There are 39 rivers in Norfolk. They range from the tiny, like the Hun, to the long, like the Wensum. One of the longest, and most important is the Bure, which rises as a chalk stream near Melton Constable, and after 80 km, joins the Yare and Waveney at Great Yarmouth, where it flows into the North Sea. With its seven tributaries, it drains most of North East Norfolk, and links 13 of the Norfolk Broads.
Historically, the Bure was a major commercial travel route. Before the coming of the railways, there were at least 27 wherries plying regularly between Great Yarmouth and Aylsham. However, the navigation was cut off at Coltishall when the great floods of 2012 destroyed locks and bridges. Since then, it has become the playground of pleasure boaters, canoeists, and anglers.
The river also plays an important, but negative, part in transport. In the 30 miles between Aylsham and Great Yarmouth, there are only four bridges, three of them narrow, severely restricting traffic between Norwich and the North East of the county.
However, the Bure still plays an important part in the economy of Norfolk, with tourism in Horning and Acle, and Wroxham, which is home to large boat hire companies and one of the biggest builders of oceangoing yachts. It has also featured in the writing of novelists and poets, notably John Betjeman, and Arthur Ramsome.
A rare habitat
Far upstream from Coltishall, however, the Bure is one of England’s rare chalk streams, and home to an internationally rare habitat. When healthy, they are some of our most beautiful rivers. Their crystal-clear water from underground chalk springs makes them the perfect source of clean water and ideal habitats in which wildlife can thrive.
The river touches on nine nature reserves and 28 sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). But like many rivers across England, it has suffered from human intervention. Channels have been straightened to improve drainage but with the result of increased flooding downstream. Weirs and barriers, built to control the flow and feed mills and navigation, have blocked fish migration routes. Water quality has been damaged by agricultural runoff, drainage from roads and towns, and over extraction of water for agricultural purposes. Invasive non-native species like Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed, Mink and American Signal Crayfish have been introduced, driving out native plants and animals and causing bank erosion. However, unlike many East Anglian rivers, it has not suffered from sewage overflow.
Riverlands: restoring the Bure
These problems are being tackled by the ambitious new “Riverlands” project, led by the National Trust. The upper Bure flows through two of the Trust’s estates: Blickling Hall, on the main river, and Felbrigg on its tributary, the Scarrow Beck; and the river has been chosen as one of the five English rivers in their £1.6 million restoration project, and the only one in East Anglia.
The project is bringing together over 200 farmers with landowners, environmentalists, anglers, walkers, and local communities, to restore 13 kilometres of the river and its surrounding floodplain and grasslands. Eleven kilometres of river bank are being planted and modified to reduce agricultural runoff, and slow the river flow. This will link the river to the floodplain and wet woodland, to encourage water voles, wildfowl and dragonflies, and provide spawning grounds for fish. The project is working with farmers to modify agricultural methods to reduce runoff. The community will have a chance to get involved through events, training, citizen science monitoring programmes, and collaborative approaches to interpretation. The Stream sleuths project is working with local fishing clubs to gather and analyse environmental DNA in water samples to understand aquatic life and factors which may be impeding their movement. Public access is also being improved with nine kilometres of new footpaths.
One feature of the project is the restoration of farmland ponds, whose clean freshwater environments provide homes for aquatic plants and wildlife, including invertebrates, amphibians, fish, mammals, and farmland birds.
Norfolk has the largest number of ponds of any English county. It still has over 23,000, but during the second world war, some 8,000 were filled in to increase food production. However, it is possible to see where most of them were from wet depressions and crop marks. When restored, these “ghost ponds” regenerate from long buried material. Riverlands is restoring six of these historic ponds and creating many more. The new ponds on the Felbrigg estate will be intensively studied, to understand the impact of such development on wildlife.
A good news story
At a time when the story of many East Anglian rivers is one of overextraction and pollution, the story of the Bure is a cheering one. It hopes to demonstrate that, by working with all the stakeholders, it is possible to restore a degraded environment. Riverlands will join up habitats, creating a more natural and healthy relationship between river and land: allowing water to flood and withdraw, animals and insects to move between river, woods and meadows, and fish to move up and downstream. It also aims to improve the quality of the water flowing down to the Bure Broads Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Perhaps Riverlands will help restore the river which John Betjeman wrote movingly about in his poem “Norfolk”:
There after supper lit by lantern light
Warm in the cabin I could lie secure
And hear against the polished sides at night
The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure,
A whispering and watery Norfolk sound
Telling of all the moonlit reeds around.