Norfolk signs: A top spot to spot otters
PUBLISHED: 11:54 28 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:57 28 April 2020
The south Norfolk village of Earsham is best known for its historic water mill and a groundbreaking conservation programme which saved British otters from extinction. DR ANDREW TULLETT looks at the village sign that celebrates its heritage.
Earsham’s village sign was once topped by a carved wooden figure of an otter.
In a more recent incarnation of the sign the otter has gone.
However, the removal of the otter is a good sign: a sign of success.
The wooden otter represented the ones that could be seen by visitors to the Otter Trust at Earsham.
The Otter Trust was founded by Philip Wayre in the 1970s in response to the alarming decline in otter populations both locally and nationally.
The reduction was caused by pesticide poisoning, hunting and loss of habitat: otters were driven to the edge of extinction in many areas of England.
The Otter Trust established a research and captive breeding programme.
Over 130 otters were released in areas across southern England between 1983 and 1996. Self-sustaining populations are now established in many places for the first time in many years.
As a result of these efforts a captive breeding programme was no longer deemed necessary. It had never been the aim of the trust to keep otters in captivity merely as an attraction.
Therefore, in 2006, the Otter Trust site was closed to the public after having been open for about 30 years.
Philip Wayre died in June 2014 aged 93; forever remembered for his key role in preventing the extinction of otters in England.
The Otter Trust has recently reopened the Earsham site – rebranded as Earsham Wetland Centre – now focussing on a wider range of rare native animals and heritage livestock.
The original sign at Earsham was designed and carved by Clarence Reeve and erected in 1980.
When it was replaced in 2010 more subtle features were changed.
Originally the main building in the image – Earsham Mill – had the name ‘Thomas Clarke’ and the date ‘1793’ written across it.
The image on the sign is based on a drawing showing the watermill as it looked in 1793. It was during this year that Thomas Clarke took over at the age of 24.
The back of the sign bears a message that states, “It is known that Earsham Mill in 1793 was as shown on this sign. The Domesday Book records a mill at Earsham on this site.”
There had long been a mill on the site, one of only three Norfolk watermills along the River Waveney.
Whilst the sign shows the mill as it was in 1793, the actual building changed its appearance after it was rebuilt in 1862.
A few years later a steam engine was installed to augment the power from the waterwheel.
In 1962 the mill changed from producing flour for human consumption to milling feed for animals.
In 1975 it was refitted to enable production to increase three-fold to 1,000 tons per week.
The mill closed in 1982. In 2019 it was sold at auction and is currently being advertised as offering a series of business units for hire.
As indicated on the back of the sign, it was originally erected to celebrate a diamond jubilee of the Women’s Institute.
Whilst it is the watermill that features most prominently, a couple of ducks and heron – not part of the original 1793 composition on which the sign is based – also pose proudly. Another surprise appearance is made by the spire of All Saints Church, which peeks out from behind some trees.
These have grown to obscure more of it since the original version of the sign was put up.
Apart from the otter, one other feature is missing from the new sign. It is now supported by a plain wooden post whereas in this past this was decorated by a delightful cluster of carved and painted wildflowers.
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-Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk’s 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project. He now gives presentations on the topic, and anyone looking for a speaker can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details of that and Norfolk’s other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook, or search for “Norfolk on a stick” on www.edp24.co.uk.
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