Upstream from Brandon Creek
Some day, I plan to explore the Little Ouse.
The river is navigable for a bit less than seventeen miles, upstream from its outflow into the Great Ouse at Brandon Creek to a point near the village of Santon Downham.
The outflow has a complex history. The Little Ouse used to go all the way to Wisbech (the town’s name means Ouse beach). As that channel silted up in the Middle Ages, a new channel was dug to divert the Little Ouse to King’s Lynn. Kenneth Penn, in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, dates this engineering work to around 1100 and places it among the church power struggles of the time. Five centuries later, similar work by the Dutch drainers working with Cornelius Vermuyden effectively turned this lower stretch of the Little Ouse into the lower stretch of the Great Ouse.
What is BPAW?
When I explore the Little Ouse, I will see the nature reserve at Lakenheath Fen. It is owned and operated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Google Maps appears to show another nature reserve nearby, with the legend BPAW. From consultation of two maps in a phone conversation with helpful staff at the RSPB reserve, I know that this is on their patch — but what is BPAW? I am racing Facebook and Twitter with this question. The consensus of guesses, from them, me, and a birder kinsman, is that there’s some connection with ancient woodland. Will we have found definitive information by the time this article appears?
When I explore the Little Ouse, I will probably be singing hymn tunes. Three places along the river – Rushford, Thetford, and Brandon – have names corresponding to entries in Hymnary. I have yet to find out whether the tunes with those names actually have stories connecting them to these places in East Anglia.
When I explore the Little Ouse, I will not be able to get a boat as far upstream as Thetford. But, however I reach Thetford, I will certainly look around.
Things my wife and I missed when we passed through the town on a recent bike tour, include the Charles Burrell Museum, devoted to steam and traction engines; the Dad’s Army Museum (the sitcom’s exterior scenes were filmed in the Thetford area); the complicated network of watercourses where the River Thet flows into the Little Ouse; the ruins of the 12th-century Thetford Priory; and the Castle Mound.
This last dates from Thetford’s time as the second largest town in East Anglia. You may have read Peter Thurlow’s more up-to-date view of the town and its relations with the woman who is its MP (and the country’s Prime Minister) at the time of writing.
When I explore the Little Ouse, I will find another nature reserve above Thetford: Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Knettishall Heath. This place is duly proud of its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and urges its visitors to be careful: to keep dogs on leads, not approach the livestock, and not use drones without permission. The livestock includes ponies.
When I explore the Little Ouse, I will probably not find Thelnetham Windmill open. It lets the public in on Easter Monday; the Sunday of the late May and August bank holidays; the first Sunday in July, August and September; other times by prior arrangement. The mill first ran on Christmas Day 1819. A century later, it was falling into neglect. Half a century again, and what was left of it was purchased by mill enthusiasts who, in eight years, restored it to working order. They’ve kept it going since 1987.
Thelnetham Windmill hosts classic car meets. I’ve known of other restored mills that do this. Do mill enthusiasts wish that they could similarly take their mills around the country for gatherings of this kind?
Little Ouse Headwaters Project
When I explore the Little Ouse, I will make contact with the Little Ouse Headwaters Project (LOHP), for whom Thelnetham Windmill is home. They manage a number of sites around the village. One of them is another Site of Special Scientific Interest: Blo’Norton Fen.
Blo’Norton is a village whose name derives from Belle Eau, a compliment to the river. The fen owes its interest to water, too. Its wetness historically made it useless for agriculture, and in consequence, it was designated a site where the poor could gather winter fuel. As that activity ceased, the wetland vegetation and fauna came to be more noticed for their own sake. Since 1998, the LOHP and a predecessor organisation have been working to preserve them despite the diminution of the water. They have made paths and bridges for walkers to explore and roam and record the flora and fauna of the area, especially around Blo’Norton.
The Waveney and beyond
When I explore the Little Ouse, I’ll trace it back to where it diverges from the River Waveney. Both, for much of their length, follow the border between Norfolk and Suffolk: the Little Ouse westward from the divide, the Waveney eastward, to flow into the Yare at Breydon Water, just inland from Yarmouth.
The actual source of the Little Ouse is somewhere among these headwaters, above the point where the two rivers diverge. When I explore the river, I will find out what consensus there is for the location of its source, and stop there.