Messing about on the river 1878 style

On Monday 26th August 1878 four friends, including the artist Ernest Arthur Freeman, set off from New Mills, Norwich on a five day canoe trip down the Yare and up the Waveney via the New Cut. The tourist industry on the Broads and rivers of Norfolk (and Suffolk) was in its infancy in the second half of the nineteenth century but was to develop rapidly with easier rail access.  They kept an informal log in a notebook which has survived but, unfortunately, the sketches they made along the way have not. Norwich Castle Museum, however, has three of Freeman’s watercolours (not from this trip) one of which is of New Mills painted in 1877.

The canoe as a leisure craft was introduced to Britain in 1858 by Scottish explorer John Macgregor after an expedition in North America and was still a notable sight. At Reedham many people turned out to watch their departure and the ‘young ones’ of family yacht party on the Waveney ‘scarcely knew what to make of the craft’. Even some of who worked on the river were unfamiliar with the canoe, as when they passed through Geldeston Lock ‘the lock keeper was evidently not in the habit of passing such craft…as he let in such a lot of water at first that our vessels became almost unmanageable, and we went spinning round and round with the whirling waters’.

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Sketch map of the route from Norwich to Earsham

Nothing was booked in advance and beds and food were found in the inns along the banks of the rivers, many of which still exist. On Monday they had beer and biscuits at the ‘famous Thorpe Gardens’ (now The Rushcutters at River Green in Norwich) and enjoyed a ‘substantial dinner’ (lunch) at The Woods End Inn at Bramerton. At 5pm they stopped at The Ferry House (now the Beauchamp Arms) at Buckenham for a ‘consultation’ and decided to press on to Cantley. Unfortunately, The Red House (now The Reedcutter) at Cantley was full so they took their bags and walked the mile to The Cock. On Tuesday they stopped at the The Nelson at Reedham for a bread and cheese lunch before pushing on to The Duke’s Head in Somerleyton where they stayed that night. The pub could offer beds but not dinner so, after changing, they caught the train to Lowestoft which is described as ‘a most enchanting spot’. The town was ‘full and the pier especially gay with the evening costumes of the highly respectable folks who throng this fashionable watering place’. They caught the last train back to Somerleyton at 9.20pm. At least one member of the party had done this trip before as when they decided to stop at The Duke’s Head he ‘took us up a creak where he had left his boat in the charge of the cottagers on a previous excursion’. The White Lion in Beccles, where they spent Wednesday night, is no longer an inn but the name can still be seen although painted over. They stayed both Thursday and Friday nights at the Fleece in Bungay. There is a large meander in the Waveney after Bungay which is not easily navigable and it took them five hours to reach Earsham. So, after much debate, the decision was taken to return to Bungay for their final night as the current would be with them. The journey back to Bungay was ‘most exciting’ and ‘excessively rapid’.

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Photograph of The Duke’s Head, Somerleyton ©A.Baker

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Photograph of the railway station, Somerleyton ©A.Baker

The boathouse at Bungay was just outside the station and they ‘chartered a covered truck’ which would be put on the goods train to Thorpe Station. On Saturday morning they loaded and packed the canoes onto the waggon themselves and then returned to the Fleece for lunch. After lunch they were apprehended by a local ‘antiquarian’ who insisted on showing them the ‘borough well’. He was a ‘maudle’ and kept them talking so long that they had to sprint for the train!

Their visit to Lowestoft was probably the highlight of the trip in terms of entertainment. Other diversions included a demonstration of two clockwork black dancing girls at The Cock in Cantley whilst at Beccles the Volunteer Artillery, headed by their band, marched down the street and were a ‘smart body of men, and their band was exceptionally good’. Thursday was market day at Bungay so the Fleece was unable to provide food until 6pm when ‘the market tea’ would be served. They sat down with fifteen or so farmers and ate ‘a rare good bit o’ beef’ carved by the chairman. It seems to have been a jolly affair. Other diversions included swimming in the river and a romp with the pub dog at Somerleyton.

They suffered the usual trials of holidaying in an English summer – wind and rain. They set off in ‘beautiful August sun’ on Monday but Tuesday saw rain just before Reedham and they got very wet despite having ‘rigged up’ the waterproofs. Wednesday was windy which made the water very rough but the canoes ‘floated over the waves’. Thursday was sunshine and showers but on Friday there was a severe storm – ‘doubtless that [which] touched nearly every part of England on that day and did much damage in London by flooding’.  They sheltered for an hour under some overhanging trees but the storm did not abate and they were ‘fully occupied in nailing the knee coverings to the deck as the high wind would have blown them away had they not been fastened; the sponges were …kept constantly on the go, sopping up the water on the coverings and thus helping to keep out the rain; we weathered the storm beautifully…the knee coverings kept out the water splendidly and our black waterproof capes kept our bodies dry’.

The equipment they carried included a paddle each and an iron spike with a ring to which was attached about 10 yards of cord which was used to tie up. Black, waterproof haversacks held clothes and whatever wouldn’t fit in these was in tins – sketching apparatus, novels, pen, ink, log book, writing paper (latter seldom used!). They also carried a ‘brandy flask’ which ‘was the only medicine chest’. They wore white jerseys or shirts with something else over the top if wet or cold and a straw hat or ‘cloth helmet’. A ‘wrapper’ was worn around the neck and shoulders to protect from sun and chilly breezes and ordinary trousers and shoes.

This trip preceded Jerome K. Jerome’s trip on the Thames by 10 years – all they were missing was the dog!

Compiled by Anne Baker, NRO Research Blogger.

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