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River Wissey

'a river so secret that even its name sounds like a whisper' - Roger Deakin

Just to the west of the village of Shipdham lies an important Norfolk watershed where three rivers: the Wissey, the Yare and the Tud all have their origins. The Yare heads eastwards, the Tud veers north-eastwards and the Wissey heads off, via some fish ponds near Manor Farm, towards the Fens.

River Wissey at Ickburgh

River Wissey at Ickburgh

Its first literary association lies in the village of Bradenham - just a mile or so from its source - where the river crosses a ford close to Bradenham Hall which was the birthplace of Sir Henry Rider Haggard and also provided the inspiration for Brandham Hall in L.P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between.

From here the river heads south-westerly passing through the villages of North and South Pickenham before entering the STANTA battle training area. In the Battle Area it is swollen by a stream from Thompson Water and Stanford Water - two of Breckland's pingo ponds which were formed by melting ice. Emerging from the Battle Area the Wissey passes close to Lynford Hall which was used by David Croft as a location for his sitcoms: Dad's Army, You Rang My Lord? and 'Allo 'Allo.

Lynford Hall

Lynford Hall

Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog (1999) swam in the River Wissey as part of his tour of Britain. He parked near Ickburgh bridge and the book provides a stunningly beautiful description of the river in summertime:

'It was full of fish and wild flowers, and, for all I knew, crayfish and naiads, wonderfully remote from any sort of civilisation. The banks were thick with purple water-mint, forget-me-not, hawkbit, and clouds of yellow brimstones and cabbage whites browsing on the purple loosestrife along the banks. The water was polished, deep green and gold, shining from its velvet bed of crowfoot and fine gravel; it seemed quite out of time, flowing as sweetly as the river in Millais' painting of the drowned Ophelia, decked with wild flowers.'

He swam to Didlington bridge - a mile downstream - and delighted in the sense of isolation and remoteness. In fact, Didlington is another of Norfolk's deserted villages.

Another superb description of the river is to be found in John Cowper Powys' novel A Glastonbury Romance (1932). The novel, which is widely regarded as Powys' best book begins in Norfolk (see Northwold) and concerns John Crow - who later moves to Glastonbury to work for the mystic John Geard. The book explores Arthurian grail legends. However, in one of the early chapters John takes a trip down the river with his cousin Mary - who he later marries. The writing is of extraordinary quality:

'Past deep, muddy estuaries the boat shot forward, where the marigolds grew so thick as to resemble heaps of scattered gold, flung out for largesse from some royal barge, past groups of tall lombardy poplars, their proud tops bowing gently away from the wind, past long-maned and long-tailed horses who rushed to look at them as they shot by, their liquid eyes filled with entranced curiosity, past little farm-houses with great, sloping red roofs, past massive cattle-sheds tiled with those large, curved, brick tiles so characteristic of East Anglia, past sunlit gaps in majestic woods through whose clearings tall, flint church towers could be seen in the far distance past huge black windmills, their great arms glittering in the sun as they turned, grinding white flour for the people of Norfolk.....'

Beyond Northwold, the river slips onto the flat fenland before eventually merging with the River Great Ouse. At one time, the Wissey went as far west as Wisbech (which took its name from the river) but over a period of  time the river altered its course. The early East Anglian tribe - the Wissa - may also have taken their name from the river.

Finally - the Wissey may also have been the model for the River Leem in Graham Swift's wonderful book about a fenland family Waterland. The Leem flows from the chalk hills of Norfolk and drops down onto the Fens before joining the Great Ouse - just like the Wissey.





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