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River Wensum

'the loveliest of Norfolk's rivers' - John Wilson (Angler, author and TV presenter)

The River Wensum takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon word for 'winding' and begins its life near the village of South Raynham. From here it flows northwards through Raynham Park which is the home of Viscount Townshend - a descendent of 'Turnip' Townsend - who wrote Horse Hoeing Husbandry.

River Wensum at Ringland

River Wensum at Ringland Bridge

Just before Fakenham the river enters Sculthorpe Moor - a place that the writer Richard Mabey visits in his moving autobiographical book Nature Cure. The Moor, which is a nature reserve managed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, borders the river. This is how Mabey described the place:
 

'Sculthorpe seemed more ancient and echoing than any wet place I'd seen. Huge willows had collapsed like broken sheaves, arching over the peat and here and there talking root at their tips. Their branches were draped - upholstered almost - with moss and lichen and epiphytic ferns. In danker spots there were mounds of tussock sedge, iron-dark and fusty, which in Norfolk were once cut to make fireside seats and church kneelers.'

After Fakenham the river flows through another nature reserve - this time Pensthorpe. Pensthorpe was created from a series of flooded gravel pits and the Wensum meanders through the heart of it. The river here is home to the rare white clawed crayfish. Pensthorpe offers a wide range of habitats and has recently provided the location for the BBC's Springwatch programme - which is presented by Kate Humble, Bill Oddie and Chris Packham. It is owned by Deb and Bill Jordan - the breakfast cereal moguls.

After Pensthorpe, the Wensum flows through Little and Great Ryburgh and then heads south-east towards Guist. Close to Guist, lies the beautiful Bintree Mill - which was used by the BBC in its 1997 production of The Mill on the Floss.
 

Further downstream, the river enters Parson Woodforde country. In his  diary entry for May 16th 1781, he records the activities of a fishing party which took place at Lenwade and Morton. Parson Woodforde lived at nearby Weston Longville.
 
'Between 7 and 8 o'clock this morning went down to the River a fishing with my Nets. Ben, Will, Jack, Harry Dunnell and Willm Legate (Ben's Brother) were my Fishermen. We begun at Lenewade Mill and fished down to Morton. And we had the best day of Fishing we ever had. We caught at one draught only ten Pails of Fish, Pike, Trout and flat fish. The largest Fish we caught was a Pike, which was a Yard long and weighed upwards of thirteen pound after he was brought home.'

Another fisherman who loves the Wensum is John Wilson - who has caught many specimen chub and barbel - particularly around Costessey (pronounced 'Cossey'). He describes the Wensum as: 'the loveliest of Norfolk's rivers'. John lives at Great Witchingham (Lenwade) where he has his own private lake. John is also the author of a guidebook called Fresh and Saltwater Fishing in Norfolk and Suffolk which was first published by Jarrold in 1974.

Costessey was also a location that was well known to the Australian poet Francis Webb (1925-73). Webb, who suffered from schizophrenia, was an in-patient at the David Rice Hospital at Drayton from 1956-60. While based at the David Rice, Webb wrote many poems about Norfolk and the Wensum was particularly a focus for him. In his poem Gale Force he describes, in marvellously descriptive language, a storm over the Wensum valley: 'My hill is strung with your vast breath and strain,/Coils of elation tumble down to earth,/Green fills the mullions of a phantom rain,/Eternal lightning heaves and travels forth.' In another poem The Horses we get an even closer appraisal of the river:
 

With the Wensum comes consecrated ordered Wish.
From weedy tenements the spying suburban fish.
Dace, roach, carp, dart or loiter with tingling gills
In subaqueous blackout, neon,
Discuss certain shadows, suns as wool or rayon,
Choose certain baits as tranquillisers, pills.
Plucked from his element, each convulsed dreamer beats
Agony for his city streets.

Eventually the Wensum enters the city of Norwich and there is another poem by Webb - this time Derelict Church - about St Edmund's on Fishergate - which refers to it: 'Over the river's dank effluvia/Hang like launches the oozing sunsets, palls/Of light close dully.'

The Wensum also features in George Borrow's Lavengro. Borrow grew up in the city - living with his parents at a house on Willow Lane and attended the Norwich School in the Cathedral Close.
 

'At the foot of the heights flows a narrow and deep river, with an antique bridge communicating with a long and narrow suburb, flanked on either side by rich meadows of the brightest green'


View from Fye Bridge Norwich

Quayside Norwich

The 'antique bridge' that he mentions is Bishop Bridge. Another writer with a connection to the river was Borrow's German master William Taylor (1765-1836). Taylor used to take a swim in the river every afternoon before going out drinking in the evening.

During World War II the poet Alan Hunter (who later successfully turned his hand to detective fiction in the form of the Inspector Gently novels) published a collection of poetry called Norwich Poems. In Evening in Norwich there is a charming section about the Wensum:
 

Of byegone days, perhaps I sense 'um
Best when looking in the Wensum,
Passing slow beneath the high-ridge
And dormered parapet of Fye-bridge,
Counting stars a-ripple softly
Fathoms deep and fathoms lofty, -
Older than the bridge its ditty,
Older than the ancient city,
Older than the roadman Roman
And Boadicea's painted bowman;
"And yet," the river seems to say,
"I might have first flowed yesterday, -
I shadow not the age untold,
Forever young, forever old;
I seem to only know one race
With all of history in my face."

From September 2003 to June 2004 I kept a haiku diary about the Wensum - recording daily impressions of the river between Whitefriars Bridge and Bishops Bridge in Norwich. Here are a few of the poems:
 
Electric - blue - shock
Flying at full pelt, parting
The ordinary.

Today your iron-
Grey surface barely reflects
The iron-grey sky.

Summer heat, and the
Crane's concrete counter balance
Wobbles in your glass.

One foot above you,
The kingfisher's firework
Flashes and is gone.

Read complete sequence


Cow Tower, Norwich

Cow Tower Norwich


At Trowse - just south-east of Norwich - the Wensum merges with the smaller River Yare and (rarely unfairly) loses its identity for good.


Links:

More River Wensum Photographs

 

 

 
 

 

 

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