Sloughbottom Park is a large park next to Mile Cross in Norwich and is home to several grass football pitches, a basketball court, a BMX track and a plethora of happy dog walkers. It also has a free car park and a half-mile flat, paved walk to the river from the car park.
It is for this reason Sloughbottom Park makes a really good start to a journey by kayak on the River Wensum. Going upstream takes you toward Hellesdon and downstream takes you through the heart of Norwich itself.
Entering the river is a little tricky here. There are no pontoons, however there is a bit of collapsed artificial river banking which has made a super convenient on-off point.
Once you are in, the current eases you along and you enter a very rural river despite being so close to the city. Swans, geese, ducks, dragonflies are all visible within moments and it’s hard to believe you are so close to the city.
It doesn’t last long, but it really does remind you how pretty the areas around Norwich are. You soon come upon Wensum Park, a lovely riverside park with a small pavilion and steps down into the river.
It’s a very popular park in good weather, children feeding the water fowl and flats overlook a wider stretch of the river bend.
Then the industrialisation really kicks in. The back of Oak Street sees scrap cars piled atop one another on the riverbank and builders hammering away at building a block of flats that will overlook the river.
A virtual reality gaming shop has a small pontoon available to stop at before crossing under the busy double bridges of St Crispin’s Road, one of which was built in 1882. Low enough that you can touch them as you pass under, the bridges mark the official arrival into the city.
It is only a short distance from the bridges that you come upon the only hurdle upon the route; the New Mills sluice gate. Having been mentioned as far back as the 12th century and having been rebuilt and repurposed many times, the New Mills sluice forms a barrier across the river to which boats and kayaks are unable to pass.
Fortunately, The Broads Authority completed a canoe portage in 2020 to enable river users’ easier passage around the sluice. However, it is still quite a challenging task as the portage is quite high; dragging a solid kayak or a paddleboard up can be quite tough.
I came well prepared with my collapsible trolley stowed in the back, and once I dragged the kayak up and out, I walked it across to the portage on the other side of the sluice.
Once you are back in the water, it is the last time you must leave your vessel between the city and the sea.
The high walls of the Riverside Walk enclose the river, tiny city gardens back against the brick work of the river. Old ladders drop to small boats that are tied up and await their summer use.
Passers-by look down into the river and despite not being the only paddler out on the day, people still wave or nod a greeting.
At the St. Miles Coslany Street bridge, markers appear to show the height of the devastating 1912 flood water, which cut Norwich off from the rest of the country for two days, as seven inches of rain fell within 24 hours in August.
The Bullards Brewery building hosts one such marker. The chimney, long since gone, the old Anchor Brewery is now a residential space, yet the gold lettering on the side of the building reminds those passing of its rich history.
The next landmark is the derelict Eastern Electricity Board’s office buildings that cut an imposing slab across the right-hand side of the river.
Architect Edward Boardman was responsible for designing the building, a flair that can be seen in his other Norwich designed building, the old Norwich and Norfolk hospital.
Another similarity can be found in that it is likely that the Duke Street EEB building will be turned into accommodation, reportedly built to serve residences to the Norwich University of the Arts which can be seen a short paddle from the building.
There is also an unusual warehouse located on the site. As part of an art project, the building has been covered in every word of Sir Thomas Moore’s ‘Utopia’ and can be seen from the road on Duke Street, as well as the river.
Passing under the bridge adjacent to NUA comes two potential rest areas. The first, on the left, is an old portage at the bottom of a set of stairs. As I passed, a pair of anglers were relaxing under the large willow tree.
On the right-hand side, the Ribs of Beef pub has an outstanding, recently refurbished terrace complete with an easily accessible pontoon. The only snag is that a local ‘Pub & Paddle’ company operate from here, making space a premium.
However, if you are looking to set off from the centre of the city and do not want to bring your own equipment, it’s a great place to hire paddle boards. As I had distance in mind, I passed by the terribly inviting pub and under the Fye Bridge.
Alongside the Scandinavian-looking Quayside, the river heads towards the Whitefriars bridge, where the local law courts can be found.
More residential areas are being built opposite, bringing much needed regeneration to another former industrial site. Cranes and scaffolding hang over the air of the river, something that may put some people off their paddle. However, it is exciting to see sites that have fallen into disrepair and overloaded with broken concrete and graffiti, be turned into dwellings that would showcase the exclusivity of the river.
Passing under Jarrold Bridge, a footbridge on the east side of the law courts, the river takes a more rural feel again, due to the proximity of the cathedral grounds.
The country’s last surviving Swan Pit can be seen on the cathedral side of the river. It is not much of a landmark and it’s a throwback to a rather medieval practise, but an interesting structure all the same.
A short distance away, on the same side of the river, the English Heritage, 1300’s artillery tower that is Cow Tower, holds a strategic position over a corner of the river. The parapets were damaged by artillery during Kett’s Rebellion and the tower was further damaged in the early 1900’s during “repair work”, however, the rare properties of having been built for gunpowder cannons and arrow slits for small guns and crossbows, mark this building as a sight worth seeing.
Paddling around the bend of the river on which it sits, lends an air of just how imposing the tower must have been, should you have thought of attacking the city.
The next section of the river encompasses Norwich in a nutshell. On the left-hand side, the noisy city traffic of the A147 provides a loud backdrop to some of the most scenic areas of the city centre on the right.
Passing under the only surviving medieval bridge in the city, the 1340’s Bishop Bridge is another reminder of the city’s rich heritage. Robert Kett’s men led an attack on the gatehouse and entered the city here during the rebellion. Nowadays, the Red Lion pub outdoor area guards of the oldest, still usable bridges in Britain.
The cathedral grounds roll in past the bridge, the spire only visible between the large, leafy trees which are a heritage in themselves.
Pull’s Ferry adjoins the river a little further down. This was the water gate for the cathedral and this 12th century flint building saw other iterations, such as having a wonderfully arched gatehouse built before becoming an inn and finally a privately owned residence.
The noise becomes louder, the boats become bigger and the river gets deeper as you head toward Foundry Bridge.
On the left, the very secluded Norwich Yacht Station is a very clean and tidy building, hidden from sight of the road. So hidden, that until I had kayaked past, I had not known of its existence, tucked beside one of the busiest streets in Norwich down a flight of stone stairs.
Opposite the station, the Complet Angler pub displays hanging flower decor from its below-street-level outdoor terrace. The only shame is that there was no real area to tie up and exit the kayak.
More water-hire options can be found on the Station-side of the river; TheCanoeMan Norwich offers a variety of different experiences, from kayaks and paddle boards, to overnight camping experiences on the water.
The staff on duty that day gave me a friendly wave as they looked up from their book on a quiet day. The train station building loomed over the bank as I made my way past, the clock tower visible even from my low view of the area, which I realised was actually more appreciative without being able to see much of the traffic darting around in front of it.
The next section of the river is very pedestrianised. Once home to Norwich’s ‘Riverside’ nightlife, most of the bars and clubs have given way to restaurants, a cinema complex and a bowling centre alongside residential buildings.
Two pedestrian swing bridges cross the river in order to link the area to the King Street, Lady Julian Bridge and the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge. Lady Julian wrote the earliest known book by a woman in the UK and Novi Sad is one of Norwich’s twinned cities in Serbia.
New blocks of residential buildings have gone up and this area of riverside has become a development hub over the last decade and more. All these brownfield sites were concrete graveyards, surrounded by a horrible blue plastic fence, so tidy residential areas are a welcome addition to the river.
Paddling my way along, the next section is Carrow Bridge, a lifting bridge, providing access for larger vessels to the city. Two old medieval boom towers straddle the river, part of the city’s old defences which a chain was able to be raised in defence of the city.
Fortunately, the way was clear and through the blocks of flats on my left-hand side, glimpses of Carrow Road and Norwich City Football Club could be seen.
As I began to leave the city behind, more derelict buildings appeared, scheduled to be turned into more residences.
The site used to be the old Colman’s Mustard factory, which on some days would shower the city with the smell of mint as they made mint sauce, has fallen into disrepair and is scheduled to become residential.
Further along, as you pass Norwich Yacht Club, you join the River Yare and Whitlingham Country Park appears on the right-hand side, a fantastic area to walk dogs and home to sailing clubs and a variety of water activities.
A campsite is also nearby and the cycling route through is particularly picturesque in the summer. As the river widens, an island appears on the left, the train tracks running a bridge from over one side, to over the other, with a boat company the only thing in between.
On the left-hand side is Thorpe St Andrew, a small town east of the centre of Norwich. Along the river bank, several licensed premises back their gardens onto the water, with the aptly named Rivergarden pub having a small floating pontoon on the water.
Deciding this was a good place to stop, I climbed out at last for some lunch and a Guinness. It was time to head back, my journey from Sloughbottom Park to Thorpe St Andrew being roughly 8km downstream and it took around two hours.
The return journey took around half an hour longer. However, this did include a stop for another beverage at the Ribs of Beef on the way back. Coming under Carrow Bridge, it was a nice to touch to see the ‘Fine City’ sign that encompasses most routes into the city.
What was even more special was what occurred as I was about ten minutes from the end of my journey.
As I sheltered beneath a large tree as the heavens decided to open, a dash of blue flew across my left-hand side ahead of me. As the rain eased off, I suspected what it was and tried to silently chase closer up the river. I desperately tried to take a photo of the Kingfisher that had flown up River alongside me but it proved elusive to my average camera. However, if you decide to take a kayak or paddle board out and follow in my wake, you may just see one too.
Or maybe an otter as they are known to enjoy the river around Duke Street, too.
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