David Jackson rides the Wensum Dipper

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Just across the River from Mile Cross and within spitting distance of the Dolphin footpath is another well-trodden path to help get us “Miley’s” over the Wensum and into the City. Locally known as the the ‘Dragon Bridge’ for reasons I don’t really like or understand, this crossing – in my head at least – is still the site of a Bridge I never actually witnessed, the Norwich City A-Frame:

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The bridge was demolished in the 1970’s by Norfolk County Council in a rather short-sighted move to combat the problem of people crossing it to set up illegal camps near the back of Barker Street; the official line being that it was ‘suffering with severe metal fatigue’, but surely if one of the trio of the bridges, carrying the same amount of rail traffic, was suffering with fatigue so badly, surely the other two (almost identical) bridges would also be suffering. Seeing as the other two are still going strong, that obviously wasn’t the case. You may be strangely familiar with this bridge, especially if you are a regular user of the Marriott’s Way and that is because it was one of a rather unique trio of bridges built to get the Trains leaving Norwich City across the Wensum as it zig-zags it’s way out of Norwich towards Drayton and beyond. These beautiful Victorian bridges were most-likely made by the local firm ‘Barnard, Bishop and Barnard’ and were constructed by the Railway contractor known as ‘Wilkinson and Jarvis’. Their task was to lay the Railway infrastructure for the Railway as it made its way South from Melton Constable and into the Northern part of Norwich City back in the 1880’s for the Lynn and Fakenham Railway (latterly the M&GN). Thankfully, the other two A-Frame bridges remain; one at Hellesdon near to Hellesdon Road and the other commanding a lofty position over the Wensum at Drayton. The one at Hellesdon recently received about £100,000 worth of restoration work, making the Council’s decision to hastily remove the one at City look even more short-sighted.

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And the A-Frame bridge over the Wensum at Drayton (train added by me):

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After the A-Frame bridge was removed at Dolphin, you could still get down the old railway line into ‘City’ (long before it was officially the Marriott’s Way) by crossing the Dolphin Footbridge, turning left and following the short section of tow-path North along the river. I have some vague memories of my mum taking me to the footings of the since-removed bridge and telling me about it on one of our wanders into the City to meet Dad (who, at the time ran the Rediffusion Shop on Castle Street). The picture below, taken at some point in the 1980’s, shows the footings of the old A-Frame bridge and no other means of getting across the Wensum here. Dolphin Footbridge can be seen on both the left (going over the River) and the right (going over the lifted Railway Track):

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And this image shows the footings and part of the raised footpath as it sloped down towards Drayton Road. The new Aldi now sits behind the line of trees to the right:

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In 1986 the Council decided to open the Railway path up as a footpath (The Marriott’s Way) and installed a new, wooden bridge to help get people over the Wensum and I remember regularly cycling over it to go fishing opposite the Shoe factory in what is known these days as Train Wood:

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This bridge didn’t stay here for too long, mainly because it wasn’t wide enough but also because being made of wood it was often the target of every wannabe arsonist going. It had to be replaced in 2002 by the Les Bicknell bridge we see today before it was burnt to a crisp. The last time I spotted the wooden bridge it was dumped in a corner of the old Harford Cattle Market and was probably chopped up when the large B&Q went in some years later.

Interestingly, Les Bicknall’s ‘Dragon’ bridge’ has comments taken from some of the last people to use that wooden bridge inscribed into the steps leading down to the River:

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This site leads me nicely on to the point of the story in the first place: The ‘Wensum Dipper’ or the ‘Wensum Duck’.

On a cold and misty November morning back in 1946 a goods train was leaving Norwich City Goods yard and headed for Melton Constable. A mistake in the yard had meant that a set of points had not being returned to their original position and because of this the train was actually heading down a short siding. The siding ran alongside the mainline for a few hundred yards towards a set of buffers situated just next to the A-Frame bridge and close to the bank of the River Wensum. You can make them out in the 3rd picture featured above with some wagons backed up against them. Because of the drab and dreary conditions that morning, the Loco crew didn’t realise until it was too late that their train was headed for disaster.

At the last moment the Driver realised what was unfolding before him and applied the brakes but the Loco was pulling a very heavy train and there was no chance to stop in time. The train had barely started to slow before it crashed through the set of buffers, down the river bank and into the Wensum, the wagons piling up in a heap on top of each other just behind the loco at the top of the bank. Thankfully, the crew escaped unharmed apart from a few cuts and bruises and being very cold and very wet. They climbed out of the River, and took a rather soggy walk back up to the Yard to report their accident. They were simply told that because their loco was now in the River, they’d have to make their own way to Melton Constable. The men hired a taxi and were back to work on a Train out of Melton the very next day!

Fast forward to 2014 and I’m in Melton Constable displaying some of my ‘Railway Ghost‘ images as part of an exhibition at the fantastic, former Railway Institute. Towards the end of the day an elderly gentleman came in and was rather taken aback by one of the photographs in particular: The ‘Wensum Dipper’ (first picture in this blog). With a twinkle in his eye he told me that his name was David Jackson and that he was the fireman on that very Loco the day it crashed into the cold and murky Wensum near to Mile Cross. He’d never seen the original photograph before and was as surprised to see it as I was at the fact he’d turned up to my exhibition. It was a fantastic moment and one that I’ll never forget. Here’s a picture of David holding the Ghost image of his loco being hauled back out of the Wensum by crane next to today’s ‘Dragon’ Bridge.

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He went on to tell me the story of that rather eventful morning in his own words:

“The line seemed smoother than normal and I had an inkling that something wasn’t right, but before I had time to realise what it was we crashed through the buffers and ended up in the river. As the train settled the fire started to come up and out of the firebox door and I started to get a bit worried that I might be burnt to a crisp, luckily the tender had come to rest in the vertical position after being pushed up by the wagons and it emptied it’s water all over me, cooling me down.

I had to scramble out through tons of wire-mesh fencing that had came free from of one of the wagons and a barbed wire fence. Apart from a few scratches, looking like a drowned rat and cold, I was fine. I staggered back up to the station to be simply told to go home and report back for work tomorrow. I asked how we were supposed to get back to Melton and was told we’d have to sort our own transport out as we’d left our train in the river. We had to hire a taxi. We never did find out who was at fault for the accident, but from then on I was known as ‘The Wensum Duck!”

And there you have it, the story of the Wensum Dipper. It’s amazing to think that these chaps heard nothing more about the accident and just carried on working the next day as if nothing had happened. There was no health and safety review, no inquest; nothing. It took days for the mess to be cleared up, hindered by the fact the nearest rail-borne crane was situated at Norwich Thorpe, not much more than a mile away as the Crow flies, but a 60+ mile round trip on the old the 1940’s Norfolk rail network. It wasn’t all bad news though, many of the locals took advantage of the situation and most of the Railway Coal from the tender was pilfered away in the darker hours of the few days it took for that recovery train to make its way around Norfolk. And with the Country still feeling the cuts of the recently-ended war there would have been a few fires burning a lot brighter than they had burned in a long while thanks to the Wensum Dipper. Think about it the next time you’re walking or cycling across ‘Dragon Bridge’!

Thanks for reading,

Stu

6 thoughts on “David Jackson rides the Wensum Dipper

  1. Thanks for this very interesting story. I cross this little bridge several times a week and didnt realise there was so much history behind it all.

    Like

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