'the loveliest of Norfolk's rivers' - John Wilson
(Angler, author and TV presenter)
The River Wensum takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon
word for 'winding' and begins its life near the village of
Raynham. From here it
flows northwards through Raynham Park which is the home
of Viscount Townshend - a descendent of 'Turnip'
Townsend - who wrote Horse Hoeing Husbandry.
River Wensum at
Just before Fakenham the river enters Sculthorpe Moor - a place that the writer Richard Mabey
visits in his moving autobiographical book Nature
Cure. The Moor, which is a nature reserve managed by
the Hawk and Owl Trust, borders the river. This is how
Mabey described the place:
more ancient and echoing than any wet place I'd seen.
Huge willows had collapsed like broken sheaves, arching
over the peat and here and there taking root at their
tips. Their branches were draped - upholstered almost -
with moss and lichen and epiphytic ferns. In danker
spots there were mounds of tussock sedge, iron-dark and
fusty, which in Norfolk were once cut to make fireside
seats and church kneelers.'
After Fakenham the river flows through another nature
reserve - this time Pensthorpe. Pensthorpe was created
from a series of flooded gravel pits and the Wensum
meanders through the heart of it. The river here is home
to the rare white clawed crayfish. Pensthorpe offers a
wide range of habitats and has recently provided the
location for the BBC's Springwatch programme -
which is presented by Kate Humble, Bill Oddie and Chris
Packham. It is owned by Deb and Bill Jordan -
the breakfast cereal moguls.
After Pensthorpe, the Wensum flows through Little and
Great Ryburgh and then heads south-east towards Guist.
Close to Guist, lies the beautiful Bintree Mill - which
was used by the BBC in its 1997 production of The
Mill on the Floss.
Further downstream, the river enters Parson Woodforde
country. In his diary entry for May 16th 1781, he
records the activities of a fishing party which took place at Lenwade and Morton.
Parson Woodforde lived at nearby
'Between 7 and 8 o'clock this morning went down to
the River a fishing with my Nets. Ben, Will, Jack, Harry
Dunnell and Willm Legate (Ben's Brother) were my
Fishermen. We begun at Lenewade Mill and fished down to
Morton. And we had the best day of Fishing we ever had.
We caught at one draught only ten Pails of Fish, Pike,
Trout and flat fish. The largest Fish we caught was a
Pike, which was a Yard long and weighed upwards of
thirteen pound after he was brought home.'
Another fisherman who loved the Wensum was John Wilson
(1943-2018) - who has caught many specimen chub and barbel -
particularly around Costessey (pronounced 'Cossey'). He described
the Wensum as: 'the loveliest of Norfolk's rivers'. John
lived at Great Witchingham (Lenwade) where he has his
own private lake. John was also the author of a
guidebook called Fresh and Saltwater Fishing in Norfolk
and Suffolk which was first published by Jarrold in
Costessey was also a location that was well
known to the Australian poet Francis Webb (1925-73).
Webb, who suffered from schizophrenia, was an in-patient
at the David Rice Hospital at
Drayton from 1956-60. While based at the David Rice,
Webb wrote many poems about Norfolk and the Wensum was
particularly a focus for him. In his poem
Gale Force he
describes, in marvellously descriptive language, a storm
over the Wensum valley: 'My hill is strung with your
vast breath and strain,/Coils of elation tumble down to
earth,/Green fills the mullions of a phantom
rain,/Eternal lightning heaves and travels forth.' In
another poem The
Horses we get an even closer appraisal of the
With the Wensum comes consecrated ordered Wish.
From weedy tenements the spying suburban fish.
Dace, roach, carp, dart or loiter with tingling gills
In subaqueous blackout, neon,
Discuss certain shadows, suns as wool or rayon,
Choose certain baits as tranquillisers, pills.
Plucked from his element, each convulsed dreamer beats
Agony for his city streets.
Eventually the Wensum enters the city of
Norwich and there is another
poem by Webb - this time
- about St Edmund's on Fishergate - which refers to it:
'Over the river's dank effluvia/Hang like launches the
oozing sunsets, palls/Of light close dully.'
Wensum also features in George Borrow's Lavengro.
Borrow grew up in the city - living with his parents at
a house on Willow Lane and attended the
in the Cathedral Close.
'At the foot of the heights flows a narrow and deep
river, with an antique bridge communicating with a long
and narrow suburb, flanked on either side by rich
meadows of the brightest green'
The 'antique bridge'
that he mentions is Bishop Bridge. Another writer with a
connection to the river was Borrow's German master
(1765-1836). Taylor used to take a swim in the river
every afternoon before going out drinking in the
During World War II the poet
Alan Hunter (who later successfully turned his hand to
detective fiction in the form of the Inspector Gently
novels) published a collection of poetry called
Norwich Poems. In Evening in Norwich there is
a charming section about the Wensum:
Of byegone days, perhaps I sense 'um
Best when looking in the Wensum,
Passing slow beneath the high-ridge
And dormered parapet of Fye-bridge,
Counting stars a-ripple softly
Fathoms deep and fathoms lofty, -
Older than the bridge its ditty,
Older than the ancient city,
Older than the roadman Roman
And Boadicea's painted bowman;
"And yet," the river seems to say,
"I might have first flowed yesterday, -
I shadow not the age untold,
Forever young, forever old;
I seem to only know one race
With all of history in my face."
From September 2003 to June 2004 I kept a haiku diary
about the Wensum - recording daily impressions
of the river between Whitefriars Bridge and
Bishops Bridge in Norwich. Here are a few of the poems:
Electric - blue - shock
Flying at full pelt, parting
Today your iron-
Grey surface barely reflects
The iron-grey sky.
Summer heat, and the
Crane's concrete counter balance
Wobbles in your glass.
One foot above you,
The kingfisher's firework
Flashes and is gone.
Cow Tower Norwich
At Trowse - just south-east of Norwich - the Wensum
merges with the smaller River Yare and
(rarely unfairly) loses its identity for good.
More River Wensum Photographs