The river at Hilgay
|Mouth||River Great Ouse|
|Length||31 mi (50 km)|
The River Wissey is a river in Norfolk, eastern England. It rises near Bradenham, and flows for nearly 31 miles (50 km) to join the River Great Ouse at Fordham. The bottom 11.2 miles (18.0 km) are navigable.
The river is a tributary of the Great Ouse, rising near East Bradenham in Norfolk, and flowing for nearly 31 miles (50 km) through Necton, North Pickenham, South Pickenham, Great Cressingham, Ickburgh, Northwold and Stoke Ferry before joining the Great Ouse south of Downham Market, specifically in the small parish of Fordham. Its course has altered, as it originally flowed to Wisbech, which derives its name from the river, and historically, it has also been known as the River Stoke or Stoke River.
The Stringside Drain flows into the river from the north, just upstream from the A134 bridge at Whittington. This forms the present head of navigation, as boats up to at least 60 feet (18 m) can use the junction to turn round. Below the bridge, a wharf served the maltings owned by Whitbread in the 19th century. A footpath runs along the northern bank of the river, and is in good condition from Whittington to Wissington. Stoke Ferry, with its fine windmill sits close to the northern bank of the river, protected from it by flood banks. Below the village is the junction with the Cut-Off Channel, a 25-mile (40 km) drain running from Barton Mills on the River Lark to Denver along the south-eastern edge of the Fens, which was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. During times of flood it carries the head waters of the River Lark, the Little Ouse and the River Wissey to Denver Sluice on the River Great Ouse. A guillotine sluice isolates the main channel of the river when flood water is diverted into the Cut-off Channel, and the river then passes over the channel in a concrete aqueduct.
Methwold Lode flows in from the south, and the river is then constrained by wide flood banks on both sides of the river. Wissington bridge is relatively new, as there was no road access to the sugar-beet factory below it when it was built in 1925. The road to the factory has since been bypassed, with the newer bridge providing more headroom than the old. At Hilgay, the Cut-off Channel passes very close to the river, with Snowre Hall, a 15th-century building containing some of the earliest domestic brickwork in England on its northern bank.
Hilgay itself sits on a raised isle, some 66 feet (20 m) above the surrounding fenland. Its elevation has become more pronounced as the draining of the fenland has caused the ground to shrink. It was notable in Saxon and early Norman times for the large numbers of fish and eels found there. Hilgay Old Bridge still crosses the river, but the newer A10 bypass also crosses just below it. The final landmark before the junction with the Great Ouse is the railway bridge carrying the Ely to King's Lynn line over the river.
Documentary evidence for the history of the river is scarce, compared to the neighbouring River Lark and River Little Ouse, both of which had a sizeable town at the head of navigation, whereas the Wissey does not. The Wissey is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was navigable from "Oxenburgh" to King's Lynn and Cambridge, and there are remains of a medieval settlement near the river at Oxborough Ferry. It was mentioned in 1575, when the Commissioners of Sewers, meeting at King's Lynn, ruled that it should be cleared and made wider between Stokebridge and Whittington, and that the bridge at Stoke Ferry should be repaired. This bridge was contentious, as the Abbot of Ely lost the ferry tolls when it was built. He destroyed it, to protect his income, but was required to re-instate it by the Hundred Court.
There were wharfs at Oxborough Hithe in the 1750s, handling trade in coal and grain, and evidence of boathouses 1-mile (1.6 km) further upstream at Northwold. The only Act of Parliament which covered the Wissey was passed in 1814, and this was more concerned with drainage than with navigation. Commissioners were appointed, who had responsibility for drainage in the parishes of Northwold, Stoke Ferry, Wereham, West Dereham and Wretton. They were empowered to widen the river between Hilgay Creek's End and Stoke Bridge, with the cost being borne by local landowners. They could also levy tolls on anyone using the north bank, although they could only use such tolls to repair the bank.
Trade continued to the wharf at Oxborough Hithe and to another at Stoke Ferry until at least 1858, and may have continued for years afterwards, as the railway from Denver did not arrive until 1882. A barge called Wissey was operated by J Coston from Hilgay, which was known to have reached Cambridge in 1896 and 1898. In the 1930s, A Jackson was trading corn from Stoke Ferry, while one of the busiest times for the river was between 1925 and 1943. Wissington sugar-beet factory was opened in 1925, and until 1941 could only be reached by river or by the Wissington Light Railway, which crossed the river at the western edge of the factory. The site was then requisitioned by the Ministry of Agriculture who used Italian prisoners of war to refurbish the railway and construct roads to the factory. Three tugs, named Hilgay, Littleport and Wissington were used to pull a fleet of 24 steel barges, which were used to take the beet to King's Lynn during the winter months and to bring coal in the reverse direction during the summer.
Points of interest
(Links to map resources)
|OS Grid Ref||Notes|
|Mouth (Jn with Great Ouse)||TL589990|
|Wissington Railway Bridge||TL658979||disused - by Sugar Factory|
|Connection to Cut Off Channel||TL702989|
|Stringside Drain||TL719995||Head of navigation|
|A1065 Mundford Bridge||TL807944|
|Great Cressingham Bridge||TF846017|
|Source near Bradenham||TF956084|
- Blair, Andrew Hunter (2006). The River Great Ouse and tributaries. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-0-85288-943-5.
- Boyes, John; Russell, Ronald (1977). The Canals of Eastern England. David and Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3.
- Thirsk, Joan (2002). Rural England. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860619-2.