Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Black Shuck - The Hound From Hell.

"Black Shuck" -  "The Hound From Hell" is a well known East Anglian legend - a large black dog with eyes that burn like red fireballs.  He roams the coastline and the marshes right across Norfolk and Suffolk.   Anyone who looks into those flaming red eyes will be dead within twelve months, according to the legend.  

 In September 2011 we loaded the cameras and headed for Suffolk to follow in "Shuck's" paw prints.  

"Shuck's" first recorded appearance was in Bungay, Suffolk, on August 4th 1577.  During a violent thunder storm a large black dog ran into St Mary's church and attacked and killed two of the congregation.  A third man survived, it was said his wounds resembled scorched leather rather than wounds consistent with an animal attack.
It was also claimed that the dog's claws left scorch marks on the church doors of the North porch.   Unfortunately any evidence to support this was lost when the church was badly damaged by fire in 1688. 

A few miles away in Blythburgh a similar attack took place during a violent thunder storm.  Again it was reported that a large black dog ran into the church and attacked members of the congregation, a man and a boy were killed.  During the attack the steeple was struck by lightening and part of the masonry crashed through the roof of the nave.  Once again Shuck's claws left scorch marks on the church doors, these marks are still clearly visible. 

Earlier the same day a local man was chased by a large black dog,  this fellow was able to reach the safety of the parish church before the dog could attack him.  Again scorches and scratch marks were left on the doors of the church.  

Although phantom Black Dogs have been reported since Roman times the events in Suffolk in 1577 gave a perceived credibility to "Black Shuck's" existence.   The "Hound from Hell" tag originated from the belief that Shuck was actually the devil who appeared in the form  of a black dog.  If the story had ended there the legend might have been relegated to the status of an "Old Wives Tale" but over the last four centuries there have been many sightings of the black dog.  From Suffolk to North Norfolk people have claimed to have seen the dog with flaming red eyes.

In 1890, on Yarmouth beach, a young lad was preparing to swim in the sea when a large black dog approached him.   The boy entered the water and began to swim - the dog followed.  For some time the two of them swam together much to the amusement of the teenager.  The young lad was enjoying the swim with his new friend but as he was beginning to tire he decided to to turn back to the beach.  The black dog snarled and barred the way, several bites to the boys feet and back forced him further out to sea.   He was practically exhausted when a fishing boat spotted them.  Assuming the boy and his dog were in trouble the fisherman rowed over to assist them.   They hauled the semi conscious youth into the fishing smack and were horrified to see deep wounds in his back, shoulder and feet.  As they made for the shore they watched the black dog swim out to sea until it was out of sight.

A stormy night in North Norfolk in 1980 a holiday maker stopped to buy a pint of milk at a village store.   He left his young son in the car while he nipped into the shop.  A few minutes later he emerged with the milk just in time to see a large black dog disappear into a copse on the opposite side of the road.
Inside the car the child sat frozen with fear - he told his father the dog had glowing red eyes and had tried to get into the car.  The following day the father found large muddy paw prints on the bonnet and the back window of the car. 

Between West Runton and Overstrand there have been so many sightings over the years the area is called Shuck's Lane.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was convalescing in Cromer would often dine at Cromer Hall with the lord of the manor.  He heard many stories about the black dog from Baskerville the lord's coachman.   Soon after his stay in Norfolk Sir Arthur wrote "Hound of the Baskervilles",  without doubt Shuck was the inspiration. 

I am ecstatically happy to report that we saw no trace of the "Hound From Hell"  so we have had to recruit a large black dog to appear in the film on "Shuck's" behalf.   To say Shuck does not exist would be the logical reaction for most people.   But next time you find yourself walking along a lonely Norfolk lane in the fading light, you might have to ask yourself, is it the North wind howling or could it be............

Authors Footnote 8th February 2012.
Sightings of a black Puma or Panther loose on the outskirts of Norwich yesterday.   This is the latest in a series of sightings of what is definitely a large black animal roaming the Norfolk countryside.
These sightings have been reported regularly over the years but so far no evidence has ever been found.  One would expect to find evidence of kills or paw prints if there was a big cat on the loose but so far nothing.     What if.............?

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A Film Odyssey.

When I am not lugging camera equipment around the more remote parts of Norfolk and Suffolk I often ask myself why on earth am I spending so much of my time shooting a film which only a handful of people will  see.  Then, in my quieter moments I try to figure out  what drove me to start out on this film odyssey in the first place.

Somewhere in the sunlit uplands of my memory I recall my early years in a little village in west Norfolk.
One night in April 1942 the Luftwaffe destroyed our family home in Norwich just a few weeks before I was born.

                                      courtesy of wikimedia creative commons licence.

We were evacuated to the sanctuary of the rolling farmland of west Norfolk where a kindly old couple took us in.  The old couple became my adopted "Nanny and Grandpa Rawlings"  My newly acquired  grandparents were good old Norfolk stock.  "Grandpa" was a big man and as strong as an ox but had a gentle demeanor .  "Nanny" was a slightly built woman with an air of understated independence.  They did not have very much but were contented and quite happy to share what little they had.

I guess we didn't take up too much room as most of my parents possessions had been destroyed along with the greater part of the house.  This was just as well as the new home we shared with the Rawlings was a tiny terraced cottage with just two small bedrooms.   The front door of the cottage stepped down off the main street onto the stone floor of the parlour.  The parlour was small but uncluttered apart for a modest collection of  Edwardian china ornaments.  An enormous oil lamp occupied pride of place on a plain, unvarnished, wooden table.  Two wooden chairs with crocheted cushions faced an open fireplace.  On one side of the fireplace a huge soot encrusted  kettle was in perpetual steam.
The tiny scullery had stone floors with a coal or wood fired boiler in the corner.  Water was pumped into the cottage by means of a hand operated pump mounted beside a shallow stone sink.  This was quite a convenience compared to many families who had to carry buckets to and from the village pump.

                                           courtesy of wikimedia creative commons licence.

Behind the cottage was a long vegetable garden with row upon row of green produce.  At the end of the garden, surrounded by stinging nettles, was the thunder box  (WC).
Stone floors, Oil lamps, a wall oven and chamber pots were more than enough for all our daily needs.

Eventually Dad was able to rent a small cottage behind the village bakery and for the next few years we were awakened to the smell of fresh bread every morning. 

Some time after the war had ended we moved back to Norwich. The old house had been repaired with different coloured bricks to the originals.  Red rustics at the front and cheap War Damage "Flettons" at the back.  But we did have the luxury of running water at the turn of a tap, electric lights and flush a toilet, even if it was outside.
In our oddly coloured house I spent the remainder of my childhood.   Along with the other urchins from the neighbourhood I proudly shared ownership of the "bombed site" at the bottom of our garden.  The remains of the "bombed out" cottages provided an endless source of material to build dens and light fires.  

The two environments could not have been more different and as the old saying goes - "You can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy." 

In subsequent years we made regular visits to see "Nanny Rawlings" in the little cottage we had once called home.   We did not have a motor car so we travelled by steam train on the old M&GN line.

Passing  horse- drawn sail binders in the harvest fields and row upon row of wheat sheaves lining the golden stubble in perfect symmetry.
Standing guard over freshly sown acres were sad, lonely old scarecrows dressed in farm labourers "cast offs" and condemned to a  life of solitude.
Heavily laden trees lined the orchards while herds of cattle and flocks of sheep grazed contentedly in the meadows.  An endless stream of these rustic images drifted past the carriage window shrouded in wispy steam.   It was like travelling back in time but those images became indelibly etched in my memory.

                                        courtesy of wikipedia creative commons licence.

Sadly progress is a fearsome animal with a voracious appetite, it devours the years without regret or conscience.  Then one day we realise that the people and things we once knew and loved are gone, and sadly, we hardly notice their passing.  I suspect this is the reason  I embarked on this film odyssey.

To watch "My Norfolk Year" video.

Saturday, 8 October 2011


Skippers of wherries could earn more from carrying one or two tubs of  smuggled French brandy than they could from hauling forty tons of coal.   In the early part of the nineteenth century smuggling was rife, even severe punishments did not deter wherrymen from carrying "Little extras".   Imprisonment at best or transportation at worst.  In the early 1800's transported prisoners were sent to the swamps of Africa which was practically a death sentence,  transportation to Australia came many years later.  Once contraband was seized the wherry would be burned even before the felons had been sentenced.
For the wherrymen moving contraband along the waterways was much needed income but they were only on the fringe of the "Free Trade" industry.
Romantic notions have become attached to 19th century smugglers which is far from the reality of the period.
Smuggling barons were ruthless violent men who became rich from their criminal activities and they would not hesitate to deal with anyone who stood in their way.

We took the cameras to West Norfolk to record a dramatic event that took place in September 1784.

Smugglers were waiting off shore for the all clear signal from the cliffs at Old Hunstanton, they did not know that customs officers and a troop of Dragoons were waiting for them in the darkness.  As the contraband was being brought ashore the Dragoons charged across the sands at full gallop with sabres drawn.  The smugglers, upwards of fifty men, scattered in all directions.
The smuggler's carts and ponies that had been abandoned on the beach were commandeered by the excise men and the smuggled goods were taken to nearby "Clares farm" which is now part of the Caley Hall hotel.

Reinforcements of Dragoons arrived at Old Hunstanton and were sent to the beach in case another attempt was made to land more goods.
The gang leader of the smugglers was enraged when some of the landing party returned to the lugger and  gave him the news of the customs seizure.   Without hesitation he armed the remainder of his crew with pistols, muskets and sabres, the long-boat was launched and the smugglers set off to recover the contraband that had been seized.

As the smugglers made their way from the dunes they spotted the advancing column of dragoons and concealed themselves in a ditch.  The column passed at close range, the smugglers opened fire, private William Webb at the head of the column was hit four times and fell from his horse.
A second volley fatally wounded customs officer William Green who died hours later at Clare's farmhouse.
By the time the Dragoons had regrouped the smugglers had fled.  The gang leader, William Kemball, was later apprehended along with most of the gang.  He was held in Norwich prison until the Thetford assizes seven months after his arrest.  Ironically the wealth accumulated from smuggling activities afforded him first class legal representation which allowed him to escape the death penalty and resume his smuggling career.

This sad little story is not uncommon in Norfolk.  There are three customs officers buried in St Nicholas' churchyard, Great Yarmouth.   Seven other revenue officers were wounded in the same action that was fought off the Yarmouth coast.   There is another officer buried in Bacton churchyard.  All of them killed them by smugglers.

We ended the shoot at the little village church where we filmed the graves of the Dragoon, private Webb and the Customs officer William Green.  
As we stood at the graveside it was not difficult to imagine young Phoebe Green standing there all those years ago, a widow at twenty three.

Friday, 16 September 2011


A common sight for travellers in Norfolk and Suffolk are the old drainage mills.  Travel by road, rail or river and there is usually one of these relics somewhere on the horizon.   The location of the mills out on the windswept marshes are yet another reminder of East Anglia’s forgotten past. 
In the mid 1800s there were 240 drainage mills working in Norfolk, today about 70 remain.  The majority of them have fallen into disrepair and are now unloved and unwanted. 

Beside the river Yare, (or the Norwich river as it was called by the old wherrymen), stands Hardley mill.
The mill was built in 1874 for Sir Thomas Proctor Beauchamp of Langley Hall.   The mill was in operation until the 1950's when it was "tail winded" and extensively damaged.    The Internal Drainage Board abandoned Hardley mill and replaced it with an electric drainage pump.  Hardley mill became another unwanted,  redundant wind pump.   

We took the cameras there last Autumn to shoot some film - as we approached the mill we could see the sails rotating majestically in a fairly light breeze.  There is something very "Norfolk" about a windmill.  A sentinel working in splendid isolation out on the marsh.   A symbol of reliability that belongs to another age,  not polluting earth or atmosphere, a machine in perfect harmony with nature.  
Without the drainage mills thousands of acres of valuable grazing land would have been permanently under water.  Low lying Marshland pastures were drained by a network of dykes which carried the water  to the mills which returned the water to the river.  
Early drainage mills pumped the water by scoop wheel until these were replaced by turbines.  The turbines could lift around twelve tons of water per minute.

Hardley mill has undergone an incredible transformation  -  The ultimate plan is to restore Hardley mill to full working order when it will once again pump water.   We were invited to take our cameras to the very top of the mill and sample the wonderful view.  The climb was a challenge even with just the minimum of equipment.   The lower floors were relatively easy, but where the tower narrowed on the third and fourth floors it became more of a squeeze.  Finally we emerged on the platform of the mill cap by way of an iron ladder which rotates as the cap turns with the wind.   The view was spectacular from every quarter - the marsh rolling out beneath us with the Yare, a glittering silver ribbon, winding through it.  
The giant sails rotating ponderously through their arc, their creaking timbers bringing the mill to life as the power resonated throughout the tower. 

Although the the drainage mills were primarily used to drain marshland they did have other uses.   Wherry skippers found the mills useful to hide contraband making it's way along the rivers.  There was more profit in a single cask of French Brandy than forty tons of coal.   Mill men would warn the wherries if the Excise men were in the area by stopping the sails in the cross of St George or the cross of St Andrew.  One signalled danger and one signalled all clear.  The message could be passed across the flat Norfolk landscape faster than any horse and rider. 

A short video can be viewed on the link below.
or click on "My favourite links" on the right of the blog.
Thanks for looking

Friday, 5 August 2011

"Hathor" Forget Me Not.

Yesterday I called in to see an old friend, she is one hundred and six years old.      I last saw her two years ago when I shot some film of  her on the Norfolk broads, she was very sprightly for her age and fun to be with.   When I called at the home she shares with two other Edwardian ladies I was shocked to she how she had deteriorated.  Her decking was cracked, her varnish had peeled and she looked very, very sad.   I am writing about  the pleasure wherry "Hathor".

Two years ago I spent the summer shooting a documentary of  "Hathor's" farewell tour across the Norfolk rivers and broads.  During that summer as I followed "Hathor"  I became more and more attached to her.  The sleek graceful lines seemed out of place for what was originally a robust cargo design.

"Hathor" is a silent witness of a time when local craftsmen created things of lasting quality for very little reward.  She is also a reminder of the enormous social divide that existed in England during the Edwardian period.  A time when the affluent, unashamedly, enjoyed their wealth and the rivers and broads became their exclusive playground.  For the working classes who served them it was an existence, measured by long days of  hard work and very few pleasures.

"Hathor" is a very special craft with a fascinating history.  She was built by Daniel Hall of Reedham in 1905 for Ethel and Helen Colman daughters of Jeremiah Colman (Colmans Mustard).  In 1897 the Colman family travelled the Nile on an Egyptian river boat named "Hathor",  during the trip Alan Colman became gravely ill and died in Luxor.   Seven years later the Colman pleasure wherry was named "Hathor" in Alan's memory.  The interior is inlaid with Teak and Sycamore creating an Egyptian theme throughout the saloon and cabins. 

It is now two years since "Hathor" sailed  the rivers and broads and she is likely to be absent for the foreseeable future.  A friend in need is a friend indeed and "Hathor" is in urgent need of  friends.  Considerable funds are needed to restore her to sailing condition.   Please visit the WYCCT website to learn more about this wonderful old wherry and,  if you so desire, sign up as a friend.

"Forget me not" 

     or you can use the "My Favourite Links"  on the right.

I have included some clips from "Hathor's" farewell tour which can be seen on Youtube.
     click on the Youtube link in "My favourite Links" on the right.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Sunday 24th July  2011.

The first time I saw Breydon water was many years ago as a child, it was an August bank holiday.  Mum and dad, armed with a shopping bag full of sandwiches and orange juice, took us kids to Great Yarmouth for the day.    The train steamed along the edge of Breydon water where wading birds foraged in the mud  and the green grey water ebbed out through the channel.  I looked out of the carriage window completely captivated by this mysterious stretch of water and vowed I would cross it one day.

More years than I care to remember have flown by since I made that promise to myself.  It is more than likely I would not have made the trip this summer had it not been for the fact that the wherry "Maud" was scheduled to cross Breydon,  it was a film opportunity too good to miss.

First priority was to find a boat and skipper.  I posted on the Norfolk Broads forum to see if anyone could help, within an hour I had three offers.   I accepted Lord Paul of Sealand's kind offer and for the following two weeks watched the long range forecasts for Great Yarmouth with more hope than expectation.

The day of the shoot arrived and I met up with Lord Paul and "Mistral" moored at the Fisherman's Inn, Burgh Castle.   We chatted over a cup of coffee while we waited for low tide and a call from the "Maud".  The call duly arrived and we set off  for the New Haven Bridge.   It took an hour to cross Breydon and fulfill at least one childhood ambition.

                                                   It was a perfect day for yachtsmen.

It was a perfect day for yachtsmen. a North Westerly was cutting across Breydon at 34 kph raising white caps and buffeting "Mistral" who rode serenely through water.
As we approached the New Haven Bridge we could see "Maud"s great black sail away in the distance, everything was falling into place.  We arrived at the bridge and waited for "Maud" to appear, then we got another call.  The wherry could not get under Vauxhall bridge, so they would have to wait for low water and try again the following day.  

Lord Paul turned "Mistral" about and headed back to Burgh Castle,  We were both disappointed to say the least.  To make it worse as we returned across Breydon the sun broke through and the wind moderated - perfect conditions for filming.  Even though I had failed to get the shots I came for I enjoyed my day out with Paul on "Mistral"

                                                         Perfect conditions for filming.

Plan B was quickly put together.  Lord Paul and "Mistral" were leaving Breydon on the morning tide so my only option was to shoot the wherry from the Breydon wall this was assuming they could get under Vauxhall bridge.

Next day  (Monday 25th  July) A North Westerly gusting to about 30 mph - very dull with fine drizzle at times.
Conditions for filming absolutely atrocious.
I parked at Church Farm, Burgh Castle, loaded my trolley with equipment and set off for the Breydon wall.
After a hike of about a mile and a half I found a spot which gave a good view in both directions, I set the camera up got out my folding chair and waited - and waited - and waited.    Then the call from "Maud" - they were still waiting at the Vauxhall bridge.   The tide was rising - the wind was strengthening - the light was getting dimmer by the minute and my spirits were fading with the light.     I pulled my collar up, turned my back to the wind and waited alone on the Breydon wall - for two hours - in a gale - I must be nuts! 
Then another call from "Maud" they were under the bridge and on their way.  A few minutes later I could see her sail in the murky distance.     Very slowly "Maud" approached the headland where I was waiting.  A fine drizzle was blowing straight onto the lens,  the gusting wind rocked the camera making it impossible to take a steady shot on the 20x zoom.  "Maud" was well within range - if only there was a break in the cloud and a gap in the wind, I would have settled for just thirty seconds - but no such luck.   I knew it was going to be difficult to get anything at all in these conditions.

The wind did not relent, the light did not improve - but I did  get a few worthwhile shots.  Good enough to include in the film?  Probably not.    But "Maud" has to make the return trip across Breydon and I shall be waiting. 

                               "Maud" hauled out for maintenance at Burgh Castle.

Many thanks to Lord Paul and the owners and crew of "Maud" for their help and support through a very tough weekend.       For my part it has to go down as an heroic failure.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Buxton Mill to Aylsham Mill by Canoe.

Wednesday June 29th 2011.

It was barely nine - thirty in the morning and the sun was already uncomfortably hot.  Insects rose in coloured profusion  from the lush vegetation on the banks as our canoe cut its way through rafts of water lilies and floating grass.  Birdsong echoed around the reed beds and from trees overhanging the river.   This was not a remote mangrove swamp in some far off tropic - it was the river Bure running through Buxton Lamas in deepest Norfolk.

This was the second part of our  journey along the upper reaches of the Aylsham navigation, part one had ended at Buxton mill just shy of halfway.  The second half of the journey resumed at Buxton mill,  and barring obstacles on the navigation, we hoped  to make it all the way to the mill at Aylsham.  When planning the film, against all advice, I had decided to head upstream and finish at Aylsham as this seemed the most logical direction for the film to make any sense, after all it is called the "Aylsham" navigation.  Had we taken the easier option starting at Aylsham and heading downstream it was difficult to decide on a suitable finishing point?     It should be noted that the river is also known as the "Bure" navigation - but  for clarity of purpose I felt the film had to terminate at Aylsham.

Whatever name is preferred the second leg was five and half miles of paddling against the flow on a scorching hot mid-summers  day.   I was very fortunate to have Son Andrew and his mate Andy,  both experienced canoeists,  providing the motive power.  Just the same as the first trip I was up front with the camera, but this time I knew what to expect and was really looking forward to retracing the route of the old wherries

The Bure is surprisingly wide upstream from Buxton mill where, I guess, the water is held up by the restriction at the mill race.   "Bream Corner" so named by the wherrymen is a reasonably fast flowing reach making the the first part quite a tough stretch to paddle.  The water was crystal clear and  I could see fish darting beneath the canoe weaving in and out of the aptly named "Bur Reed"  (I know, it's spelt differently)
We glided past pretty riverside properties set in colourful gardens and dinghies and canoes tied up to lush green waterside lawns.    As we passed Lamas church, secreted amongst the trees, we saw several young jack Pike hiding in the reeds at the waters edge.  We left Buxton behind us and the river wound its way into the countryside through pastures fringed by reed beds and flag iris'.
For the entire five and a half miles we were accompanied by turquoise Banded Demoiselles (Damselflies).  They seemed to be everywhere, landing on the reeds and water lilies as we paddled by. 

Birds warbled all around us as the canoe pushed through the water  leaving Eddy's rippling in our wake.  Dragonflies hovered inches from the surface of the river while butterflies fluttered erratically above the river bank.  We had this little slice of English wilderness all to ourselves - priceless!

It took just under the hour to reach Oxnead Hall,  it's castellated tower looking slightly surreal and out of place against the other red brick buildings.   We passed under a  low bridge, tall trees lined the bank, behind them dense woodland shielded us from the sun until we reached Oxnead mill pool where we beached the canoe.  This was the first obstacle and possibly the most challenging.

It was easy enough getting the canoe out of the water but getting it over a stile and along a woodland path did increase the pulse rate.   Fifteen minutes later we were back on the river and paddling under the bridge at Oxnead heading toward Brampton and Burgh.  This bridge is where the wherrymen would moor their vessels and visit the Brampton "Maids Head" just a hundred yards from the bridge - sadly no longer a hostelry.   In the Brampton meadows a group of curious Hafflinger horses checked our progress as we paddled by.

Several swans had made themselves at home on the navigation, each with a clutch of young.   The Pen would hustle the brood into the bank while the Cob hissed and looked ready for a fight.   If the Cobs looked moody and menacing  we did the same.  This approach seemed to work as we achieved an honorable stand off  every time but if  I was really honest and it had come to a conflict my money would have been on the swans.
We had been on the water about two hours when we reached the deep water at Burgh lock.  The canoe was unloaded very carefully and and the old chap with the camera was assisted onto the bank.  We re-launched our little craft off the wall of the old lock, it was quite a drop.  I sat on the wall ready to lower myself gently into the canoe.  A large thistle biting my rear end did accelerate my embarkation much faster than I had intended.
Burgh church, partially hidden behind burgeoning willows drifted by on our right, there was no time for sight seeing,  "Cradle bridge" the wooden  foot bridge that links Burgh with Brampton was dead ahead forcing us to lie flat in order to pass safely beneath it.   Many years ago "Cradle bridge" was  much higher to allow the wherries to pass unhindered en route for Aylsham.

A little further upstream we approached Burgh bridge, once the site of wherry owner Isaac Helsdon's staithe. A large dog on the opposite bank barked at us, probably not used to people on his turf.  

After Burgh the river narrows markedly,  much of it choked by the encroachment of vegetation.  In some places  rafts of floating grasses reach out from the banks threatening to close the channel completely.   Three hours into our journey we decided to find a suitable place to pull in to stretch our legs and have a cup of coffee.  During this spot of recreation we spotted another three man canoe approaching from upstream, the first people we had set eyes on since we left Buxton. The only living things we had encountered up to then were several angry swans and an angry dog.   They pulled in and chatted with us for a while telling us there was a tree across the river about five hundred yards ahead.  They had only just managed to get under it.  Looking at our slightly larger canoe they thought we would find it difficult to get past. They added that  because of the dense undergrowth there was nowhere to leave he river to get around the tree.  This was not what we wanted to hear, providing we could keep to the correct channel we were less than a mile from Aylsham mill.   It would have  been extremely disappointing if we had to give up when we were this close.

After fifteen minutes we bade the other canoe farewell and headed off upstream.  We soon  found the fallen tree and it was big.  There was only one place we might get under it and that was close to the bank where the trunk formed a natural arch.   I was advised to lay flat.  Like a water-borne limbo dancer I leaned back as far as I could then collapsed onto the bottom of the canoe, wedged tightly and unable to move with the camera on my tummy the trunk of the tree passed an inch above my nose.   Willing hands grabbed branches and boughs and slowly passed the canoe under the tree.   Once clear of the obstruction Son Andrew helped me back into my seat and we set off for Aylsham.

Very soon we were paddling under the by-pass and we could see the the silos at "Dunkirk".   There was one last obstruction to overcome, a fast running weir.   Once again the canoe was unloaded and carried over land,  commando style.

Not surprisingly the engine room was beginning to feel the effects of what had been quite a long haul against the flow.   Soon after the weir we encountered three possible channels, hoping for the best we took the one in the centre which brought us up to the old wherry staithe which is now a very nice housing complex.   Around one last bend and we could see white water coursing through the mill race.  It was job done!

It is almost one hundred years since the navigation was ruined by the floods of 1912.   The locks and bridges were washed away and the days of the wherries on the Aylsham navigation were over.  We are not the first to make this journey and it is not a major achievement in itself, but by completing the route I felt we had relived a little bit of history - and recorded it.

If you would like to see two short videos of the canoe trip from Buxton mill to Oxnead and Oxnead to Aylsham mill the link is attached.
Or you can use the youtube link under my favourite links above right.

Thankyou for looking.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Volunteer Wherryman.

Rain was spilling from "Albion's" great black sail, cascading across the hatches and collecting on the plankways.  The helmsman steered the wherry through the squall while on the foredeck a group of volunteers clad in waterproofs of every colour seemed largely unconcerned by the weather.   For my part in the proceedings I had the camera safely cocooned in a "High Tech" bin bag and continued filming "Albion's" progress along the Bure.

The "Volunteer's" charter was my fifth trip on "Albion" since I joined the trust a year ago.  It all began with a visit to "Albion's" yard at Ludham to have a look round.   In no time at all I had a mug of tea thrust into my hand and soon after agreed to work as a volunteer.   Being totally unskilled I was a kind of  "Odd Job".   Painting, rubbing down,  black leading the old wherry stove and checking life jackets.  All these tasks no matter how menial are all part of  "Albion's" preservation.

The best way to get sail on "Albion" is to sign up for crew training.  I thought I would give it a go and registered as a trainee mate.   Taking "Albion's" twenty six tons out on a charter is a serious business, safety  for passengers and crew is paramount.  This was constantly emphasised throughout my first training session.
The trainees were shown how to use the quant,  quanting is a very physical discipline which requires technique over brute force.  Personally I found it was somewhere between "very difficult" and "almost impossible".   If you didn't get the quant into the mud on the river bed it just floated up to the surface.     I wondered just how the old wherrymen could maintain this effort  for hours at a stretch  with a fully laden wherry and not even a breeze to assist them.

Raising and lowering  the mast is a drill that has to be carried out in strict order.  The ton of lead at the base  of the 42 foot mast is so finely balanced it takes surprisingly little effort to raise and lower the three tons of Pitch-Pine. That is, of course,  assuming all the necessary locks and pins have been removed .  It is claimed that working wherrymen could lower a mast and shoot a bridge without losing headway - it took we trainees slightly longer.

Next instruction was rigging and raising the sail.  I found raising the sail by far the most difficult of all the tasks, winding the winch saps the strength from your arms and drags the air from your lungs.
By the time I had learned about Gaff lines, Winches and Reefing points it was time for lunch.
After lunch we did a "man overboard" drill.  Recovering the dummy that had fallen overboard - it really was a dummy,  not one of the trainees.  For the recovery drill the wherry was brought to a standstill and anchored with mudweights while the tender was despatched to recover the "man overboard" 
This is one skill the original wherrymen never had to learn - they neither had lifejackets or tenders with outboard engines.  The truth is many of them could not swim and drowned as a result - tragically some of the deaths were  wherrymen's children.

Progression from Trainee Mate - to  Mate - to Skipper takes as long as takes in true wherry fashion.  There is no hurry so it is best to enjoy the experience.

To sail on "Albion" is to experience living history,  an insight into a forgotten way of life.  It is hard to believe that some families actually lived within the confines of these vessels, cooking meals in the tiny cuddy, with some of their children sleeping in the foredeck.   A time when the waterways were major transport routes  and wherries were a common sight.

To see a short video of  "Albion" on the voluteers charter go to. 

or use youtube link in my favourite links  (opposite).

Visit the Norfolk Wherry Trust website for more information

Monday, 6 June 2011

Coltishall to Buxton by Canoe

Coltishall, Norfolk, May 1st 2011.

I guess the people who need to know are well aware that the navigation for larger craft on the river Bure ends at Coltishall - or to be precise - Horstead Mill.   Beyond this point flows a tranquil stretch of river largely undiscovered - The Aylsham navigation.  It was used by trading wherries until the great flood of 1912 when many of the bridges and locks were washed away.  In order to retrace the route of the old wherries all the way to Aylsham we needed to get a camera along these upper reaches of the Bure.  I reluctantly agreed that the most suitable craft for this task would be a canoe.    I have never made a secret of the fact  that I am not a natural sailor, nor have I spent a lot of time on the water.  Since I started making this film recording the history of  the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways I have found myself in a number of different craft.    But a canoe!  I must be partly Red Indian or completely mad.    

Initially the plan was to fix two canoes side by side to create a stable camera platform (and to make the old chap with the camera feel a lot safer) - the idea was like the "curates egg" - good in parts.   Unfortunately this meant we would have to get two canoes and the camera equipment in and out of the water to negotiate the  locks along the navigation.  My advisors (son Andrew and his mate) came up with a revised plan, all three of us would go in one canoe. Being the lightest, I would be in the middle to balance the canoe.  I pointed out this would mean I would be filming the back of someones head instead of the river.   So the plan was revised for the second time, I would go in the  front seat with the camera and equipment and the two heavyweights would sit amidships and astern.     Once the seating arrangements had been finally agreed the canoe was launched and I was nominated to load first.   The canoe looked very narrow, the river looked very wide and the water looked very wet.   The little craft rocked violently as I took my place in the front seat and stowed the camera equipment.   My knuckles turned white from gripping the sides of the canoe when both oarsmen took their turn to clamber aboard.   This was my first trip in a canoe and I promised myself, if I survived, it would be the last.
A few minutes later we had shoved off the Horstead slipway and were paddling towards Aylsham on the first leg of our assignment.   Deep down I knew I would eventually have to release my grip on the sides of the canoe and start shooting some film.

The first part of the navigation meanders through a canopy of trees that overhang the river - quite surreal - it is not difficult to imagine a heavily laden wherry nosing its way along this part of the river.

By the time we got to Coltishall bridge I was beginning to enjoy the trip.  I must have crossed Coltishall road bridge hundreds of times but this was the first time I had ever passed under it.  Bathed in sunlight the bridge looked a picture with its gentle arch mirrored in the water.  The bridge was rebuilt in 1913 after the great flood had washed away the original.

Paddle blades broke the surface of the river with a gentle splash.  The water rippled softly along the length of the canoe as we passed through Largate and on toward Mayton Bridge.    The lush green scenery glided past our little craft, a clear blue sky left its shimmering reflection in the river.  Perfect peace!  In no time at all I had become a committed fan of the canoe.  My fingers had returned to their normal pink colour and the camera was recording some mesmerising shots of the river.

As straight as an arrow the "New Cut" stretched out ahead of us,  on either side the trees had given way to verdant green pastures.  In the open water of the "New Cut" a stiff breeze met us head on as we approached Mayton bridge.

  On the the far side of the bridge the breeze freshened to a fairly brisk "Northerly"  making the water quite choppy.   Our little canoe glided serenely over the ripples through "Buxton Long" reach and past the romantically named "Goose Turd Hill".  One can only imagine why the old wherrymen gave it this name.

The  "Great Eastern" railway bridge lay ahead of us.  This three span girder bridge over the river Bure was built in in 1878 and carried trains on the "Bure Valley" line until it was closed to passenger traffic in 1952   freight trains continued to use the line until 1982.    Since 1990 the bridge has been used by the narrow gauge trains of the "Bure valley" railway running daily services between Coltishall and Aylsham throughout the summer.

As soon as we had cleared the railway bridge Buxton mill was in sight.  The white painted building standing out against the trees that border the mill race.   The approach to the mill was very shallow, we tried to pick out the channel until a grating and crunching beneath us brought the canoe to a standstill.  I guess it was the combined weight of the three of us that eventually grounded our gallant little canoe.  Donning my rubber boots I abandoned ship and carried the camera and equipment to the bank while the two lads recovered the canoe.

Part one complete I am really looking forward to part two.  Buxton to Aylsham - by canoe.
To see an edited video go to. 


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Reed Cutting On The Waveney.

Monday 14th February 2011.
A brisk Easterly wind sweeps across the Waveney marshes. The same Easterly that not so long ago powered merchant ships, ground  corn and drained  pastures.  Today the same Easterly with no real work to do mischievously scurries through the reed beds.  The reeds turn away and bend  their heads to mark its passing as it hurries down stream whipping the water into sunlit liquid crystal.
There is an excessively low tide this morning, the reed cutter's boat lies almost six feet below the landing stage.  I am not a natural sailor or as nimble as I used to be.  I peer over the edge of the timbers and lower the camera and equipment into the hands of the men already in the boat.  Then trusting in God and providence I make my leap of  faith into the dinghy  - a few minutes later we are rowing toward the reed beds on the far side of the Waveney.   

A small number of  people still harvest reed, but to make it viable  and compete with imports from Eastern  Europe, the reed is cut mostly by machine.
Today I am filming one of the last marshmen to harvest reed by hand in the traditional way.  I feel compelled to record the process before it disappears forever - as it surely will. 

The marsh is waterlogged, every footstep fills with water as I follow the reed cutter and his son across the reed bed.  The wind coming off the sea is cold and biting,  there is no welcome on the banks of the Waveney this morning.

Historically Reed-cutting provided an income in winter when no other work was available.  Farm labourers, marshmen and fishermen would seek employment on the reed beds.  The season was short but intensive, beginning around December after the first frost of winter and ending in March when the new reed colts appeared.  In shallow, slow moving rivers men would stand up to their thighs in the freezing cold water cutting reed at the water's edge.  Or they would scythe their way across the ronds in majestic sweeping actions, the spiteful Easterly wind a constant companion.  Reed would be bundled into shooks and loaded onto reed lighters then taken downstream to staithes, from there Wherries would carry them away.   As I film the process it seems very little has changed.

One hundred and fifty years ago reed cutters would have been a common sight on the river banks except there were few people to see them, apart from maybe an eel catcher or a passing wherry.   Leisure craft were the preserve of the wealthy and only took to the water in summer long after the reed harvest was over.

A roof thatched with Norfolk reed is warm in winter and cool in summer and it can last up to seventy years.   Reed  is graded by annual growth.  Single wale is a single years growth which produces the best quality Reed.    Double wale is growth that has been left for two years.
The reed is cut close to the ground with extremely sharp hooks,  then the cutter gathers enough reed for a bundle, roughly a circumference of  about twenty-four inches.  Equivalent to three hand spans.  The bundle is raked clean and loosely tied with twine.

When every bundle is free of debris  it is dropped onto a "knocking" board forcing  the twine to tighten around the reed butts .  What appears to be a simple method is a very skilled process learned over many years.  Unless each bundle is a uniform size and density  the quality of the thatch will suffer.  

By mid afternoon we had finished filming and the dinghy carried me back across the Waveney toward the stacks of reed safely stock-piled on the river wall.  The oars creaked in the rowlocks as the dinghy returned me to the 21st century.

To see the Reed cutters working on the Waveney in April at the end of the harvest go to.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A Wherryman's Tale

The mist swirled off the river by Carrow Bridge masking the gas lights along King Street on the Norwich waterfront.  A yellow light spilled from the window of the public bar of the "Cinder Ovens" tavern.   Pipe smoke drifted in thick layers above  the wherrymen who supped their ale and exchanged yarns.
Behind the "Cinder Ovens" was a coal yard where the wherries "Bessie" and the "Robert and Emma" were moored.   
That was 1881.  


I don't know if this is the source of my interest in wherries and waterways for I have never owned a boat, or learned to sail.  But for some obscure reason I am driven to create a film record of the East Anglian waterways and their history.
As a child I listened to stories retold by my (Great) maiden aunts over endless Sunday  teas at their little terraced cottage.  Stories about wherries and the boatmen of Carrow.   I did not know it at the time but  most of the  facts were hopelessly muddled,  particularly the accounts from (Great) aunt Bessie.   Aunt Bessie was a wise and worldly "Victorian" lady. She had a glass eye and enjoyed her jug of stout every day. One of the high spots of my young life  (I guess I was about 8 or 9) was the day she entrusted me with collecting her stout from the "snug" of the "Bull".
The white ceramic jug, which held four gills, would be strategically placed on the mahogany dining table in the parlour.  Beneath the stuttering gas lamps the grown-ups played Newmarket or Napoleon for pennies, while the young'uns watched.   Aunt Bessie would study her cards and sup her stout,  maybe she was concentrating on the cards rather than the stories, or maybe it was the stout. Whatever the reason she was constantly being corrected or contradicted by her sisters.   In spite of the inaccuracies great aunt Bessie told of the family connections with wherries and various other boats at Carrow.    It was only years later when I studied our family history that I was able to unscramble some of  the facts.

My Great, Great Grandfather, Robert Hipperson was the landlord of the "Cinder Ovens" from 1868 until his death in 1886, (Cinder ovens were kilns  that burned coal dust swept from the cargo holds of wherries and colliers to make coke for the malthouses.) he also owned the coal yard and both wherries.   He named the "Robert and Emma" after two of his children -  Emma was my Great Grandmother.
Great Great Grandfather Robert hired skippers to bring coal from Yarmouth to his yard in Norwich.  I was told that  wherries would be beached  beside the colliers on Yarmouth beach and the coal transferred  before the tide turned and the wherries refloated.  I have no idea if this is true or even possible.

Robert operated two 37 tonners, a round trip to Great Yarmouth would take about two days if the wind and tide were in their favour.  That would be a lot of coal to sell from his horse drawn coal carts that operated around King Street and Magdalen Street.  I think it is safe to assume that he would also have supplied coal to some of the factories on the upper reaches of the Wensum for their steam power and possibly the new gas works by Bishop bridge.

 Cargoes of "Shruff" (oak sawdust) from the Norwich sawmills were often carried on return trips to Great Yarmouth.   Tons of  "Shruff" were burned in the Yarmouth smoke houses to smoke Kippers and the famous Yarmouth Bloaters.  Sometimes they brought sand from Great Yarmouth instead of coal.  In those days there were no carpets or linoleum, sand was used on the stone floors of most taverns and private houses.  Robert sold sand from his yard at the rear of "Cinder Ovens".  A ha'porth (a halfpenny) would buy enough for an average week's supply for most houses.

Robert was a self made man.  Born the son of a Brickmaker in 1828, he worked as a labourer at Carrow.  He became a wherry skipper by the time he was twenty-nine.    How he managed to acquire enough money to start his own business is a mystery.  Wherrymen did not earn a great deal of money and  his father died in Swainsthorpe workhouse so there was no inheritance. 

Robert was a hard, uncompromising Victorian.  This was demonstrated  by an incident that ended at the law courts.  One of his carters was drinking in "The Tiger" tavern with the proceeds from the coal sales.  When Robert heard this he went to the tavern collected his horse and cart and sent for the local constable.  The carter was arrested and charged. 
 Robert died in1886, aged 56, his wife Isabella, my great, great grandmother, took over the pub and the business.   The "Robert and Emma" was sold to the Yarmouth coal merchants Bessey and Palmer, I believe she was eventually de-masted and used as a coal barge.    Robert was the last registered owner of the "Bessie" but I have no idea what happened to her after his death.  "Bessie" was probably sunk in some remote dyke and left to rot which was the fate of many old "traders" at the turn of the 20th century.

My  Great, Great, Great Grandfather  William Lefevre lived in the "waterman's" quarter of King Street, Norwich.  He  owned the  wherries "Fortitude" and "Endeavour" in 1795.  
The"Fortitude"  was a small 17 tonner while the "Endeavour" was a 37 tonner.  The ""Fortitude was advertised for sale or lease in 1782 as a "hatched" wherry, not all all wherries were"hatched" at this time.
William, like Robert, was also a coal merchant as well as a wherryman.
All Robert and William's vessels are recorded in the book  "Black Sailed Traders".

Now several generations on I am following in the wake of the surviving wherries with my camera, it seems some things never change.   I have already learned that "wherry-time" still applies.  I guess it came about many years ago when wherrymen were governed by wind and tide rather than any clock.   I have literally waited for hours to shoot a few seconds of  "Hathor" "Albion" and most recently "Maud".  I have been  roasted by the midday sun, drenched by summer storms and buffeted by gales while waiting for wherries to show.   The great gaff rig and pennant  visible for miles across the flat Norfolk countryside.  Heading first in one direction and then another never seeming to be getting any closer.  Then suddenly they appear and almost as quickly they are past and gone like spirits from another age.  My reward a few more seconds of precious film.