North Walsham & Dilham Canal

North Walsham & Dilham Canal History

This is the most northerly of all the Norfolk Broads navigations, it uses the upper reaches of the River Ant for part of its route and is the only "canal" in the Broads. It begins on the River Ant south east of Dilham, Norfolk (ref TG344250) and ends at Antingham Ponds, north west of North Walsham (ref TG267323)

The North Walsham & Dilham Canal was a fairly late canal when proposed and very late by the time it opened.

In January William Youard prepared a plan for a new canal route. Later in the month John Millington of Hammersmith was asked to plan a potential route. In September, after some alterations, Millington produced a third alternative and a few days later a meeting was held at the King's Arms in North Walsham where it was decided a Bill should be presented to Parliament.

In February the Bill went to Parliament. It received quite a lot of opposition from the people of Dilham and Worstead who feared local economic collapse if navigation was extended beyond their villages to North Walsham. Despite this, Parliament granted the Act in May for what was to be known as the North Walsham & Dilham Canal. Having gained permission to raise cash and begin work, construction would normally be expected to start almost immediately. However, it was over 12 years before the proprietors even thought about beginning.

In December the canal committee met and the decision was made to begin work on the canal early in the new year.

The decision did not go down well with Isaac Harris Lewis of Dilham who owned the staithe at the head of the River Ant. He claimed that the new canal, which (despite its name) was to bypass Dilham, would severely effect his carrying business. He began court proceedings against the would-be canal company in search of compensation.

In April Mr. Lewis' case was heard. His evidence showed that he carried many bulky loads such as coal, oil cake and marl as well as corn and flour to and from a number of mills which would now be served by the new canal.

Whereas some might think "tough luck", it would appear that Lewis put together a good case as he was awarded £1,500 in compensation. Whether the canal company were happy with this outcome is not stated but at least they were now free to begin work.

Digging began that same week when William Youard, the company clerk, cut the first sod of soil. John Millington was appointed engineer and there was a labour force of 100 "bankers" from Bedfordshire. Most of the work was done under the supervision of the contractor Thomas Hughes who had previously worked on the Caledonian Canal (amongst others).

The route was to be almost 9 miles long from the River Ant, south of Dilham, to Antingham Ponds via Honing and North Walsham. It was to have 6 locks, at Honing, Briggate, Ebridge, Bacton Wood and 2 at Swafield. The total rise would be 58 feet. The canal would use the small type of Wherry, 50 feet by 12 feet, capable of carrying up to 20 tons.

Construction was not easy, the main section was independent of any river and that meant cutting across the Broadlands - probably the largest and most famous peat bog on earth! Despite this, the bankers did a fine job and the canal was ready in just one year and the first laden wherry reached Cubitt's Mill* on June 14th accompanied by a large celebration where much Barclays' Brown Stout was consumed - mostly by the bankers no doubt!!!

* The Cubitt family clearly have canal water in their blood! Not only did the first boat on the North Walsham & Dilham Canal sail to their mill, but the son of the mill owner later became Sir William Cubitt, the canal and railway engineer. Another descendant, as we shall see, eventually bought the canal and the family still part-own the company which last (and still officially) owned the route. *

Just 3 months later, on August 29th, the whole 8¾ miles of the canal was officially opened. The speed at which the canal had been built certainly helped keep costs down - the total being just £30,000. The North Walsham & Dilham Canal was one of the very few canals which were completed without exceeding their estimated cost.

The canal was a reasonable success at first, cargoes included manure, offal, flour and corn. There was also a boat known as the Cabbage Wherry which carried farm produce from Antingham Ponds to Great Yarmouth market. Coal was carried on the canal but it never reached the amounts that had been predicted. The cost of carrying coal from Great Yarmouth to the canal via the River Bure and River Ant was far more expensive than carrying it by land from the beaches of Mundesley and Bacton, having come by sea from the north east.

The engineer, John Millington, left his post after the opening of the canal. Thomas Hughes, the contractor, took over. The North Walsham & Dilham Canal was John Millingtons' one and only canal venture. Following the opening of the canal he emigrated to America and later wrote the first book on civil engineering to be published in the United States. The book, Elements of Civil Engineering, contains a large amount of information on canal building but never directly refers to the North Walsham & Dilham Canal. Millington died in 1868.

After just 4 years of operation it became clear that the canal was not going to be the roaring success that had been anticipated. Over the following years both profits and shares were reduced dramatically and other financial embarrassments caused the company a lot of trouble.

The company applied to Parliament for a new Act but this was not to raise money for expansion - it was to be granted the right to sell the waterway. Railway competition had arrived and as the canal was suffering even before the railways, it was now in desperate trouble. However, although the company successfully obtained the Act, they did not sell out straight away.

The company held on for 19 more years before announcing that Edward Press had offered to buy the canal for £600. Press was the owner of Bacton Wood Mill and he also ran a number of wherries on the canal so he had good reason to keep the route going. However, the take-over caused something of a local scandal. The company's clerk James Turner, a solicitor from Golden Square in London, was entrusted with the job of taking the money from the sale of the canal and distributing it among the 446 shareholders but after distributing to just 55 shareholders Turner disappeared with the rest of the money. Neither he or the cash was ever seen again.

Edward Press was one of the first people to recognise that the waterways of the Norfolk Broads had an income potential far greater than the small cargoes that it was then struggling to survive on. He believed that pleasure boating was the way to go and he began a boat building business for that purpose. However, maintenance of the canal was proving very costly and he found it just as hard to run as his predecessors had.

In June, the company decided that they were morally - if not legally - obliged to reimburse the former shareholders for the money lost when James Turner vanished. However, later they had second thoughts after nobody came forward to make a claim on their share of the cash!

In July the company appointed a new clerk. Before long they probably hoped this one would quietly disappear without trace as well. Walter Rye was another solicitor, he soon began to express his concern about financial irregularities which had been going on for years before Edward Press took over and were still going on under the new ownership. He also found that the committee was acting illegally because the Act of 1865 stated no person holding any place of profit in the company's business could serve on the committee but Mr. Press - the owner - was also the manager. He warned that all this could easily lead to court proceedings though somehow the company kept Mr. Rye quiet and the whole matter was quickly forgotten.

The 1¼ mile stretch at the top of the canal from Swafield Locks to Antingham Ponds was abandoned due to lack of use. Despite this, the rest of the canal was still managing to operate fairly well. Goods were still being brought onto the canal and an almost equal amount of goods were being shipped out. There was also still a healthy amount of local carrying from staithe to staithe.

The committee declared a dividend - the first for some time. The money was used to pay back the lost money which was owed to the original shareholders. This was the canal's last "successful" year as trade began to fall annually from this time on.

Edward Press died in July though his name was destined to have the very last say on the canal much later in the future. At the end of the year the committee declared that income had, for the 10th year in succession, declined to an all time low.

On September 11th the company was sold by auction to Mr. Percy who was a director of the General Estates Company who already owned the rights to Gorleston ferry (Yarmouth) and the tolls at Selby bridge (Yorkshire). The company was also in association with the Yarmouth & Gorleston Steamboat Company.

In August the infamous floods, which finished off many of the Norfolk navigations, also took its toll of the North Walsham & Dilham Canal. A bank was breached above Bacton Wood Lock but lack of use, together with lack of funds, meant that the breached section was left closed.

The canal was bought from Mr. Percy by E.G. Cubitt and G.Walker who immediately formed the North Walsham Canal Company. The new company then bought the canal from Cubitt and Walker for the exact same price that they'd paid to Mr. Percy. During the first few years of ownership the new company attempted to improve stretches of the canal. This included the breached section though this appears to have been unsuccessful as this stretch was officially closed in 1927.

The last wherry to use the North Walsham & Dilham Canal departed from Bacton Wood Staithe in December. Somewhat fittingly, it was the wherry Ella owned by Press Brothers, the company who had once saved the canal and which had built the first pleasure boats.

The North Walsham & Dilham Canal soon silted up after the last boat left and the locks are now all derelict. Despite this the whole route still exists today and it has been noted in a number of books that the reopening of this waterway would not only be useful to holidaymakers but also to the whole of the Norfolk Broads which desperately need some respite from the hundreds of boats crammed onto its waters. The canal is less than 9 miles long but it is 9 miles which has been left rotting away with no justification for allowing it to do so. In recent years a group have actively begun restoration work, clearing out locks and basically keeping the canal on the map.

The waterway was never nationalised and therefore does not belong to British Waterways. For quite some time it was not known who actually owned the waterway. In some ways this was very good news because it prevented the route from being filled in and built on.

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North Walsham & Dilham Canal Route

The North Walsham & Dilham Canal begins at a junction with the River Ant about ¼ of a mile north west of Weyford Bridge (on the A149) (ref TG344250). The canal's junction is accessible only by boat or on foot along the River Ant footpath. The canal is actually the original course of the upper reaches of the River Ant.

About ¾ of a mile north of the junction is Tonnage Bridge (TG347260) where tolls for boats travelling on the canal were collected. There used to be a staithe and toll house by the bridge but both have long since gone. Again there is no road access here though a footpath from East Ruston (about 1 mile north east) crosses the bridge and joins the canal towpath.

Past Tonnage Bridge the canal curves left, on the crown of the bend (TG344268) is a branch line heading north for ½ a mile to East Ruston. Another bend on the main line puts the canal back on a northerly course and after a distance of about 1 mile it reaches Honing Lock (TG333267) - the first of 6.

Honing Lock is about 600 yards south east of Honing Bridge but reaching the lock from the road is not as simple as it could be. There is no right of way along the former towpath but just to the east is Weaver's Way, an old railway line converted into a long distance walk, which follows the canal towards the lock. About 600 yards south along the old railway is a path which heads west towards the canal and crosses the lock.

Just beyond Honing Bridge is a junction on the north east side of the canal (TG327272). A canal branch used to head east from here for a few hundred yards to Honing Staithe. Once again there is no public right of way but its line can be seen from Weaver's Way which runs parallel to the main canal at this point (on the east bank). Past the branch the canal bends about a bit but generally heads north west.

About one mile further on is Briggate Bridge (TG315274) followed very closely by Briggate Lock. This area has been described as "interesting" as it still has a mill and warehouse close by. In 1971 the lock beams, made of iron, were described by Ronald Russell to be still in place though they were decaying. In 1992 the lock was described as "well preserved". In 1997 I found the lock chamber to be still intact along with most of the paddle gear though there was no access to the lock or the canal side and my only view was from the adjacent road bridge.

By 2001 the area around the lock chamber had become accessible from the road. The undergrowth had been cleared and the remnants of the bottom gates still have their iron balance beams attached. One wall of the chamber - the one you walk above! - is collapsing at the base near the top end of the lock. The mill, with its own mill pond/basin stands derelict a few yards west along the lane from the lock and bridge. It has three window-like openings looking down into what appear to be former loading basins.

There is an old railway station about 100 yards to the east of the bridge. The site of the station can be explored as it is preserved as part of Weaver's Way Walk. This walk was originally 15 miles long when it first opened in 1980. It followed the former North Walsham to Great Yarmouth railway line. However, it has since grown to 56 miles! Just to the north of Briggate Lock the railway used to cross the canal on a viaduct. This was demolished some years ago but a footbridge now stands in its place.

The next stretch of the canal is 1¾ miles long and generally north bound though there are some bends and curves as the waterway avoids some hilly terrain. At the end of this stretch is Ebridge Bridge and Lock (TG311298). Parts of the top gates remain, backed up by sandbags, and the water still weirs through the paddle culverts. The minor road across the bridge heads north east to the coast - a journey of just 4 miles.

The original road bridge here was replaced in the late 1960's by a new flat one but there is still an old warehouse and mill nearby. All the locks on the canal had mills built beside them, this was done for efficiency to make use of the surplus water around the locks. This is in contrast with dozens of other waterways where mill owners fought hard to prevent thirsty locks being built and canal companies greedily guarded every last drop of water.

Speaking of water - from here on the level of the canal now begins to decline and get progressively shallower and narrower. Still speaking of water - it was in this section that the floods of 1912 caused great damage. Part of the road was washed into the canal near Ebridge Lock and there was a breach in the canal bank above the next lock. All this occurred during just one day when 7 inches of rain fell.

It is exactly one mile to the next lock and bridge at Spa Common (TG300306). Here is Bacton Wood Lock where there is a small old warehouse on one side of the canal and a fine flint cottage on the other. Looking south over the road bridge provides a very pretty sight. The flint cottage, now a pink house, stands on the waterside and has a very attractive garden. Close by, the iron hull of a boat can be seen in the canal. Bacton Wood Lock stands on the north side of the bridge. During summer 2001 some dredging work was done just below the lock and through the road bridge.

Spa Common was the site of Edward Press' mill (later Press Brothers) from where the first pleasure boat on the canal was built and the last commercial boat traded. The bridge here carries a minor road but another bridge ¾ of a mile further on carries the B1150, North Walsham to Bacton road. This is Royston Bridge (TG297314), it has been both flattened and culverted but a canal warehouse still survives.

About ½ a mile further on the canal turns west and continues for another ½ a mile to the B1145 bridge at Swafield where there is yet another surviving warehouse (TG286320). A few hundred yards beyond the bridge are the final 2 locks but beyond here the canal is little more than a stream. This stretch was the first to be closed, in 1893, though whether very many people have seen much of it since is doubtful as there is no public right of way to the locks.

The route continues west for ¾ of a mile to Bridge Farm Bridge, just north of Lyngate. Once again there is no right of way along the canal on this stretch but from Bridge Farm Bridge it is just about possible to look south eastwards and see Swafield Top Lock in the distance. About 1200 yards north west of the bridge the canal reaches its end beside Antingham Bone Mill (TG259352).

Although there is still an entrance into the old mill site (from the minor road running parallel on the north east side of the canal) it is not open to the public. I visited the area in 1997 and was somewhat frustrated at being so close to the former terminus basin but could not get close enough to see anything at all.

The original head of navigation can be seen (theoretically) from the next bridge (TG267323), carrying a minor road heading north east off the A149. The Barge pub is situated on this road about 100 yards south west of the canal bridge. From the bridge it is possible to look south east about 100 yards towards the terminal basin which was 150 feet by 80 feet and ran right alongside the mill complex.

The water which passes under the road bridge was the feeder stream which ran into the basin from Antingham Pond. Normal canal wherries were too large to use the feeder stream though small lighters did navigate on it. Looking 200 yards north west from the bridge it is possible to see the feeder coming out of Antingham Pond. Another bone mill stood near the pond and used the same feeder stream. Nearer to the bridge on the north west side is a junction on the feeder stream. This takes a second stream around to the back of the bone mill complex.

At the head of this second stream there was another pond which was presumably utilised by the bone mill. This pond had a boat house on its bank, possibly where the lighters were moored when not in use. Most of this information on the terminus area comes from a diagram in "Canals of Eastern England". If you go here, be prepared to see very little, take a pair of binoculars with you!

Access Points

Wayford Bridge (TG347248) (River Ant), A149 with parking places close by, near the Woodfarm Inn. The canal begins about 400 yards north along the river footpath.

Dilham (TG332255), a minor road crosses the head of the River Ant Navigation in Dilham. Note, this not the canal. Although the canal is called the North Walsham & Dilham Canal it never actually ran into Dilham.

Dilham to North Walsham, most minor roads heading east off the A149, south of North Walsham, cross the disused canal. Although the canal can be seen from bridges, there is no access. (see route description for grid refs).

Antingham Ponds (TG267323), on a minor road North East of Antingham (off the A149). There is no access to the land at the derelict head of canal and there is not a lot to see anyway!

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