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Norfolk on a stick: Swans, ducks and ice skating star on sign of village with a unique environment

PUBLISHED: 08:23 07 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:15 09 April 2019

The village sign at Welney in west Norfolk, showing skating on the Ouse Washes. Picture: DR ANDREW TULLETT

The village sign at Welney in west Norfolk, showing skating on the Ouse Washes. Picture: DR ANDREW TULLETT

Archant

Welney’s village sign pays tribute to wildfowl and the unusual tradition of ice skating on the nearby Ouse Washes. DR ANDREW TULLETT looks at the story behind the sign.

Whooper and Bewicks (or Berwick) swans on the Great Ouse Washes in West Norfolk. Here they are being fed as part of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Welney swan feed. Picture: Sacha DenchWhooper and Bewicks (or Berwick) swans on the Great Ouse Washes in West Norfolk. Here they are being fed as part of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Welney swan feed. Picture: Sacha Dench

The village of Welney is situated immediately to the west of the man-made Old Bedford, Delph and New Bedford Rivers which bound the Ouse Washes.

This area of The Washes is now internationally famous as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust nature reserve.

The founder of the trust, Sir Peter Markham Scott, was the son of Captain Robert Falcon Scott who famously died in 1912, along with four others, whilst trekking back from their unsuccessful quest to be the first men to reach the South Pole.

It is appropriate then that the nature reserve acts as an important refuge for two species of bird that migrate to enjoy British winters before leaving for colder climes to avoid British summers.

Ice skaters on the frozen Ouse Washes at Welney. Picture: Ian BurtIce skaters on the frozen Ouse Washes at Welney. Picture: Ian Burt

Between autumn and spring each year Whooper and Bewick swans settle on the reserve.

As temperatures increase the Whooper swans migrate to their summer grounds in Iceland whilst the smaller Bewick swans take to the skies for their journey to Siberia.

A third species of swan, the Mute swan, is a resident and breeds here.

A swan is represented on the left-hand spandrel of the village sign opposite a depiction of a Mallard duck.

A group enjoying a 'farm walk' at the Ouse Washes. Picture: Supplied by Pete JohnstoneA group enjoying a 'farm walk' at the Ouse Washes. Picture: Supplied by Pete Johnstone

Whilst they might appear to represent the birds of the nature reserve they also serve to remind us that shooting ducks was once an important activity in the area, with birds being sent to market before being served on the dining tables of many Londoners.

Sir Peter Scott himself was a wildfowler before he converted to conservation.

The sport is still popular over the Ouse Washes in certain circles today.

MORE: Norfolk on a stick: Maritime heritage honoured in seaside village’s sign

Flooding at the Old Bedford River, near Welney. Picture: CHRIS BISHOPFlooding at the Old Bedford River, near Welney. Picture: CHRIS BISHOP

The Ouse Washes act as the largest flood plain in the UK, reducing the incidence of inundation of surrounding agricultural land. The area has a long history of flooding, especially during the winter months.

During some years the submerged fields and freezing temperatures combine to produce large expanses of ice.

In the second half of the 1800s, Welney was at the centre of the speed skating scene in the UK.

Fen skaters, as the practitioners of this winter sport became known, competed in both local and international events as the sport developed.

The village sign at Welney in west Norfolk. Picture: DR ANDREW TULLETTThe village sign at Welney in west Norfolk. Picture: DR ANDREW TULLETT

William ‘Turkey’ Smart, of Welney, was a particularly successful skater in the 1845/1855 season, with his winnings in various races totalling £54 and 15 shillings plus a leg of mutton.

He remained dominant in the sport for the remainder of the decade. Other members of his family were also notable skaters throughout the rest of that century. His nephew, James Smart, was a sensation in the speed skating scene of the 1890s, becoming a British and World Champion.

There still exists a band of dedicated fen skaters who monitor conditions eager to give the green light for racing to start. The last Fen Skating Meeting took place in January 2010.

The village sign, made by Harry Carter of Swaffham, was erected in 1978. In addition to depicting ice skaters and wildfowl he also represented a mill.

Adam Giles speed skating on the Old Bedford River, Welney, in 1986. Picture:Adam Giles speed skating on the Old Bedford River, Welney, in 1986. Picture:

There were several drainage mills in the area in the past, including Wry Necked Mill which appears on a map from 1797 but of which there is now no trace.

Welney Mill Farm Smock Mill, a corn mill, was dismantled in March 1942.

On the supporting post the intertwined initials ‘WM’ can be seen.

These represent William Marshall, a lawyer from London who is said to have become ill whilst on a visit to Welney.

The Ouse Washes in all their glory. Picture: PAUL CONSTABLEThe Ouse Washes in all their glory. Picture: PAUL CONSTABLE

He was nursed back to full health by residents. In 1661 he set up the Marshall Charity, donating land whose rental income was to be used for the benefit of the village.

MORE: Norfolk on a stick: Colourful cockles, fickle flowers and a problem with pronunciation

By the mid-1880s there were sufficient funds to finance a new free school, build alms houses and reconstruct the Anglican chapel. Well over 300 years after the charity was established the village continues to benefit significantly from Marshall’s gift.

-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 signsofanorfolksummer@hotmail.com.

Ice skating on Well Creek, Outwell and Welney Wash in 1978. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARYIce skating on Well Creek, Outwell and Welney Wash in 1978. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

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

Andrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCANAndrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCAN

This is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk's town and village signs called 'Norfolk on a Stick'. Image: ANDREW TULLETTThis is part of a series about the stories behind Norfolk's town and village signs called 'Norfolk on a Stick'. Image: ANDREW TULLETT



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