The river Wensum gets its name from an ancient English word wendsum, which means ‘winding’, and that is what it does, snaking its way into the city centre through Drayton, Costessey and Hellesdon. Just below Hellesdon Mill, it is surprisingly picturesque for a suburb plagued by ribbon development; on a summers day kids swim there.
At Norwich New Mills – the name has historic significance but these days there is no mill and the only things new are houses – the Wensum becomes feebly tidal.
It then passes under numerous bridges through the oldest and most interesting parts of the city, with the Playhouse and the School of Art on its right, and The Mischief inn on the left. Soon we pass the various trappings of the Norfolk legal system, including the courts, the probation services, and the like (one wonders why places that require heavy security and car parking were built on such prime real estate) until we get wonderful views of Norwich Cathedral across the playing fields of that fine institution, Norwich School.
Soon we pass under Prince of Wales Road and the Premier Inn, the ugly apartment blocks built opposite the old Colman’s mustard factory and adjoining the Norwich City FC stadium, and on to Trowse, before the Wensum flows into the Yare at Whitlingham.
You may be surprised to know that the Wensum is a longer river than the Yare, better known because it is central to southern Broadland. The source of the Wensum is near Colkirk, south of Fakenham, and it flows westward into north-west Norfolk before winding its way back towards Norwich.
Outside the city of Norwich it is attractive, and well used by those who like to catch fish (and throw them back into the water), by walkers, and people messing about in boats. Artists come to paint stretches of the river, and old watermills. But in Norwich, its neglect by the City Council’s planners and its under-achieving councillors is evident for all to see.
The Wensum is navigable from its confluence with the Yare, and there is much to admire, but little opportunity to view it. You find Broads cruise boats up to Norwich station, but few holiday makers venture beyond it. You hardly see a boat in the most interesting stretches, not surprising because there are no commercial moorings worthy of the name, which probably explains why there are no tea or coffee cruises offering places to stop off.
Questions that need to be asked include:
Why is here no public towpath between Carrow Bridge and New Mills? There is a path alongside the Wensum in a few places, but it usually peters out after a hundred yards or so?
Why have councillors permitted property developers to put up apartment blocks and other property developments on the banks of the Wensum, without making provision for a footpath, as is the case in most civilised cities?
What steps has NorwichCity Council taken to persuade alehouses, wine bars and other attractions on or close to the Wensum to make them more river friendly?
What steps have been taken to make historic sites along the Wensum more accessible and better known? These would include the New Mills, for example, which are not so new, and go back to medieval times. Built to replace even older mills in 1430 they provided grinding facilities for all the city’s bakers. It later became a pumping station for the city’s sewerage. Now there is not much to show for it other than an overpriced hosing estate. Plans for a museum failed.
The Wensum was once an important economic asset for Norfolk, not just for its many mills but also for providing a transport artery from the Yare to much of Norfolk. Now it has silted up in places, and water quality has deteriorated. There have been several well-meaning efforts at restoration, but little has been done in Norwich, where private riverside developers hold sway.
I’m sure I am not alone in believing breathing new life to the Wensum in Norwich to be a worthwhile venture. I would like to hear your comments as to how this can be done.