Up Back River

The River Wensum is a rare lowland chalk stream which snakes its way around this fine city from west to east as it drains these mostly-flat and low lands back out into the North Sea, but before its cool and crisp waters drop directly into the city centre over the sluices at New Mills, the river stealthily sneaks past between Heigham and Mile Cross, seemingly trying it’s best not to be noticed by the inhabitants. It manages to do so with a helping hand from the geography of the area and by mostly being hidden from our view by the overgrown bushes, wild tumble-down trees and untidy foliage lining its unkept and collapsing banks.

Somewhere along Back River.

After pouring in from the wider county, through the brick millraces of the former Mill at Hellesdon, the Wensum slides neatly towards the City’s boundary through ‘old Hellesdon’ along the mostly accessible and fairly tidy banks of Hellesdon Road before disappearing from view behind the Gatehouse Pub. From this point on it sneaks eastwards under the Sweetbriar Road Bridge and it’s from here on in that once neatly-kept banks finished by human activity appear to have been completely given up on and left once again to nature. As the river heads under the city’s boundary and out of view towards and along the borders of Mile Cross there are long stretches and reaches of the water along here that I’d bet a large number of today’s inhabitants of Norwich will have never set eyes upon, not in recent years at least.

Back River and Sweetbriar bridge, hard to spot, even in Winter and with the river bursting its banks.

This hasn’t always been the case for this stretch of river and judging by the many pictures and fond references to it; “Back River” as it used to be known, seems to have been a very popular destination for the inhabitants of our city, being drawn to this lazy stretch of river for a variety of leisure pursuits; a place to take a swim, a spot to relax on the banks with a picnic, a magnet for children to go pond-dipping, dyke-jumping (a particular favourite pass-time for some of the older Mile Cross kids), to partake in a spot of fishing or to take a long and lazy boat trip up Back River towards Hellesdon Mill.

Unfortunately for us, It’s hard to imagine all these activities taking place along here now as large sections of the river have become increasingly hard to spot or even gain access to and it has become so weeded-up in the summer months that it has become mostly unfishable, if you can even find a stretch of bank clear enough to try and fish from.

Up until the early 1980’s the banks were still being kept in fairly good shape, the river was still being dredged and it was usually being enjoyed by large numbers of people on the banks and even some in their boats; however, in the relatively short space of time since that has passed since my journey from being a young teenager and into adulthood, this stretch of river has changed completely, slowly disappearing out of view like it’s trying to hide something, which is technically what has happened.

In the early 1980’s a number of alleged incidents involving the chemical factory built and owned by May and Baker led to a number of significant surface water contamination incidents that apparently compromised the water table along this stretch of water, which in turn helped towards the decline of and apparent disappearance of the once locally-famous Back River.

The regular dredging had to be stopped along with the weed clearance so as not to risk stirring-up a complex mix of organic compounds and heavy metals, including mercury and copper. This was done to give this potentially hazardous mixture time to settle; break down and disperse naturally, and this combined with decades of funding cuts to the local authorities have unfortunately led to this beautiful piece of Norwich being almost completely forgotten in places and allowing the river to silt-up considerably. On top of this a change in attitudes towards conservation and wildlife habitats have also helped towards the overgrown nature of Back River and there are some apparent benefits to the wildlife in leaving it like this, but I’m not here to pretend I know anything about the complicated balance between council budgets and the ‘ ins and outs’ of the biodiversity of the area so I’ll try and stick to the history and the images.

Andersons Meadow with the banks of the river looking a lot tidier than they do now, early 1980’s. This was another one of the many spots where I used to leap into the water when I was a kid.

Thankfully for us there have been plenty of fantastic images taken of Back River over the years, enabling us to take a look back upon how it was used and how it has completely transformed over time. It seems to have been a fairly well documented and fondly remembered part of our City’s history, but, mostly only hinted at in the many old books documenting Norwich over the years. It’s the frequent – yet sporadic – nature of the appearance of these images that spurred me on to do a bit of digging, collate some of the sharable images and to try and give them a little context.

I’ll start with a handful of images kindly sent to me by one of the authors of a number of fantastic books documenting the history of Norwich, Michael Holmes. He got in touch with me after reading this very blog to tell me that me that he had come across some images that he thought may be of some interest to a man like myself, and he wasn’t wrong. He was unsure as to the exact locations of every picture, but knew they had all been taken along “Back River”, leaving it to me to identify the locations of the images in question. Needless to say, it didn’t take me too long to figure out where they were taken, even though a couple of them had been scanned in back to front, as negatives tend to be sometimes.

The following image was one of those back-to-front images and after about ten minutes of map-work it became apparent to me exactly where it had been taken. I flipped the image back the right way in Photoshop and it all started to tie-in with my suspicions.

Taken from northern bank of the river and looking directly north, we can make out the river as it bends east around the aptly-named Horseshoe Bend. The subjects of the photograph are a splendidly-dressed early 20th century lady and a smartly-dressed boy relaxing on the river whilst somebody, presumably the father takes their picture. It’s a fantastic image and hidden within it are some fascinating little details. In the middle background are the low-lying Sweetbriar Marshes that now form part of Mile Cross’s very own SSSI (Sights of Special Scientific Interest) and the land in the distance gently climbing away to the North really piqued my interest.

Horseshoe bend, looking North towards what would soon become the Drayton Estate part of Mile Cross.

If we zoom into that background we can clearly see the exact spot where the Drayton and Mile Cross estates would soon be built on the horizon, including the spot in the future where I’m currently sat typing this blog entry, not too far from that tall tree left of centre on the horizon and just beyond that massive stack of hay. If you look even harder, you can just about make out a telegraph pole and a gate that sit next to the M&GN Railway Line as it heads left towards Hellesdon.

The trees on the horizon show us how Mile Cross looked before the houses appeared.

This next image was taken by me from roughly the same spot as the original image with the mother and son sat in their boat and it really highlights how much Nature has taken over when left alone by man for a few decades. It’s really quite hard to imagine that these two images were taken in the same part of Norwich.

And from as near as I could get to the image above in 2020.

Below is another crop of that brilliant photograph purely just to focus in on that fantastically-dressed lady, sat under her umbrella and reading a book. Check out that hat! I can’t help but wonder who she was, what she’s reading and what her family’s story was.

Check out this elegant-looking lady reading a book as she relaxes on Back River.

The next image to grab my interest was easier to identify, taken from almost the same spot as the one above, only looking south and upstream around Horseshoe bend as it curves to the west. In this image we can see that the river is positively bustling with smartly-dressed families enjoying a leisurely boat trip up Back River, heading towards Hellesdon. The smart-looking building in the background made my task of putting a location to this image rather easy and it may also be familiar to some of you, being the aptly-named Wensum School on Waterworks Road. Again, it’s a brilliant photograph with a lot going on that helps me to get an approximate date from when it was taken. Just in front of the school, you can see that the land sloping towards the river is still a field, meaning that the city’s waterworks had yet to expand this far westwards. Another clue to its date is that there appear to be no terraced-houses to be seen on either Turner Rad and Hotblack Road, meaning that this image is dated around 1919. Another clue to the date is the wonderful examples of ladies fashions on display; it looks pre-1920’s, but only just.

Horseshoe bend looking south with the aptly-named Wensum School prominent in the background

As with the first image, I decided to take another shot from a similar spot, looking towards the Wensum School today, to highlight how much this scene has changed and you wouldn’t know that the school and the extended Waterworks (or anything else for that matter) are not too far away, completely blocked out of view by the trees and bushes that fight for light along the banks of the river through here now.

Horseshoe bend looking south today, you can no longer see the Wensum School, or an armada of rowing boats.

As the image above proved, the river was literally packed with boats at times and these would have been hired out from somewhere along Back River. A quick look at the older maps shows that there were a number of places along this stretch where where you could hire out a boat for the day, but one of the more popular spots appears to have been ‘Dolphin boats’ at the Dolphin Ferry, which was situated behind the ‘Dolphin Inn’ on Heigham Street.

In the following image we can see the scene at Dolphin Boats at some point before 1909, a rowing boat in the water and another on the bank are giveaways to the boat hire aspect and interestingly it also shows us people standing in a boat whilst being punted across the river in the Dolphin Ferry. In the background we can see the Wensum heading off downstream under the M&GN A-Frame Railway Bridge and towards Wensum Park. The higher ground in the background is Aylsham Road close to Upper Hellesdon Mill. If you look closely, you can also make out the ‘Swan Island’ in the River that seems to have disappeared at some point before the second world war.

The Dolphin Ferry in action and the nearby A-Frame Railway Bridge.

As the demand to get people across both the river and busy railway line grew with the city’s twentieth-century expansion northwards into Mile Cross, the Norwich Corporation deemed it necessary to erect a bridge here at Dolphin to replace the ferry. The image below is taken from the opposite bank to the one above and it shows us the first arch of the double-spanned Dolphin Bridge starting to take shape. What it also shows us is the hut at Dolphin Boats and the jetty that you would need to walk along once alighting from the former ferry heading towards Mile Cross. Another interesting detail is the board displaying the name of the company hired to build the new bridge, ‘DG Somerville & Co.’:

The site of the Dolphin Ferry as the new Dolphin Bridge is being constructed. The walkway leads to the river from Drayton Road.

A crop of the above image clearly shows the Dolphin Boats ‘office’ and the soon-to-be-redundant ferry moored up out front.

Dolphin Boats office.

Here’s another crop of that interesting image, this time focussing in on the name of the company given the job of constructing the new Dolphin Bridge: a ‘D G Somerville & Co’. I’ll be talking a little bit more about them shortly.

DG Somerville & Co. Ferro Concrete Structural Steelwork

On the 15th December 1909 Dolphin Bridge was officially opened by the brilliantly named Mayor of Norwich, a Mr Ernest Egbert Blyth. Not only did this bridge negate the need to be punted across the river by hand, but it also added another element of safety by continuing upwards and over the nearby railway line via a concrete viaduct, meaning that the pedestrians heading in or out of the city no longer had to risk it between the many trains heading in and out of City Station on a track-level pedestrian crossing.

The newly constructed Dolphin Bridge, looking upstream, Swan Island is visible on the right.

A crop of the image above shows the boat-hire hut reflected under the southern span of the bridge and a couple boats moored up next to the ‘Dolphin Boats’ sign, one of which looks like the now-redundant Dolphin Ferry. We can also make out another, smaller arch passing under the bridge next to the bank to enable people to walk underneath and keeping this once-open length of bank accessible to people wishing to hire out a boat. Today, that small archway is now mostly hidden out of sight by the general untidiness and overgrown nature of the banks along here and it’s not a place I recommend venturing down to at the moment. It looked to me like it is currently being used by a homeless person as a place to sleep; and somewhere to go to the toilet. Trust me, don’t venture down there any time soon.

Moored hire-boats line the well-kept banks that are now in a shocking state.

In this later image – presumably taken around the time of the Second World War – we can see that Swan Island has since disappeared, but the demand for boats is still obvious. The well-worn mooring posts along the tidy-looking bank and a couple of boats moored up near the bridge are the give-away here. Another interesting detail is that the viaduct supports to the right of Dolphin Bridge appear to be a lot sturdier than in the original image, suggesting that they’d been repaired or rebuilt at some point, probably due to the swampy nature of the area.

Dolphin Bridge taken from the Heigham bank, a few years later.

This next image, again taken at Dolphin Ferry before 1909 really highlights how busy Back River could become in the warmer months. It’s taken looking upstream before Dolphin Bridge had been built and we can see that the river is absolutely full of swimmers, one of which the photographer has managed to capture mid-dive. On the left of the image appears to be a family dressed in their Sunday best waiting on the bank, presumably here to either hire out a boat for the day, or to be punted across the river towards Lower Hellesdon Road, now Drayton Road, Mile Cross. In the background we can make out what we now call Anderson’s Meadow.

Dolphin Boats, before Dolphin Bridge.

Next up, taken from the same spot but looking downstream in 1933 is this fantastic George Plunkett image that highlights the well-used Dolphin Bridge and multiple rental boats moored up at Dolphin Boats, showing us that rowing up Back River was still a very popular pass-time, going by the amount of boats waiting to be hired out. Swan Island is still visible through the arch, although it’s looking a lot smaller than it does in the older images. I suspect it must have been mostly washed away during the 1912 floods and slowly disappeared over the next couple of decades.

Dolphin Bridge in 1933.

After renting out a boat from Dolphin Boats you were faced with two choices, you could have headed either upstream or downstream. Downstream would take you eastwards towards the more industrialised fringes of the City Centre, passing under the Railway A-Frame bridge to Wensum Park and on towards New Mills. However, once you’d rowed past Wensum Park I doubt it would have been that picturesque, unless you were a bit of a boat-borne train-spotter or really into 19th-century industrial architecture.

In this following George Plunkett image, taken in 1931 from on top of the Dolphin Bridge we can see how the river tightly hugs the railway line as it makes its way into the nearby City Station. The original Edwards and Holmes shoe Factory can also be seen just beyond the A-Frame, which if you look closely at we can see that a rental boat is about to pass under. It must have been a wonderful site to see a steam locomotive pass overhead from the river.

Back River from Dolphin Bridge.

The next image is taken from the Dolphin viaduct and shows us Back River heading a little further downstream than the one above and was taken in about 1910. Despite this not being the more obvious route, the river is still looking very busy beyond the railway bridge with at least four rowing boats to be spotted making their way along the water. Drayton Road and St Martins road stand prominently in the background and the area that was soon to become Sandys-Winsch’s Wensum Park is at this stage little more than a dumping ground. The area today known as Train Wood is open, marshy ground and just out of shot to the right would have been allotments.

Another busy scene on back river from around 1910, taken from the Dolphin viaduct.

This following image is another taken by George Plunkett and he appears to be stood close to Wensum Park, looking back upstream towards the viaduct (where the picture above was taken from). It’s a rather chilly-looking scene and I doubt there was much demand for one of Dolphin’s rowing boats during this cold-looking 1933 winter’s day.

Looking upstream towards Dolphin from Wensum Park.

If you had continued downstream from here, the furthest point you could have realistically rowed to would have been here in the following Plunkett image, taken close to railway-built bridge at Station Road. Had you ventured any further than this point you would have risked following the Wensum as it drops down into the City Centre over one of the sluices at New Mills Yard; which would probably be quite fun for a thrill-seeking canoeist, but not ideal for a family dressed in their Sunday best! The neat-looking row of houses on the right were cleared away in the 1970’s when another bridge was placed in next to this one to carry two lanes of traffic off towards the flyover. The next time you’re waiting on the Traffic Island in the middle of the two roads here, just imagine that you’re waiting in a space that used to be somebody’s living room.

Station Road Bridge, just upstream of New Mills.

Seeing as heading downstream wouldn’t have got you very far and likely to get your Sunday best covered in soot from the nearby Railway Yards, It would have probably been a more popular choice to head off upstream to take the more attractive route out of the City and out westwards towards Hellesdon Mill. This was a much longer stretch heading out into the countryside that came with the added bonus of it being an easier return leg, using the flow of the river to help bring you back towards the city.

Back River, just before it drops over the sluices and into the City at New Mills.

In the next fascinating image we can see that two elegantly-dressed ladies in brilliant hats have decided to take the longer route and are headed upstream, passing the Gibraltar Gardens as they go. In the background we can make out that Anderson’s Meadow is still just a flood plain and that it is a lot flatter than we know it today, which gives us a great view across to Drayton Road and Upper Hellesdon Windmill. The row of houses on the very left of the image are climbing up Junction Road and were to become victims of a 1,000lb Herman Bomb during the Baedecker Raids. Another fascinating detail is that it shows us that the Gibraltar Gardens were trying to take advantage of the abundance of pleasure-seekers using back river as it passes right by the beer garden here and had erected a large wooden jetty to encourage passing river traffic to moor up and visit the pub for a nice warm Morgan’s Ale or a refreshing cup of tea.

The river by Gibraltar Gardens and Andersons Meadow in the background.

This crop of that image above shows us that Gibraltar Gardens’ Jetty in more detail and you can just about make out a set of steps on the left to enable such elegantly-dressed ladies to alight from their boats with a bit of dignity.

The landing stage for the Gibraltar Gardens.

Another crop of that same image highlights those ladies heading upstream in their fine clothes obviously enjoying a day out on Back River. This crop also shows us the impressive Upper Hellesdon Mill on Press Lane and the railway line that is now the Marriott’s Way. The path that replaced the railway line is now out of site, hidden from view behind the now-humped Anderson’s Meadow. The land just beyond the railway now has a more industrial feel and is now the business end of Havers Road.

Ladies on the river. Note the railway line, Junction Road and Upper Hellesdon Mill behind them.

As with the other older images donated to me by Michael, I’ve tried to capture the same scene as it looks today and for the next picture I’m stood in roughly the same spot as the original picture above. The industrialisation at the end of Havers that would now be blocking Drayton Road from view entirely, has itself been blocked out by the overgrown nature of the banks along here at Anderson’s meadow, thankfully making the scene seem more rural than it really is and looking all the better for it, from here at least. The Gibraltar Gardens have long-since given up trying to lure in punters rowing up Back River and the landing stage is consigned to the depths of history.

Taken from a similar position to the one above from the bank of the Gibraltar Gardens.

Had I turned around from this same spot today to look upstream I would now be faced with the 1923 Mile Cross Road Bridge and a less than attractive-looking Storm drain that dumps run-off from the roads directly into the river. Had the original photographer turned around they would have seen no bridge, a continuation of the low meadows on the far bank and on the near bank an interesting collection of tired-looking dwellings, leading directly down to the waters edge at Heigham Watering.

Heigham Watering was an ancient little lane that ran from Heigham Street just next to the entrance to the Gibraltar Gardens and it served to connect the former village of Heigham to the River, hence the name; and in this next image we see that the river and its banks are a hive of activity. The posts between the lane and the old houses suggests that this little lane had a lot of traffic, backed up by the fact that in this image there is a large horse-drawn cart sat right at the end where the lane where it dipped directly into the river.

Heigham Watering, looking a lot busier than it does these days.

In the background of this image we can see the railway line yet again, and beyond that the gently-sloping fields upon which the Mile Cross estate was soon to built. Today this scene is dominated by a large storm drain, obscured by overgrown bushes and the Mile Cross Road and Railway Bridges. None of those fascinating-looking dwellings survived, being cleared away to make way for Mile Cross Road. Below is Heigham Watering as it looks today, now completely disconnected from Back River:

Heigham Watering 2019.

Now, I’m going to go a little off topic here to revisit the Dolphin Bridge and that earlier image showing us the name of the firm who were building it: ‘D G Somerville & Co’. As FONCS (Friends of Norwich City Station) we’ve had in our possession of a set of keys that allow us to keep an eye on that odd, but rare and interesting little concrete urinal block close to City Station, at St Crispins Road. This old toilet block was one of a handful built by the Norwich Corporation at around the same time as Dolphin Bridge and it is the last remaining example of such a structure anywhere in the UK (I think). One day whilst we were carrying out one of our routine checks on it, it dawned on me that the pattern on the outside of the concrete walls seemed very familiar.

I briefly wondered where it was that I’d seen this unique pattern before, and then it came to me. I was pretty sure that it was the very same pattern as you can see on the ferro-concrete outer-walls of the Dolphin Bridge, if you’re brave enough to venture down to the untidy and hazardous banks at what used to be Dolphin Boats. My suspicions were confirmed whilst I was tracing Back River as it makes its way into the City Centre to take photographs for this blog entry. If you look at the two images below and their inserts, you can clearly see that it is the same design and obviously built by the same company, ‘D G Somerville & Co’. Like I said, it’s a random little distraction, but fascinating little nugget of history (to me at least) none the less:

Dolphin Bridge and its patterned ferro concrete.
The concrete urinal and its patterned ferro concrete.

Back on topic; If you were to continue rowing upstream away from the Gibraltar Gardens, Back River snakes its way through the particularly flat and low-lying Sweetbriar Marshes and it’s along this stretch that the river is at its wildest today. The stretch where I mentioned earlier on this blog entry that not too many of today’s inhabitants of Norwich have seen, visited or rowed along in a long time, the stretch of Back River most affected by those spillages and contaminations from the nearby Chemical factory.

Here the river tries it hardest to hide away from the general public, straying away from roads and houses and being hemmed in by trees, marshes and a complicated series of dykes. The river only accessible from the northern banks if you’re willing to cross these dykes and along the southern banks being mostly hidden from the public by the sprawling waterworks site and the allotments at Dereham Road.

Back river 2020. You could be anywhere, or nowhere.

As I mentioned earlier, Back River was a very popular place to hire out a boat; mainly from Dolphin Boats, but that wasn’t the only enterprise to be cashing in on the desire to enjoy the river and on one map from 1926 you can actually count a total of six Boathouses along this relatively short stretch of river. It’s along this well-hidden stretch, hidden out of sight from the masses that we can find the only remains of one of the many boathouses that used to serve Back River, slowly rotting away, as you can just about make out in this following image:

The only remains of one of the many boathouses that could be found along the banks of Back river, close to Sweetbriar Road.

If you were to carry on from this point heading further upstream into old Hellesdon and towards it’s former water mill, Back River flows under three more bridges, the first one added fairly late in or around 1933) which served to carry the newly-added Norwich Ring Road over Back River and right through the middle of the up-until-then unspoilt Sweetbriar Marshes. The second and third bridges were quite a way upstream, and on a particularly bendy reach of water; one being another fantastically-Victorian ‘A-Frame’ railway bridge from 1882, a carbon-copy of the one just downstream from Dolphin Boats – which thankfully, unlike its sibling can still be admired today – and another much older road bridge, carrying Hellesdon Road over the river, seen below as captured by George Plunkett in 1933. This narrow little bridge was built in 1819 as a more permanent replacement to an earlier, wooden bridge that had spanned the river here from 1809.

A flooded Back River as it flows under the former railway and on towards Mile Cross.
And a little further upstream, Hellesdon Bridge, erected in 1819.

It’s under this old road bridge that we can find a couple more clues as to how busy the waterway could be along here at the upper-most reaches of the navigable Back River. If you lean over and look underneath this narrow bridge you’ll still be able to spot two metal signs that were put in to instruct the many people in their rowing boats which side of the river they needed to be on, presumably to stop collisions on this particularly unsighted bend as the river flows away from the former mill.

Towards the City.
Towards Hellesdon Mill.

Seeing as I have a bit of a habit of straying slightly off topic a little to add some historic footnotes, this old Bridge was built over the Wensum on the same spot as a much older bridge or ford, and it as this particular point where Robert Kett and his men crossed the river as they skirted their way around the city after leaving the Village of Bowthorpe, before entering the city for their infamous rebellion.

Once you’d managed to navigate your way between these two bridges and their tight bends you would have been on the upper reaches of Back Rover and approaching the imposing structure of Hellesdon Water Mill. The river here was bounded by open meadows, just as it is today and is also the point where the River Tud feeds into Wensum. This would have been the final destination for people rowing up river and would have been the perfect spot at which to moor up for a picnic and a paddle before letting the Wensum help you back downstream and towards one of the many boathouses closer to the City. This spot hasn’t really changed much and is still a popular spot for the city’s inhabitants. There’s often people here eating, walking, fishing and canoeing and is probably the spot where Back River has changed the least over the last one hundred or so years.

The upper reaches of Back River, looking downstream from where the Tud feeds into the Wensum.
The millraces at the former Hellesdon Watermill.

Hellesdon Mill, like the New Mills is as far as you could go in a hire boat and together these two structures bookend what was known as back River. Today, these structures are only used to control the flow and the water levels along Back river and (further upstream) before the Wensum is allowed to drop into the centre of Norwich. Once it falls through New Mills the River is still tidal and has a number of potentially restrictive chokepoints that could cause issues should we have another 1912 style weather event. This aside there has been a lot of talk about removing all or part of this age-old system of raising and lowering sluice-gates and allowing the river to run its normal course for the first time in a centuries. This would have a profound effect on Back River, lowering the water-levels considerably and narrowing the waterway by some margin. In the past year Anglian Water have had two practice runs at mean maximum high tide and mean maximum low tide to observe the effects. The picture below was taken during the second of these practice-runs:

Back River at Wensum Park, briefly running without the influence of sluice-gates, 2020.

Up until 1920 Hellesdon Mill was a far more impressive structure which stood at four-storeys in height and with a total sixty-six windows looking downstream. The bridge with its four waterways we see now was the base for this tall and wide wooden building and in its day it was one of the largest watermills in Norfolk. The Mill building itself was removed in 1920 by its owners, The Corporation of Norwich and not because it was in bad condition. The quality timbers that formed the bulk of the structure were needed due to shortages of building materials after the first world war. The timbers were used to help construct the first collection of Council Houses to be erected at the far end of Angel Road. Interestingly the former fire-damaged windmill at Press Lane was also used as a source of materials, the bricks being used to help build these new homes. Unfortunately I don’t have any images of Hellesdon Mill as it was before it’s demolition, but there are plenty to be found by clicking the following link: http://www.norfolkmills.co.uk/Watermills/hellesdon.html

It wasn’t until I started doing a bit of research into Back River that I realised how interesting our Victorian Waterworks were and how important the delicate balance between humanity and nature really is along here. After the cholera epidemic of 1849 it became apparent that the needs for clean drinking water and improved sanitation for the city’s residents was paramount so the new waterworks were built quite a way out of the built-up city here at Heigham. Traditionally the water has always been taken from the river here but that had to be changed in the 1980’s because of the city expanding out past Waterworks Road, the May and Baker spillages and the possibility of the poor quality along here because of run-off from the ring-road at Sweetbriar. Somebody pointed out that should a lorry carrying contaminates have an accident close to the bridge or come off the road here it could effectively cut off the city’s water supply in an instant. Because of these issues it was decided to put in a pipe-line all the way from Costessey Pits, well outside of the city to supply the City with a safer supply of water and this is how city’s water supply remained, until fairly recently. Since then various issues with the ever-increasing amounts of water being taken from the river that far upstream were threatening to compromise this newer supply route and the water table levels out past Costessey and this was partly the thinking behind installing the weir at Costessey Mills in 1989. Essentially the weir’s job was to hold back enough water to ensure that there was always enough water in Costessey Pits to meet the supply demands of the City a few miles downstream. However, with the rapidly changing environment and priorities for the requirements for sustainable flows of the river between Heigham and Costessey this meant that a supplementary new source for drinking water needed to be found by 2019 to ensure that the ever-increasing demands of the city for clean water wouldn’t be in danger of running out of water should any issues arise.

Because of the contamination of the river mentioned previously by May and Baker, and the increasingly-chubby city bulging out over its own waistline, extracting water for the city so close to the old waterworks wasn’t entirely feasible. Thankfully, due to recent, ground-breaking methods for the treatment of water, the city is for the first time since the 1980’s now able to take most of its water supplies from the river here at Back River once again, just on the opposite bank of the river to Mile Cross. If you’ve ever crossed over the 1997 May Gurney footbridge from Heigham to Sweetbriar Marshes you may have noticed another recent addition to the landscape in the form of a giant piece of machinery, that to my overly-vivid imagination looks like a giant robot crouched over the bank, gulping away at the river, slurping up some of Back River as it makes its way towards Horseshoe bend into its large, grated mouth to be consumed within its complicated innards.

Most of the City’s tap water is now sucked in through here.

After passing through this massive filter the water is then sucked into a complicated, modern and not-very-sexy-sounding “ultra-filtration submerged membrane plant” that I’m not going to pretend to understand or know anything about, however, I have been promised a full tour of it once we’re through lockdown proper, so watch this space. Here where the Wensum is slowed by the clogged-up conditions, curves and bends and being paused briefly by the sluices at New Mills, the River quality can quickly change from crystal clear to chocolate brown in a matter of hours, so it needs to be very good at providing us with clean and drinkable water, as well as being able to cope with the increasing demand for water as more and more homes are built in and around the City and I look forward to trying to get my head around it all.

Luckily for me, just before we entered the second of our many lockdowns, I was allowed to enter the older part of the waterworks for a brief explore and I must say that from my short time spent on the other side of that long wall stretching along most of Waterworks Road I can say that it is a truly fascinating place and I’m also glad to report that the beautiful, yet redundant buildings and machinery contained within are still being lovingly-preserved by Anglia Water.

The 1907 engine house.
The sole remaining sand filter-bed, no longer in use but kept as a reminder for our water used to be cleansed.

So that about ends our trip back along old Back River, but it’s not to say that we should forget about this stretch of River. It still has a unique charm and although you can no longer hire out a boat along here anymore, it’s still very much worth a visit. Most of it can still be walked and in doing so you’ll end up in some fascinatingly hidden little corners of Norwich and Hellesdon. An added bonus to all this is that along the way you’ll be in with a chance of spotting some of the city’s more elusive wildlife. Just whilst writing this piece about Back River I’ve encountered Otters, Kingfishers, Robins, Wrens, Carp, Tench, Bream, Pike, Geese, Ducks, Swans and best of all, hardly any other humans. It really is worth a stroll, whether it be heading in towards the City at New Mills or up to Hellesdon Mill, or as I like to do, walking the whole lot. The only downside is the amount of litter that seems to make its way into our rivers, but we can all do our part here by picking up any litter we see along the way or reporting any other issues we see to the relevant authorities.

I’ll end this piece with a few more images of Back River taken by me (mostly) whilst I was out exploring for this blog entry during the various phases of lockdown over this rather bizarre year. A year that will no doubt be remembered for some time. I’ll probably write something about it when I’m old(er) and grey(er). So long 2020, you’ve been a pain in the arse, but you’ve really encouraged me to get out and explore the little gems hidden on the doorstep of Mile Cross.

Looking upstream from Mile Cross Road, towards the Waterworks.
Overgrown and weeded-up, looking upstream towards Dolphin, Summer 2020.
Back river, breached by Mile Cross Road in 1923, these banks were completely clear during the 1980’s
The remains of the the two large bathing places at Wensum Park, these were originally fenced off from the River proper.
Reflections, close to Horseshoe Bend.
Just downstream of Hellesdon Mill.
One of the many dykes that criss-cross the landscape around Back River.
Back River, bursting its banks opposite the Waterworks.

Thanks once again for taking the time to read my ramblings,


6 thoughts on “Up Back River

  1. Really interesting read, thank you so much for putting the time in.
    I spent some of this summer kayaking the length of the wensum and I do think there’s a beauty to the wild banks. So much of our countryside is already manicured by people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read. Good to see those old photos too – hard to imagine those views now. I often cross the May & Baker footbridge (I’d assumed it was put up by the city council), usually on my bike heading for Marriott’s Way, but occasionally I stick to the river bank and head down to Anderson’s meadow that way. I’d often wondered what that great contraption was for. It’s been a while but I’ve canoed the Hellesdon Mill to New Mills two or three times. I’ll call it Back River now.

    Liked by 1 person

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