As part of the Walking Norwich series, writer and scientist Clive Lloyd has written a walk down the River Wensum.
The Wensum, which appears in Old English as Wandsum, wanders, and its lack of drive provides a key to the demise of our one-time source of wealth. At New Mills Yard, where we begin our walk, the river is only a metre higher than where it joins the sea at Yarmouth; the tidal power harnessed by the late-Victorian Compression House, which straddles the river at New Mills, was insufficient to pump sewage and had to be supplemented by electricity.
Eastwards along the northern bank we come to an early iron bridge: St Miles’ Bridge of 1804. On the north side is the former site of Barnard Bishop and Barnards’ Norfolk Iron Works but only the name of the public housing development that replaced it remains: Barnards Yard. On the city side of the bridge is Anchor Quay where, a century ago, Bullards’ Brewery was one of the Big Four that supplied over 600 licenced houses in the city. Wisely, they sunk an artesian well rather than trust Wensum water. For a diversion, cross the bridge, go up Westwick Street and through a gap in the wall find Gybson’s Conduit – a C17th monument celebrating the mayor who brought clean water here.
The rose colour of the Anchor Quay buildings is a reminder of the Maddermarket district where madder roots were sold for making the dye, rose madder. Just before the next bridge look across to a derelict five-storey industrial building, once home to the Norwich Electric Light Company (later Eastern Electricity) that used river water to cool its turbines. In 2006, artists hung red-dyed fabric from the factory’s windows whose reflections made the river run red, as it had done at the height of the city’s textile trade. It was here, hard against the elegant, cast iron, Duke’s Palace Bridge – predecessor to the present utilitarian structure – that Michael Stark (1748-1831) developed a way of staining the silk warp the same deep red as the woollen weft to produce a uniformly scarlet fabric. This was ‘Norwich Red’ used for the fashionable Norwich shawls that kept the finer end of the city’s textile trade alive in the C19th. Stark produced this true red using an alchemical combination of madder, tin and the chalky waters of the Wensum … then emptied his vats and dyed the river red.
But the river had been polluted for centuries. In 1681 a visitor noted that the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace, where the Duke Street car park now stands, was adjacent to dyers’ houses where the water was fouled by ‘their constant washing and cleaning their cloth’. He described the never-completed palace as being in ‘a dung-hole place’, which may be why the Sixth Duke of Norfolk built his riverside pleasure-garden on the other side of the city. The Palace was eventually abandoned, probably because of frequent flooding.
Rejoin the river via a diversion, down Duke Street then right, along Colegate. The first large block on the right belonged to Howlett and White. In the C19th, as our textile trade dwindled so our shoe trade grew and their shoe factory became the largest in Britain. Colegate is one of the city’s finest streets, home of rich merchants, two medieval churches and one of the first Methodist chapels. It is also the heart of Viking Norwich where they settled but later burned the North Wic from which the city gets its name. At the end of Colegate turn right towards Fye Bridge. Anglo-Scandinavians would have walked on to their market at Tombland – an open place, not a place of death – but we stay on the city side of the riverbank.
Rounding off our journey we walk to Whitefriars Bridge in order to gain a view of St James Mill on the other side. The mill was built by the Norwich Yarn Company in 1839 in an attempt to resuscitate the textile trade. On the third floor, fifty power looms produced Norwich’s famous shawls but this was no match for the mass production in Yorkshire, based on better access to coal and faster-running water. Paisley in Scotland also made shawls in great number and the final ignominy is that the teardrop design, which Norwich had first used in the borders of it shawls, became known as the Paisley pattern.
To continue this walk down to Carrow Bridge visit: https://wp.me/p71GjT-8PJ
Clive Lloyd was a scientist at the John Innes Centre where he studied the molecular basis of plant cell shape. Now, he researches local history and writes a blog about the treasures of Norwich, from medieval to modern (www.colonelunthanksnorwich.com). He wrote a short book, Colonel Unthank and the Golden Triangle, about the Unthank family and suburban development. Clive lives in Norwich with his wife, a keen gardener, and together they edit the Norfolk Gardens Trust Magazine.
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