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 but 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.
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