River Waveney

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The Waveney at Beccles Quay

The Waveney is a river which forms the border between the two counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. It is 59 miles long, flowing eastwards for its whole course, and for much of its length within the Broads.

The Waveney rises in the Little Fen east of Thelnetham and north of Redgrave, Suffolk, within feet of the source of the Little Ouse, but while the Little Ouse flows due west, the Waveney flows due east to the North Sea, and the two together, with barely a gap between their heads, form the whole border between Norfolk and Suffolk, and the Waveney concludes this border as it enters the sea between Great Yarmouth and Gorleston-on-Sea.

There was a special version of the Norfolk wherry in use on the Waveney, with boats measuring no more than 70 feet by 16 feet. There were also steam wherries.


The source of the River Waveney is in the Little Fen, beside the B1113 road between the villages of Redgrave, Suffolk and South Lopham, Norfolk. The road parts the heads of the Waveney and the Little Ouse, the latter river bearing the county boundary westwards (and its waters, by way of the Great Ouse, to the Wash at King's Lynn) while the River Waveney is eastbound. The geologists' explanation of this oddity is that the valley of these rivers was formed not by their waters but by spillwater surging out of a vast Ice Age lake covering the Great Fen.

The river rises at about 82 feet above sea level and flows in an easterly direction. At Scole the Waveney is crossed by the course of a Roman road, with the modern A140 bypass just to the east. There is a weir at Billingford, and Billingford Windmill stands a little to the north of the river. Beyond Billingford Bridge the River Dove, flowing northwards from Eye, joins on the southern bank, the Mid Suffolk Footpath crosses, where the river is at about 66 feet above sea level, at another weir. It turns to the north-east to reach Brockdish and Needham before passing to the south of Harleston. There are several lakes on the south bank, the largest covering 100 acres, which were once Weybread Gravel Pits, but are now used for fishing.[1]

Below the lakes are the remains of a Cluniac Priory and the extensive drained area of Mendham Marshes. Mendham which was the birthplace of the artist Alfred Munnings lies on the Suffolk bank, Wortwell is in Norfolk, and Homersfield is again in Suffolk. In 1869, one of the first bridges to be constructed from concrete and iron was built across the river here. It was commissioned by Sir Shafto Adair, had a span of 50 ft, and predated the introduction of true reinforced concrete by several years. It is now the oldest bridge in England constructed from concrete,[2] and is a Grade-II listed structure. Road traffic was diverted onto a new bridge in 1970, and it was acquired by Norfolk County Council in 1994. They passed it on to the Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust, who managed its restoration in 1995, which was funded by grants from English Heritage, Blue Circle Industries and various local councils.[3] At Earsham the Otter Trust had one of its three UK centres, which opened in 1978 and closed in 2006, having successfully boosted otter numbers on the river.[4]

At Bungay, the historic head of navigation, the Waveney forms a wide oxbow meander in which the town sits; this defensive position inspired the building of Bungay Castle.

Next come Ditchingham, Broome and Ellingham before Geldeston, where an isolated pub stands next to the remains of a derelict lock and a dyke that leads to the village.[5] This is the current limit of navigation.

The Waveney at Beccles

Gillingham lies below Geldeston, then below this the river becomes tidal. It gathers waters at Beccles, as it enters the Broads. Although the old town bridge there restricts navigation to craft with an airdraft of less than 6½ feet, its quay beyond that abruptly changes the nature of the river from a gentle rural feature to a gateway to the North Sea. Beccles was a fishing port for many years, and the parents of Horatio Nelson were married in the church of St Michael.[6] The river then meanders past Barnby Broad and Marshes SSSI and Burgh St Peter, where, almost at the sea, it swings north towards Somerleyton.

As the river turns northward, Oulton Dyke branches off the Waveney and through Oulton Broad, Suffolk, towards Lowestoft. A lock, dividing fresh from seawater, links Oulton Broad with Lake Lothing and the North Sea.

The Waveney continues to flow northwards past Somerleyton (where the Lowestoft to Norwich railway line crosses the Waveney on a swing bridge)[6] and at St Olaves, the Haddiscoe Cut branches off left to connect the Rivers Yare and Waveney. The Cut was excavated in the 19th century to provide a direct route between Lowestoft Docks and Norwich.[7]

Finally the Waveney flows past Burgh Castle opening into the vast Breydon Water at the meeting of the two rivers Waveney and Yare. It now forms part of the River Yare. Breydon Water, essentially a tidal estuary, extends north-east for some miles until suddenly closing and reforming the Yare to flow out to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth.

Defoe on the Waveney

Daniel Defoe enlivens this account of the Waveney's Broads course:

The River Waveney is a considerable river, and of a deep and full channel, navigable for large barges as high as Beccles; it runs for a course of about fifty miles, between the two counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, as a boundary to both; and pushing on, tho' with a gentle stream, towards the sea, no one would doubt, but, that when they see the river growing broader and deeper, and going directly towards the sea, even to the edge of the beach; that is to say, within a mile of the main ocean; no stranger, I say, but would expect to see its entrance into the sea at that place, and a noble harbour for ships at the mouth of it; when on a sudden, the land rising high by the sea-side, crosses the head of the river, like a dam, checks the whole course of it, and it returns, bending its course west, for two miles, or thereabouts; and then turning north, thro' another long course of meadows (joining to those just now mention'd) seeks out the River Yare, that it may join its water with hers, and find their way to the sea together.

He continues:

Some of our historians tell a long fabulous story of this river's being once open, and a famous harbour for ships belonging to the town of Leostof adjoining; But that the town of Yarmouth envying the prosperity of the said town of Leostof , made war upon them; and that after many bloody battles, as well by sea as by land, they came at last to a decisive action at sea with their respective fleets, and the victory fell to the Yarmouth men, the Leostof fleet being overthrown and utterly destroyed; and that upon this victory, the Yarmouth men either actually did stop up the mouth of the said river, or oblig'd the vanquished Leostof men to do it themselves, and bound them never to attempt to open it again. I believe my share of this story, and I recommend no more of it to the reader; adding, that I see no authority for the relation, neither do the relators agree either in the time of it, or in the particulars of the fact; that is to say, in whose reign, or under what government all this happened; in what year, and the like: So I satisfy my self with transcribing the matter of fact, and then leave it as I find it.[8]


The River Waverney was improved for navigation under an Act of Parliament obtained in 1670, which empowered five traders from Bungay and one from Downham Market to carry out the work. This included the construction of three locks, at Geldeston, Ellingham and Wainford, to extend navigation as far as Bungay Staithe. The navigation remained in private hands, and was not under the control of the Yarmouth Commissioners, who were responsible for the lower river. A second Act obtained in 1772 ensured that Suffolk magistrates received a 5 per cent share of all tolls obtained from the carriage of coal, with which to maintain the Waveney. Ownership was in the hands of a merchant from Bungay at the end of the eighteenth century, and was later bought by William Butcher. When St Olave's bridge needed to be rebuilt in 1847, he explained that although he owned it, he had let out the collection of tolls, and such matters were dealt with by the judges at Bury St Edmunds Assizes. In 1848, he attempted to set up the Bumgay Navigation Tontine Co., which would buy the rights to levy tolls and trade on the river, using a tontine, but the scheme failed to attract sufficient investors to become viable. In 1889 ownership was transferred to W D Walker of Bungay, who was a merchant and maltster. The firm was the first owner of a wherry called Albion, now owned by the Norfolk Wherry Trust. From 1919 to 1934, Watney, Combe, Reid and Co controlled the navigation.[7] The short section of the river from Haddiscoe to Burgh Ferry was part of a grand scheme to link Norwich to the sea at Lowestoft. The scheme originated in 1818, but was opposed by the merchants of Yarmouth, and it was not until 28 May 1827 that an Act of Parliament authorised the Norwich and Lowestoft Navigation Company, giving then powers to raise £100,000, with an additional £50,000 if required. From Burgh Ferry, boats would use a widened Oulton Dyke to reach Oulton Broad, and a new sea lock would be constructed to link the broad to Lake Lothing. This had four sets of gates, so that it could be used at all states of the tide, was capable of holding vessels which were 150 feet by 50 feet, and used a system of sluices to enable the channel through Lake Lothing to be flushed with water from Oulton Broad. Completed in 1829, it was demonstrated in 1831, and although four operations of the sluices were estimated to have removed 10,000 tons of gravel and shingle out to sea, its subsequent operation was not as effective.[9]

In the other direction, construction of Haddiscoe Cut began, to link the river at Haddiscoe to the River Yare at Reedham, enabling vessels from Norwich to bypass Yarmouth. With funds running low, a decision was taken to borrow the additional £50,000 which the enabling Act allowed, and so a request was made to the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission for this amount. Work was completed on the cut and the upgrading of the river to Norwich, and the formal opening took place on 30 September 1833.[10] The venture was a commercial failure, as development of Norwich as a port did not occur, and Lowestoft harbour was subject to silting.[11] With income failing to match expenditure, the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission could not be repaid, so they took over the navigation in 1842, and sold it to the railway contractor Sir Samuel Morton Peto.[12]

With the decline in the use of wherries for commercial trade on the rivers prior to the Second World War, navigation ceased on several stretches of the Broads, including the 4.2-mile section of the river from Geldeston Lock to Bungay, where navigation rights were removed in 1934. Wainford and Ellingham locks have since been converted into sluices, but the Environment Agency has negotiated with local landowners to allow the use of this section by canoes and unpowered craft. To aid this, it has improved the facilities for portaging boats at the locks.[6]

Mutford lock links Oulton Broad to Lake Lothing, and is the only working lock on the whole of the Broads. Two swing bridges carry the Lowestoft to Ipswich railway line and the A12 road over the cut to the east of the lock. The lock was refurbished in 1992, and was managed by the local councilm though it may be transferred to the Broads Authority, who manage the rest of the Broads.[13]


In common with most of the rivers of Suffolk and Norfolk, the Waveney is relatively flat, falling around 67 feet on the section between Hoxne Mill, near to its junction with the River Dove, and Beccles Bridge, where the river is tidal. These points are 25 miles apart, giving an average fall of 1 in 1,970. Despite these factors, the river has powered at least 15 mills, evidence for some of which indicates that the river has been used for this purpose for over 900 years. Most milled corn for flour or animal feed, but some were used for other purposes. Of those that remain, all are in private ownership.[14]

Scole Flax Mill: furthest upstream and not a watermill but steam-driven, built by C F Costerton in 1854 to alleviate poverty during the agricultural depressions of the 1840s, milling flax for his factory in Eye. He presented a cup each year to the farmer who had produced the highest yield of flax on 3 acres of land. Closed in 1881 and the buildings demolished.[15]

Hoxne: the highest watermill. The present building was erected in 1846, replacing a mill built in 1749 and earlier mills I succession: two mills are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Closed in 1968 and both the mill and the adjacent house are Grade II listed.[16]

Syleham Mill, first mentioned in 1020. The final mill on the site was built after 1779, with six sets of stones and two wheels, powered by a 6-foot fall in the river. In 1849, Henry Warne used the mill to drive looms to weave drabbet. Destroyed by fire in 1928. The adjacent factory, rebuilt, closed in 1989.

Luck's Mill: very little is known but it is shown on Kirby's map of 1736 and was demolished in the 1880s or 1890s.[17]

Needham Mill was owned by Sibson Abbey until the Dissolution. Sold in 1611. Named from Needham, Norfolk but on the Suffolk side of the river in the parish of Weybread. Closed and sold in 1934 and converted into a house in 1971.

Mendham Mill (listed in the Domesday Book), the present building built in 1807 and extended in 1871 with a supplemental 25 hp grasshopper beam engine until 1923 when the engine was replaced; it had been driven and maintained for over 50 years by Jimmy Souter and during this time it never broke down. Souter died once it was dismantled. Part of the building converted into a house in 1938. The mill closed in 1949. Mill and house are Grade II listed.[18]

Limbourne Mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book and owned by the Benedictine Nunnery at Bungay. Closed at some time after 1933, and was unused by 1949. Some of the original machinery survives, and the mill is Grade II listed.[19]

Homersfield Mill, attested in 1086 and by documents from every century from the fourteenth onwards. The river bank by the weir collapsed in the early 1920s and the mill and cottage deteriorated: demolished in 1927.[20]

Pictures at bridges

Outside links


  1. "Weybread Pits". Fishkeep. http://fishkeep.net/reviews/venues/coarse/232-weybread-pits. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 
  2. Engineering Timelines, Homersfield Bridge, accessed 12 July 2009
  3. Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust, Homersfield Bridge, accessed 12 July 2009
  4. "The Otter Trust". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/suffolk/content/image_galleries/otter_trust_bungay_gallery.shtml. Retrieved 2012-08-27. 
  5. Ordnance Survey 2011, 1:25,000 map, Sheet OL40
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Cumberlidge 2009, p. 221
  7. 7.0 7.1 Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 111–112
  8. Daniel Defoe's Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1726 (Letter 1, Part III) (ca 1724), accessible via "Vision of Britain" site: [1].
  9. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 113–117
  10. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 117–118
  11. Cumberlidge 2009, p. 205
  12. Boyes & Russell 1977, pp. 119–120
  13. Cumberlidge 2009, p. 220
  14. Pluck 1994, pp. 2–3,15
  15. Pluck 1994, pp. 36–37
  16. Pluck 1994, pp. 39–45
  17. Pluck 1994, pp. 54–55
  18. Pluck 1994, pp. 77–81
  19. Pluck 1994, pp. 85–89
  20. Pluck 1994, pp. 91–95


  • Blair, Andrew Hunter (2006). The River Great Ouse and tributaries. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-0-85288-943-5. 
  • Boyes, John; Russell, Ronald (1977). The Canals of Eastern England. David and Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3. 
  • Cumberlidge, Jane (2009). Inland Waterways of Great Britain (8th Ed.). Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3. 
  • Pluck, Douglas F (1994). The River Waveney, Its Watermills and Navigation. Bungay, Suffolk: Morrow. ISBN 0-948903-13-9.