In the country’s driest and flattest county you’ll find a series of spring-fed chalk rivers that are a fertile home for birds, plants, insects, mammals and fish. They rise in woods and water meadows, the chalk made of billions upon billions of microscopic, single cell sea creatures called coccoliths.
There are only 210 chalk streams in the world, 160 of which are in the UK, and most of the lowland ones are to be found in Norfolk.
Often referred to as ‘England’s rainforests’, with huge ecological and biodiversity value, they spring from underground chalk reservoirs; their clear, shallow waters making them havens for wildlife such as dragonflies, toads, voles, trout and eel. They’re also a magnet for writers, painters and fly-fishers.
Walkers on the Wensum Way.
Chalk streams in Norfolk include the Rivers Bure, Glaven, Stiffkey, Burn, Heacham, Ingol, Hun, Babingley and Gaywood, but the longest, biggest and most significant is the River Wensum, the most protected river in Europe – it has Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation status for its entire length. In the Wensum Valley Project, it is the only river selected by Norfolk County Council for special status.
Aerial view of Pensthorpe Natural Park.
The Wensum has its source between the villages of Colkirk and Whissonsett, flows through Fakenham and the Pensthorpe Natural Park, through Swanton Morley, Taverham and Norwich, before meeting the River Yare at Whitlingham where it flows to Great Yarmouth and the sea. Wensum does all the work, Yare gets all the credit!
Chalk streams are an irreplaceable reminder of our past, and were created as the ice sheets retreated from England 10,000 years ago. The huge flows of melting ice brought with them enormous quantities of the distinctive gravels that still occupy their beds.
River Wensum pedestrian bridge Norwich.
The crystal clear, cool water comes from the porous chalk clarifying and purifying the liquid.
May is a great time to visit them when you’ll see Mayflies and the Brown Trout who gorge on them.
Other key species that live along our chalk streams are the otter, water vole, kingfisher, water shrew, brook lamprey, Desmoulin’s whorl snail and white-clawed crayfish. On the Wensum you might see Nightingales, Bitterns, Harriers and Osprey.
River Wensum in Norwich.
There is little navigation of the river beyond Norwich because of mills which benefited from the very gradual fall of the river from source to outfall, meaning its gentle power was ideal for milling. The river had fifteen mills, including Costessey, Taverham, Lenwade, Lyng, Elsing, and Elmham.
Although much of the land the river runs through is private, there is public access at places including the Wensum Way, Sparham Pits, Sculthorpe Moor, Lyng and Norwich, with side tracks at including Foxley Wood, Hockering Wood, Guist Common and Fakenham Water Meadows.