River Wensum

The River Wensum is a chalk river[1] in Norfolk, England and a tributary of the River Yare,[2] despite being the larger of the two rivers. The river is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest[3][4] and Special Area of Conservation.[5][6]

The River Wensum in Norwich
Location of the river mouth within Norfolk
TownsSculthorpe, Fakenham, North Elmham, Lenwade, Norwich
Physical characteristics
  locationWhissonsett, Norfolk
  coordinates52.7917°N 0.8464°E / 52.7917; 0.8464
MouthRiver Yare
Whitlingham, Norwich
52.6213°N 1.3230°E / 52.6213; 1.3230
  locationCostessey Mill
  average4.05 m3/s (143 cu ft/s)
  minimum0.36 m3/s (13 cu ft/s)6 August 1991
  maximum34.0 m3/s (1,200 cu ft/s)29 January 1984
  locationSwanton Morley
  average2.76 m3/s (97 cu ft/s)
  average0.87 m3/s (31 cu ft/s)
Basin features
  leftRiver Tat, River Ainse (or Eyn)
  rightRiver Tud

The Wensum is the principal river on which the city of Norwich was founded.[7] The river passes Carrow Road, the home of Norwich City F.C.; one end of the ground was originally named The River End in its honour, a name that still persists among fans.[8]


The river receives its name from the Old English adjective wandsum or wendsum, meaning "winding".[9]


The river viewed from Marriott's Way, Costessey
Carrow Road, viewed from the river
Boys bathing on the River Wensum by John Crome

Modern Ordnance Survey Maps list the source of the Wensum as lying between the villages of Colkirk and Whissonsett in northwest Norfolk.[10] The reasoning behind this claim is unknown given that other tributaries are further from the mouth; pre-modern maps and other written sources refer to the source to be in West Rudham[11][12] from springs arising on the aptly named Wensum Farm. From the source the river flows close to the villages of South Raynham, West Raynham and East Raynham, passing Raynham Hall, home of the Marquis Townshend. The Wensum then turns and flows north through a number of small villages until it reaches Sculthorpe, where it turns east through the market town of Fakenham.[10] The river then flows in a southeasterly direction through the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve and the village of Great Ryburgh.

The Wensum continues through or close to the villages of Guist, North Elmham, Worthing, Swanton Morley, Lyng, Lenwade and Taverham before entering the City of Norwich from the north-west via Drayton, Costessey and Hellesdon. At New Mills Yard, a former waterworks, the river becomes tidal and navigable by boat. Flowing through the city, the river forms a broad arc which would have influenced the site of the settlement for defensive reasons; remnants of boom towers can be seen near Wensum Park and Carrow Hill which formed part of the city wall and a large defensive tower can be seen on the bank near Barrack Street, called Cow Tower. This dates to the 12th century and was also used for collecting tolls.[13] Evidence of the river's historical use as a means of transport for goods and trade from the continent is still visible: mills, quays and industrial remnants can be found near the station and along King Street, and a slipway at Pulls Ferry marks the start of a canal originally used to transport stone from Caen in Normandy, in the 13th Century, to build Norwich Cathedral. This site was also a public house and used as a River Ferry until the 1950s.

The Wensum flows past Carrow Road football ground and then out of the city via Trowse to Whitlingham and its confluence with the River Yare. The Wensum is navigable from New Mills Yard in the centre of Norwich.


  • River Tat. Rises on Syderstone Common and merges with the Wensum west of Fakenham
  • River Tud. Rises a little south of East Dereham and merges with the Wensum just below Hellesdon mill.
  • River Ainse. Merges with the River Wensum at Lenwade.


Bintree Mill, 2005 (photo by Mark Boyer)
Lenwade mill
The river below Hellesdon mill

There were a succession of water mills on the Wensum, some of which are still standing and working. From the source these are

  • Sculthorpe Mill. The 18th century water mill which bridges the river was converted into a hotel and restaurant in 2003.[14]
  • Hempton Mill. The mill became derelict and was demolished in 1954 by the Drainage Board to improve control of the river levels.[15]
  • Fakenham Mill. The 18th Century water mill bridging the river was in use until 1979. It was converted into homes in 1982.[16]
  • Great Ryburgh Mill[17]
  • Guist Mill[18]
  • Bintry Mill ceased operation in 1980, but the building is still extant. It was used as the location for a film of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss in 1996.[19]
  • North Elmham Mill, known locally as Grint Mill, had two breastshot waterwheels until the early twentieth century when they were replaced by two turbines. By the 1970s the milling machinery was driven by mains electricity while the turbines were used to drive a sack hoist and two mixing machines. The mill continued to produce animal feed into the late twentieth century.[20]
  • Swanton Morley Mill was demolished in the 1840s.[21]
  • Elsing Mill ceased operation in 1970. The building is still extant.[22]
  • Lyng Mill was demolished in 1868.[23]
  • Lenwade Mill. The Grade II listed building was at risk in the 1990s, but was sympathetically converted into apartments in 2000.[24]
  • Taverham Mill. In the 19th century Taverham was a major producer of paper. Some of the paper which was produced at Taverham Mill was used in producing The Times and the Oxford English Dictionary. It also served the University Press at Cambridge. The paper mill closed in 1899.[25]
  • Costessey Mill was destroyed by a fire in 1924.[26]
  • Hellesdon Mill was demolished for building materials in 1920.[27]
  • Norwich New Mills. A corn mill was built in 1430 by public subscription. In 1710, it was rebuilt to grind corn and supply water to the city. In 1897, it became an air compressor station, with three electric and two water powered compressors. The compressed air was used to pump sewage out of the city. Operation ceased in 1972, when the only other Shone Ejector pumps in the country were those under the Houses of Parliament. Plans for it to become a working museum failed, but all the machinery is still intact. The sluice is now computer operated to control water levels.[28]

Other mills close on tributaries are

  • Great Witchingham Mill[29]
  • Gressenhall Mill[30]
  • Worthing Mill[31]
  • Felthorpe Mill[32]

River Wensum bridges

River Wensum
A1065 Bridge
River Tat
Sculthorpe Mill (extant)
A1065 Bridge
Site of Hempton Mill (d.1954)
Fakenham Mill (extant)
Site of Gt Ryburgh Mill (d.1925)
B1110 Bridge, Guist
Bintree Mill (extant)
North Elmham Mill (extant)
B1145 Bridge, Billingford
Site of Swanton Morley Mill (d.~1840)
B1147 Bridge, Swanton Morley
Elsing Mill (extant)
Site of Lyng Mill (d.1868)
Lenwade Mill (extant)
A1067 Bridge
River Ainse (or Eyn)
A1067 bridge, Attlebridge
Site of Tavenham Mill (d.1899)
Site of Costessey Mill (d.1924)
Site of Hellesdon Mill (d.1920)
River Tud
A140 Bridge
A1024 Bridge
A147 Barn Road Bridge
(Inner ring road)
New Mills Compressor Station
New Mill Yard Bridge
New Mills yard
Coslany Street Bridge
Duke Street Bridge
St Georges Bridge
Fye Bridge
Whitefriars Bridge
Jarrold Bridge
Bishopgate Bridge
Foundry Bridge, Norwich
Lady Julian Bridge
Novi Sad Friendship Bridge
A147 Carrow Bridge
(Inner ring road)
Junction with River Yare
River Yare

Bishops Bridge is one of five medieval bridges which span the River Wensum. Built in 1345 it formed part of the defensive structure along the river, with a gatehouse on the city side of bridge which was demolished in 1791. It is positioned on the site of a Roman Ford.

Jarrold Bridge is a footbridge linking the St James Place business park to Bishopgate.

Fye Bridge is arguably the oldest river crossing in Norwich and is the gate to the North of the City known as "Norwich Over the Water" this bridge was also the site of a cucking stool for ducking lawbreakers and undesirables.

Whitefriars Bridge Named after a former Carmelite (White Friars) monastery. The remains of which can still be seen in a small section of medieval wall and archway.

Foundry Bridge Near the railway station and the Yacht station on Riverside named after a foundry nearby, purported to have been built to take a railway line.

Lady Julian Bridge is a footbridge named after Julian of Norwich that links Riverside to King Street.

Carrow Bridge near Carrow Road football ground is a more recent cantilevered swing bridge, which can still be opened to allow large or high vessels through. It is positioned in close proximity to the Boom towers which originally had a chain suspended between them and would have been used as part of the city's defences and as a method of collecting tolls on goods travelling up river from Great Yarmouth.

Novi Sad Friendship Bridge is a cable stayed swing footbridge which spans the River Wensum in Norwich. The structure is named in recognition of the twinning ties between Norwich and Novi Sad in Serbia. The bridge was designed by Buro Happold and commissioned by Norfolk County Council.[33]

There are further bridges at Barn Road, Anchor Quay, Duke Street and St. Georges Street.


See also River Wensum SSSI

After many years of decline a survey was commissioned by Natural England in 2002. It showed that the ecological condition of the river had declined. The principal reasons for this were water quality and siltation. Water quality has been addressed and was improving, but the physical character of the river needs to be restored. In 2008, a partnership known as the River Wensum Restoration Strategy (RWRS) was formed between; Environment Agency; Water Management Alliance and Natural England[34] to restore the physical functioning of the Wensum. The 2002 report found that fourteen redundant water mills along the Wensum as having the most significant factor affecting morphology of the river channel, with 67% of the river backed up behind these structures. As a priority, the strategy recommended the lowering, removal or bypassing of these structures to allow more of the river to function naturally.[1] Since 2008, the (RWRS) has made several improvements to the river. The holistic whole river approach with co-operation from land owners, fisheries managers and other organisations has seen ongoing projects ranging from restoring gravel glides to removing silt.[34]

The Norfolk Anglers Conservation Association (NACA) carried out a successful river habitat restoration at their Sayers Meadow fishery at Lyng in the early 1980s.[35] After dredging and a major abstraction pipeline had a detrimental effect on the Costessey Point fishery, the association has taken action to restore this well known water. The ongoing work will be used as a blueprint for future river conservation projects.[36]

The Demonstration Test Catchment (DTC) project is a joint initiative between the Environment Agency, (Defra), and the Welsh Assembly Government working in three UK catchments; Hampshire Avon; River Eden, Cumbria; Wensum, Norfolk to evaluate the extent to which on-farm mitigation measures can cost-effectively reduce the impacts of diffuse water pollution on river ecology while still maintaining food production capacity (Wensum Alliance, 2014).[37]


Between 1940 and the 1970s the river had a national reputation as a roach fishery with specimens exceeding 3 pounds (1.4 kg) being reported.[38] As the river declined through the effects of abstraction, dredging and modern farming methods these fish largely died out.[1] After an earlier introduction of a small amount of barbel – a fish not thought to be indigenous to the Wensum – the local river authority stocked the Wensum with over 150 fish in 1971 below Costessey Mill.[38] and subsequently stocked more fish at suitable sections of the Upper Wensum.[35] The fish became established albeit in small numbers at a few favourable locations. Specimens in excess of 20 pounds (9.1 kg) have been caught.[39]

Today (2011), much of the Wensum's upper reaches are privately owned or controlled by syndicates. However, opportunities for individual anglers can be found and as the river passes through the City of Norwich free fishing is available where accessible.

See also


  1. River Wensum restoration strategy, Natural England Retrieved 21 March 2011
  2. "River Wensum". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Archived from the original on 17 November 2017.
  3. "Designated Sites View: River Wensum". Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Natural England. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  4. "Map of River Wensum". Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Natural England. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  5. "Designated Sites View: River Wensum". Special Areas of Conservation. Natural England. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
  6. River Wensum, Special area of conservation, Joint Nature Conservation Committee Retrieved 13 October 2008
  7. "Norwich". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Archived from the original on 10 July 2018.
  8. Cuffley, David (22 January 2011). "Boosting Norwich City crowd potential would turn back the clock". Norwich Evening News. Retrieved 11 June 2015.
  9. Ekwall, E., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names (1974), p. 496. ISBN 0-19-869103-3
  10. Ordnance Survey (2016). Sheet 132: North West Norfolk, King’s Lynn & Fakenham (Map). 1:50,000. Landranger. ISBN 9780319262306.
  11. "Historical Maps of Norfolk". www.historic-maps.norfolk.gov.uk. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  12. Mee, Arthur (1946). The King's England: Norfolk. Hodder & Stoughton.
  13. Cow Tower Archived 26 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 15 December 2010
  14. "Norfolk Mills - Sculthorpe watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  15. "Norfolk Mills - Hempton watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  16. "Norfolk Mills - Fakenham watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  17. "Norfolk Mills - Gt Ryburgh watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  18. "Norfolk Mills - Guist". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  19. "Norfolk Mills - Bintry watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  20. "Norfolk Mills - North Elmham watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  21. "Norfolk Mills - Swanton Morley watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  22. "Norfolk Mills - Elsing watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  23. "Norfolk Mills - Lyng watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  24. "Norfolk Mills - Lenwade watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  25. "Norfolk Mills - Taverham watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  26. "Norfolk Mills - Costessey watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  27. "Norfolk Mills - Hellesdon watermill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  28. "Norfolk Mills - New Mills". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  29. "Norfolk Mills - Great Witchingham Mill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  30. "Norfolk Mills - Gressenhall Mill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  31. "Norfolk Mills - Worthing Mill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  32. "Norfolk Mills - Felthorpe Mill". www.norfolkmills.co.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  33. Design of the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge – A Case Study, accessed 14 March 2010
  34. Environment Agency- River Wensum Restoration Strategy Retrieved 30 March 2011
  35. Norfolk Anglers Conservation Association, Sayers Meadow, NACA Retrieved 23 March 2011
  36. Costessey Point Retrieved 15 April 2011
  37. River Wensum DTC Retrieved 28 February 2014
  38. Wilson, J Where to Fish in Norfolk and Suffolk (1989) ISBN 0-7117-0183-0 p23, 132. Jarrolds Retrieved 22 March 2011
  39. Wensum barbel Retrieved 22 March 2011

Further reading

  • Where to Fish in Norfolk and Suffolk by John Wilson ISBN 0-7117-0183-0
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