Kim was born in Potter Heigham and has grown up on the Broads. Many generations of his family going back to the 1700s have lived and worked on the Broads. He has worked on wherries with his father, picked fruit with his grandmother and transported the Caen stone on the wherry Albion into Norwich during the 900-year celebrations of Norwich cathedral.
I was born in 1953 and spent the first seven years of my life in two Riverbank bungalows called Tojo and Herongate in Potter Heigham with my mother and father. My first introduction to water was when I was a youngster, I managed to climb onto ice, chasing after a seagull, not realising the danger I was in. I was enticed off the ice by being bribed with sweets from Sybil Woods.
My father came from Repps and my mother was from Potter Heigham. My father used to work for a man called Blucher Thain; he had four wherries, one of which was called Lord Roberts. Father then went off to war and when he came back Lord Roberts had been turned into a motor wherry.
I used to spend a lot of my time with my father on the wherry. A lot of his jobs were manual and transporting goods; I can remember him moving stone, reed, gravel, wire mesh and sugar beet. I slept on board the wherry when we were moving things from place to place. In the cuddy we had a lovely warm fire and big thick mattresses with blankets. One thing with my father was that when you went into the cuddy you had to take your boots off. That time spent with him was magic.
After spending seven years living on the riverbank we moved to Church Road, Potter Heigham. My father borrowed a boat from someone, they took all our gear out of the bungalow and took it down to the staithe by boat and then on the tractor and trailer, all in one load. That’s where I spent my life until I was 15 when we moved to Reynolds Lane.
When I lived on Church Road Basil Fuller lived there with his family, Betty and son Kenny. One of the funny things I can remember is that my mother and Betty used to talk to each other in the toilets in the outhouses. They lived on one side of the road and we lived on the other and their toilet used to be in our back garden and we often used to hear them chatting away.
I’d like to tell you a story about 1968, which as I suppose many people can remember was a very long winter with a very long freeze with lots of snow. I was living in Reynolds Lane with my mum and dad, my two younger brothers and Butch my dog. Me and Butch used to go down to Hickling Broad to see what was going on. I will always remember this one day, there was a helicopter with some sort of weight underneath it, actually hitting the ice on the Broad which was all frozen over. I thought to myself, ‘What are they doing that for?’ and it came to me that all the poor birds didn’t have anywhere to swim or feed. They were dropping the weight from the helicopter onto the ice to break it. Afterwards they were throwing corn and the birds were able to feed and swim.
You could walk on the dykes around the Broads when they were frozen over. I didn’t skate, as I couldn’t keep on my feet and I daren’t put skates on but I did enjoy walking around the frozen dykes and playing in the snow. I ventured as far as Deep Dyke but wasn’t brave enough to go any further.
My mother was a Howell before she got married, she was born in Lincolnshire and moved to Potter Heigham with her mother and grew up in the village until she met my father and got married. Before she was married she worked, during the War, as a book binder for Jarrolds, then after she got married and had us children. After Jarrolds she used to do fruit picking and during our summer break we used to go and pick fruit at some of the local farms.
She also worked at The Bridge restaurant which was owned by the Richardsons and I used to help with the washing up. She then had the chance to go and work for Baileys at their greenhouses, rooting plants and cutting flowers and making up hanging baskets. This was in Catfield. It was only supposed to be for six months, but she spent 26 years there, not bad for six months work was it? Mum never really worked on the river as such but she worked beside it, so could we class her as a waterman? I don’t know.
Generations of family around the marshes
I have gone back and can go back to just before 1700 and some of my family on both sides are watermen, marshmen and lightermen. They came way before wherrymen, so my family has been in or on the water for many many years. They moved lighters and wherries about the Broads. One of my relations, my father’s cousin Sonny Amis who some people might know of, was a piling contractor and used to spend a lot of time doing quay heading work.
We also have connections with the Railway Tavern at Potter Heigham, on my father’s side of the family (the Dowe side). There used to be a little shop at the end of the pub and I’ve got photographs of them all standing outside. The main ro ad used to come down by the pub and I remember running round to the Tavern and nicking peas off the pea lorries that used to come by. They were stacked really high and as kids we would get a ladder, climb up, throw the peas over and shell them and eat them.
My grandmother Annie Howell was married to Tony Howell and lived only one door away from us in Church Road; my grandfather was a tapper on the railway line. He died just after the War ended so I never knew him, but I was told that he was a kind man.
My grandmother didn’t have a lot of money so she worked for the farmer, Mr Blaxell, at the farm next to the church. He had several fields covered full of stones and my grandmother used to pick these stones up and put them in sacks. She also used to do fruit picking and we all, my mother, my grandmother, my brother and myself used to all go down on our bikes. We packed sandwiches and a drink and went fruit picking. We put our bikes near to where there was a massive great bull, which used to stick his head out and have a good snort as we walked past.
We ate more than we picked and we played in the rows, this was a seasonal job and when wintertime came there weren’t a lot of work going on. Grandmother knew a lady called Eileen Sandals whose husband was a fisherman with hands like shovels, he was a lovely man. Before he retired he worked for Wood’s at Potter Heigham.
My grandmother, Eileen, and me used to sticking down in Picamore. We would collect branches and bags full of sticks, tying these branches on the bikes. This was one way of supporting ourselves through the wintertime, and I spent a lot of time doing this with her and my dog Butch. I can also remember my grandmother having pigs to fatten up for Christmas; the one I remember was called PigPig.
When I was younger I also worked with my grandfather for a man called Cumby who used to live at Red Roofs Farm which was towards Ludham from Potter Heigham. We used to pick up the fallen apples which were boxed up and carted away to be made into cider.
Outdoors, on my own, enjoying my own company
If I had nothing to do on a Saturday I would take myself down to Picamore, Wagon Hill or Candle Dyke; I liked being on my own, I used to be a bit of a loner. Butch and I would go walking through marshes, down the lanes on the riverbanks. I was in heaven when I was in Picamore wood, I would climb trees, go through dykes, with all the orange muddy water. I had a favourite tree, it had five or six heavy branches coming out of the bottom so it had obviously been coppiced at one time. I used to get a little bit of wood and weave it in and out of all these branches. I didn’t think that anyone would find it, I was miles away from anyone, heaven.
If I did venture further afield I would go swimming in Hickling Broad. Before they built the new dyke you could go out of Picamore, over a small plank, up a bank, through a few reeds and you’d be in Hickling Broad. It used to have a sandy bottom, being shy I would keep my gear on and paddle around playing there for hours then still soaking wet I used to go back to the woods to play again.
I used to dream, I used to lie in the clumps of reeds and just dream. I would look up at the sky, look at the sun or the clouds go by, listen to the sounds around me, and I was honestly in heaven.
I used to go to Wagon Hill, climbing into boat sheds, they were wrecks but I loved looking in them, finding swallows nesting inside. There was a watchtower and people used to watch the herons, so I used to like climbing up there, I had 360 degree views, I loved doing that. The other boat shed was at Heigham Sound, it was much larger and had an upstairs, with a room where people used to live in it.
I also liked going down Marsh Road and seeing the brick bridge which used to span the dyke, I have been told that over the bridge further into the marsh there used to be horse stables, but they had been taken down by the time I went there. I have also been told that these two marshes had two parachute mines dropped on them by the RAF and that they spent nearly six months trying to dig them out.
When it would start to get dark I used to think that I had better get home, I was getting hungry this would usually be evening time and so I used to go onto the old footpath or cart track, down to the beginning of Marsh Road and I used to walk back up towards the church and then I was only about another five minutes away from home.
Talking about the sounds that you heard, I can always remember the sound of seagulls. As a youngster when I used to walk the paths and meadows I would hear them and it struck me as funny that I could always remember the sound of them. It used to be a lot louder in wintertime. They used to follow the plough picking up the worms.
As I got older I got more interested in the surrounding area and on the other side of the pond near Potter church there used to be a big dyke that they called the dockyard. Later I found that it had actually been dockyard and they had brought the stone up from the Thurne to Potter on small lighters to build the church which was built in 1100AD.
I was into fishing alright, I couldn’t catch a lot but I spent a lot of time at it, just enjoying my own company. I was never a fisherman as such, I had all the tackle but I’d rather watch the float go by. I had my sandwiches and lemonade, would find a nice quiet spot and just sit there. I caught a few fish but it weren’t the fishing it was just being there at that time. I used to go to Candle Dyke too, I didn’t catch a lot there I was more interested in watching the man who was the eel catcher at the time. When he caught the eels he put them in this massive box that was just below the surface, before hauling them off to wherever they had to go.
I used to stay overnight there, there was a little hut, it’s changed a bit since I slept in it but that was brilliant that was. My mum and dad knew where I was so they didn’t really bother about me and that was when I got into eels. I remember seeing coypu down there too.
A lot of children today miss out on all this but I actually lived it, I was there. The memories will stay with me for the rest of my life, I suppose.
Eels and Woods’ boatyard
I started work at Woods’ when I was about 13, and I was given an eel trap and used to put it into Woods’ basin, and catch eels. I never killed them, I used to pull them out and let them go again.
I was given this eel pot and used to take it down to the river near Repps, on the Potter Heigham side. Many a time I have taken the old rowing boat down there. My friend David Woods used to catch eels professionally, he used to take the eels off me and give me a few pennies. I left the pot there, it’s probably rotten away by now, I liked fried eels but not jellied eels.
I was at Woods for five or so years earning my Saturday money. I got the job through my aunt’s father George Cossey who was the foreman there. He had lots of stories to tell including meeting George Formby, who lived at Wroxham and had a boat built at Wood’s.
When I started I was working with Irving Green, and I was cleaning dinghies out, collecting them in the morning, taking them into the wet shed, clean them, wrap the sails and make sure that they were ready for the next customer. I then progressed and was a car park attendant, cleaning cars, and keeping a couple of batteries charged for when people got flat batteries. That was the time I made my money, 3 pounds 10 shillings a day.
As one of the perks of the job I used to have access to a 17ft sailing dinghy. I spent many hours sailing this on Horsey and Hickling Broads. On one occasion when on Hickling, one of Herbert Woods’ sailing yachts was in difficulty. I sailed to it and offered my services to help get them off the mud. In order to help I have to lower my dinghies, sail and I left my mast up. Unfortunately, those sailing were not locals and were novices, and whilst trying to help them they let my dinghy go. Then once they were free from the mud I had to rescue my own boat! In the process my mast was broken. Luckily the novice sailors explained all this to Mr Cossey, when I returned he just smiled, thank goodness!
I spent my latter years at Wood’s showing out cruisers, spending the mornings working in D section with Alan Lee, changing the batteries, making sure the fuel was topped up and making sure that the boat had its right kit with it. I spent the afternoon showing out the boats and I started getting tips, one tip alone would be 20, 30 quid, well you don’t say no to that do you?
Another time on the water I went under Potter bridge on a small launch. The Seagull engine jumped off the stern and out of sight! I then had to tell Mr Lamb, my boss at the time, that I’d lost it under Potter Bridge. ’Steam came outta his ears!’ He said we’d better use a grappling hook on another boat to rescue it which we did, first time. Phew!
Taking a wherry, on my own, to Cantley, mooring alongside the shoebox
I used to help my father take the wherry out. I remember one time when I was about 14 or 15 he asked me to help him take a wherry full of beet down to Cantley. I had handled the tiller many times, we stopped at Yarmouth and my father said, ‘Right I’m getting out here’ so he took his bike and said, ‘I will meet you back at Cantley’ and told me to be careful going underneath the bridges. So that was that.
I started off, got onto Breydon water, chug chugging along, I’d been to Cantley before so knew what I was coming up against, I was against the tide for quite a lot of the way. When I got to Cantley I didn’t have to turn round as I came right in next to the shoebox. This was a long concrete container with a big crane and a grab on the top. The wherries used to come alongside it and the grab on the crane would grab the beet, take it and put it in the shoebox.
I can really remember the sides of the shoebox. The people who used to come in alongside the shoebox on their vessels used to paint different scenes on it, making one big mural about 200 foot long, it was beautiful. As I got older I didn’t go back anymore.
My father took the last wherry of sugar beet to Cantley in about 1962, and there is a picture of him in the EDP. Once the last load went there there was no need for the shoebox so it all came down. My father was also known as Moses.
When I went past many years later, it was sad to see that it was missing I always would have thought that something like that would have been kept because of that front piece, all with these pictures and peoples’ names on then. Pictures of the ships that used to come in. And that to me, that is part of history of the Broads being taken away.
My father and the wherries Lord Roberts and Albion
My father carried on working for May Gurney and on the wherry, Lord Roberts; she spent her last years working for them before she was then taken to Hunter’s yard and sunk in a little dyke nearby. After a while she was raised and there were hopes that she was going to be put back into working order, with the Wherry Trust. She refloated no problem at all and was taken to Royall’s yard in Wroxham, where she was moored up and that is where she lays to this day. Everything below the water is still there but she is all covered with trees and her superstructure has all been rotted away. Sad to see. I have had lots of really lovely times on her as a kid.
In about 1964 when my father was still working for May Gurney he was asked to sail Albion as wherryman. This is because Nat Bircham had retired. They asked him to do this because of his experience and he has done a lot of the maintenance too. I’ve met many different wherrymen including Jack Powley and Jack Cates. We call them wherrymen not skippers as wherrymen work for a living on a wherry. Wherry skippers are people who take them out for pleasure. There is a big difference between the two.
I remember a story which was told to me by one of Jack Powley’s daughters, when they came aboard the wherry Albion which I was sailing. Apparently Jack was told at short notice that they wanted a photograph of Albion and skipper. Jack got his boy and told him to go and get his sister. She was indoors having her hair washed and her mum frizzed and fuzzed her hair out so in the photograph of them it looks like the little girl has got a halo around her.
I used to sometimes go and help my father to do the weed cutting. We used a weed cutter and I think that there is one similar to the one we used in the Broads Museum. The weeds were cut to keep the navigation open for the boats. The weed cutter has two blades about seven foot in length, across each other and it is lowered into the water. We would go to Horsey, down Deep Dyke, Meadow Dyke and sometimes up to Waxham Cut. When I went with him, I would take my sandwiches and a bottle of Corona with me.
Allotments, bottle collecting and clay pipes
I’ve talked about going down to Picamore, well Potter Heigham at that time had five allotment plots, in various different places around the village and one was right close to Picamore. One of my interests was collecting bottles and I used to go on a Saturday afternoon digging for them. I just collected them and never had any interest in selling them.
Another item that I used to collect was clay pipes. I used to go with my father when he was dredging, the mud would go into the wherry and a lot of the time you would see a clay pipe appear and if it was possible I would get hold of it. Some of them were broken, they just had a bowl, but very occasionally you found one with the stem and bowl altogether, and I still have them in a box tucked away in my workshop.
Years after my father died I remember Sonny Amis telling me that he had the job of going to Heigham Sound and recovering the parts of a crashed spitfire. Sonny said that my father went down there with Lord Roberts, on his own, with a load of lifting tackle and he lifted five bits of the spitfire off of Heigham Sound and took them back to Potter Heigham Bridge where the Air Force collected them. My father never told me anything about this.
When I was about 24 or 25 I remember seeing red deer at Decoy, where I later bought a house. I used to keep a canoe on the edge of Hickling Broad and one day I thought that I would walk down the road, I got over the hump on the road and then all of a sudden I saw these big heads with antlers on. I thought, ‘What the heck was that?’ I could see these deer walking through the mist, all I could see was heads, I couldn’t see the legs. By the time I got to where they were, they’d gone. But later on I saw some in a field, there was a big shadow cast from the big tree and these red deer were laying down and as the sun moved round, so did the deer. I saw them get up, walk down to the edge of the field and then vanish. Magical.
For the regattas in August I used to help my father to moor the three wherries, the committee boat, the beer boat and the spectator boat. He used to work with a man called Billy May and they used to put the fireworks, on the Repps side, for the display on the Saturday night. As a kid I used to lie in bed and hear the fair going on. It used to be an exciting thing to be able to go and watch the dodgems and picking up the coconuts and balls that were thrown into the river. My father had the opportunity to use the starter gun and started the races at Potter Heigham. The gun was owned by Blucher Thain and the Museum of the Broads has it now on permanent loan. I have still got the official starter’s badge. I also used to help with Barton regatta, we had three wherries there and my father used to start the races there too.
Somewhere around 1963, when I was about ten I used to go down to Tom’s Mill on the shore on Hickling Broad. Well I went down there one day and there was someone there. I went up to these people who were scruffy, had long hair and furry coats and got talking to them. Over several weeks and months I got to know two or three of them quite well, they were very friendly and I found out that they were living there and that they were beatniks. I had never heard this word before. They had two canoes and great big knives and used to work doing fruit picking, that sort of thing. I became friends with them and they stayed several months before leaving. Years later when I was at Stalham school I was friendly with the cook, she told me that her son was one of those beatniks and that they had came up from London one day with a lot of people.
Mill Road, Potter Heigham, childhood memories
My great-grandmother Howell used to live at the Old School House on Mill Road During the war, I wasn’t kicking around then, she used to have the school as a home. You can imagine how big it was and she used to have Italian prisoners of war who were brought to her every day by two policemen from the railway. My grandmother told me that my great-grandmother used to feed them and they worked in the village. The prisoners carved wood and ivory gifts for my grandmother, but over the years these have been lost
I’ve mentioned before that my grandmother used to work for the farmer Mr Blaxell, well his brother used to have the flour mill down Mill Road in Potter, the sails used to turn and over time it got turned into an electric mill and the sails were taken down. Next to the mill was Potter Heigham school (I can’t remember much) and you paid a penny either a day or a week for your child to go to school, when this school closed down and a new one built further in the village that’s when my great-grandmother moved into the old school. I don’t know where she came from, Ludham perhaps, but the old school was her home for many years and I have got many a picture of me on a trike with knitted shorts and a knitted vest with my great grandfather’s pipe in my mouth. I’ve got pictures of my first birthday spent there too.
So that was where my great grandmother lived in the Second World War. She later moved to Green Lane next to the Methodist church, I can remember more of that. My great grandfather growing tobacco and drying the leaves to smoke, my great grandmother having an oven in the hole in the wall next to the fireplace, making bread, me eating cold rice pudding that could be cut with a knife, that sort of thing, gorgeous.
Mr and Mrs Playford lived next door on Green Lane and a woman next door to them was called Auntie Dick, what her first or second name was I don’t know. When my great grandmother passed away it was the first time that I had seen someone laid out in a room, all in black. I can’t remember a lot but I remember going to see her.
I have been told that behind the old school, when my great grandmother lived there, there was a small building in the woods and an old man used to live there, he used to shoot duck from his front room window. But I was too young to remember this.
Another man in the village, Norman Bensley he used to work for Mr Blaxell as a farm labourer, he’s known me since I was a nipper. He had two cart horses Dobbin and Prince, you never saw them out together, only one at a time with a tumbler or a small plough. We were collecting mangle (beet) for feed and Norman had hitched the tumbler up and I went up the wood with him, onto to one of Blaxell’s fields at the back of the church. All the turnips were in little piles and he set the horse off with the tumbler and he was topping and tailing the mangles, throwing them into the tumbler, and there’s me sitting on the tumbler and I was loving that. When the tumbler filled up Norman said to me, ‘Here you are boy, you take the reins’ and so I took off down the field with either Prince or Dobbin, down the road, past the church, onto the farm and tipped the tumbler full of mangles in a heap.
Potter Heigham Station
Down Church Road I used to live across from a man called Mr Wickes. He told me many years ago that he used to be a porter at Potter Heigham railway station. I also knew a Mr Durrant who lived down Marsh Road and was the station master at Potter Heigham station. They both told me many things about what used to go on but I can’t remember it all now. All I can remember is years later, as a kid, I used to climb on Potter Heigham bridge, over go the top. There used to be a big water pipe that used to come from Horning pumping station and I used to climb underneath and into the actual station. I don’t know what I was looking at but that’s where I used to play as a kid. So I have spent a bit of time around the station, as I say I can’t remember a lot but I have pictures of the Flying Scotsman actually sitting at the front of the gates, ready to move off.
At the station there used to be a Mr Cray who used to look after all the bagging up of the coal, the coal yard was across the road from a bowling green and the goods yard. Later on Mr Cray was the honeycart man, cleaning out all the toilets from the houses at the end of the night. He used to come down the road, you’d hear him, jingle, jangle and he’d always stop at mine and call up, ‘Are you awake?’ and I always said, ‘Yes’ because I knew that he would throw me up two or three sweets. He was a lovely man and I shall always remember my sweets.
Working on Albion again and the Wherry Maud Trust
After many years working off shore, I finished in 1992. During that time in the 1980s I helped my father-in-law Mike Fuller and Sid Chettleburgh restore the wherry Albion. Remember I was on the Albion with my father in the ‘60s, so I spent many years sailing on her. By the time I had finished I had the opportunity to sail a wherry- yacht called White Moth, and I sailed her for about 19 years, she was a lovely vessel and the amount of people I met was unbelievable. I used to take an art group out about twice a year for a weekend at a time. Angela Dammery had a little art school at Dilham and we all used to have bags of fun, I used to love it.
I used to take Albion out to Horsey, moor up for the night and we all used to have a barbecue, Peter Starling whose father used to farm at Somerton, used to bring the barbecue and big tubs of strawberries for us, we used to have a whale of a time.
One of my claims to fame when I was sailing Albion was that I actually had the Duke of Edinburgh on board. We had lots of things in common, one being that we both like boats. Another one being that I actually worked on the Bacton Gas site which he opened in the ‘60s. We got on well, he was a nice man.
In 1989 we were asked to take the Caen stone to Norwich cathedral to celebrate its 900 year anniversary. The stone was brought from France by boat, then by tug to Yarmouth Bridge and then we were waiting to receive the stone. Before we received it the stonemason cut three balls into it, almost to say that it had been through customs.
It was then loaded onto Albion and we were taken through Breydon Bridge by the Broads Authority, they strapped one of their boats alongside to take us through as it was a horrible day weather wise. We did manage to sail part of the way and the other part of the journey we were helped by Hugh Tusting. He brought his family cruiser alongside us to help us up through to Norwich.
As we were coming into Norwich we were met by the Sea Scouts with a big rowboat with six or seven sea Scouts in there with oars and they actually towed us in by rowing, and we got Albion up as far as Foundry Bridge. We were then met by Sea Scouts in a smaller boat with the intention to sling a line onto Albion and tow us up to Pull’s Ferry.
Before we got to the railway station people started to gather, it felt very strange, hundreds of people all over the bridge up to Pull’s ferry all cheering and clapping. Ahead of us other wherries pulled up welcoming Albion to Pull’s Ferry. I had a lump in my throat as I usually do when it comes to things like that. We came to May Gurney’s big lighter and Dick was in the crane and he came out and spoke to us and told us where we had to lift the Caen stone off. The Mayor of Norwich and the Bishop of Norwich were on board as we had picked them up at Coldham Hall, and there was a lot going on. Vic and I spoke how we were going to lift it off whilst the Bishop was doing all his ceremonial bits and bobs.
We managed to get the Caen stone off and onto the deck and they pulled it away and that was it. It was amazing, a really memorable day.
In later life I do now see that the water ways, rivers, villages and stretches of marsh are all changing from when I was a kid. I think that sometimes money talks and they think of the end product. I just think that people should change their attitude towards the Broads, not take but give a lot.
For quite a while now I have been involved with the Maud Trust. Vincent and Linda Pargeter bought a wherry called Maud and over a period of 20 odd years they restored her. I’ve been sailing with them for a little while now and a trust has been formed and I like my involvement with it.
Kim Dowe (b. 1953) talking to WISEArchive on 31st October 2019 at Great Yarmouth.
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