Monday 30 November 2009

Disaster at Blickling Mill

Disaster at Blickling Mill
November 2009

Every now and again I go and do something completely stupid, and cause myself all sorts of bother.

My interest in the Aylsham Navigation in North Norfork kindled an interest in the other watermills built in the wider catchment basin upstream. I therefore went in search of Blickling Mill, just south of Itteringham, with my 78 year old mother. I was delighted when I found it's remains, complete with a lovingly restored mill cottage now owned by the National Trust and let out to holidaymakers.

Remains of Blickling Mill

In fact, I was so pleased that I popped the car into reverse and zipped back for a closer look, even though it was pouring with rain. Suddenly things went very wrong. Instead of moving along a firm verge the  sodden earth gave way beneath me and I found the car beached on the bank, with one back wheel dangling in space over a small beach at the side of the millpool.

Not only was it 4.00pm and getting dark, I had my elderly mother with me and absolutely no idea of where I was, even if I could reach the AA. Well, I figured that as with so many boating scrapes, if I get myself into a mess I will just have to get myself out of it.

Driven on by pure adrenalin, I extracted the spare tyre and laid it on the beach and used this as a base for the jack, which I used to push the car up as far as it would reach. I then scouted round for any concrete rubble and bricks and eventually built a tower of sufficient strength to carry the weight of the car. With the jack removed I then built up a ramp of sorts using any sticks and shingle I could lay my hands on, before finally trying to drive the car out under its own power.

Ahabs way out of a sticky spot

With the light almost gone this was a one try effort, with me at the wheel and Mother Ahab uttering a heartfelt prayer that the angels might lighten the load. I am not sure if it was my skill or devine intervention, or maybe a bit of both, but amazingly the front tyres had just enough grip to haul the back end up onto solid ground, and off we went no worse for our adventure.

I did have the presence of mind to take a photo of the mini Masada I had built, but sadly I never thought to capture an image of the back wheel balancing on the top of its little tower of bricks.

All's well that ends well, but I am going to be a little more careful in the future.

Just for the record, this was once a proud three story watermill complete with a couple of locums as revealed in this photo borrowed from the hugely informative Norfolk Mills website:

Blickilng Mill in 1910 shortly before the top two layers were removed.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Old Ariel Photos of Coltishall Norfolk

Old Ariel Photos of the River Bure at Coltishall
November 2009

During a recent visit to Ahab Mansions I came across my CSE (remember them?) geography project, which was mouldering in a graden shed, probably placed there due to the extensive quantities of mud in packets which formed the backbone of a soil study I had conducted. As I recall, my classmates wanted to know "how come you got top marks for submitting a barrow load of old s**t?"

Horstead Church 1967

I have always felt a little but uneasy about this geography project, if the truth be told. The thing is that my sister did a very similar project for her geography "A level" at North Walsham High School a few years earlier, and I was so taken by the ariel photos she used I sort of.... well.... copied it a bit.

 Coltishall village centre 1967

With the benefit of 32 years of hindsight it's the photos that interest me more than the 'inspiration' my sister gave me (plagarism is such a dirty word). I don't know how she did it, but she persuaded the guys in the air sea rescue helecopter at RAF Coltishall to run off a series of arial images from Horstead Mill up to Mayton Bridges as part of a reconnisance training mission, and to give her the end results.

 Panorama of man made cut south of Mayton Bridge 1967

I thought you might like to take a look at theses old black and white images which were taken in the winter of 1967. I guarantee that they are unique and are not to be found anywhere else.

For those of you that have lived in Coltishall since the 1960's, you will particulartly like the shot which includes the old Central Garage which used to occupy the site of what is now the Coltishall Island Filling Station.

What are those strange green lines I hear you cry? Well, they pointed out things of particular interest and specifically they marked the exact locations of the river channel profiles she / we undertook. You see, my interest in things watery goes way back and my habit of undertaking superficial research is nothing new.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Coltishall Granaries, Norfolk

Coltishall Granaries, Norfolk
November 2009

In my last post about Coltishall Common I mentioned a stream which crosses the northern end of the open space, and how it led on to Coltishall Granaries.

Access cut to the Old Maltings in White Lion Street from Wrioxham Road

There is more to this unusually wide stream than meets the eye. Although the course of the stream is soon blocked by a piped bridge carrying Wroxham Road, this was not always present. At one time the stream was widened and deepened to three feet, sufficient to allow a loaded wherry to be hauled up to the back of the old maltings to load and onload goods.

Silted remains of turning point behind Coltishall Granaries

I know all this from the "old boys" who worked at Coltishall Granaries in the late 1960's and  who led me out to the back of my family's mill and pointed out the enlarged winding hole (not that they called it that in Norfolk) and offered to demonstrate its considerable depth by throwing me in if I didn't behave!

The maltings were converted to serve the function of a grain mill in the late 1950's, intially powered by huge diesel engines and later by electric motors, all turning antique driveshafts running the length of the mill using leather and canvas belts. I still can't go into a restored watermill without hearing and smelling the Granaries operating at full bore. Health and Safety would have a field day at all that unguarded machinery, but no one gave it much thought and I was regularly dispatched to pour some oil into "number two bearing" which always ran hot, no matter how much they fiddled with it.

Milling side of Coltishall Granaries Ltd

The Granaries became economically unviable in the early 1970's and by 1976 the place was silent and in danger of being torn down. It nearly suffered a mortal blow in 1977 when a high winter storm stripped large sections of tiles off the roof, leaving yours truly (aged 16) to clamber up and replace as much as I could.

Truncated tower of maltings

That was so nearly the end of the place till my father, always an ennthusiastic designer, had this idea that it could be divided into fourteen dwellings. A property development company was established with shareholdings taken by my father, the builder and the architect and by 1980 the conversions were complete, winning the second ever Broadland Enhancement Award in the process.

The Old Granaries still stands as 14 dwellings, complete with a pretty central courtyard and now with extensive grounds to the rear, purchased to compensate for the paucity of land / gardens.

Too wide to be just a stream..

At the time of my recent visit a new house was being built on the banks of the stream which gave me extensive access to the watercourse.

One thing has always troubled me about the conversion of the Granaries. The big unit, the one at the bottom left includes as it's basement the bit that was generally regarded as haunted. When I found myself in the building one evening during a power failure I was scared out of my wits. Maybe the converstion process drove away the spooks, but I am not convinced....

Friday 27 November 2009

Coltishall Common on the River Bure

Coltishall Common on the River Bure
November 2009

For many boaters Coltishall Common represents the head of navigation on the River Bure, somewhere to tie up by an area of open grassland and sample the delights of the Kings Head or the Rising Sun pubs, or maybe both. In actual fact you can navigate up to Coltishall Lock, but shallow water and limited width puts off most boaters.

The Rising Sun, Coltishall

For me the place holds fond memories of long evenings fishing, a starting place for extensive canoe trips and also as the launching site of the sailing boat I built when I was 18.

Whilst the outline of the common has changed little in 40 years, the place has been all spruced up with the irregular riverbanks piled and edged in wood. The boathouse half way along is, or was, owned by one of the Cambridge Colleges and this has been renewed, but the overall atmosphere has changed little. Perhaps the greatest loss is the infilling of the sandy beach at the southern end where children paddled in the summer months, in between playing chase on the grass and licking ice creams from the ever present ice cream van.

Coltishall Common

Possibly the biggest change is the dramatic reduction in the number of boats that moor here. Back in the 1970's it was heaving, with big pale blue plastic Bermuda cruisers (yuk) tied up three abreast, churning up a veritable storm and they thrashed their way up and down the river. Good fun for a teenager in a canoe, and good news for the local shop which delivered groceries to order,  but not so good for the riverbanks.

Allen's Boatyard 2009

There is a lot of history in the area including Allen's boatyard a few hundred yards down Anchor Street. This was home to a veritable wherry construction factory from the mid 1800's, which continued as a hire boat base till 1974 when it closed it's doors and much was torn down to make way for the housing you see today. The abandoned pool was home to some great fish, but was presided over by a vigilent caretaker who shoo'd me off on many occasions. There was a row of cottages at the northern end of the common, standing beside the stream on what is now the pub car park. These were damp and poky little places and I remember that occupants were very pleased to be rehoused in brand new council housing in the late 1960's. 

There was also Coltishall Granaries, an old maltings set just back from the common a bit further up the stream, but more of that in a future post.

Norfolk Wherry in full sail

When I visited the common recently I found that it had reverted to it's normal wintertime comatose state, with broad vistas of water and sky showing the place at its best.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Upper Bure / Aylsham Navigation - introduction and index

Upper Bure or Aylsham Navigation
14th November 2009

I have a particular fondness for the Upper Bure Navigation in North Norfolk, even more so than the North Walsham and Dilham Canal, about which I waxed lyrical back in the spring.

Last leaves of autumn above Horstead Mill

It is fair to say that I spent most of my youth in or on this stretch of the Bure, and particularly the reaches around Coltishall and Horstead. If I wasn't canoeing, rowing or sailing on it, you would probably find me swimming or fishing in it. The place wasn't Nirvana, but for a boy with his head full of Swallows and Amazons it was a pretty good place to be.

Coltishall riverbank

I didn't really appreciate the significance of the river as a commercial trade route at the time, and I certainly didn't realise just how much of it's 9.5 miles had been adapted in 1779 when it was made navigable through to Aylsham, at a cost of £6,000. On reflection, there is almost as much canal along the line of the river as there is original watercourse.

Reflections in Coltishall Lock Pool

In it's heyday, the route between Aylsham and Great Yarmouth supported 26 wherries, which plied a week long route through five locks alongside five watermills - Horstead, Buxton, Oxnead, Burgh and Aylsham. Given the relatively substantial size of the river, and the shallow nature of the locks, the water loss to the navigation would have been a modest price to pay for access to such a convenient method of transport to and from the mills.

Map of the Aylsham Navigation

The navigation flourished in the 1800's, bringing prosperity to Aylsham and the villages along the route,  that is until the M&GN railway was built up the valley in 1880 resulting in the inevitable demise of the waterway. It struggled on, but was hit by a huge flood in August 1912 which destroyed every lock and bridge from its source near Melton Constable to Coltishall. The waterway never recovered and was left to deteriorate back the drainage channel we see today.

Rising Sun at Coltishall Common

Now my interest in this river runs deep, given my family ties to the Bure Valley and its upper catchment basin. My maternal ancestors operated Aldborough Watermill (on the Scarrow Beck) since the mid 1800's, and my father ran one of the last independent grain mills (not water powered) in Coltishall till the 1970's. I will therefore be posting a whimsical series of blogs about the Bure / Aylsham Navigation over the next couple of weeks, willingly giving in to sentimentatilty and personal recollections of the mills as I remember then in the 1960's, and of course publishing a series of then and now photos to mark the changes.
  1. Coltishall Common
  2. Side Arm to Coltishall Granaries
  3. Horstead Mill
  4. Coltishall Lock
  5. Coltishall Bridge
  6. Ariel photos of Coltishall in the 1960's
  7. Mayton Bridges
  8. Buxton Mill and Lock
  9. M&GN Railway Bridge at Buxton Lammas
  10. Oxnead Mill and Lock
  11. Burgh Mill and Lock
  12. Rebuilt bridges of the Bure 
  13. Riverside walk at Burgh
  14. Aylsham Lock
  15. Aylsham Mill and Staithe
I hope you find the posts of interest.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Essington Branch Canal (Vernon's Branch)

Essington Branch Canal (or Vernon's Branch)
Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
7th November 2009

During my research into the Wyrley Bank Branch canal I noticed a record or a further, older branch which left the main canal about a mile up from Sneyd Junction,  above the six Sneyd Locks.

Essington Canal - the start, and the finish

A more careful investigation revealed that this is the line up to a Mr Vernons 'New Pit at Essington', and was the ultimate destination of the canal as it was originally built in 1795. This last length lifted that canal up through another five locks to a short top pound 536 feet above sea level. This height is remarkable as it represents the high point of the BCN system, beating Titford pools by 22 feet and holds the record as the 3rd highest canal in the UK - only 64 feet below the Rochdale Canal's heather fringed summit (The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the highest).

Essington Colliery 2009 

This waterway was very shortlived, closing in 1830 when the pit at Essington was economically played out.

I had trouble identifying the line of the canal from the Bloxwich end, so I drove round to the A462 near the M6, parking up in a gate opposite Rose Cottage. I could see immediately that I had the right place because:

1. To the west the remains of Essington Open Cast Mine were clearly visible, the site of Mr Vernons 17th Century mine.
2. Opposite this site two widely spaced hedges march off, arrow straight, towards Bloxwich, with a land drain at the centre.

The route had stiles and a reasonably clear footpath, so I explored on foot, initially following a farm track which reduced to a footpath at the site of the top lock. Now, it is very difficult to be sure about the exact location of the locks, and I could find no concrete evidence of their presence on the ground. However, for the most part the line of the canal was flat, except for five distinct but shallow rises.

The line of the Essington Branch Canal - with the towers of Bloxwich beyond.

The trouble with this canal had to be it's extreme elevation. Surface water is almost non existant. It was clear that all the  local streams had been harvested for every drop they could supply, but there was never enough to satisfy the needs of an industrial canal. One can only assume that the mine workings at the Essington Colliery required constant pumping, and that these waters provided an adequete supply.

Soil anomolies across the line of the canal

As the path ran out of the farmland and into some woods, the frequency of the undulations increased and I was delighted to discover a recently created land drain crossing what I believed to be the line of the canal. Sure enough, the red sandy soil which is usual in this area gave way to about 25 feet of darker soil, interspersed with chunks of grey clay, which have no place in the geology of the area.

The Essington Canal line ends up at the scrap yard on the curve of the Wyrley Bank Branch Canal. Interestingly, a pond has recently been excavated at the end of the route, throwing up a large number of old bricks and clay, possibly the last reamining solid features of a canal abandoned 170 years ago.

Strangely, for all its shortness and lack of structures, this canal walk was among the most absorbing I have undertaken to date. I took one final look at the site of the Essington Colliery, currently being reprofiled and soon to resemble the Cheslyn Hay site in the north. There was little to show for all that industry apart from a few chunks of coal tailings mixed in with the sand.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal, Gilpins Basin to Cheslyn Hay

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
Gilpins Basin to the terminus at Cheslyn Hay
7th November 2009

Having left the restored open cast mining area behind, the canal quickly reverts to a dry tree lined channel, with some evidence of mine loading bays to be seen in the form of crumbling brickwork mixed with tree roots.

Remains of a brick wall on the off side of the channel

The nature of the canal changes for the last half mile, clinging to the side of the hill, presumably Wyrley Bank, with a steep drop off to the east. Mid way along this stretch there is the site of a major breach, where the flow of water has blasted a big gap in the side of the canal.

Whilst this was the site of the Great Wyrley Pit, it is all residential housing now and a walk along the towpath gives a good view into the back gardens. Mid way along there is something of a narrows, which was the site of a wooden access swing bridge, a photo of which is included on a nearby display board.

Lift Bridge at Cheslyn Hay 1926

And as Campions Wood Bridge looked in 1971 - as taken by Laurence Hogg and posted on CWDF

The canal finally comes to an end, swinging round into its final basin near Dundalk Lane, complete with more display boards and some seats on which to rest and eat your sandwiches. Sadly, the car park built to service the Mercia Forest Path of which the towpath forms a part has been closed due to anti social behaviour. Maybe we're not so far from Bloxwich after all!

The start of the Mercia Forest Path, and the Wyrley Bank Branch canal at Cheslyn Hay.

Monday 23 November 2009

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal, Long Lane to Gilpins Basin

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
Long Lane to Gilpins Basin
7th November 2009

My continuing exploration of this abandoned branch canal took me beyond the embankment at Long Lane and into an extensive straight cutting, with the canal in water throught. At this point I lost the benefit of Eric Richardson's 1980's and early 1990's research published in The Blackcountryman, and amalgamated into his booklet "In Search of the lost canals of the Black Country". Eric's voice had been present till this point, giving me the benefit of his meticulous research, but from here on I was on my own.

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal looking north from Long Lane.

At the end l of this long cutting I came upon a perfect example of a canal bridge, complete with a plaque bearing the name Bakers Bridge, probably the best preserved example of canal architecture on the northern section.

Bakers Bridge from the south and the north 

Next up it was Streets Lane, and another bridge which has been replaced with an embankment. This location marks a very real watershed in the canal, with water flowing both north and south, but with no passage under the road. But the watershed isn't limited to the water gradient, it also includes the topography. You see, beyond Streets Lane the line of the canal has been maintained but forms the boundary of the huge Cheslyn Hay open cast mine, which stripped out every last trace of coal in the 1980's.  Whilst the line of the canal exists in the form of a narrow land drain, it is supplemented from time to time by a series of attractive lakes, which offer good fishing. The amazing thing about this area is the effect of the restoration efforts when the mine finished. The locals assure me that the hills and valleys are not the same, and the stands of Oak are missing, but to a newcomer the fields which cover the site now look like any other. 

Pools at Streets Lane

Half way along this section there is a large triangular indent to the east, the site of Gilpins Basin. It is at this point that the many display boards come into their own, revealing the crossover bridges which existed backed by a busy industrial scene with towering chimneys billowing smoke. It is almost impossible to believe that this is the same place 100 years later.

Gilpins Basin - then and now

On this occasion the echoes of industry, which so often accompany the abandoned canals, seem to have been stilled, replaced with birdsong and the rustle of leaves.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal, Essington Junction to Long Lane Bridge

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
Essington Junction to Long Lane
7th November 2009

The length of canal following the six locks at Sneyd is very visible as it flanks the towpath, with it's profile filled with trees, assorted rubbish and, on the occasion of my visit, a few inches of water. The first canal structure one encounters is a very unusual house to the west of the channel, effectively a one up one down affair set in the midst of a muddy breakers yard. It is unclear if this is an old lengthsmans home, or something to do with the railway.

Cottage above Sneyd Locks

The first mile or so winds round in a big loop, with the old Essington Arm branching off to the north west at the apex of the bend. The Essington section was actually part of the original mainline and the extra 3.5 miles out to Gt Wyrley wasn't built till 1857, 59 years later and 28 years after the Essington section had been abandoned.

This part of the canal has an inner city feel to it, with one of the more troubled estates of Bloxwich bordering it to the east. The estate makes it's presence known in the shape of graffiti, broken bottles and fire marks on the tarmac'd towpath. Not that I witnessed and anti social behaviour, other than the obligatory lunatic on a motorbike who fortunately kept his distance.

Pipe Bridge at Broad Lane with railway bridge beyond

With the bridge removed, there is little to see as the now culverted canal passes the site of Broad Lane Bridge. However, a few hunderd yards on you arrive at the first of the two railway bridges, preceeded by an arched pipe bridge which is so typical of a canal but so incongrous elsewhere. As soon as the canal passes under the railway the edgyness of urban life is left behind and the canal, now in water, winds it's way through some very pleasant countryside.

Rope Roller on Railway Bridge

This loop of canal behind the railway line continues for a mile or so, ending with a very abrupt left hand turn back under the second railway bridge, with the site of an infilled arm marked by a stand of trees to the right. The corner of the railway bridge is protected by one of the most perfect rope rollers I have ever encountered, and looked to functional I even gave it a twist to see if it still rotated (it didn't).

South from Long Lane

The canal then enters a long tree lined cutting, with occasional square bollards set into the bank. They are probably placed to indicate that the edge is unstable, but many look as if they are ready and waiting a narrowboat to tie up for the night.  Long Lane has lost it's bridge, now replaced by a high embankment with the water channel piped through it's base. Whilst it does represent an obstacle, the vantage point offers fine views along the canal.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Sneyd Reservoir, Wyrley Bank Branch Canal

Sneyd Reservoir
Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
7th November 2009

A trip to see the Wyrley Bank Branch Canal, or indeed the older Essington Branch wouldn't be complete without a look at Sneyd Reservoir. Whilst you wouldn't think it from ground level, this canal is one of the highest on the system at 507 feet, and the higher you go the more problematic the water supplies become.

Sneyd Reservoir at its much reduced depth

The four miles of canal above Sneyd Locks is on a single level and therefore can be fed at any point. It therefore made sense to build the holding reservoir close to the start, allowing the canal to be used to access as many mines as possible in it's initial phase of construction.

Map showing feeder channel to reservoir to capture surplus water coming down the canal.
Map sourced by Laurence Hogg

The end result it a huge earth walled enclosure immediately to the west of the locks. The reservoir was built in 1795 and was a good 30 to 40 feet deep, lifting the surface level to above the height of the top lock. When I visited the site and looked down into the residual pool at the bottom, I was struck by it's depth when full, and again as I circled round it,  found the height of its banks impressive. I couldn't help thinking about the huge weight of water the banks held back, and what would have happened if they had breached. I therefore wasn't too surprised when I read an item in a local history site which described a day in 1798 when it failed catastrophically, spilling it's contents  and "sweeping all before it as it ran through Shenstone, Hopwas and Drayton before it spilled into the River Tame at Tamworth". It's not hard to imagine this level of devastation when you  look at the size of the reservoir.

Water inlet shaft?

Overflow wier in 2021

The Lions Den - or the outfall sluice in 1972 / 3 - Tony Kulik

On a slightly less dramatic note, the reservoir contains some curious watercourses along its eastern flank. There is a normal sort of overflow spilling out into the line of the canal above the locks, but there is also a channel which leads to an angled brick lined tunnel which dives down through the embankment, and is presumably the entry point for new water supplies. However, given the scarcity of groundwater in the area I am not sure where it all came from. I am speculating that there may have been some form of pumping mechanism which lifted water from the Wolverhampton Level up and into the reservoir. Given the many mines in the area it is plausible that the water pumped from the mines below was pushed up into the resrvoir.

Remains of old pumphouse

Today the giant earthworks stand gaunt and empty, like an iron age earthworks with just a shallow pond in the middle fed by rainwater. That's not to say it isn't picturesque, and it is certainly a popular fishing spot for the local anglers.

Update 28th Dec 2019

Following the release of my Canal Hunter video of this area I have been sent the following four photos of the remains of the Sneyd Pumping Station. Sadly, the name of the photographer is unknown but I extend my thanks to whoever took them.

Thats The Birchills power station in the distance