Haddiscoe Island: The island man created inland

PUBLISHED: 17:26 14 January 2011

Berney Arms High Mill

Berney Arms High Mill


175 years ago, trade rivalry led to a new cutting, a sea port and unique slab of land that has changed very little today

The New Cut

History has always been littered with ambitious ideas which cost a lot of money and then didn’t really produce the goods and the 19th century attempt to make Norwich a port (see Anglia Afloat January/February 2008) was one.

The motivation was understandable. Norwich merchants, never in those days particularly one with the burghers of Yarmouth, were being ripped off, as they saw it, by the port’s handling charges, but their solution was at least grandiose and just a little contrived.

It involved the by-passing of Yarmouth altogether by the creation of the port of Lowestoft, previously a beach-launching fishing community, so that ships and/or cargoes could travel direct to Norwich via the Rivers Waveney and Yare, and then the New Cut which was dug through the marshes across the angle between them to save ten or so meandering miles.

The project was conceived and built with copious amounts of money and not a little chutzpah, right down to a notable contribution from the clerk of works, William Clerk, who was described as “a bit of a poet”.

Bob and Paul Mace

He was, a bit. Not only that but he wrote a poem about the engineering works.

Opening in 1833, the project struggled from the outset because revenue never matched expectations and cost over-runs meant that the whole thing soon needed re-financing. And then, within a couple of decades, it was rendered more or less redundant when the railways arrived to carry goods much more quickly to Norwich than wherries or steam-tugged sea-goers.

The only real winner was Lowestoft which had gained a new port and then developed rapidly under the orchestration of entreprenuer, railway builder and connector of Lowestoft to the rail network, Samuel Morton Peto.

But the whole adventure had done something unusual. It had created a 2000 acre island, a wedge of grazing marsh between the New Cut, the Waveney and the Yare. Today, though those waterways are heavy with holiday traffic in the warmer months, Haddiscoe Island, known locally simply as The Island, is one of the remoter places in East Anglia.

There are no public roads except the A143 which clips the thin south-eastern corner in the village of St Olaves and the only public access is by a footpath which runs around the 12 mile perimeter. There are just five dwellings, two of them 19th century, one a modern bungalow and another, the thatched 17th century Raven Hall opposite Berney Arms across the Yare.

The fifth is a converted drainage mill.

The only other buildings are a cluster of boating-related structures in that pinched southeastern corner on the Waveney as it passes through St Olaves, and then a few derelict drainage mills dotting the perimeter which were long ago superseded by steam engines, then diesel pumps and finally electric units. Today, only two electric pumps are needed to drain the Island although extensive flood defence work along the river banks did not perform well during a big surge a couple of years ago.

Away from the south-eastern corner, the Island gets few visitors, more especially in summer when the footpath is chest-high in thistles. Hares lope about among grazing cattle under a big Norfolk sky and reed covers the “rond” between the river wall and the river on the Waveney flank. Reed was cut there until two winters ago when it was found to be too weak for thatching, though historically that was never the case. So summer grazing is the Island’s only cash generator.

But there is a constancy about the place. The marshmen looking after the cattle and grazing today are from Island families. Bob Mace in particular who lives there is of a line going back at least to the 19th century which includes the Hewitts who once featured large in Island affairs.

That line and others and their work and lives are traced in the book, ‘The Island, (The Haddiscoe Island) Past and Present’ (2002) by Sheila Hutchinson, whose childhood was spent at Berney Arms, a place comprising a farmhouse, drainage mill and pub, all accessible by river and (long) footpaths but not by public road, although a railway line crossing that marsh has a halt nearby.

The pub, which once served the wherrymen, now only opens in summer when holiday cruisers are about.

The book tells of the Hewitts, resplendant with cryptic nicknames: William ‘King Billy’ and his son, James ‘Wesmacott’ Hewitt and his grandson Henry ‘Yoiton’ Hewitt.

It tells of Yoiton living in Raven Hall before the second world war, taking his cows’ milk by motor boat up the Yare to Reedham for collection by the milk marketing board. Then he took his children the other way to school, walking them over the marshes and then along a boardwalk through the reeds on the Waveney side from where he would row them across to Burgh Castle overlooked by the flint walls of the Roman town. His wife, Annie, made and sold mushroom ketchup until the ‘53 flood wiped out the mushrooms.

Yoiton’s mail was delivered to Berney Arms and he would be alerted by a signal post with an arm to be raised when there was some to collect. But by the time Yoiton’s son Stanley and his wife had Raven Hall after the War, holidaymakers had cracked the code and were perpetrating too many false alarms to make it workable.

Telegrams were another problem. When Stephen Hewitt lived at Upper Seven Mile House (demolished in the late ‘70s) before the War, he would get telegrams telling him when Irish cattle would be arriving by train to graze the marshes. The delivery boy had to bike from Reedham alongside the railway line north of the Yare, looking over his shoulder for trains and trying not to wobble off, and then walk over two marshes to reach the river.

There he had to shout loud enough to make Stephen hear, or at least to make his dogs bark, and then read the telegram to him when he had rowed over.

But there was a decent tip at the end of it.

These days, Bob Mace, born at Berney Arms and great grandson of King Billy Hewitt, is the link with the old days. At the time of the ’53 flood, he still lived over the river and crossed to the Island each day to work the marsh, but for the seven weeks of the flood, he stayed there. He recalls five pumps working at a time, including an Admiralty pump with so much compression that it needed three men to start it. In the ‘70s, Bob was awarded a British Empire Medal for identifying a copper deficiency in the cattle which was causing their black colouration to turn brown and rings to form around their eyes. A ministry investigation confirmed the condition and copper injections were given. The problem has now abated, coincidentally or otherwise, since the old Yarmouth power station closed.

Bob had always suspected a connection. When the wind was from that direction in the summer, he says, it could be quite stifling on the marsh.

Bob and his grandsons, Paul and Stephen, were the last to cut reed although even then imported reed from Eastern Europe delivered was driving down prices. When the reed’s weakness appeared a couple of years ago, Paul and Stephen turned to other work though Stephen still helps out on the marsh.

These days, King Billy and Co might be surprised by electric pumps, mobile phones and the volume of holiday traffic on the rivers (though Yoiton actually worked the electric pumps) but they would recognise the general nature of the place. The Island still supports about 2,500 cattle each summer and the grazing is still let in late March by auction at the Bell Inn, St Olaves. There are fewer hares perhaps – more marsh harriers mean fewer leverets - and there have been no bitterns for years, perhaps deterred by degeneration of the reed bed. Years ago, the whole rond used to be cut.

But though time – and rural economies – change, Haddiscoe Island isn’t development country and will probably look much the same a few generations from now. Once an island, always an island and this one created inland by the Norwich merchants will remain a place apart.