A late contender on the canal scene, the waterway traverses some of Norfolk’s more hilly country. North Walsham was never actually served by the canal, for it skirted round the town en route to the upper terminal at Antingham Ponds. It also did not actually reach Dilham either, as the navigation from Wayford Bridge to Dilham was built as an earlier and distinctly separate concern. The ideas for the NW&DC originated in a meeting at the Kings Arms in North Walsham itself in 1811 (picture right of the Kings Arms in 2002) and in the first instance plans were afoot for a canal that would terminate at Brackenbury Falgate in the town itself. Subsequent plans switched the terminus to Antingham, perhaps because there was a envisaged demand for servicing mills en route along the upper reaches of the River Ant – although this switch was in due course to create a long-standing dispute with many of the mill owners. Nothing was done to the canal until the 5th of April 1825 when the first sod was dug at Austin (also known as Royston) Bridge, near North Walsham. The delay is said to have been attributed to an ongoing dispute between the canal promoters and local landowners. June 1826 saw the first wherries use the canal as far as Ebridge Mills, and the rest of the canal, indeed the entire route, was formally opened on 29th August of that year.
Very little is known of the canal’s history in its early years, but suffice to say the canal was already in a financial crisis when one of its clerks absconded with money and it found problems in finding a new owner. The canal changed hands several times at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, finally ending up in the ownership of the North Walsham Canal Company. This company, who are still the legal owners of the canal, was actually under the direction of Cubitt and Walker who owned the mills at Enbridge and Briggate. It is a company that doesn’t seem to have any official address – at one point it was ‘care of’ a London solicitors’ practice!
Restoration has been mooted since the 1960’s, but the one major obstacle to restoration is that there simply has never been enough water to supply the route – a maximum of five wherries could possibly use the canal in the winter months (one wherry owner – a Dr Emerson – complained at having to pay expensive tolls to navigate nothing but reeds and mud.) One wherry was sometimes enough to deplete the water supply – as an intrepid group of Broads holiday makers discovered when they found progress almost impossible for the wherry, ‘Ella,’ having preceded them, took all the available lockage water that day. The book ‘A Month on the Broads’ (published 1987) clearly demonstrates that water levels were precarious on the NW&DC. Its author commented sarcastically that his boating party dare not leave their boat alone in case someone took ‘the last bucketful’ of water out of the canal and left them stranded.
Several of the early pioneers of Broads pleasure cruising were based on the NW&DC. Their pleasure wherries, often with pianos on board, were ready to explore the rest of the broads starting from locations as far north as Bacton Wood.
The North Walsham and Dilham Canal was just over eight miles long, rising in spectacular fashion through a rise of 58′ by means of six locks at Honing, Briggate, Enbridge, Bacton Wood and two at Swafield to a terminus at Antingham Bone Mills. The upper section of canal above Swafield Staithe (including the Swafield two locks) was closed in 1893 and the last wherries left Swafield staithe in 1921. The last wherry was the ‘Ella,’ well suited in having an engine – and in the years preceding closure she was virtualy the only wherry using the NW&DC. ‘Ella’ frequently navigated as far as Bacton Wood until the canal’s official closure in 1934 – there is no exact date given – but its recorded by Arthur Walker as being in December of that year. The reason given for closure was that traffic was negligible. Despite this being mid-winter, it appears the canal was virtually dry – records show that 1934 was one of the driest years on record.
Sources suggest Broads cruisers and a wherry or two managed to use the canal’s lower reaches occasionally until the gates at Honing Lock began to fail sometime during 1935. The canal had a good number of typical canal hump-backed bridges that still exist today, only two having ever been demolished. Of mileposts however there appears to ever have been just the one. Several short arms served the local mills or villages. Although the actual junction of the canal with the Dilham (or Tyler’s) Cut and the River Ant is situated about two hundred yards or so northwards from the bridge at Wayford, the North Walsham and Dilham canal legally began at Wayford Bridge.