An unusual recipient for Norwich's 'Freedom of the City'?

Paddleboarding on the River Wensum with Norwich Paddleboard Hire.

The River Wensum, which runs from through Norwich, will be given the 'freedom of the city' - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

It is an honour that has previously been bestowed on sports stars, playwrights and artists in recognition of their contribution to civic life.

But the next recipient of Norwich's Freedom of City could be a little more unusual.

The city council has announced it wants to grant the honour to the River Wensum. It would be the first time the award would be given to a geographical feature.

Councillors decided to investigate bestowing the title at a meeting this week, as part of a wider policy of attempting to enhance and protect the waterway and bring it back to the centre of city life. It is now checking whether it would be possible to grant the award to the waterway.

The Freedom of the City is an honorary title, normally given to people and organisations, in recognition of their contributions to Norwich.

Previous recipients have included Ove Fundin, the former speedway rider, as well as Norwich City and Norfolk Constabulary. Nominations can be made at any time, by anybody, and are then considered by the council.

The River Wensum was proposed for the honour by Lucy Galvin, leader of the Green group at City Hall. Her motion said: "The Wensum is particularly under threat from abstraction and urbanisation; pollution from agriculture and industry; and invasive species. It suffers from a lack of understanding; we take it for granted.

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"Development of use of the river is welcomed, but the importance of its biodiversity must, especially in view of increased threats, be recognised, protected and enhanced."

The greatest: Norwich Stars legend Ove Fundin.

The greatest: Norwich Stars legend Ove Fundin. - Credit: Archant

Labour's Mike Stonard, cabinet member for inclusive and sustainable growth, welcomed the motion but offered an amendment that the council also write to Environment Agency and government demanding evidence for what measures are being put in place.

Mr Stonard said: "The state of our rivers and structural problems encouraged by Tory government's of the last 12 years are turning Britain back into the 'dirty man' of Europe." 

Lucy Galvin, chair of the Marlpit Community Centre. Pic: Paul Harrison.

Lucy Galvin leader of the City Hall Green group - Credit: Paul Harrison

The river was one of the main reasons for the establishment of a settlement at Norwich and was at the heart of the city's industrial and commercial life for centuries. The decline of the port, as well as unsympathetic development and agriculture policies, are among factors that led to recent decades of neglect, however.

In recent years, councillors have tried to revive the waterway and make it once more at the heart of city life.

Other new measures put forward by Ms Galvin to enhance the river include developing planning policies to protect biodiversity and mitigate flooding, and writing to Anglian Water asking for evidence on what is being done to prevent sewage spills.

In its upper reaches, the Wensum is a rare chalk stream, listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and special area of conservation, the highest nature designations possible in the UK. 

Councillor Mike Stonard. Pic: Archant.

Councillor Mike Stonard. Pic: Archant. - Credit: Archant

Ahead of the meeting, Ursula Juta, of the Norfolk Rivers Trust, welcomed the motion, describing it as "crucial".

"This comes at a time when rivers are faced with ever-growing pressures from sewage, urban and agricultural pollution, water abstraction, invasive species, inappropriate development and climate chaos. 

"We desperately need a strategic and multi-pronged approach to the way our rivers are used and managed, and changes in planning and transport policies can certainly pave the way." 

The motion was unanimously approved and the council has agreed to investigate whether it is possible to give the river the status.

Who has previously been awarded the freedom of the city?

The freedom of the city (FOTC) is an honorary title given to people or organisations who have contributed to the city.

Nominations can be made at any time, by anybody.

Previous recipients have included:

Ove Fundin, a Swedish former professional motorcycle speedway rider who won the Speedway World Championships five times 1951-70. During this time he was a rider for the Norwich Stars team. At the time he was awarded the FOTC in 2006 he was only the second non-English person to be given the honour.

Colin Self, a Norfolk-born English pop artist, whose work addressed Cold War politics. Mr Self was a passionate advocate for Norwich and led an active involvement in the cultural life of the city.

Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury for their contribution to the arts in Norwich through the Sainsbury Centre at the UEA.

Arthur Miller, an American playwright, essayist and screenwriter whose works include the Death of a Salesman was awarded the FOTC for a contribution to the city and the UEA. 

Organisations including Anglia TV, Aviva, and the Norwich City Football club have also all received the honour.

What's so important about the River Wensum?

In its upper stretches, the River Wensum is a chalk stream, which are globally rarer than rainforests, and is home to more than 100 species of plants.

Paddleboarding with Norfolk Paddleboards on the River Wensum in Norwich

Paddleboarding with Norfolk Paddleboards on the River Wensum in Norwich - Credit: Norfolk Paddleboards

A tributary of the River Yare, the Wensum is the principal river Norwich was founded upon.

For hundreds of years, the waterway was key to Norwich's industry, used for transporting goods and trade.

It has been listed as a site of special scientific interest and special area of conservation - two of the highest designations available in the UK.

Species that call the river home include the Desmoulin’s whorl snail, white-clawed crayfish, brook lamprey, and bullhead.

Rivers, including the Wensum, have been faced with growing pressures from sewage, agricultural pollution and invasive species.

The white-clawed crayfish is believed to be extinct locally due to a plague spread by non-native American crayfish.