Saturday, 29 September 2012

New Mills: should it stay or go?


Here’s a first draft for my entry for this strange old building built across the Wensum. Famous these days for being the head of navigation for the river, the site oozes history. But what should happen now?

(Incidentally in plain English the head of navigation means the highest point on a river that boats can safely sail/motor to.)

Here goes:       

“The building on the New Mills site today is neither new, nor a mill, nor even plural come to think of it. But over the centuries, mills new and old have harnessed the power of the Wensum here and they’ve played a surprisingly pivotal role in Norwich’s history. Their very existence prompted a major uprising in the 15th century, while high bread prices provoked a good old-fashioned food riot in the 18th century.

The date of the first mill is lost in antiquity. One could well have existed before the Norman Conquest. We think the “New” refers to mills built in about 1430 when they were used to grind corn. These buildings were at the centre of a major row between the city fathers and the church authorities: the church (then - as now - a major landowner) claiming that the mill affected the flow of the river upstream at Heigham.

Relations between church and city were troublesome throughout this period, but it’s still surprising to learn that mill buildings could provoke what historians call “Gladman’s Insurrection” in 1443. As many as 3,000 people effectively besieged Norwich’s cathedral close, threatening to burn the priory and kill the monks. A noble called Gladman was alleged to have imitated the king, prompting accusations of treason. Ultimately the real king had to get involved and it was four years before the city was finally forgiven.

By the 16th century New Mills was also being used as a source of drinking water, with supplies being pumped towards the city centre. Private houses could now pay to have water on tap – even if the quality would still be seriously questionable for centuries. By the 17th century more formal “waterworks” are mentioned while it was clear that the power of the water was still being used to help fullers to clean cloth and millers to grind corn.

Then in 1766 the New Mills was besieged by a mob wanting fairer prices for bread. This food riot was one of a number to erupt across the country at this time. The mill itself seems to have survived but a large malthouse was set on fire.


The 19th century saw increasing concern over the quality of the water entering the works. With untold factories and privvies upstream, the New Mills were fighting an unequal battle and it was no surprise when a new waterworks was built at Heigham – a good mile upstream where the water was considerably cleaner. The last miller left a few years later and the mill buildings were finally pulled down in 1893. What we see there now is a Victorian pneumatic ejection sewage pump put out of its misery in 1973, together with some still-useful sluices.

So what should we do it now? True, the only other such sewage pump is to be found at the Houses of Parliament (insert your own metaphor here). But in reality New Mills is a modest building on an unattractive bridge without a hope of finding a useful purpose in life. So, future museum to Victorian engineering or blot on the landscape? I have to confess, I can’t quite decide.”

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The River Tud: primary sources

Sept 15th 089

YOU know you’ve got this book-writing bug bad when it’s a sunny September Saturday and you’re really looking forward to searching for the source of the River Tud.

Sandwiched between the Wensum to the north and the Yare to the south, the Tud pretty much shadows the A47 east from Dereham, winding through places like Hockering, Honingham, Easton and Costessey before flowing into the Wensum at Hellesdon Mill.  (Strangely it runs between East Tuddenham and North Tuddenham without running through either, but that’s another story.) I make it just short of 15 miles from one end to the other.

Clearly all this should be well beyond the boundaries of a book called Riverside Norwich, but since virtually nothing is written about the Tud, I reckon it’s well worth a page of “biography”. That and the fact that I am enough of a river anorak to quite enjoy the thrill of the chase.

So where to start? Well the map shows the thin blue line running out at Spurn Farm on the southern fringes of Dereham. And the only way to find out more is to head west and knock on the farmhouse door.

It’s only recently that I’ve realised that this sort of thing scares the living daylights out of a lot of people. But I’m a newspaper journalist by trade and I love it. It reminds me of working on my first weekly up in the Yorkshire Dales. Go in with a smile on your face and you’ll always get a story, they told me. And they were pretty much right. These days - and with this book - I find proffering an Ordnance Survey map goes a long way too.

Anyway I was greeted by two black labradors and retired farmer Sue Haney …who quickly assured me that yes, I was in the right place. She was kind enough to take me down to a modest enough channel of water, one end of which is known as “the little watering hole” (pictured). 

It’s not a spring, it’s not pretty, it’s not dramatic and Sue talks of other field drains coming in from other directions too. But yes her family, who have farmed here for three generations, see it as a (she was quite insistent on “a” not “the”) source of the River Tud.

But “a”,on a farm with a history going back at least 200 years, is plenty good enough for me. Another page gets written, another photo gets taken, another minor mystery is solved. So, on a summer Saturday, thanks very much Sue.

* More on the Tud from February 2011.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Drayton Rd factory: mystery solved

Shoe factory via Stu McP gr

THEY’RE a clever lot on the Norfolk Broads Forum. Earlier this week I asked what the strange objects were on this photo showing the old Edwards & Holmes shoe factory on Drayton Road. The answer? Animal skins.

Read these comments posted on the NBF website and you can almost smell them drying in the breeze. Stale urine baths? Nice.

“Being outside a shoe factory, my guess would be animal skins being prepared, perhaps oiled to make them waterproof. The racking at the back looks like it is a drier.Tanned leather is usually a pasty grey white colour before it is dyed ready for production.”          


“Could well be 'greenhides' drying. We used  to have a proper tannery in Canterbury (and boy did it stink) and the hides after the basic tanning are a slightly greenish tinged cream colour. (we used to buy the rejects up at £10 a hide for making leather stuff for re-enactment). The tanning was done the proper way using oak galls and stale urine baths, and proper messy it was too.”


“Totally agree with the previous posters. In the late 60’s I used to work in the east end of London. In the road that I worked there was a traditional tannery, I think it was called Braybrooks. On a summers day the smell was overpowering and boy the liquid that ran out into the road (no pavement or proper drains) used to rot the bottom of your car out while you watched. None the less it was a fascinating process to watch although doing it looked hard work.”


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

After the Finishers finished

Shoe factory via Stu McP

THIS view across the Wensum in the northern suburbs of Norwich might shock anyone who’s moved in over the last decade or so. It shows the old Edwards & Holmes shoe factory on Drayton Road, once a big employer, now long gone.

In its place (just upstream of Wensum Park) is a new housing development featuring streets with names like Clickers Road and Finishers Road. Both are terms, you’ll be glad to hear, that mean something to the average cobbler. A Clicker cut the leather for the uppers of shoes using a machine which made, you guessed it, a clicking sound. Finishers water-proofed, blackened and waxed the shoe at the end of the production line.

Edwards and Holmes was clearly a big factory, but I have no idea what the long light-coloured objects are at the water’s edge. Something to do with rowing or something to do with the shoe industry? Give us a shout if you know the answer.

* Thanks to StuMcP for his help on this one.

Wensum Hell to Half 1011 129

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Heigham: a text from the 1920s


EBAY has come up trumps again. This photo shows a loop of the Wensum around what is now the Heigham waterworks. Except that in 1922 the works had yet to be visible along this stretch at least. (If I’ve got it right we’re looking east, so it’s Hellesdon on the left and Heigham on the right. Do let me know if you disagree.)

As ever when you go back in time, it takes a while to tune into the different lingo. Put an ebay search out for “Norwich” and “Wensum” for example and you wouldn’t have found this one. In those days it was simply “The Back River” as opposed I guess, to the busy commercial Yare.

And you won’t find “Horse Shoe Bend” on any modern map either. It’s only a reference to Horse Shoe Reach on a 1767 map in the Norfolk Record Office that means I can be sure I know what I’m looking at. Mind you its horseshoe shape is clear enough on the modern OS Explorer map.

The other thing that initially bugged me about these postcards was who on earth would go on holiday and send this sort of card to friends? But again it was because I hadn’t tuned into the times properly.


Read the other side and you realise that these were quick missives scribbled out in much the same way as we would text or email. “Shall be back on Monday by bus if the roads are slippery. If not shall drive from Rugby” is the straightforward message on this one.

It is of course rather bizarre to be eavesdropping on a conversation 90 years on. But thanks to the late Mrs F Basson of Appendix Road, Rugby, another small piece of my book has fallen into place.