North Walsham and Dilham Canal

November 2016

 

It seems that canals have the same fatal attraction to Norfolk people as do railways. Ivan Cane (on right of the second picture) drew an audience of well over fifty. The Methodist projector had a real workout – we had reached slide 53 before we even stopped for refreshments. There is plenty to read on line about this unusual canal so here are a few bits of the talk that stuck in my mind.

This is the only canal entirely within Norfolk and one might wonder why it is there. Answer: North Walsham needed coal. It came from Newcastle, was unloaded onto beaches, carted to rivers, carried by wherry until the shallow River Ant was reached, then back on to the carts and so to the town. Laborious and expensive. So why not build a canal?

Time dribbled away. Plans were not finally made until 1811 and it was another 14 years before they got on with the job. Bedfordshire Bankers built it. Not moneyed, but mighty men from the Bedfordshire levels, who were capable of shifting 10 tons of clay per day per man! Nearly 9 miles of canal, 6 locks totalling 58 feet of drop, a number of staithes, and channels linking with 6 water mills. The whole job was done in only fourteen months!

The canal was described as “modern” as it was designed to be used by wherries rather than horse-drawn barges. There was no towpath and nowhere for horses to pass under bridges – but a “haling” way – a path used for hauling the wherries when the wind was low.

Like most canals, it had a very short life. There is some question as to whether it really was a cheaper way to move coal. Cargoes seem to have been mainly agricultural – corn, flour, catt

le cake, bones to be made into fertilizer at the mills. There was even a wherry known as the cabbage wherry which delivered that enticing cargo to Great Yarmouth!

 

Railways came late to this part of Norfolk, not until 1874, but still they ended the canal’s short commercial life. It was auctioned-off in 1906. The last wherry cargo was in 1934, by which time pleasure-boating was taking over. Photos of ladies in elegant hats proved the point. But even this did not last. Floods, wartime deprivation and then neglect meant that by the 1950s the locks were collapsing. By the end of the last century the canal was slowly disappearing from the landscape.

The finale of the talk was about a remarkable programme of restoration that has been under way in recent years. Much helped by local canal-owning benefactors, but impossible without considerable volunteering, locks have been rebuilt, banks restored, wildlife encouraged and the local community is making proud recreational use of the water. There is now nothing to stop you from paying a visit yourself. If you stop to watch the boats then you might be mistaken for a gongoozler, we were told.

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