Friday 13 March 2009

North Walsham and Dilham Canal - the middle section

North Walsham and Dilham Canal
Middle Section - Swafield to Ebridge
13th March 2009

As I mentioned in my review of the northern reaches, gaining access to the canal track can be challenging. Luckily, a substantial element of the Swafield to Austin Bridge (Bacton Road) section runs close to the newly created Pigneys Wood circular footpath, and the Pigneys Wood Nature Park offers good parking on the northern bank, midway between the two bridges.

The river Ant is channelled into the canal bed in this area, supplemented by the outfall of the North Walsham sewage works, which results in a clear channel and something resembling a living canal. Before you turn your nose up at this idea, just remember that the Shropshire Union Canal is largely supplied by the waste water produced by the good people of Wolverhampton!

Austin Bridge Culvert

Austin Bridge is something of a misnomer really, as the original hump backed brick structure was demolished in the 1960's to facilitate the movement of North Sea Gas by lorry to the transhipment sites at North Walsham and Coltishall railway stations. This was at a time when natural gas was in its infancy and the national network of gas pipes barely off the drawing board. As a result it should really be called Austin Culvert. Interestingly, the Ant is diverted out of the old canal bed several hundred yards upstream and contrasting states of the silting show the benefit of a good water flow.

Bacton Wood Lock 2006

About half a mile downstream you come to Bacton Wood Lock, the upper limit of navigation until the canal was fully abandoned in 1934. The lock is again on private land and inaccessible to the public but I can show you how it looks courtesy of the East Anglian Waterways Association's website.

Bacton Wood Lock 1907

The next access point is Spa Common Bridge which has been the scene of much voluntary undergrowth clearing over the past year and looks very canalish.

Swafield Bridge

The middle section concludes with the impressive Ebridge Mill, home of the now defunct Cubitt and Walker milling company. Cubitt and Walker bought the canal in 1921 and photos exist showing dredging works in progress in the substantial mill pool.

Reed growth has clearly been a longstanding problem in this location as can be seen from the images of a different pontoon dredger in 1957, a contraption which I remember being moored above the mill in the 1970's.

The Mill Pool was open water in the 70's but nature has again reclaimed it for its own and with the cessation of milling activity in the mill the task of clearance will undoubtedly fall to the restoration team.

The lock at Ebridge is very visible beside the road and comes complete with some top gates heavily supported by concrete sandbags. Whilst the gates may be beyond repair it is good to see the distinctive top ground paddles back in working order and carrying water into the lock chamber, via culverts rather than letting it flow over the precarious top gates as it has for decades.

I had the good fortune to visit this site on the day a North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust working party was on site, clearing the vegitation and generally moving the restoration project along. Their efforts are very apparent at most structures along the canal and the pace of their efforts seems to border on the hyperactive. Its a shame that all restoration projects don't have the same amount of dedication behind them.

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