Over the next 2 or 3 years it would appear that the navigation was fighting a losing battle
over the repayment of debts. Tolls were increased a number of times but profits were very small. By June 1763
most of the commissioners had given up the ghost and it was not possible to form a quorum for that month's
meeting. No further meetings were minuted.
Rev. Henry Spelman took over the running of the navigation. After struggling for a number of years to improve
matters - but failing - he decided it was time to complain.
Spelman petitioned against the original commissioners who had abandoned their positions and left a debt of over
£4,000. He said the commissioners had left the river in such a state that parts were completely useless and
only further borrowing of money could put matters right. An Act was authorised allowing the money to be raised
which allowed Spelman to put the river into a navigable condition.
The River Nar Navigation did fairly well once it began to be run properly. Coal, timber, corn and malt were
among the main cargoes, with Narborough being the main port. During this year a new Act was passed allowing
drainage improvements to be made in the local parishes. The Act included provisions for widening and deepening
the navigation, creating new straight-cuts and repairing staunch gates with Oak, replacing the existing Fir
gates. Charles Burcham, "civil engineer and land surveyor" drew up the plans and probably did the work.
Railways were on the way and the navigation's owners - who were now Marriott Brothers (coal, corn and malt
merchants) of Narborough - put up a strong resistance against the new rival form of transport. They claimed
that the proposed line from King's Lynn to East Dereham was "unnecessary and without any promise of return".
Eventually the Marriots lost their battle and the railway was authorised. The railway opened in 1848 and the
navigation took an instant nose-dive.
Use of the river had become so small that a newly authorised drainage Act stated that the river (or parts
thereof) need not be kept navigable.
Navigation to Narborough came to an end although the lower reaches of the river, near King's Lynn, were used
for many more decades.
The West Norfolk Farmers Manure Company stopped using the river to carry its cargo of ammonia-gas from
Cambridge gasworks to their factory on the river near King's Lynn. (The factory now belongs to Fisons).
The final cargo was delivered (carried by coasters to a wharf on the lower reaches of the river). Following
this the only boats to be seen on the river were moored fishing vessels. Because the River Nar connects only to
the tidal stretches of the River Great Ouse, it has never been used by pleasure craft.
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I need to make it clear that I have not visited very much of the River Nar myself. However,
with the help of the few books that mention the Nar, some very old maps, aerial photos and some local
knowledge, I can at least provide an outline. Maybe you can help further. Please get in touch if you can.
My description is based on maps and photos rather than experience. I used old OS maps dated
around 1891, a much older tithe map, aerial photos from 1946 & 1988 and of course current day maps and
photographs. Maps on the Internet can be found in the following places... Old Maps UK and Norfolk County Council Historic Maps
The former 12 mile navigation included just one lock as we know them today, but it also had
10 staunches which were a more primitive way for boats to move from one level to another. A Staunch had 2 sets
of "piers", one set on the river bank and the other in the river. Large oak guillotine gates would be fitted
between the piers to create a primitive form of pound lock.
The boatman would have to climb a ladder at the bank-side pier to reach a massive spoked
wheel with a diameter of about 13 feet. He would turn the wheel by standing on the spokes, stepping up it like
a moving ladder or treadmill. Chains were attached to the wheel and these would lift or drop the heavy staunch
gate. Alongside each staunch there would be a weir to maintain water levels in the river above. One of my aims
in this research is to attempt to locate the position of each River Nar staunch. As yet I have not been able to
complete this - once again, your help would be much appreciated.
The River Nar is no longer navigable. It begins at a junction on the east bank of the River
Great Ouse (tidal section) on the south west side of King's Lynn (OS Grid Ref TF 617 195). The waterfront at
King's Lynn (along the River Great Ouse) has been "cleaned up" in recent years. That generally means that most
of the industry has gone and restaurants etc. have opened up. All the same, the feeling of a "proper" quayside
still exists and there is much to see.
Near the entrance of the River Nar there used to be manure factory which took deliveries up
to the 1930's. Opposite the factory site there are now 2 sluice gates which regulate the water. The river here
is often completely dry, leaving just a muddy bed. I assume the sluices prevent boats entering the river.
When I visited King's Lynn recently I was surprised to find that the junction and the first
hundred yards of the current day River Nar are relatively new. Where there was once a short loop just above the
entrance of the river, there is now a new straight cut and a new parkland is being created on the old loop. A
car park on Boal Street is situated immediately north of the old river loop.
As we follow the course upstream, the Nar heads south east through the town in a relatively
unremarkable urban stretch. Leaving the town it heads south for about 4 miles with only one road (the busy A47
dual-carriageway) and the railway from King's Lynn to Ely passing over.
The old OS map from 1891 marks numerous sluices along the course of the river. These are not
all sluices as we know them today, used for drainage etc. Old OS maps often mark the word "sluice" where there
is/was a weir or a lock. Therefore any mention of a "sluice" on these old maps could be a former staunch and
Outside of Lynn the first mention of a "sluice" on the old OS Map appears to be literally
just a sluice, taking in water from the fields on the west bank (TF 617 170) opposite White House Farm. Another
sluice is labelled further south near Saddle Bow, before the railway is reached.
Near Wiggenhall St. Peter the river comes alongside a minor road and turns east to run along
the north side of it. This minor road (which runs east to the A10 at Setchey) meanders about like a river and
is almost certainly following an original course of the river here. All OS maps show a new straight water
course though a much older tithe map shows one section of the old course in water (TF 628 134).
The A10 crosses over just south of Setchey. About 1200 yards east of the bridge, on the
south bank, is the former junction where a branch to Wormegay began (TF 647 134). It appears that the junction
was once a triangular shape to ease the tight turn when sailing onto the branch from up stream. The old OS map
shows the branch heading south east, between flood embankments.
The branch ran sort of straight for about a mile, with a series of zig-zags just north of
Wormegay. I don't know where the branch ended though I expect it was at the bridge just west of the village (TF
658 117), right beside the castle (site of). A 1946 aerial photo shows there was still water in the branch (or
it was still a ditch at least) but on 2003 aerial photos the whole line is dry, but still easy to see (once you
know what you're looking at). South of the village a water course continues on the old OS Map and on the 1946
aerial photos but I don't think this was ever navigable?
Back on the main river, the Blackborough Priory Branch was about a mile and a half further
east but this time on the north bank (TF 669 135). It began immediately east of New Road bridge (labelled
"Highbridge" on the old OS map). The branch ran north and dead-straight, parallel to New Road (which becomes
Wormegay Road) for a few hundred yards towards Blackborough.
At Priory Farm it turned sharp right to head north east. The old maps and old aerial photos
show a ditch continuing on to the east but I think the branch ended at the farm. On the modern aerial shots
only the dead-straight north/south section can be seen (right beside New Road). The section into the farm has
gone - replaced by a farm road.
On the main river, just a few yards up stream from Highbridge the old OS map seems to show a
possible staunch .The 1946 aerial photos appear to show some sort of feature on the north bank in about the
same location. The maps do not label it as a sluice but the markings on the old OS map are very similar to
those further along the river which are known to be staunches. Modern maps and photos show nothing of
About half a mile east of Highbridge a drainage pump is labelled on the south bank on the
old OS map (TF 676 133). Immediately east of this the old OS map shows a narrowing of the river. All aerial
photos (including current day ones) also show a sudden narrowing of the river here. This may have been the site
of a lift/swing bridge or may be the position of a staunch? Today, there is a large lake on the north bank just
to east of this location (TF 680 133). This, I believe, is a former gravel quarry which hugs the river's north
bank as the waterway bends south eastwards. This lake does not appear on the old OS maps or any of the old
aerial photos - not even in 1988.
The next area of note is on the approach to Pentney Mill. I think I have found a possible
staunch site here. This can be seen (possibly!) on the old OS maps and on 1946 aerial photos. It is about 100
yards down stream of the former Pentney Mill at grid ref TF 696 121. There is a definite narrowing of the river
which may well be the site of a staunch. This narrowing can just be detected on current day aerial photos.
Another possible site for a staunch is at Pentney Mill itself (TF 698 120). I have been told
that the wall alongside the mill site (below the current footbridge) looks like it may be the remains of a lock
though I think this is too close to a severe bend on the river situated alongside the mill. Having said that,
locks in the Fens have been known to be built on the curve of a bend. One such example can be seen on the River
Lark at West Stow.
The Shell Book Of Inland Waterways by Hugh McKnight mentions an Abbey Farm Staunch. Abbey
Farm (sometimes listed as Priory Farm) is a little further east, up stream of Pentney Mill at TF 701 121, but I
see no evidence on maps or aerial photos of a staunch or narrowing of the river anywhere near the farm.
The next possible staunch is a hard one to pinpoint on a modern map though it is marked as a
sluice on the old OS maps (TF 715 119). I make it exactly one mile east of Pentney Mill, just west of the lane
called Hogg's Drove which runs north to the river from near Marham. There is no sign of this staunch on any
The next feature on the River Nar is just north of Marham Fen where the river bends from
east to north east to head for Narborough. On this bend (TF 724 119), modern aerial photos show there is a
bridge with a clear road heading north and southeast from the river. Modern OS maps label "sluice" here but I
think this one is a modern feature?
A few hundred yards north east is another "sluice" marked on the old OS map of 1891. This is
also marked on a much older tithe map as a line and can be seen as a narrowing of the river on the 1946 aerial
photos and maybe also on the 1988 aerial photos. It's difficult to tell if there are anything here today (TF
A few hundred yards further up stream is the site of a Bone Mill (TF 732 125). The word
"sluice" does not appear here on the old OS map though there were two staunches close to the mill. The mill has
long since gone, even in the 1946 aerial photos it is nowhere to be seen but these photos appear to show
something on the river alongside the site of the largest mill building. I believe this was Lower Bonemill
Staunch. Modern aerial shots show nothing at all here. It's amazing how the mill has been wiped out without a
trace. Is there anything of it left on the ground?
The old OS map shows that the mill stretched up stream along the river bank. The old OS
maps, the 1946 and 1988 aerial photos all appear to show a narrowing of the river alongside the northern end of
the mill. This could well be the site of the upper staunch. Whereas all the other staunches had guillotine
gates, it is said that Upper Bonemill Staunch had mitre gates similar to those on traditional canal locks. It
is thought that these were kept closed and the chamber left empty (except when in use) to hold a good level of
water in the river above the staunch. In other words, it was used as a damn.
Following the river up stream from the bone mill, it bends eastward and directly south of
Pentney Villa (at TF 740 131) the old OS map marks another sluice and this is clearly marked as something(!) on
the old tithe map. Another possible staunch?
Next is a former railway bridge and then a junction (TF 744 131) as we enter Narborough. The
river course that heads east leads to (an through) Narborough Mill, a very pretty sight indeed. This mill has a
long history and was one of the reasons why the river was made navigable though it is not clear if the stretch
of water leading to the mill was ever navigable.
The known navigation course of the Nar heads northeast into the village. The old OS map
labels a "sluice" just past the junction of the mill stream. The tithe map shows a line across the river here
(which I believe denotes a staunch or weir)! Current aerial photos show a clump of trees obscuring the river in
this spot (at TF 744 132) though it is known that a staunch definitely was situated here. Only a scramble into
the trees will tell us if anything has survived.
Just yards to the Northeast of here is the centre of Narborough, the main "port" on the
navigation. It was here that Marriott Brothers owned a wharf. The most detailed map of the river at Narborough
(for clarity at least) is the oldest - the tithe map. It shows a broad pond (maybe a turning point) just east
of the staunch site. The river is surrounded by a maltings which straddled the river - in fact it still does
though it is in a very poor state at present. The tithe map shows that the river was very narrow here until it
passes under the one-time main road, the old A47 - now the quiet main road through the village.
It was beneath this bridge (TF 746 133) that the River Nar's sole "pen-sluice" (proper lock)
was situated. In fact, its remains can still be seen from the road bridge. It is somewhat ironic that this lock
is not marked on any map, yet it is the only one that we definitely know still exists!
(Narborough Mill, mentioned above, is just a few yards south along the road beside a second
The new A47 (Narborough bypass) crosses the river about ½ a mile further up stream. This is
an area of ponds, flooded fields and former gravel pits etc. The original line of the river is impossible to
ascertain though the navigation's route is easy to see on a map. How much of the bank can be walked on this
section is not clear?
The river continues easterly through "The Carr"(a wooded area at TF 772 147, part of a
private estate) and eventually reaches River Road at West Acre. Nothing is marked on the old OS maps along this
stretch and trees obscure the view on aerial photos. It is thought (local knowledge) that 2 locks may have been
situated on the stretch in The Carr though I have not found anything to confirm this on a map or in any
We have now reached West Acre (TF 779 147) where it was intended that the navigation should
end. Some books mention a wharf, there was certainly a mill in town but I can find no confirmation that boats
ever reached it. To do so they would have to have been hauled across at least one ford (possibly more). This is
not unheard of on shallow rivers where flat bottomed boats were used.
Although there is no real evidence that any boats came this far, the construction of the
lock at Narborough suggests boats did use this stretch. Castle Acre, which was listed in the very first Act, is
a further 3 miles up stream though boats almost certainly did not venture that far.
Many thanks to Greg Chapman for his help and interest - and future research - regarding
the River Nar Navigation!
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