It was the second day of my autumn trip to Norfolk. Storm Ophelia had blown away, but the forecast was for a generally blustery week, with spells of drizzle on and off through the day today. With that in mind I decided to look for some sheltered waters on the North Walsham and Dilham Canal. This waterway is now largely abandoned. It was built in 1825 to carry offal and agricultural products to six mills along its length including the two bone mills at Antingham. It didn’t do well commercially. The stretch above Swafield locks was abandoned in 1893, and the remainder was sold to various mill owners. The last commercial traffic was in 1934, and today cruisers can only reach Dilham. The higher reaches are the preserve of paddle craft as far as Honning lock, and above that just waterfowl traverse it.
There is a choice of three starting points – Barton Turf, Stalham or Sutton staithe. I chose the last, as it was nearer my base. Parking at the staithe was easy, although there wasn’t much space to get the boat on the water between moored boats. A short trolley got the boat to a side arm where the was enough bank space to launch and load the boat for the day alongside the bank.
True to the forecast, it was quite a grey, overcast day, not as windy as the previous day, but still quite blowy. The trees along the dyke gave good shelter though.
My plan was to head down to the River Ant, then upstream and onto the canal to Honning Lock, where even canoes have to turn around. Sutton Broad, in reality not broad at all but a linear waterway 50m or so in width, leads through reedy marshes and low woodland to the River Ant. A branch heads north-east to the boatyards at Stalham. One or two cruisers were underway as I headed west, but they turned towards Stalham, and the waterway was all mine again. When the ripples of their passing had settled, I enjoyed making a few images of reeds and reflections in the sheltered arm of the junction.
Approaching the River Ant, both banks were quite wooded, and the ground looked relatively dry. I took note – possible hammock sites if used with some discretion. The drizzle had started though, so I didn’t linger to explore on foot, taking a right turn to head up the Ant towards Wayford Bridge.
On the outside of a bend, a mill was being restored. Hunsett Drainage Mill, my map informed me. The mill was built in 1860 to run two scoop wheels, and had the usual four sail design. Today there were only two sails present but it looked like work was in progress to replace the missing ones.
The approach to Wayford Bridge was a heralded by moorings and tidy banks as the boatyards spread along the river. Up until now it had been pleasantly wooded and, for the Boards, quite untamed. The pub at the bridge offered food and warmth, but it was still too early to stop for lunch.
Not far above the bridge, woods once again ran along the water’s edge. The Dilham arm turned off, marking the limit of navigation for larger craft. The character of the waterway had been quite different to the other Broads rivers I have paddled, and this was accentuated as I continued up the moribund main arm of the canal. Woods rather than reed banks dominated, and the wider landscape was much more visible as a result.
Again, with care there would be plenty of scope for a quiet night away from it all. A noticed by the junction asked for a voluntary toll from canoeists to help with maintenance of the canal, to be payed at an honesty box near Tonnage Bridge. There is a small landing stage here, with a very basic camp site behind it. I paid the toll, and came ashore to stretch my legs in the field. It was little more than a grassy space with a portaloo, but would be a possible base for exploring this corner of the Broads by water.
Tonnage Bridge itself marked a significant narrowing of the canal. Up to now, small motor boats could have passed ok, and indeed I had seen one or two moored along the banks, but beyond, the clear water weaved through reed beds and bushes, in places only a canoe’s width wide.
Pausing briefly to decide my route through a reedy patch, I completely failed to noticed the kingfisher sat on a branch, until it dropped into the water and emerged with a fish in its beak. Great to see, but unfortunately I only managed to catch the ripples of the event on camera – they are spreading out by the reeds on the left of the image…
There was noticeable flow running against me now. The cut became narrower, more winding. Bushes overhung the water, and in places the summer’s growth of reeds still almost blocked my path as the canal bent westward. A short spur headed off towards what looked like some fish ponds, and then quite suddenly I was paddling through some more woods on the final approach to Honning Lock.
I’m used to much bigger affairs on the canals nearer home. The drop was only a few feet, but above the lock chamber, the canal reduced to a meagre stream. This was definitely the end of the line.
It was a delightful place to stop for lunch, quiet and secluded, sheltered form the wind and drizzle that still blew over intermittently.
Turning for home after a short break, I wound my way back into the woods. For a short spell, the canal opens out in the woods, before narrowing once more between banks of vegetation. Reentering the farmland I was treated to a fly-by from a pair of buzzards. Soon some crows turned up to mob them, and they were driven away to quieter fields, but I managed a quick snap of one as it wheeled above me.
Back on the Ant, conditions were changing. The cloud was thickening, promising more than just drizzle for the afternoon. I didn’t dally. The earlier dampness had soaked in through the day, and stopping for a while encouraged a chill to join it. The river remained mostly sheltered from the wind though, and I made good progress with the flow behind me, stopping just once near the turn to Sutton to enjoy a picturesque stand of willows.
Once I was back on Sutton Broad, the rain arrived, driven by a headwind that rather took the edge off the final kilometre of my journey. A bit cold and a bit wet, I hurried the boat back to the car. Time to get under shelter back at the tent.