves. With a higher water level, they describe the river as a “linear lake” – in other words a river without enough flow. But reducing the amount of water backed up at Hellesdon had a significant impact “with large sections of the river becoming free flowing upstream of the mill”.

This is just one of a number of fascinating experiments they’re conducting on the river. Another involves reinstating the river’s old meanders. Detective work on the ground means they can often track down the original river bed. And at Great Ryburgh, for example, they’ve discovered that the old bed was a mix of gravel and chalk – perfect conditions for the wildlife and vegetation they’re hoping to encourage.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Marlpit: once a farm now a pub

sunny march 049
WHO can help me with the history of this pub on the borders of Hellesdon and Norwich?The Marlpit on Hellesdon Road looks as if it has been there for centuries. But if the old OS maps are to be believed, this was “Lower Farm” until at least 1937 and perhaps until after the Second World War. It is set in spacious grounds and there are a number of out-buildings. It makes sense. But my book would be all the better for a 70-something who could remember the old days. If you can help, please get in touch. 
* Use the comment box below or email me directly at if you think you can help.
** More on the pub from the Evening News here.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Kayaking the Wensum: Hellesdon to Norwich

Hell Bridge

IT’S at Hellesdon that the river Wensum starts to lose its rural identity and gets its Norwich glad-rags on. This first picture shows Hellesdon Bridge – the border between CIty and County ever since Norwich flexed its muscles during a 16th century land-grab. Compared to my previous kayak journeys, this stretch from Hellesdon Mill down to the city centre was a piece of cake. No fallen trees, no weirs, no portage. No outstanding natural beauty spots either perhaps, but I’ll settle for two kingfishers and one riverside pub - of which more later. Below the mill at Hellesdon is an obvious starting point. There is parking off Hellesdon Mill Lane and you get in and out very easily next to the meadows looking out towards Costessey.

The sheer number of bridges we shoot over the next mile and a half or so, does bear witness to a new kinda Wensum. Next up is an old Midland & Great Northern railway bridge now pressed into service for walkers and cyclists on Marriotts Way. Then the river heads on a gentle semi-circular journey south-east until it flirts with the Marl Pit estate next to Hellesdon Road. I love these these surprising juxtapositions of river and houses. I guess the friendly anglers know it’s the Wensum and where it goes. But I bet an awful lot of other local people have never quite worked out what happens next. They’re not helped by the fact that the Wensum then disappears from view behind The Gatehouse pub on Dereham Road.

Only the allotment holders realise that it slinks behind them too before we get to Sweetbriar Bridge – a between-the-wars unemployment project that provided both work and an outer ring road to the people of Norwich. The next stretch was a bit of a revelation to me. As you whizz north along that ring road do you realise how much green space there is to your right? Go hunting and you’ll find a great selection of riverside paths and even one pedestrian bridge. Then it gets a bit more banal. The waterworks dominate the view on the right while the whiff from the council tip invades from the left. Mile Cross Bridge is next – it too was built between the wars but is considerably uglier than Sweetbriar. Directly downstream lies the Gibraltar Gardens (pictured) – a pub that I always want to like Wensum Hell to Half 1011 095but never quite manage to. Admittedly I tend to arrive dripping in river water, but I never feel particularly welcomed. And this gorgeous old building feels like it’s had the personality knocked out of its interior too. Still the chips came quickly, to be fair. Back on the water I realised that the Heigham side of the river must be the site of the old Eagle Baths. I grew up in an age of leisure centres, but your grandparents and mine didn’t have the luxuries of indoor pools let alone heated water. Instead they swam in specially dug out “extensions” to rivers – sometimes segregated between boys and girls. I need to find out more about the one here. Next up is Dolphin Bridge dating from 1909, closely followed by a Marriotts Way bridge from about 100 years later. From now on the Way and the Wensum run parallel till we reach the terminus of the old M&GN line next to the modern Halford’s store. Until relatively recently, timber- and scrapyards adorned the riverside throughout the city. Nowadays mostly elegant flats have taken their place. Wensum Hell to Half 1011 147

But there is a quick reminder of the old days with an Oak Street scrappie. (pictured) From here you’re quickly under the Bishops Barnard Bridge before hitting New Mills. A swift bit of portage would see you into the city proper. But I’ve done that before. For now I’m done. Summers are for exploring, autumns and winters are for researching.

*See also: Costessey to Hellesdon by kayak

*Ringland to Costessey by kayak

* Lots more kayaking on the Yare

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Bootiful Boudicca

Bike ride   Boud 048

THIS post stretches the definition of Riverside Norwich a bit, but hey the walk started next to the River Tas near Lakenham, so I’m claiming it. It was our first time on the long distance walk known as the Boudicca Way. You might have heard that it’s had a facelift recently with smart new signs installed throughout the 36 mile route between Diss and Norwich. Give walkers a nudge in the right direction, goes the plan, and local businesses will benefit too. Bike ride   Boud 021We started off on White Horse Lane at the back end of Trowse and did a circular walk via Caistor St Edmund. Initially it was dull. A brief dalliance with the Tas at a bridge near Lakenham and then the tedium of getting over and beyond the noisy southern bypass. But once you step out on to a footpath from Arminghall Lane everything changes. Rolling hills and ancient oaks abound and the din from the bypass subsides to a gentle hum. Norwich might be just over there, but there’s plenty of nature right here. I counted three green woodpeckers and three different species of butterfly within the first ten minutes. Bike ride   Boud 037A short diversion takes you to the village (hamlet?) of Arminghall, with its smart flint church and timeless PYO hut complete with ancient scales (pictured right.)Then you head down towards Caistor Lane and land owned by High Ash Farm. Run by Chris Skinner (of Radio Norfolk fame) this is the farm where nature comes first. Bike ride   Boud Flower“At High Ash, no animal or bird is discriminated against and nature can run its uninterrupted course,” is how they put it on the website. Us walkers are looked after too. Broad grassy swards for footpaths (see main picture above) , next to “pollen nectar verges” for flowers and endangered species of bumblebee. At this time of year that meant meadows bursting and blooming with every shade of wild flower. From Caistor Hall we returned to Trowse by road, (no pavement, not particularly recommended) but the Boudicca Way continues south to Shotesham. If the rest is as good as this aperitif, we’ll be very happy.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Kayaking the Wensum: Costessey to Hellesdon Mill

Rowing through gunk

I DON’T particularly understand the biology, but whenever a big tree falls across a small freshwater river a micro-habitat seems to develop underneath. And you get this thick green soup in the water which makes the going tricky for anyone in a kayak. There was plenty of it today on my second stretch of the Wensum which sees the river climb north around Costessey to Drayton, before plunging south again towards Hellesdon Mill. The gunk I could handle, a bit of portage around Costessey Mill was easy too, it was the “No Canoeing” landlord around Drayton that got my goat. But let’s start at the beginning. In Costessey I used the backyard of the deserted 16th Norwich Sea Scouts base to get in the river. The Bush pub gardenI have to confess I didn’t have permission, but hey, Baden Powell would have approved wouldn’t he? Thanks chaps. From there you pass the idyllic pub garden of The Bush (pictured left) before seeing the equally picturesque back gardens of Costessey’s luckier residents. One of them even appears to have a private bridge (below right) which in my book is the height of cool. The river runs north down to the site of Costessey Mill. The buildings disappeared a long time ago, but of Private bridge at Costesseycourse there’s the usual longer-lasting evidence – two channels, a sluice and the need for a bit of portage. (Compared to Taverham this one is a piece of cake. Paddle right up to the road bridge and head left. Cross the road, head down a riverside footpath and you’re back in, immediately north of a weir.) The next stretch should be superb. You’re out in some lovely countryside and you can just make out the higher ground of Drayton up ahead. It’s spoilt by a “No Canoeing” sign, which I ignored. But a few hundred yards further on there’s a wire strung across the river which did make me turn, reluctantly, back. Some complicated portage saw me get back in immediately under A bridge, Draytonthe famous (for Drayton) A-bridge which used to carry the Midland and Great Northern line railway through these parts, and now carries cyclists and walkers down Marriotts Way. Looking back along the stretch I’d been forced to walk, there was no obvious reason to be banned. This is the sort of stuff that canoeing campaigner Griff Rhys Jones rightly rails against. At some point I’ll try to track down the landowner. Now the river gently meanders in a wide flood meadow with higher ground to the left and flatlands to the right. A road appears on the left too and I needed the map to work out that this was Hellesdon Low Road. There are an awful lot of fallen trees (and gunk) here which require some slaloming. (One is so low across the water that I had to get out of the kayak, balance on the trunk and hoik the craft over.) Further down there are more majestic gardens with boats and boathouses at the water’s edge. But I never see anyone in these places. Is there a rule though that the posher the pad the less time you have to use it? Hellesdon Mill cormorantAnd then, rather out of the blue, you arrive at Hellesdon Mill, where the Tud joins the Wensum. A wooden boom (used by fishing cormorants, see right) sits across the river just in case you don’t get the message. Portage here is easy. You hop out of the Wensum, cross a path and then drop via a slipway into the Tud/Wensum. Another canoeist reckoned that it’s an easy trip from here into Norwich. After today, I’ll take that.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Costessey’s lost fairy tale castle

BIG THANKS to Costessey-born and bred Michael Fitt for his help with some cracking archive photos of his home village. This photo of the old Costessey Hall is just one example. Ab Cost seals 023Costessey Hall was demolished in 1920. If it had only survived another 30 years then the National Trust or English Heritage would have killed to have had it on their books.Today only a belfry block survives. It looks very lonely on the 18th fairway at Costessey Park Golf Club. The Hall was the home of the Jerningham family for many generations. For complicated inheritance reasons that frankly I don’t understand, one person inherited the contents while another inherited the building. This all happened just before the First World War. Then the army requisitioned the building and did what soldiers always do to fine buildings – they trashed the place. Britain was broke by 1918 and the empty shell never stood a chance. This website is very good on the details. It calls itself “a memorial to the lost country houses of England”.
* More on the Jerninghams and their Catholic faith here.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Kayaking the Wensum: Ringland to Costessey

Ring to Cost canoe 0811 015
THEY say that “Wensum” means winding, and certainly to the north west of Norwich, the river indulges in a series of textbook meanders. I went in at Ringland, at a shallow spot next to The Swan where everyone was out enjoying a mixture of sunbathing, paddling and swimming. Green at the SwanSometimes you could accuse the villages around Norwich of ignoring their local river, but not here, not on a sunny summer’s afternoon at least. But one of the great things about kayaking is how quickly you leave the crowds behind. One  minute you’re slaloming between giggling teenagers, the next you’re around a corner and out of sight, out of sound. With the exception of the stretch through Norwich (which is great, go in at New Mills, more here) this was my first time on the Wensum. The river has recently attracted a lot of attention and a lot of money because it is an “internationally important chalk river”, and perhaps it’s those qualities which make it feel so clean and full of life. Fish were everywhere and so were the luxuriant underwater weeds. Ring to Cost canoe 0811 055In fact sometimes it was difficult to get a clear paddle, such was the thickness of the greenery. From The Swan you are quickly out into open country with arable fields to the left and a more marshy, reedy habitat to the right. A stand of more than a dozen graceful poplars (main picture above) dominates the landscape, looking all the more impressive when reflected in the river. The Costessey to Ringland road meanders with the river and the two draw close just in time for river users to see Beehive Lodge, (below left) Ring to Cost canoe 0811 048a beautiful building once part of the Costessey Hall estate. Rose Bay Willow herb flourishes on the banks, attracting the butterflies, particularly small whites. Blue/black damselflies danced around too, refusing to stay in one place long enough to be photographed. A kingfisher and a comma butterfly also escaped before I could press my shutter. This paddle is probably best done as a trip to Taverham Mill and back – a sluice prevents you from going any further. I did press on but getting back on the water to the east of the mill involved a lot of messy, trespassing portage and the kindness of a householder with a big garden. It wouldn’t be fair to mention the whos and the wheres.
To canoe this next section “legally” you would probably need to get in the water off Mack’s Lane which is another quarter of a mile south east. The landscape opens up as you leave Taverham behind. On the left bank horses are stabled, on the right you follow the flooded gravel workings at Costessey Pits although you don’t see the water from your own low vantage point. Costessey gradually hoves into view on this side. It’s a strange village Costessey. Two of its main streets shadow the river, but the flood risk means that buildings keep a very respectful distance. It’s only as you reach the bottom of another meandering “U” (roughly where Longwater Lane meets Townhouse Road) Ring to Cost canoe 0811 130that even their gardens dare to make it down to the water’s edge. All this – with much messing around with a camera, portage and some conversations along the way – had somehow taken me more than 3 1/2 hours. The old “ride and hide” trick meant I had to hide the canoe near The Bush pub and then ride a previously dropped off mountain bike back to the car at Ringland rather cream crackered. Moral of the story: recce every mill first – even if it does spoil the sense of adventure.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A close shave on the Yare

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
I’D OFTEN wondered what happened to smaller craft when huge great coasters came up the Yare in the old days. Did steam give way to sail? No chance, if this cracking photo from Bryan Read’s collection is anything to go by. I think this one was taken at Postwick, So are they the Frostbites sailing club in action and, more importantly, how on earth did these young sailors survive in one piece? 

Saturday, 23 July 2011

When coasters came up to Norwich

WHAT would today’s residents of the riverside apartments make of a vessel like this mooring outside their fourth floor window? It’s RJ Read’s in the background on the River Wensum in Norwich. And the photo is one of a number kindly loaned to me by Bryan Read. Bryan tells me this shot probably dates back to the late 1960s and was a very rare example of a Norwegian ship docking in the city. P9190155
It certainly feels like a bygone era compared to today’s gentrification of the area. (see right).Yes, Carrow, Novi Sad and the Lady Julian are all swing bridges of various kinds, but no, they don’t have to open very often and no, you never see anything remotely cargo-ish charting these waters any more. (Even if they could get under the Postwick Viaduct, further down river.) But this photo and many more will certainly find a good home in my" “Riverside Norwich” book.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Costessey: Hill Road in the 1940s

Hill Road, Costessey 1940s

I LEARNT a bit more about Costessey’s “shantytown” on Friday – from three gentlemen who are old enough to remember the ramshackle collection of prefabs that sprung up on the old Jerningham estate after the First World War. This photo (leant to me by one of the three, Roy Howard) actually shows one of the more developed streets. Elsewhere, in areas like Ashtree Road and Grove Avenue people were living in converted railway carriages; such was the shortage of more suitable housing. “It was a poor area,” confirmed Roy, “and in the early years it had a bad reputation too. You could buy a plot of land for £50 and move out here, so people did. The roads were just tracks and you’d have to get your water from a water pump. But gradually over the years the shacks disappeared and the houses and bungalows went up instead.” Indeed these days you have to be 65+ to remember a time when New Costessey was anything other than a respectable Norwich suburb.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Kayaking the Tas: don’t bother

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I WAS looking forward to this stretch of the Tas – from the bridge at Lakenham, heading upstream. The plan was to make it to Caistor St Edmund and perhaps get some good pictures of the Roman walls into the bargain. But sadly, what looks like a decent channel on the OS map, is in parts little better than a field dyke. It starts well next to the railway line (see above) but it soon gets too narrow for a comfortable paddle.

Tas plus 0611 031

Throw in some barbed wire across the river and some get-off-my-land security guards at the Arminghall car boot sale (pictured) and this one proved a bit of a wash out. In the end the fluorescent jackets agreed that while the landowner owned the riverbed, he didn’t own the river itself. So I ploughed on. But thick reeds right

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across the river soon made me wish I hadn’t bothered. The Tas Valley is beautiful and the river does seem to be wider up at Caistor. But despite the high praise of Literary Norfolk, I’m afraid today cured me of any Tas-mania - at least when I’ve got a paddle in my hand.

* More Kayaking Kapers here.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Before they flew The Nest

The Nest
I’M CHUFFED to bits to have found the relatives of the last ferryman at Pull’s Ferry. It really feels like the website is doing its job. So the next impossible task is to find some of his customers. Specifically I would love to find Canary fans who can remember seeing Norwich City play at their home at The Nest. The Nest - a disused chalk pit on Rosary Road – was the home of Norwich City until May 1935. Those ancient fans are likely to have been customers of Cecil Mollett because hundreds of them used Pull’s Ferry to get to the ground – it was very much part of what we would now call the matchday ritual. For top marks your 80-something grandad will remember the ferry too. But now perhaps I’m getting greedy.  Please email me direct at if you can help.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Pull’s Ferry …in action

Early Ferry
A HUGE thank you to Stuart Henning, a grandson of the last ferryman at Pull’s Ferry for getting in touch. He has provided me with a number of great pictures of this picturesque spot on the Wensum in Norwich as well as a wealth of info on his fascinating family. This photo shows the ferry in action at, well what do you think ..the turn of the 20th century? Stuart is in fact one of three grand-children to email me after I asked for help on the ferry’s history last September. Just a reminder that we think the service (where passengers and ferryman always stood up) was operated by Cecil Mollett until 1943. Thousands of Norwich City fans remember it from when the team used to play at The Nest which was almost directly opposite. Dorothy's wedding to Herbert Henning
Cecil and his wife Lily had five daughters. And they’re all visible on this second photo from 1934 when Stuart’s parents got married – and then set off via the ferry. Yes this shot is posed for the news cameras, but it’s a cracker nonetheless. I’ve still got a call or two to make to nail down some details, but thanks to all the family for their help so far. It’s a classic case of how having a website makes researching this sort of book a whole lot easier – and more satisfying.

Norwich at war

GOOD quality local books have a remarkably long shelf-life. Take “Norwich at War” for example by Joan Banger. First published in 1974 it it now in its third incarnation and seems to be something of a best seller at the excellent City Bookshop in Davey Place, Norwich.  I would imagine a lot of the latest wave of interest has been sparked by the incredible mash-up photos which merge old and new in an eerily poignant way. Then there’s a new book – according to this Evening News article – being planned by Steve Snelling to tie in with the 70th anniversary of the raids next April. I’d love to know how many new eye-witnesses Steve has unearthed, because the sad fact is that generation will not be with us much longer. I need to know more about the impact of the bombings in the Heigham area for my book and Norwich at War is packed with devastating detail. Walking around both central Norwich and Heigham will never be quite the same again. 
* More on those mash-ups here.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Baedeker memories please

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HEIGHAM is a funny old part of Norwich these days. Too close to be a suburb, yet not far enough away to have its own identity. Its north-eastern boundary is the Wensum of course, so the Heigham chapter will come after Hellesdon and before Norwich Over the Water. In earlier generations Heigham was much more of a community, but It quickly becomes clear that this section will be dominated by what happened on April 27th 1942. That was the first night of the so-called Baedeker bombings on the city (in retaliation for the Allied bombing of Lubeck the previous month). Heigham copped it big time. Among the buildings hit was St Bartholmew’s Church. As this modern picture shows, only the tower survived. As for the wider damage, this is one account from “Joan P” recorded for a Women’s Oral History Group pamphlet on Heigham Street published in 1991.
“Of course everywhere was devastated, that took a long while. Bullens was on fire, Cushions was on fire, Wincarnis was on fire, the Picture Palace at the back. The Mayfair was on fire – Old Mother Reilly was on there then. But everywhere was devastated. We actually saw Bullens burn down and we could have put it out but there was no water.”
And through our consumerist eyes I find this section poignant too:
“We had no clothes, just what we were standing up in. Mother, she salvaged the settee and two chairs and of course all the bed linen. They were not much good. But a tracer bullet went through the settee, so we had that marked afterwards. We had that for quite a while afterwards because there was nothing else.”
I love the fact that even a bullet through a sofa wasn’t a good enough reason to get rid of a piece of furniture, such were the hardships.
So can anyone out there remember that awful night in Heigham? Has anyone got any photos – particularly any before and afters? Do get in touch if you or a relative can help. Email me direct on
Oh and just finally, there’s much on the church and the raids, on Simon Knott’s ever-erudite website. Here’s a taster: 
“As St Benedict's Street becomes Dereham Road, it does not make for one of central Norwich's more attractive districts. The vast Toys R Us superstore and its companions are an unlikely and unwitting legacy of the Luftwaffe's work.”

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Kayaking the Yare: Part Five

EVERY day thousands of Norwich commuters come off the southern bypass at Trowse and drive into the city on an extended bridge across two rivers. And every day for the last eight years this particular commuter has stared down at the mix of the river and railway to his left and thought he really must go exploring one day. I finally managed it yesterday.
The rivers are the Yare and the Tas. And the best place to get the kayak into the former, is at The Cock in Lakenham, a welcoming riverside pub with a packed beer garden yesterday afternoon. True, the  many “Drugs will not be tolerated” posters were a tad off-putting, but everything else was perfect. The remains of Lakenham Mill mean you can’t go upstream from here (but there is another way) and the water is very shallow downstream. But within a hundred yards you get deeper water and come across the sort of Claude Monet scenery seen in the top photo.
Bridge of sighs
Heading downstream you shoot the main railway line which is – brilliantly - known as the Bridge of Sighs – even if you will have to click on the photo (right) to get documentary evidence. From there you pass under the much taller bypass bridge before being pulled up by floating barriers just upstream of Trowse Mill. The restrictions imposed by Trowse and Lakenham mills do make this a slightly frustrating stretch but as ever
there was a great “getting away from it all” feeling, surprisingly close to the city. Blue, black and red damselflies flitted everywhere, a swan fiercely saw me off his territory and Flag Iris bloomed. And that – give or take the odd 100 yards  – means I’ve done the Yare from Bawburgh down to its confluence with the Wensum at Trowse Eye.
Heading back there was a web of other more modest channels to explore. It quickly becomes clear that the only one going anywhere is the River Tas. Looking at the map afterwards one assumes that the Victorians must have dug a new route for the Tas alongside the railway here. I didn’t get any further than the bridge carrying the Lakenham to Caistor road, but at least I know where to start next time. With the Yare ticked off, the Tas has to be next. It has inspired poet Cameron Self to write “River”, and the Norfolk fisherman John Wilson describes its waters as “gin-clear”. Watch this space.
* Lots more Kayaking Kapers on the Yare here.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Another bridge over the Wensum

New Broads Bridge

MONDAY sees the start of work on yet another bridge over the River Wensum in Norwich. The bridge – as yet unnamed – will connect the Broads Authority offices on the north side of the river to the area behind the law courts. The job should be completed by mid-November. The last new bridge was the Lady Julian in 2009 with the Novi Sad some seven years earlier. I’m a big fan of these new bridges. They help people reconnect with the river. Where’s the next one going to go?

* Pictures shows artist’s impression courtesy of Broads Authority.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Kayaking the Yare–the full picture

Bawburgh to Earlham 0411 069
TWO requests have flooded in to see photos on my kayaking trips along the Yare on a map. Not least because the river takes such a tortuous route around suburban Norwich that it’s difficult to envisage what goes where – hence the need for my book I would argue.
So with a little help of flickr and googlemaps you can see the full picture here. Remember to click on “map” for pinpoint geotastic accuracy.
I did Bawburgh to Lakenham in four separate trips – two this spring and two last October. You can see the write-ups for each one on my sister website: Wherryman’s Way. Direct links are below:
1) Bawburgh to Earlham Park
2) Earlham Park to Cringleford
3) Harford Bridges to Eaton
4) Lakenham to Harford
Next up: the last leg of the Yare from Lakenham down to Trowse. I’ll also try the River Tas.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The confusing legend of St Edmund

hellesdon edmund crop

KING EDMUND – of Bury St Edmunds fame - died in 869 at the hands of the Danes. And the legend tells us that he was martyred at a place called 'Hægelisdun'. But where’s that? It could be Hellesdon and, as this image on the sign makes clear, the Norwich village/suburb is happy to claim him. That’s St Edmund lying motionless on the floor. The animal is a wolf. The legend says that St Edmund’s severed head was found between the paws of an uncharacteristically meek wolf, so they’ve spared us the full gruesome horror in this 20th century version.

But was it really Hellesdon? The excellent hiddenea website, makes clear that Hellesdon is one of only five possible locations. So Hoxne, Hollesley etc will all need a mention too.

I struggle to summarise these saintly tales. I had to write the Legend of Lodbrog (Reedham) for the Wherryman’s Way book while St Walstan will come under Taverham in this one. The better the miracle the better the story to medieval eyes. The better the miracle the more ridiculous it seems to modern sensibilities. Try this from wikipedia for example:

“His severed head was thrown into the wood. Day and night as Edmund's followers went seeking, calling out "Where are you, friend?" the head would answer, "Here, here, here," until at last, "a great wonder", they found Edmund's head in the possession of a grey wolf,  clasped between its paws. "They were astonished at the wolf's guardianship".The wolf, sent by God to protect the head from the animals of the forest, was starving but did not eat the head for all the days it was lost. After recovering the head, the villagers marched back to the kingdom, praising God and the wolf that served him. The wolf walked beside them as if tame all the way to the town, after which it turned around and vanished into the forest.”

So what do I do? Tell it straight as though I believe every word? Ladle on the irony and risk looking smug? But then has anyone every believed it? After all, towns battled for the right to be connected to saints for the money the pilgrims brought to the local economy. At the end of the day it all seems a bit Loch Ness Monster.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Help me with Hellesdon

sunny march 101
MY COSTESSEY chapter is all but done, so now it’s onto Hellesdon which feels a bit of a challenge in comparison. Costessey had a posh manor house, a fascinating Catholic history and Alfred Munnings. Hellesdon has a big chemicals factory and err, lots of houses? To be fair this sprawling suburb does have a historic heart and most of it can be found close to the river. So far, I plan pieces on the remains of both Hellesdon Mill and Hellesdon railway station. (Scene of that great mash up picture mentioned last month.) The chemicals
Marriotts 0311 121factory is owned by Bayer Crop Science, but has seen previous incarnations as May & Baker, Rhone-Poulenc and Aventis so there will be something there, while the 12th century church (pictured) and Marriotts Way will also need more than a mention. River access is great. You can get a canoe in all the way along Hellesdon Road and Hellesdon Mill Lane, though I’m not sure how you get to the Wensum upstream of the mill. What else am I missing? Who can remember the railway? I’d love to talk to a 1950s Hellesdon commuter. And where can I find photos of the mill? Over to you guys…..

Saturday, 19 March 2011

In praise of Marriotts Way


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HAPPY as I am living in Loddon, I felt a slight pang of envy for those who live in the north western suburbs of Norwich today. The reason? Marriotts Way, a car-free highway which takes two-wheeled residents into the heart of Norwich without as much as a whiff of exhaust fumes. Is there any excuse for driving into the city from these parts? Marriott’s Way does the job with so little fuss, criss-crossing the Wensum by way of functional but charming old railway bridges (pictured) as it does so.  And today everyone was at it. Dogs were walked, families dawdled and serious bikers whizzed through shouting a friendly “sorry” or “thank you” in their wake. Even a Brimstone got in on the act, providing me with my first butterfly of the year. Aided by eight and nine year old researchers, I started at Sloughbottom Park, where the swings and the BMX track delayed us for ages. Complete with a picnic in Hellesdon, we took a magnificent three hours to do less than four miles up to Drayton. And book-wise what did I learn?

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1) You can’t undersell Marriott’s Way. This much traffic could mean a lot of sales so I need to “big up” both the path and the railway which preceded it.

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2) Bayer Crop Science dominates the landscape almost as much as the Cantley Sugar Works does down on the Yare. I need facts on what it makes and how many it employs.

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3) Sloughbottom Park probably needs a mention. Was it one of those parks which was created during the 1930s by Colonel someone-or-other. It’s back to the library on that one.

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4) Where does this book start? Is the first chapter Drayton or Taverham ..or some sort of combination of both.  If it’s Taverham and Drayton, am I in danger of exceeding my 40,000 word budget?

Your thoughts as ever…..

* Of course Marriotts Way has a flickr fan club. See their shots here.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Munnings: a second draft

SOMETIMES it helps to blog on a subject, just to get a first draft down on this strange computer-generated brown blotting paper called Riverside Norwich. Once something – anything - is on paper, you feel more confident in fiddling, editing, adding and subtracting. And it helps if you’ve done your homework. I had already read the relevant chapter of his autobiography and all of a hefty biography by Jean Goodman. It’s ended up longer than I planned, 500 words rather than 200, but he is a genuinely big name for this part of the world. So, with the help of a couple of photos which might just break the odd copyright law, here goes:
Alfred Munnings was a whimsical artistic genius who became famous between the wars for his paintings of horses. He was often eccentric and always the life and soul of the party. “If at the end of the evening he had insufficient money,” said his biographer Jean Goodman, “he would present the landlord with a drawing offered with such confidence that it was invariably accepted as good currency.”
His most high-profile years saw him capturing the colour and drama of the races at courses like Epsom and Sandown, where he was loved by everyone from the stable lads he joked with to the royalty who offered him commissions.
But his Costessey links go back to an earlier stage of his life when this miller’s son from the banks of the Waveney was still finding his feet. His first job was very commercial; designing posters and adverts at a lithographer’s in Norwich. (Incidentally, he loved Norwich and its pubs. A favourite haunt says Goodman, “was a little Dickensian panelled bar at the Maid’s Head.”)
And it was while he was living in Norwich that he discovered The Falcon Inn at Costessey during a bicycle ride. “Meeting a landlord who looked like one and just a ride [away] had opened up a new world with fresh ideas.,” he wrote in his autobiography An Artist’s Life. “My first short stay at The Falcon was only a feeler for my future painting on the Ringland Hills.”
Those future paintings came in the spring and early summer of 1910 when he left Norwich with a motley collection of caravans and carts, horses and ponies. Accompanying him was a man called Bob, who looked after the gear, and a teenager called Shrimp whom Munnings later described him as an “utterably uneducated, wild ageless youth”. These two, paid handsomely by Munnings, would set out each day from The Falcon Inn in Costessey to find a suitable spot for the outdoor paintings that Munnings craved. Shrimp, says Goodman, had a talent for grouping horses just as his master wanted. And over six weeks dozens of 50 inch by 40 inch canvases were completed by an artist making the most of his new found freedom.
So why here? Well, Munnings described Ringland and Costessey as being “situated in one of the loveliest districts of all the pleasant country surrounding the old city.” Of the Ringland Hills he wrote:  “I developed a passion for the gorgeous blazing yellow of gorse in bloom.”
He invited friends to stay in Costessey, loving the relaxed atmosphere of The Bush (which survives as a pub) where he enjoyed “the soothing, idle holiday atmosphere about its garden”. 
So how is Munnings country in the 21st century? Well Costessey keeps its village feel and The Bush retains its lengthy garden. And the undulating hills between the Tud and the Wensum are both pretty and pretty unusual in this part of Norfolk. But a land of wild heathland suitable for a bunch of scruffy bohemians? Not any more I’m afraid.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Searching for Munnings Country

DURING the spring and early summer of 1910 a strange trio of men would leave their lodgings in Costessey each morning and head for the hills – the Ringland Hills. In charge was a man who would later become famous as Sir Alfred Munnings, but at this time was just a promising and spirited young artist. Accompanying him was his man Bob (whose “stiff black hair, his sunburnt face and arms, gave him the look of a tinker”). Bob looked after the gear. Finally there was a youngster called Shrimp who was in charge of the horses and ponies. Munnings later described him as “a good lad, a son of the wild. He could neither read nor write and had no need of either. The best model I ever had.” These two, paid handsomely by Munnings, would decamp from The Falcon Inn in Costessey to find a suitable spot for the outdoor painting that Munnings craved. The horses were the stars of every canvas.  In his wonderful autobiography “An Artist’s Life”, he says he first  discovered The Falcon in 1908 while on a bicycle ride from Norwich – where he had worked as a lithographic artist.
“Meeting a landlord who looked like one and just a ride, had opened up a new world with fresh ideas. My first short stay at the The Falcon was only a feeler for my future painting on the Ringland Hills.”
That future painting took place in 1910 when the trio left Norwich with a van, a cart and a host of horses and ponies. Various drunken adventures ensue over the next six weeks with the countryside around the Ringland Hills providing the backdrop. “I developed a passion for the gorgeous blazing yellow of gorse in bloom,” he wrote. He invited friends to stay in Costessey, loving the relaxed atmosphere of The Bush (which survives as a pub, unlike The Falcon) where he enjoyed “the soothing, idle holiday atmosphere about its garden”.
So how is Munnings country today? Well Costessey keeps its village feel and The Bush retains its lengthy garden. The village of Ringland is also pretty and placid with one of the most elegant village churches (pictured)  I’ve seen in Norfolk. But I need your help on the Ringland Hills. We did a circular walk from Honingham Lane up into Ringland then round onto Costessey Lane, returning via Sandy Lane. The  landscape to the east of Honingham Lane looks great, but the “keep out” signs are everywhere. Next to the Wensum in Ringland, we failed to find any way of hugging the river and had to retreat to Costessey Lane with its drivers rat-running down to the southern bypass. Finally Sandy Lane, which passes the very acres claimed by the OS map to be the Ringland Hills, was a fly-tipper’s paradise, but not an artist’s. Munnings says “Ringland and Costessey on the west side of Norwich, are situated in one of the loveliest districts of all the pleasant country surrounding the old city.”
Well yesterday – albeit on an un-sunny March day – it didn’t quite live up to that description. So if I want to take a photo of a beautiful landscape so beloved of Munnings where should I go?
* More on Sir Alfred Munnings “one of England’s finest painters of horses, and an outspoken enemy of Modernism” here.