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The River Great Ouse

The Great Ouse river rises in Northamptonshire and then flows northwards - finally entering the North Sea at the Wash, close to King's Lynn. North of Cambridge, it merges with the River Cam and then, shortly after, is joined by the River Little Ouse at Brandon Creek; it is at this point that the Great Ouse flows into Norfolk. The river then flows through the heart of the Norfolk Fens.

River Great Ouse at King's Lynn

River Great Ouse at King's Lynn

Historically, the river was a major navigation route in East Anglia - one that was recognised by Daniel Defoe in his A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.

At Earith in Cambridgeshire the Great Ouse splits as it crosses the fens. Two man-made channels - the New Bedford River and the Old Bedford River - head north-east towards King's Lynn while the Ouse or Old West River heads eastwards and the north again to Ely. The two Bedford rivers were the result of drainage work carried out by the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden in the 17th Century - under the instruction of the Earl of Bedford. These helped to carry water more quickly to the North Sea and thereby contributed hugely to draining of the fens. At the time there was considerable opposition to this drainage work as it endangered the livelihood of fishermen and wild-fowlers. In the anonymous poem Powte's Complaint (a 'powte' being a sea-lamprey) - this opposition finds a voice.

The river plays a major part in Graham Swift's novel Waterland - as it is where Dick Crick (Tom's brother) worked on a dredging boat and also the place where he finally commits suicide. In the novel, the fictional River Leem - where Tom Crick lives with his father in a lock-keeper's cottage - flows into the Great Ouse.

The poet George MacBeth lived at Wiggenhall St. Mary Magdalen for a number of years and Dorothy L. Sayers set her mystery novel The Nine Tailors in the fenland around Upwell. The poet, Ada Cambridge, who later emigrated to Australia and found fame there as a writer grew up at Wiggenhall St. Germans.

In his swimmer's journey through Britain - Waterlog (1999) - Roger Deakin swam in the Great Ouse near Denver Sluice:

'Just downstream from Denver Sluice, a gigantic arrangement of lock gates that controls the main outlet of the Fen river system, I swam the Great Ouse, which runs out to the sea at King's Lynn. The river here is a hundred yards wide, and I crossed its deep, thick brown waters glancing nervously at an armada of swans bearing down on me from the massive green, steel hulk of Denver Sluice. I felt the depth and power of the river under me, and imagined it must feel something like this to swim the Ganges. The water was grained with silt, like an old photograph.'

After Downham Market the river flows on towards the historic town of King's Lynn. By this stage it is a huge expanse of water, providing deep-water passage for boats. Defoe had this to say about Lynn and its strategic location:
'It stands on more ground than the town of Yarmouth, and has I think parishes, yet I cannot allow that it has more people than Yarmouth, if so many. It is a beautiful well built, and well situated town, at the mouth of the River Ouse, and has this particular attending it, which gives it a vast advantage in trade; namely, that there is the greatest extent of inland navigation here, of any port in England, London excepted. The reason whereof is this, that there are more navigable rivers empty themselves here into the sea, including the Washes which are branches of the same port, than at any other mouth of waters in England, except the Thames and the Humber.'

King's Lynn is definitely one of Norfolk's best-kept secrets and well worth a visit.


More Great Ouse Photographs





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