River Wissey Navigation
River Wissey History
The River Wissey was originally known as the River Wisse. Apparently the origins of the word
Wisse are exactly the same as the word Ouse (both of which may have been pronounced "Weese". It only serves to
complicate matters that there should be 3 rivers in very close proximity named the Little Ouse, the Wisse and the Great Ouse.
Historical notes can easily be confused with the wrong river. However, it is thought that
the River Wisse originally ran north west of its current outflow at Hilgay to Outwell where it joined the
Wellstream (made up of the waters of the River Great Ouse and River Cam). The Wellstream then ran through
Wisbech to The Wash. It is therefore quite feasible that the beck named Wisse (the River Wisse) gave Wisbech
The Doomsday Book mentions that the River Wissey ran from Oxenburgh (now Oxborough) to
Cambridge and Lynn (now King's Lynn) though it could only have done this with a little help form its friends
(Wellstream, River Great Ouse and River Cam). During the Middle Ages the River Great Ouse was diverted away
from the Wellstream towards King's Lynn and its new course cut directly across the River Wissey. Since then the
River Wissey has ended just west of Hilgay where it runs into the River Great Ouse.
The first mention of work being done to the River Wissey in aid of navigation
came from the Commissioners of Sewers (land drainage) who requested that the
river should be widened to a width of 11 feet and should be "cleansed".
Over the next few centuries there were very few mentions of
trade on the River Wissey. This is thought to be because - unlike all of its
neighbours - the River Wissey has no major towns along its banks.
There are records showing that in the mid
1700's coal was brought up the river to Oxborough Hithe,
having first been shipped down the coast from the north east to King's Lynn.
There are also the remains of boathouses at Northwold dating back to this
The first (and only) Act of Parliament to be granted to the river was passed. It enabled the appointment of
drainage commissioners who were given the authority to make necessary improvements at the cost of the land
owners whose land the river ran through.
The commissioners could also charge tolls to anyone passing along the north bank -
presumably the towpath side. These tolls were to be used only for repairing any damage to that bank. By this
time there was a good trade on the river coming from Stoke Ferry where there was a wharf handling coal, corn
and malt. Most of this came from - or went to - Whitbread's malt house at Wittington.
Railway intervention came fairly late - due once again to there being no towns in the area. As soon as it did
arrive however, trade came to a virtual standstill.
The River Wissey was given something of a revival when a sugar beet factory, which depended totally on river
transport, opened at Wissington. This trade continued until the end of WW1 (though the factory is still open
today). During this same period, A.V. Jackson was also using the river, carrying corn to Stoke Ferry.
The River Wissey has never closed and is navigable today.It has no locks, making maintenance somewhat easier
than most other rivers.
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River Wissey Route
The River Wissey begins at a junction on the River Great Ouse about 2 miles west of Hilgay.
There is a minor road on the bank opposite the junction. The 2 mile journey to Hilgay is south easterly for one
mile and then north of east for the second mile. The river is much narrower than its neighbouring waterways and
is said to resemble a canal more than a river. The A10 crosses the river at Hilgay where there is a riverside
hotel and restaurant.
The next stretch is 3 miles long and heads generally east - though there are some curves and
bends as the river avoids some small hills to the south. At Wissington the B1160 crosses the route while
alongside the river is the sugar beet factory which revived the navigation for a while between the World Wars.
Just past the bridge the river widens out into something of a small lake for a few hundred yards.
Over the next 3 miles the river curves left till it is pointing north east. On its way it
passes Methwold Lode, which heads south east for several miles. Shortly after the lode, the river crosses the
Cut-Off Catchment channel on an aqueduct which has a flood lock situated on it.Unlike flood locks on most
canals, this one resembles a staunch with guillotine gates at each end.
The end of the 10 mile navigable river is at Stoke Ferry where the old bridge leading to the
village (which is about ½ a mile north) crosses the route. The bridge has something of a mixed history,
originally built during the reign Henry III, it was destroyed by the Abbot of Ely who was losing out because he
was entitled to the profits from the adjacent ferry!
The "Hundred Court" forced him to rebuild the bridge, the current one was erected in 1803.
Stoke bridge used to carry a turnpike road which later became the A134. The A-road now bypasses the village and
crosses the river about ½ a mile further east. Usually the building of a new bridge ends any chance of
navigating further along a waterway but this one was obviously built high enough because recently the head of
navigation has been extended by ½ a mile to the east side of the new bridge.
Past the new bridge it is officially possible to navigate a further 2 miles to Oxborough
Hithe though only very small, low-draught boats would make it.
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