Waveney River

Waveney Navigation History

Today, the Norfolk/Suffolk Broads are one of Britain's most popular holiday destinations though the broads themselves provide only a part of the attraction. The area has a whole network of rivers which connect the Broads to local towns and to the sea. These rivers are now festooned with hire boat bases and holiday cottages but before the holiday onslaught there was a thriving commercial trade which often provided small communities with their only means of transport.

The River Waveney runs into the River Yare at Breydon Water (ref TG471052) close to Great Yarmouth. Upstream, its current head of navigation is just beyond Geldeston (ref TM389910) though it was once navigable to the town of Bungay (ref TM340898) (a total of 26 miles). The Waveney is the most southerly of the Broadland rivers, running along the Norfolk/Suffolk border for much of it's route.

Sadly there is not a great deal of history recorded about the main line of the River Waveney. This may well be because there is not much to tell! Most of the history involves the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation, the full story of which can be read in the River Yare section of Roots & Routes.

In March, the first Act for improvement of any of the Broadland rivers was passed allowing a number of local men to upgrade the River Waveney.

Among other things, this included the building of 3 locks (at Geldeston, Ellingham and Wainford) between Beccles and Bungay on a 7 mile section which was to be privately owned.

Below Beccles the river was to be looked after by the Great Yarmouth Commissioners who were set up as part of the Act.

The River Waveney saw few problems to navigation over the first 100 years.

This is probably just as well as the Great Yarmouth Commissioners who controlled the lower sections were not in the habit of spending money on anything other than their harbour in Great Yarmouth.

When a new Act was granted during this year, the men of Norwich (on the River Yare Navigation) won a legal battle which resulted in each river gaining a share of tolls. Previously Great Yarmouth harbour had taken all tolls for all rivers. The River Waveney was granted 1/20th of the toll receipts. With this money the Great Yarmouth Commissioners had to improve the navigation (by dredging etc).

After many years of unhappy relations between traders and the Yarmouth Commissioners, authorisation was granted for the creation of the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation which would allow River Yare trade to bypass Breydon Water and Great Yarmouth.

A new cut was to be built linking the River Yare to the River Waveney and a connection was to be made from the River Waveney into Oulton Broad which would take the proposed navigation into Lake Lothing and then to the sea at Lowestoft. Although the new route was primarily built for traffic to and from the River Yare, the route would also aid the River Waveney, giving its boats a shorter route to the sea and a new short cut to Norwich.

The Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation opened throughout. It joined the River Waveney near St. Olaves via a brand new canal cut. Several miles upstream was a second junction which took the new route into Oulton Broad. Boats from the Upper Waveney could now reach the coast (via Lowestoft) without using Great Yarmouth Harbour.

The Norwich, Lowestoft & London Shipping Company were the first carriers on the new navigation and for the first few years the route appeared to be doing well. However, it soon became clear that revenue from tolls was far less than the outgoing cost of operation and maintenance.

Because of this, and new competition from railways, the N&L Navigation Company were unable to pay back their debts and eventually the route was taken over by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners who soon sold it to recoup their money. However, the new owner did not have navigational interests at heart, trade on the N&L Navigation continued but the route was not maintained properly.

The route from the River Waveney to the sea via the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation became increasingly more difficult. Lack of maintenance from the navigation's new owner had allowed the route to decay and Lake Lothing had silted up. Traffic from Beccles and Bungay had now begun to re-use the original route along the River Waveney to Breydon Water and Great Yarmouth Harbour.

The Upper Waveney Navigation (from Beccles to Bungay) was bought by W.D. Walker, a maltster and merchant from Bungay. Up till this point the canal history books make very little mention of this section of the river despite it being the only portion to be truly canalised, (containing locks etc).

Control of the upper navigation passed to Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. Following WW1 traffic on the whole river was greatly reduced though the lower reaches of the river were becoming popular with pleasure boats.

Commercial boats were no longer using the upper reaches of the River Waveney and Bungay ceased to be an inland port.

After four years without seeing a commercial boat in Bungay, the top 4 miles of the privately owned Upper River Waveney were closed down. The head of navigation was now at Geldeston about 3 miles upstream of Beccles. The lower parts of the navigation, from Breydon Water up to Geldeston, remained open and continued to be used by commercial boats.

The upper section of the river is still closed today. Geldeston Lock has survived though it is not operational, the lock at Ellingham Bridge has been wiped out and I am unsure of the state of the lock at Wainford Bridge.

Below Geldeston the whole river is now very popular with pleasure craft and forms an important part of the Broads waterways network.

There have often been plans to connect the Norfolk Broads to the Cambridgeshire Fenlands (and thus to the rest of the inland waterways network). The most likely of these to succeed would be a link from Bungay on the River Waveney to its source at Redgrave.

This is also the source of the River Little Ouse which runs west to the River Great Ouse, north of Ely. Sadly, none of the plans for such a route have ever got further than the planning stage though such a route would be vastly popular and relatively "easy" to create. It would also be better used in these pleasure boat days than it would have been in commercial times

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Waveney River Route

The River Waveney Navigation (following it upstream) begins at the south west corner of Breydon Water (ref TG471052) to the west of Great Yarmouth. It forms a junction with the River Yare (in effect the River Waveney is a tributary of the River Yare). Near the start of the route, on the east bank, is the ruined Roman fortress of Burgh Castle.

Today the fort is no more than a huge (and rather impressive) 3 sided flint wall standing above the river. However, when it was built the castle stood on what was then the coast and it included its own harbour. Burgh Castle (ref TG473039) is sign posted by road from the A143. By water it can be reached by mooring at the marina some 200 yards upstream. There is a cafe and pub by the marina and a riverside path leads to the castle.

The first four miles of the River Waveney are fairly remote as the river meanders south towards St. Olaves. There are two water-skiing zones on this stretch of the river with Pettinghills' Mill (a wind pump) between the two zones. The mill is accessible only by boat or on foot.

At St. Olaves the navigation swings round and comes within yards of Haddiscoe New Cut, the canal which links the River Waveney to the River Yare at Reedham. After swinging away from the cut the river takes a sharp right turn to travel through St. Olaves. Close to the bend is another wind pump followed by moorings allowing access into the town.

The A143 crosses the river on St. Olaves Bridge (TM456994) which has the Bell pub on its south east side. The town is home to several hire boat centres and the Norfolk Broads Yachting Company. A large marina is situated on the west bank shortly after the road bridge. St. Olaves is not quite the great holiday resort it once was but the eastern side of the river is quite nice to walk along.

Immediately after the marina is the junction with Haddiscoe New Cut (TM456988). The canal was built as part of the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation and still provides an excellent short cut for holiday cruisers heading for the River Yare. From here to the head of navigation the River Waveney forms the county border between Norfolk (to the north) and Suffolk (to the south).

The first 4 miles of the River Waveney Navigation upstream of St.Olaves are shared by the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation. However, for that navigation the upstream river route actually constitutes the downstream route to the sea!

On this stretch (now heading south east) is Herringfleet Mill (another wind pump) which again appears to have no road vehicle access. After about 1½ miles is the small town of Somerleyton which still has its old staithe (wharf) (ref TM475970) and has a small inlet used by a hire boat company. The railway to Lowestoft has followed the river on the west bank since St. Olaves but it crosses the route on a swing bridge at Somerleyton and then heads off to the east.

At the end of this 4 mile stretch is the entrance to Oulton Dyke (TM500943). This takes the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation south eastwards towards Oulton Broad and then on to Lowestoft and the sea. (For more info on the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation see the River Yare Navigation).

In the "V" of the junction between Oulton Dyke and the River Waveney is Petos' Marsh, named after one of the men who once owned the Norwich & Lowestoft Navigation. Within another ½ a mile the river reaches Burgh St. Peter (TM493934) where there is a caravan site, the Waveney River Centre and the Waveney Inn (just up the road from the river bank). The village has been described as "delightful" and has a church with a thatched roof.

It is 5 (westerly) miles from the Waveney River Centre to the town of Beccles though there is little to see from the river other than open country and marshland. On the first ½ of this section there are two isolated windmills and in the second ½ of the section there are two very isolated staithes which make you wonder who they benefited. Presumably they were used by local farms to send their produce downstream to Great Yarmouth or upstream to Beccles.

Just before Beccles is reached the river bends south and then passes under Beccles New Bridge, the A146 bypass. A few hundred yards past the bridge is the entrance to a narrow inlet which runs east for about ¼ of a mile. Beccles Yacht Station is on the north bank of this inlet and there is a picnic area on the south side. Also on the south side is Quay Road which probably gives away the former use of the inlet. There is a car park near the head. Directly opposite the entrance to the inlet are two smaller off-shoots which are now home to hire boat companies.

Within 200 yards is the old main road bridge (TM419911) though just before it is another short inlet heading east. This one is just 200 yards long and has the Loaves & Fishes Inn near its head. A number of the town's side streets run to the eastern bank as the river continues through the town. In the town centre St. Michael's Church has a detached bell tower which is said to give great views of the river. Just before leaving the town the river passes another short inlet on the east bank and then it bends west to continue upstream. I found Beccles to be one of the nicest towns in the Broads. The area around the old bridge and Quay Road is especially nice.

Upstream of Beccles the River Waveney is much narrower than the previous stretches. It also meanders a lot more along the 1¾ mile section westward to the head of navigation. After about 1¼ miles a minor road briefly runs along the north bank and about ¾ of a mile further west the river reaches the entrance of Geldeston Dyke (TM395912). The dyke appears to be wider than the river as it heads north west for ½ a mile to the village of Geldeston where the Wherry pub is situated to the north of the two-pronged terminus. Since 1934 this has been the head of navigation for commercial traffic.

Back on the river there is just another ½ a mile to go to the official head of navigation which is at Geldeston (or Shipmeadow) Lock (TM389908). The lock (or locks, to be more precise) have an old lock house alongside which is now a pub - called The Locks. Sadly the locks are disused and block passage along the formerly navigable route to Bungay. The locks and pub are to the south of Geldeston village and (for car users) are accessible via a long, rough, farm track which leads from Station Road to a small car park. For many decades the pub was very primitive - lit only by candles - and could be reached only by boat or on foot. This was still the case in the 1970's though more recently I found modernisation had caught up even this remotest of waterside inns.

The now unnavigable stretch of river from Geldeston to Bungay is a little over 4 miles long. It is narrow compared to previous sections and very bendy with a number of tight horseshoe bends. However, it is also very pleasant with clear water which is deep enough throughout to allow the passage of sailing dinghies and any other boats which can be dragged past the disused locks.

After about 1¾ miles a minor road crosses the river on Ellingham Bridge (TM364916). Ellingham Lock was partly filled in during the late 1960's when sluice gates were fitted. In fact, I failed to spot the lock at all when I was here recently. A much photographed white watermill stands near the road bridge. Although it is now used as a private house, the area around the mill and its adjacent pond is as pretty a waterway scene as anywhere in Britain.

Above the new sluice at Ellingham the river becomes non-tidal as it continues west towards Bungay. The 1½ mile stretch between Ellingham Lock and Wainford Lock (which is also known as Ditchingham Lock) is said to be wide and clear.

At Wainford Bridge (TM350901) (which carries a minor road over the river) there is a large maltings close to the former lock. In fact the area around the bridge was obviously once quite industrial. The maltings is still in use though a number of much older buildings are now standing derelict. A couple of small cottages also stand near by. There are a number of water channels at the Wainford Bridge and I have to admit I was not completely sure what was what!

The channel which appeared to be the lock cut looked far too narrow to carry commercial boats - but maybe it has been altered since closure. At the back of the maltings is a cut which still holds water and was presumably once used as a loading dock.

Although shallower than further downstream, the 1¼ mile stretch of river from Wainford to Bungay is said to be very clear and very attractive. The old head of navigation in Bungay was a few hundred yards downstream of the first road bridge. The site of the former quay (TM340898) can still be seen although it has now been filled in. Another pretty watermill stands close by and the short walk from here into the centre of Bungay is very pleasant indeed.

There are two river crossings in Bungay, situated some 600 yards apart. However, the second bridge is actually 3½ miles upstream of the first as the river passes through the town twice!

The river is not navigable through the town (and never has been) though the town has always been an important crossing point dating back to before Roman times. It sits high on a hill (a rarity in these parts) and has an impressive ruined castle hidden away behind the town centre. After the Romans left, the town continued to prosper though it really began to grow after 1670 when the navigation first opened.

The waterway link with Norwich, Great Yarmouth and the north sea turned the small town into a fairly large inland port. Today it has no boats though I'm sure it will do once again some time in the future. As well as restoration of the upper reaches there is still the distant plan to connect the River Waveney to the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire which could some day turn Bungay back into a boating centre.

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Access Points

Burgh Castle (TG473039), signposted (north) off the A143 between Great Yarmouth and St. Olaves.

St. Olaves (TM456994), the road bridge is on the A143 with a pub (and car park) on the east bank. The A143 also crosses the Haddiscoe Cut on a new bridge but the site of an older swing bridge can be seen on the original road (now a dead end) (ref TM454991).

Burgh St. Peter (TM493934), signposted (south east) off the A143 between St. Olaves and Beccles.

Beccles (TM420910), at the junction of the A145 and A146. There are a number of car parks in town. The riverbank does not have a continuous path through the town though there are numerous vantage points. There is a picnic area between the old and new road bridges.

Geldeston Lock(s) (TM389908), reached on a farm track over a mile in length which heads south from Station Road in Geldeston. There is a small parking lot at the Locks Pub. The locks are reached via a short path in front of the pub which heads towards a footbridge over the river. The locks are currently rather overgrown with reeds etc.

Ellingham Mill (TM364916), Ellingham is on the A143 between Beccles and Bungay. The river is on the south side of the village and can be reached on the minor road which runs from the A143 through the village. There is a parking layby past the mill, just across the bridge.

Wainford Bridge (TM350901), although this is situated on a minor road it is actually a very wide road much used by lorries which service the maltings at the bridge. The road begins just south of the A143/B1332 roundabout, heading north east off the road into Bungay. The road bends around to the south to reach the river. Wainford Bridge can also be reached from the south side of the river off the B1062.

Bungay Staithe (TM340898), the former quayside is a short walk (1200 yards) from Bungay town centre. Follow the B1435 (south east), Trinity Street and Beccles Road, then turn left into The Maltings. The river is reached by walking past the front of the former mill.

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