Take a tour along Norfolk's only sailing canal
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
A mile of reed-fringed shimmering water threads through the countryside between two sets of locks.
To the south the canal runs down to the River Ant and the Broads; to the north, beyond a magnificently-restored lock, there is just grass between the banks – but soon this too could be brimming with water.
We are on Norfolk’s only sailing canal – created 200 years ago for cargo wherries and gradually being brought back to life by devoted volunteers.
As we board Ella II, named after the last wherry to nudge through the lock gates, back in 1934, we join a couple of swimmers and paddle-boarders in the mill pond. Gliding away past a boy fishing we glimpse, through reeds, walkers on the neighbouring footpath.
It’s a charming scene with dragonflies dancing over the water ahead and banks of whispering reeds keeping us virtually hidden from the fields all around.
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“Ten years ago this was just mud from side to side,” said Graham Pressman, who runs boat trips from Ebridge Lock in aid of the North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust. Pretty little solar-powered Ella II is very different from the huge barges he spent his working life on, carrying cargo along the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham.
When he retired to Happisburgh he had no idea he was moving close to another canal. Even when he heard about the North Walsham and Dilham Canal he thought it was completely derelict – but for the last few years has spent much of his spare time helping to restore it.
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The canal originally stretched almost nine miles from Antingham, near North Walsham, to the navigable River Ant near Stalham, linking into the Broads and out to sea at Yarmouth.
Opened in 1826, the canal was built to carry coal but when it became clear that it was still cheaper to transport coal around the coast the new waterway, linking several mills, became busy with wherries laden with grain, flour, timber, animal feed and oak for smoking kippers. There was even a cabbage wherry carrying vegetables from Antingham to Yarmouth.
However, with the advent of the railways more and more cargo was carried by rail, and then road. By 1893 the section between Antingham and Swafield had been abandoned, and eventually even the water drained away from stretches of the once-busy canal.
For decades the abandoned canal was marked on maps and known by people who lived locally but as it silted up and locks were engulfed in vegetation it seemed destined to sink back into the landscape - until a group of enthusiasts launched an ambitious restoration project.
Volunteers from the East Anglian Waterways Association began restoring some of the crumbling locks and canal banks, clearing clogged channels and allowing water to flow once again.
The North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust was set up in 2008 to continue the work. Now the verdant corridor of water, woodland and reedbed is alive with birds including kingfishers, goldfinches, sedge warblers and reed warblers, plus water voles, fish, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies and moths.
And on the mile of canal between the restored lock gates at Ebridge and Bacton Wood volunteers run boat trips to help fund the restoration – and share the beauty of what has been recreated so far.
The boat trips also honour the history of the canal. Tourism arrived here early, with the cargo wherries converted into pleasure craft in Victorian times, to encourage visitors to enjoy a tour along the canal.
As we glide along the canal more than a century later another Trust volunteer is restoring lock gates. A mound of mud lying nearby is evidence of yet more work, clearing silt from the locks. Later Graham will be back on the water, cutting back vegetation to keep the channel clear.
Regular work parties of volunteers continue to bring the canal back to life – cutting back vegetation which is damaging canal banks or locks, rebuilding and repairing historic structures and channels, clearing mill ponds, paths, and the waterway itself.
As we glide along this tranquil waterway Graham tells us about its past, present and future. “The dream is to be able to take the boat all the way down through the locks to the river,” he said.
To book an hour-long guided boat tour from Ebridge Mill to Spa Common and back, aboard the solar-powered Ella II, call Graham Pressman on 07585 160772.
Trips run until the end of October and cost a minimum donation of £40 for a group tour for up to six people, or a minimum donation of £7 to join a public trip, with all proceeds supporting the conservation and restoration of the canal.
The North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust annual information weekend is on August 14-15 at Ebridge Lock, near North Walsham, with activities, boat trips, information about the history and wildlife of the canal and opportunities to get involved in the project.
Full details and more information at nwdct.org
Did you know...?
The North Walsham and Dilham Canal is Norfolk’s only canal with locks.
The original nine-mile canal had six locks to allow wherries to climb or descend 60 feet.
There are two locks at Swafield and one apiece at Bacton Wood, Ebridge, Briggate and Dilham.
The northern sailing wherries used on the canal were smaller than the standard Norfolk wherry.
The canal is still governed by its own Act of Parliament dating back to 1812, plus a second act signed by Queen Victoria in 1866.
The canal has four owners with the Swafield Bridge to Ebridge section owned by The Old Canal Company.