Three Norfolk Mills – Silver Propeller Challenge

Regatta on Barton Broad
Created on 08/01/2019

Sue O'Hare continues her Silver Propeller explorations by focussing on the Norfolk Broads.

The Norfolk Broads may seem a surprising choice for Silver Propeller locations in view of the popularity of the Broads, but these three destinations are at the quieter extremities of the system.

There is much of interest in the area, ranging from remote marshes to the vibrant and historic city of Norwich. The local boating traditions and terminology are fascinating too: quants, rond anchors and mud weights, staithes, broads and wherries, all set in a peaceful landscape with sails moving gently through the fields.

Boating on the Broads

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads form the UK’s largest protected wetland area and the third-largest inland waterway system, with about 125 miles of navigable rivers and broads. They have the status of a national park, with the Broads Authority having responsibility for navigation as well as conservation and recreation. The lakes and dykes are medieval peat workings flooded by rising sea levels. They have created a unique landscape rich in history and rare wildlife which has inspired many authors, notably Arthur Ransome who set two of the Swallows and Amazons series here.
The hire boat industry started on the Broads in Victorian times and reached its peak in the 1970s, when more than 2,500 motor cruisers and yachts were available. The number of hire boats has since more than halved, although the number of privately-owned boats has increased and canoeing has become particularly popular.

The Broads are tidal and can be accessed from the sea at Great Yarmouth or Lowestoft, but are not connected to the main inland waterways system. Intriguingly, the sources of the River Waveney (running to the North Sea through the Broads) and the River Little Ouse (running into the Wash via the Great Ouse) are only 400 yards apart. Proposals to link the two rivers have come to nothing, despite the attractive prospect of navigation between the Broads and the Midland canals through Denver Sluice.

Photo: Wherry Albion on the Bure. Photo by Sue O'Hare

The five main rivers (the Bure, Ant and Thurne in the north and the Yare and Waveney in the south) converge on Great Yarmouth. Three of the rivers were extended with locks but all these navigations are now closed and the Broads are lock-free. Geldeston Lock, built in 1670, is at the present head of navigation on the Waveney. Currently being restored by a local group with WRG help, it is well worth a visit to the Southern Broads to see this interesting bow-sided early lock with its excellent and remote pub.

Brograve Mill, Waxham New Cut

Brograve Mill is a derelict windmill at the head of navigation on Waxham New Cut off Horsey Mere in the north east corner of the Broads close to the coast. It is only accessible to craft shorter than 30’ owing to the narrowness of the cut. If approaching from the main system along the River Thurne, craft must also be able to pass through the very low Potter Heigham bridge. There is a voluntary ban on boating on Horsey Mere in winter.
Brograve Mill was built in 1771 by the local landowner Sir Berney Brograve to drain the Brograve Levels into the cut, to combat the flooding and erosion caused by the North Sea. It is constructed of red brick and had an eight-bladed fantail and a boat-shaped cap carrying four ‘patent’ shuttered sails powering an internal turbine. Patent sails enabled the sails to be adjusted without stopping the mill and were invented by William Cubitt from a local family of millers. Cubitt was prolific, inventing the prison treadwheel as well as engineering canals, rivers and railways and supervising the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Photo: Potter Heigham Bridge. Photo by Sue O'Hare

Brograve Mill is thought to have last worked around 1930 and today, although it is Grade II listed, it is an unsafe shell with only two stocks and two stubs of the original sails and a distinct lean to the west. Legend has it that Sir Berney made a bet with the Devil that he could mow two acres of bean plants faster. The Devil used black magic to win and turned to collect the soul he had been promised, but Sir Berney just managed to run inside the mill and slam the door in the Devil’s face. The Devil pounded on the door with his cloven hooves and tried to blow the mill down, and when Sir Berney dared to open the door in the morning he found it covered in hoof-marks and the mill leaning over.

Ebridge Mill, North Walsham & Dilham Canal

Ebridge Mill and Millpond are on an isolated restored section of the North Walsham & Dilham Canal at the northern edge of the Broads. They are only accessible by craft which can be launched over the bank (prior permission not needed and motorised vessels permitted). To qualify for the award, boaters need to travel the full length from Bacton Wood Lock (Spa Common) to Ebridge Millpond by water – which includes the options of using one of the North Walsham & Dilham Canal Trust’s trip boats or volunteering as a WRGie on one of their “floating” work parties. Boaters intending to visit are requested to notify the Trust by e-mailing the Secretary at secretary@nwdct.org.

The North Walsham & Dilham Canal is Norfolk’s only locked canal. It was developed late, the Act being passed in 1812 and the canal being completed in little more than a year and opened in 1826. It leaves the River Ant just upstream of Wayford Bridge and extended for nearly nine miles north west to Antingham Ponds near North Walsham. Six 50’ by 12’4”locks were sized to take 20-ton Norfolk wherries, which had to be bow hauled when the wind was unfavourable for sailing. Surplus water from the four lower locks provided power for mills beside them – though there was constant friction between the mill owners and wherrymen as to whose need for water was greater.

Coal continued to be transported overland from the coast and never became the lucrative cargo expected, but the canal did reasonably well with grain, flour, timber and animal feedstuffs – and a weekly cabbage wherry from Antingham to the market in Great Yarmouth. In 1886 the canal was sold to a local miller, Edward Press, who pioneered pleasure boating and hired out five converted wherries to holidaymakers from Ebridge. Trade and the state of the canal both continued to decline, until the wherry Ella made the last cargo-carrying trip in 1934. Further damage was caused by the construction of the Bacton Gas Terminal in the late 1960s.

Thoughts of restoration started in 1953 with a visit by Robert Aickman. IWA was involved in early work with the East Anglian Waterways Association, which was instrumental in setting up the North Walsham & Dilham Canal Trust in 2008 to progress restoration at a more local level. Detailed studies of the canal have been carried out as well as extensive restoration work in partnership with the canal owners (there are four different private owners along its length).

Ebridge Mill is a five-storey former watermill built of red brick with a slate roof. It was owned by Cubitt & Walker from 1869-1998 and used to produce flour and animal feed, and is now restored and converted to residential use. The mill pond and reach to Bacton Wood Lock are used by the Trust trip boats including the new Ella II, officially named in June 2018 by descendants of the skipper of Ella, Nat Bircham.

Photo: Ebridge Mill Silver Propeller Challenge area. Photo by North Walsham & Dilham Canal Trust

Norwich New Mills Yard, River Wensum

New Mills Yard in Norwich is a former watermill complex forming the head of navigation on the River Wensum, a tributary of the River Yare running through Norwich. Hire boats are limited to Bishops Bridge just above the Norwich Yacht Station, but may turn here and still qualify for the Silver Propeller Challenge.

The river played an important role in the development of Norwich, as both a means of transport and a source of power. In the 13th century Caen limestone for Norwich Cathedral was brought from Normandy up the river onto a canal built by monks through the arch at the watergate at Pull’s Ferry.

Bishops Bridge is Norwich’s only surviving medieval bridge, built about 1340 in stone with three arches and a gatehouse as part of the city walls. The nearby Lollard’s Pit pub is named after a former chalk pit where religious heretics were burned at the stake in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1549 a landowner called Robert Kett led an army of 20,000 people to Norwich to protest against the enclosure of common land, stormed the bridge and took control of the city for a few days. In 1923 the city authorities proposed to replace Bishops Bridge with a wider bridge, but the Norwich Society succeeded in having the bridge listed.

The development of the mills at New Mills Yard started in earnest with the construction of a corn mill in 1430 on the site of even older mills. The mill was funded by the mayor and other citizens keen to avoid the high milling charges levied by the Abbot of St Benet’s on the River Bure. Subsequently the Abbot, encouraged by a former mayor Thomas Wetherby, decided to object to the New Mills. The dispute became known as Wetherby’s Contention and resulted in a riot in 1442 known as Gladman’s Insurrection. By the 1780s New Mills had developed into a complex which over the years housed flour mills, a fulling mill, a saw mill, a silk mill and waterworks pumping drinking water into the city – all under a single roof and with a waterwheels at each end of the mill structure. This was large-scale milling: in 1836 a waterwheel 15’ wide and 18’ in diameter powered seven water pumps.

In 1897 New Mills were again rebuilt, this time as a single-storey red brick pumping station across the Wensum forming part of the city sewerage system. Its purpose was to produce compressed air for moving sewage, using Shone pumps that were the last working examples in the country apart from those still used at the Houses of Parliament. New Mills pumping station eventually closed in 1972 and the building has been unused since then, although sluice gates still control the drinking water supply for the city and riverside housing developments have been built. The River Wensum Strategy adopted by Norwich City Council in June 2018 requires the development of an action plan for future improvement.

Further Information

The Broads Authority provides up-to-date information on navigation (including access from the sea, registration requirements and navigation notes).
Licensing for canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on the Visit the Broads website 
North Walsham & Dilham Canal Trust including access map.

Photo-top: Regatta on Barton Broad by Sue O'Hare


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Tags: Boating, Things to Do, Silver Propeller

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