kayak River Wensum

The River Wensum runs from a spring between the villages of Colkirk and Whissonsett in North Norfolk, is thirty miles long, before joining the River Yare, which gives Great Yarmouth it’s name, before heading out into the North Sea.

The name Wensum comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for winding and it is aptly so, the river bending 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 its banks from medieval times, the ‘Cow Tower’ still an impressive 1300’s monument built on one of its many curves in the city centre, having played a pivotal part in Kett’s Rebellion.

Just around the corner is Pull’s Ferry, the 15th century watergate that was the primary entry point for the limestone dragged inwards toward the city centre in order to build the impressive Cathedral that dominates Norwich’s skyline.

Social Wellness Walks
a kayak by the river wensum

However, our journey takes us upstream, beginning at the humble 500-year old public house, the Gibraltar Gardens.

With a large car park, ask the owner nicely and return for a beer after your journey and they may let you use the floating dock they provide paddle board hire from, to launch a kayak such as I did.

Setting off with the spacious pub garden on your left and the lovely city green space of Anderson’s Meadow on your right, it’s all upstream and away you go.

Passing under the Nelson Street bridge, you paddle past the industrialised parts of Norwich which you can hear, but not clearly see as the tree line excludes you from the hustle and bustle of the built up areas.

Clearly this is no disturbance to the Mute Swans that could be seen building nests as I passed by. The River runs adjacent to Marriott’s Way, a path that follows an abandoned rail track from Norwich to Aylsham, a route that will be given air time another day.

swans on the river wensum

In a short space of time, you pass by the Mile Cross Marsh and the Wensum Local Nature Reserve, an area of Special Scientific Interest due to the toads, water voles and orchids that can be found within.

The flat, wet grassland typifies what you will find should you decide to head towards the famous Norfolk Broads. 

Paddling alongside Sycamore Crescent, towards the Sweetbriar Bridge, houses overlook the River, the gentle sloping banks a popular place for local residents during the summer months to seek shade beneath the leafy boughs that give the area its name, the River gentle and accessible for those brave enough to take a dip.

Under the bridge and around the bend, the same gentle bank opens up onto the garden of the closed Gatehouse pub, off Dereham Road.

gatehouse pub from the river wensum

The Grade-II listed building was converted into a pub from an old toll house, and has since been closed for some time. Very much a shame, considering there is a dilapidated wooden docking area, that if it was comparable to the area at the Gibraltar Gardens, would entice paddlers off the water for a beverage, particularly if they had forgotten their bottle of water such as I did. 

The river takes a sharp right turn as it’s bends towards my neck of the woods in Hellesdon. Cows can be seen grazing in the meadows as the river aims for the Iron Bridge that carries Marriott’s Way over the river, one of three A-frame bridges in the County.

Running alongside Marriott’s Way again for a short distance, the river passes under Hellesdon Bridge. Originally boasting a bridge from as early as 1556, the current bridge has been in place since 1819.

under the bridge

The image below shows a plaque marking the waterline of the flood level in August 1912, the corresponding image providing a visual aid of just how high it reached under the bridge, whilst providing me with a reminder of which side of the river I should be on!

Hellesdon bridge sign showing flood level on river wensum

This is the first time the landscape truly opens up on one side, as the wet meadows run between Marriott’s Way and the river itself. The crickets begin to chirp and the wind blows through the long grass and you are instantly transported to lazy summer days, even with the wind blowing a chilly breeze off the river.

The Hellesdon Mill car park appears on the right hand side, a meadow below it that happens to be an excellent spot for locals to exercise their dogs. As I pass through, a family is launching magnets into the river to see what metal treasurers they can find, although bottle caps was all I overheard. Then comes the largest challenge of the paddle. 

The river splits into two, a bridge at the old Mill causing a roadblock in the river. The Mill dates as far back as 1042, having been rebuilt numerous times since, having repeatedly burnt down. These days, flats occupy the Mill space, sharing their area with Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails and Little Egrets.

Hellesdon Mill on the river wensum

The installed sluice gate that controls the flow of the river provides an obstacle, particularly when you have a touring kayak such as I. However, in the middle of the split in the river, you can cross and re-enter the water further upstream.

This required a trolley for me (luckily I have a foldable one that I can store in a rear compartment), however, paddle boards and lighter kayaks will have a much easier time of it.

As I was figuring this out, two canoeists in a spacious canoe paddled up alongside me and we helped each other across. They were first in the water and as I finally sorted myself out, they had powered off into the distance.

arbours and summerhouses

The current definitely increases past the mill and as you pass some lovely waterside gardens where lucky souls have placed arbours and summerhouses to laze away the days, you certainly begin to feel the burn in the arms.

Now you are into the countryside and the fields roll past as you come up alongside Marriotts Way once more. Rope swings on the shore swing out over the river, not just for use in summer as I found out, four youths launching themselves into the river despite the temperatures not being the highest.

You then roll out into Drayton Green Lanes, another nature preserve along the banks of the river, home to kingfishers and otters. Passing under another bridge on Marriotts Way, you arrive at the large village of Drayton. There is no place to shore up here, which is a real shame as the Red Lion pub is a short walk away from the river and it does excellent food.

drayton on the river

So for me, that was enough of an adventure for one day and as the current was strong and I had set off late, I spun the kayak around, safe in the knowledge that my journey back would be much shorter.

As I dragged my kayak back into the water at Hellesdon Mill, a couple in an inflatable kayak came rushing past having paddled over the sluice gate. I caught up with them down river and they had said that it wasn’t too bad to pass over, however, I am not that brave and was happy to slog it over the split in the river.

I set off at 12:45 that afternoon. At 15:37, I turned around in Drayton and arrived back at the Gibraltar Gardens at 17:09, the return journey being much easier on the arms. It’s either that, or it was the promise of the cold pint of Guinness that I purchased upon my return, the sun beaming down on the river and the pub garden whilst the sound of the band escaped through the open pub doors.

Maybe next time I’ll begin my journey in Drayton and continue upriver towards Costessey and Taverham, passing through more scenic countryside, or maybe I’ll tackle the urban riverscape through Norwich city centre and out towards Whitlingham Lake. Half term is just around the corner!

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