Go with the flow in Norwich

Looking towards Carrow Bridge, by the old city wall and tower

Looking towards Carrow Bridge, by the old city wall and tower - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

Norwich’s river Wensum, has brought life, industry, trade and tourism to the city – and ideas are still flowing for future roles the river will play

WATER winds through the city. Today the River Wensum (the name itself comes from the Old English word wendsum, or winding) is both a beautiful feature of Norwich and at the heart of its past and future.

From the water-meadows of Hellesdon in the west, past the parks and the buildings associated with several centuries of industry, and on into the city centre, the Wensum embraces around some of the most historic and beautiful parts of Norwich.

But this is no heritage waterway bogged down in the past. Before joining, and being subsumed into the River Yare, just beyond the city boundaries, the Wensum flows by thriving new housing developments, pubs and restaurants, shops and nightlife – linked by new bridges and paths.

This summer, plans for the next phase in the long and winding life of Norwich’s river will be published. The River Wensum Strategy Partnership will set out some of the ways Norwich can make the most of its meandering waterway. Chairman Mike Stonard says: “We’re so lucky to have such a wonderful natural asset right in the heart of our city. Over the coming years, I hope we can make it easier for people to enjoy the river.”

Millennia ago the Wensum was the reason for the settlement which later became Norwich. The river could be forded here, and there was fertile soil and easy access to the sea, which then covered much of eastern Norfolk in estuarine inlets.

Later it became part of the defences of Norwich, and ruined towers still loom over the water. There are also historic mills, quays and warehouses, as well as the bridges which link both past and present, and the north and south sides of the city.

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The first settlement is believed to have been just north of the river in an area still known as Norwich Over The Water. Nearby, today, there is a particularly vibrant arts scene, centred on the Norwich University of the Arts and the Playhouse and it is a prime example of how riverside Norwich is continually reinvented.

Just downstream is Fye Bridge, thought to be the oldest river crossing in Norwich, and then Bishop Bridge where battles have been fought and the medieval stonework dates back 700 years.

At the other end of the spectrum are the modern footbridges – the curve of the Jarrold Bridge between Bishopgate and Barrack Street, the Lady Julian Bridge linking modern Riverside and ancient King Street, and the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge named in honour of the city’s Serbian twin.

Where once Vikings rowed up the river to burn, loot, and then settle, centuries later goods made in riverbank factories were shipped around the world.

Today the river is still a major influence on the growth of the city. Some of the newest, and most controversial, plans for development are close to the confluence of the Wensum and Yare, where a straw-burning energy plant plus new homes, student accommodation, an education centre and parkland is being debated for the Generation Park.

Former industrial land all along the river became new housing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including the huge Riverside development of residential, commercial, leisure and retail buildings between the railway station, football ground and Wensum.

Sometimes it is just the names which remain to remind us of the flow of history along the river (Maddermarket where the river once flowed red from the madder dyes of the textile industry; Friar’s Quay where there was a religious community and a busy port). Sometimes impressive buildings remain such as St James’ Mill, across the river from the law courts, which began as a textile mill and became a print-works and chocolate and cracker packing warehouse, before being converted into modern offices. More than 400 new riverside homes will be built just off one of Norwich’s oldest streets, at St Anne’s Wharf, King Street, over the next few years.

And back on the part of the shore where Norwich began, The Oasis is a Viking-themed park, complete with a labyrinth and timber play trail, new this spring. Where the children of tomorrow will play, remains of the wooden causeway which linked the main Viking settlement on the northern side of the Wensum with the growing settlement on the south side can occasionally be glimpsed.

From west to east and past to future, the Wensum winds and binds and defines Norwich.

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