Photo gallery: One man’s mission to restore Bacton Wood Mill and his stretch of the North Walsham and Dilham Canal

PUBLISHED: 11:00 14 November 2013 | UPDATED: 11:49 18 November 2013

Laurence Ashton at Bacton Wood Mill and lock. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Laurence Ashton at Bacton Wood Mill and lock. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2013

As a practical man who does not mind getting his hands dirty, it was inevitable that when Laurie Ashton bought a disused north Norfolk mill in 1994 he would eventually want to restore it.

Canal restoration ends in a spot of hot water

Restoration work on the North Walsham and Dilham Canal has proved controversial.

Vegetation clearance has seen water reintroduced into the mill ponds at Briggate and Ebridge.

While the North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust claims to have nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition supporting the project - including some collected at a packed meeting in North Walsham last month - some local residents, backed by the Environment Agency, believe enthusiasts have gone too far.

Opponents, including Peter Bowles, of Spa Common, North Walsham, believe extensive tree removal and dredging have damaged the habitats and feeding grounds of birds and mammals, some of which have since disappeared.

But supporters claim new and healthier habitats have been created, attracting a wider diversity of wildlife.

The Environment Agency issued a “Stop” notice against Laurie Ashton in April 2012, banning him from dredging between Ebridge Mill and Bacton Wood Mill. It was upheld on appeal in January. Mr Ashton challenges the Agency’s right to impose European law above 19th-century Acts of parliament covering the canal. He also claims that he was “desilting”, not dredging.

And he said the Agency, which supported canal restoration elsewhere, seemed determined to obstruct improvements in Norfolk.

An Agency spokesman said they were looking for a way forward to meet everyone’s needs, and those of the environment.

She added: “To reach such an agreement will take time but we are committed to the process and are talking to people now to get things moving.”

And because Bacton Wood Mill is beside Norfolk’s only canal - long disused - Mr Ashton is also very keen to bring that back into use as well.

He is so passionate about the project that in 2009 he and his wife Julie formed the Old Canal Company and bought a two-and-a-half mile stretch of the North Walsham and Dilham Canal, between Ebridge Mill lock and Swafield Bridge.

Mr Ashton, 65, knows what he is talking about when it comes to both machinery and water. A chartered electrical engineer from Essex, he was a regular weekend visitor to the area in the 1960s as one of the first volunteers on the North Norfolk Railway.

When the couple moved to north Norfolk, they bought two boatyards, at Wayford and Hoveton.

The near nine-mile canalisation of the River Ant opened in 1826 and stretched from Antingham to Wayford bridge. It included six locks capable of taking small wherries which carried goods including flour and animal feed.

The last wherry to use the canal was the Ella in 1934 after which the waterway gradually became choked with vegetation.

The section above Bacton Wood Mill dried out when contractors demolishing the old canal bridge at Royston, in order to make a stronger lower one to cope with the heavy traffic for the building of the Bacton Gas terminal, emptied the canal by breaching it above Royston Bridge, according to the East Anglian Waterways Association.

Mr Ashton hopes to remedy that. Sparing with words but generous with his time and expertise, he explained: “I think it will look a lot better restored than it does full of reeds and other stuff.”

The mill machinery had been intact but “worn into the ground” he said. The 18ft 6in wheel was in situ, but rusted and missing its wooden paddles.

Over the years he has rebuilt the tail race bridge, stabilised all the brickwork in the wheel pit and restored the wheel, though it still lacks the paddles.

But the centre piece of Mr Ashton’s restoration work to date is the lock, once completely overgrown and suffering from neglect.

With the help of retired brickmaker John Brice he has spent three years restoring it, investing about £40,000 alone in some 57,000 bricks, and about £2,500 on the top gates. The bottom gates are next on the list.

This winter Mr Ashton hopes to kickstart the re-watering of the canal above his mill by filling the breach made by the contractors and installing a sluice gate he has made. Success would mean the wheel of a mill first recorded in the Domesday Book could turn once again.

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