The River Wensum rises at a spring between the villages of Colkirk and Whissonsett in North Norfolk and is thirty miles long before emptying into the River Yare, from which Great Yarmouth takes its name, before emptying into the North Sea.
The name Wensum comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for winding and aptly so, the river that winds its way through the Norfolk countryside.
Norwich itself is built on the river, once used as a source of defence, ancient towers and walls still crumbling along the banks from medieval times, the ‘Cow Tower’ is still an impressive 13th century monument built on one of the many twists and turns in the city center, have played a crucial role in Kett’s Rebellion.
Just around the corner is Pull’s Ferry, the 15th century water gate that was the main entry point for the limestone hauled into the city center to build the impressive cathedral that dominates Norwich’s skyline.
However, our journey takes us upriver, starting at the unassuming 500-year-old pub, the Gibraltar Gardens.
With a large car park, ask the owner nicely and come back for a beer after your trip and they can let you use the floating dock where they rent paddleboards to launch a kayak like I did.
Leaving with the spacious pub garden on your left and the pretty green space of Anderson’s Meadow on your right, it’s all upstream and you’re done.
Paddling under the Nelson Street Bridge, you’ll be paddling past the industrialized parts of Norwich that you can hear but can’t see clearly as the treeline cuts you off from the hustle and bustle of the built-up area.
This is clearly not a disturbance to the Mute Swans who were building nests when I passed by. The river runs alongside Marriott’s Way, a path that follows an abandoned track from Norwich to Aylsham, a route that will receive airtime for another day.
In a short time you pass the Mile Cross Marsh and the Wensum Local Nature Reserve, an Area of Special Scientific Interest due to the toads, voles and orchids that can be found there.
The flat, wet grassland is typical of what you will find if you decide to head towards the famous Norfolk Broads.
Paddling along Sycamore Crescent, towards Sweetbriar Bridge, homes overlooking the river, the gently sloping banks a popular place for locals during the summer months to seek shade under the leafy boughs that give the area its name, the river gentle and accessible for those brave enough to take the plunge.
Under the bridge and around the bend, the same gentle bank opens onto the garden of the closed Gatehouse pub, off Dereham Road.
The Grade II listed building has been converted into a pub from an old toll house and has been closed for some time since then. Very unfortunate given that there is a derelict wooden jetty, which if comparable to the area near the Gibraltar Gardens would entice rowers off the water for a drink, especially if they forgot their bottle of water, as I did did .
The river makes a sharp turn to the right and bends towards my neck of the woods in Hellesdon. Cows can be seen grazing in the pastures as the river makes its way to the Iron Bridge that carries Marriott’s Way across the river, one of three A-frame bridges in the County.
The river again runs a short distance along Marriott’s Way and passes under Hellesdon Bridge. Originally with a bridge built in 1556, the current bridge has been in place since 1819.
The image below shows a plaque marking the waterline of the flood level in August 1912, the corresponding image gives a visual aid of how high it reached under the bridge, at the same time reminding me which side of the river I should be on !
This is the first time the landscape really opens up on one side, as the wet meadows run between Marriott’s Way and the river itself. The crickets start chirping and the wind blows through the long grass and you are instantly transported to lazy summer days, even as the wind blows a chilly breeze off the river.
The Hellesdon Mill car park appears on the right, a meadow below which happens to be an excellent place for locals to walk their dogs. As I pass, a family launches magnets into the river to see what metal treasure-keepers they can find, though all I heard was bottle caps. Then comes the biggest challenge of the paddle.
The river splits in two, a bridge near the old mill causes a roadblock in the river. Dating back to 1042, the mill has since been rebuilt numerous times and burned down repeatedly. Today, flats occupy the Mill space, sharing their territory with kingfishers, gray wagtails and little egrets.
The installed lock that regulates the flow of the river is an obstacle, especially if you have a touring kayak like the I. But in the middle of the fork in the river you can cross further upstream and get back into the water.
I needed a trolley for this (thankfully I have a foldable one that I can store in a back compartment), but paddleboards and lighter kayaks will have a much easier time.
While I was figuring this out, two canoeists paddled next to me in a spacious canoe and we helped each other across. They were first in the water and when I finally sorted myself out they had gone into the distance.
The current certainly picks up past the mill and as you pass some lovely waterside gardens where lucky souls have set up gazebos and gazebos to while away the days you are sure to start feeling the fires in the arms.
Now you are in the countryside and the fields roll past as you come back along Marriotts Way. Bankside rope swings swing across the river, not just for summer use as I discovered, four youngsters launching themselves into the river despite the temperatures not being the hottest.
You then roll into Drayton Green Lanes, another nature reserve along the banks of the river, home to kingfishers and otters. Passing under another bridge on Marriotts Way you will arrive at the large village of Drayton. There is no place to moor here which is a real shame as the Red Lion pub is a short walk from the river and serves excellent food.
So for me that was enough adventure for one day and as the current was strong and I had left late I turned the kayak around safe in the knowledge that my journey back would be much shorter.
As I was dragging my kayak back into the water at Hellesdon Mill, a couple in an inflatable kayak came running past after paddling over the lock gate. I caught up with them downstream and they’d said it wasn’t too bad to cross but I’m not that brave and was happy to slog it across the fork in the river.
That afternoon I left at 12:45. At 3:37 p.m. I turned around at Drayton and returned to the Gibraltar Gardens at 5:09 p.m., the return journey being much easier on the poor. It’s that, or it was the promise of the cold pint of Guinness I bought on my return, the sun shining on the river and pub garden as the sound of the band escaped through the open pub doors.
Maybe next time I’ll start my journey in Drayton and head upstream towards Costessey and Taverham, through more scenic countryside, or maybe I’ll take on the urban riverine scenery through Norwich city center and towards Whitlingham Lake. The spring break is just around the corner!
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