A love of water and a fascination with rivers joining communities inspired Geoff to set up the River Waveney Trust in 2012.
I was born in December 1945 after the war had ended and I was actually born in Wisbech so technically I’m a yellow belly. But that was only a temporary hiccup for my mother and we were living at the time in Gayton Road in Kings Lynn. When I was about two, we moved to Dersingham between Lynn and Hunstanton and I had a very, very happy childhood. I have lots of memories, but they are absolutely all of a happy, rural lifestyle. I went to my first school there.
Two things I do remember very clearly. One was I shared a birthday with King George the sixth: December 14th.Three times when I was aged I think four, five and six we were invited up the Sandringham House which was half a mile away from where we lived. We met the royal family just before Christmas and I have very vivid memories of George VI particularly sitting, never getting up (although I don’t think he was ill at that time), sitting and being a man of very few words and I was pushed forward to go and shake his hand and there was a sort of mumbled ‘Happy Birthday Geoffrey’. I didn’t know what to say of course and then I just returned in tears to my mum. I remember that, and I remember the carol singing at Sandringham House and that is the importance of Sandringham House to Norfolk. Still the current Queen and the Duke they love it and they’re always there for Christmas.
Devastating floods of 1953
The other was the very dramatic time in January 1953 when we had the massive East Coast floods. They were devastating, and it is only as I’ve got older that I’ve realised that losing 78 lives just between Dersingham and Heacham was a massive tragedy. It shouldn’t have happened. People were living in caravans and little huts in the middle of the winter in clearly a very flood prone area, particularly Snettisham and Heacham. My father had been in the Home Guard through the war; he wasn’t able to fight because he’d had very bad TB before the war. The Home Guard were all mobilised by the police. My Mum was a guider in her little old upright Ford Popular. I remember driving down onto the marshes at Dersingham. The back of the car would go down, hot tea, Woodbines and biscuits were dispensed, I think free. I can never remember any money changing hands but I can remember that being quite exciting for the seven year old I must have been. It was a devastating event and it stayed with me all through my life in Norfolk because we are very vulnerable to North Sea surges.
Sent away to school in Southwold, and then to Gresham’s where the sailing bug bit
So that was a very happy time for me and I was sent away to school, to Eversley School in Southwold when I was eight. I was absolutely miserable, it was nothing to do with my parents’ lack of love for me or care for me at all, it was just that they felt for some reason that I was going to get a better education there. I managed to get a county scholarship to Gresham’s School in Holt. I don’t think my parents could ever have afforded to have sent me there, but the fees were all paid as part of this scholarship and that was the most wonderful education.
I’m a huge supporter of Gresham’s School and particularly Logie Bruce-Lockhart who many people in Norfolk know and who’s still alive in his 90s living in Blakeney. He introduced art, music, all sorts of things, other than walking around a parade ground on a Thursday afternoon with a rifle in your hand. He said to some of us, ‘if you can come up with another activity…’ and I believe schools were still supposed to have cadet forces in those days, it was post war and so on, ‘…you come and let us know’. So our woodworking teacher, the wonderfully named Scruffy Burroughs, I don’t even know what his proper Christian name was, he was always known as Scruffy. He said, ‘let’s build a boat, let’s go sailing’ and that’s what we did. We built cadet dinghies and we took them to Barton Broad. For the last three years/four years I think of my time at Gresham’s Thursday afternoons were getting on a coach and going to Barton Broad. That’s where the sailing bug bit for me; with the punt club on Barton. So that’s when I became a water baby I suppose. My other hero at Gresham’s was Dick Bagnall-Oakley who taught Geography. His classes were often hanging around the cliffs at Sheringham or on Cley marshes where he did fantastic conservation work. One of Norfolk’s great naturalists for sure.
Love of the North Norfolk coast
The other legacy that I had which is still with me is this huge love of the North Norfolk coast. Particularly Burnham Overy Staithe and even more specifically the huge tower mill at Burnham Overy Staithe. I first went there in 1946 and slept in a drawer in a chest of drawers, I wasn’t even a year old. The mill was owned by a Cambridge architect who had bought it before the war when the top had been blown off and slowly refurbished it. After the war it became a wonderful holiday home for all our extended family and until four years ago, and I’m 72 now, I spent every year there continuously. It was just fantastic and I’m very, very pleased to say I can go back there today in 2018 and hardly anything has changed apart from a little more traffic on the A149 and a few more people. Going for a walk across those marshes, those wonderful saltings, Scolt Head and sleeping there overnight, lighting fires which of course we were never supposed to do. One wonderful name check was a lady called Dizzy Disney who was the warden of Scolt Head. She wore an old blue sweater with ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’ (the RAF motto) emblazoned across her bosom.
The sea marshes – nature in the raw
They were happy days apart from the very traumatic experience of the marshes in West Norfolk because of the flood which I’ve mentioned. The real beauty of the saltings or the sea marshes all the way along the North Norfolk coast became apparent to me because it was a playground for us. It was just wonderful, it was completely free, it was nature in the raw and Scolt Head, the wonderful island of Scolt Head which we walked round many, many times. My mother was a great walker and a swimmer, she would swim in any temperatures really. They were wonderful, wonderful memories and the area is virtually untouched, it is one of the great jewels of Norfolk, there’s no doubt about it and quite rightly it’s a bit of a honeypot because people come from Cambridge and the Midlands, traditionally and have holidays there. You can lose yourself easily.
The other thing which was really good for me once I’d got my sailing bug was, we used to sail from Burnham Overy Staithe Harbour. We’d rent a little twelve-foot clinker dingy and I’ve got a feeling that Miss Disney had a hand in that in some way. She was employed by the National Trust as far as I know to care for Scolt Head which had just been recognised as a key ternery and needed some sort of protection. This was back in the 50s so there’s a long story in there about sensitivity of the marshes and people and protecting them and I’m pleased to say it still happens because I think people who go there respect nature. It was a wonderful, wonderful time for me and my long and abiding love affair with the North Norfolk coast.
Just to bring it up to date, just three weeks ago I was very lucky and managed to get into a microlight plane at Ellough airfield at Beccles and Adam, my pilot, who lives in North Walsham flew me right the way out to Brancaster and then out of respect for the birds flew inland. We didn’t fly right over the coast which I thought was very good, I didn’t say anything about that, he was brilliant on that, but we flew in this lovely late autumn light down the coast from Brancaster right the way round Cromer, Sheringham looking at the seals at Winterton, down to Breydon Water and back to Beccles. It was an absolutely memorable flight and something that everybody, if they can put a few pennies together, should do is to see Norfolk and particularly the coastline from the air, about five or eight hundred feet up, not very high but it gives you a completely different perspective and it was just brilliant.
Coypu – the enemies of farmers
When I was 11 we moved from Dersingham to Strumpshaw between Norwich and Acle and that was at the time when the coypu were absolutely ravaging fields of kale, really becoming devastating enemies of farmers. The Ministry of Agriculture, ‘the Ministry of Ag and Fish’ as we used to call it, got together a programme which said, ‘please eradicate these’. They are pests, there is nothing else about them and if you’ve ever seen a coypu which I have in various stages, they are big. They are nasty looking things with these great hooked front teeth. I’ve never seen them attack a dog but I wouldn’t want my dog to be attacked by a coypu, certainly not if it were a terrier size. They just look mean, a mean large rat.
My father who was working for ICI had a lot to do with farmers. He used to rough shoot so he had a 12 bore and I had a 410. I was taught to shoot pigeons at Strumpshaw, I suppose that was just what you did as a child. We used to go down in the evenings at twilight and sometimes in the dark with Dad’s car, down across the railway line leading across the marsh to Old Buckenham. My job was to open and close the railway gates, which you could do in those days and I don’t think there were many trains anyway. We’d drive slowly down this marsh loke and I had a large lantern called a Rayovac, made in America. It was very powerful, as powerful as a car’s headlight and my job was to look out and spot coypu, typically in the dykes in the water.
Now a very interesting fact about coypu anatomy is that the female coypu has her nipples raised; they are along the side of her body, not under her tummy. She acts like a submarine depot ship and the key thing, sounds a little brutal but this was the fact of life. This was how it worked: we would try and find a female with two or three little coypu plugged in and then dad would stop the car and we just had to dispatch them. Money was paid, I think it was about ten bob for a large coypu so, if you produced all those to the Ministry Ag and Fish man, that was what happened. So, I can remember that they were vicious animals, they were very destructive and of course they are an invasive species which I began to learn a lot more about when I began work with the River Waveney Trust so it was quite the correct thing to do in those times. We are talking about the late 1950s when farmers were growing for England and to have a field of kale destroyed overnight by coypu was not good news. So there’s my memory of coypu and they disappeared quite fast; I think within two years they had pretty much gone and you won’t now see, I don’t think, a single coypu. There are many people who I know who would never ever want to see a coypu again.
Developing passion for the River Waveney
Our family moved to Harleston where we still live, 35 years ago, so I’ve just got my passport for living in this wonderful market town! As part of that, with my interest in sailing I was doing a lot of offshore sailing at that time from Lowestoft. My passion was that anything that floated was going to be pretty good. I started canoeing and we were swimming in the river. We used to swim off Mendham Bridge as many people did. It’s now called ‘wild swimming’ I think but everybody swam in the river in those days. That started a real interest and I would call it a passion for the River Waveney. So it started through just using the river, something very interesting and that wonderful feeling of getting in the water and finding your ankles all enveloped by bits of weed and wondering whether a pike’s going to attack your big toe or not and so on. Just doing that we built a Mirror dinghy and were sailing that at Mendham which is way above the navigable limits currently of the Waveney. That just got me very interested in the river.
When I retired unfortunately I had prostate cancer which made me very tired; it coincided pretty much with my 64th birthday and I gave up work then. I’ve had the operation, I’m absolutely fine now which is fabulous, but it made me think: I am not going to sit at home twiddling my thumbs, I’m not that sort of person, I need to do something, I wanted to do something for the community, I wanted a volunteering based activity and in 2009 the thing that really lit the blue touch paper for the organisation I started after that was a great friend of mine Stewart Orr, who lives just over the river. He and I were sitting drinking Adnams as we often did, arguing like cats and dogs but also thinking we wanted to do something useful for our communities. Well, a great sailing friend of mine had just finished building a beautiful 16 foot wooden canoe down in Ipswich; I had helped him with that and he didn’t know what to do with it so I said ‘well I think the first and best thing I’m going to do with it is to do a source to the sea trip down the Waveney’.
Canoeing from the source to the sea on the River Waveney – a swan’s eye view
The Waveney is a very good canoeing river. It has always been that and the really active canoeists and kayakers have always used the Waveney. It’s been recognised even by the Environment Agency who have put portages in and so on as a good canoeing river but we just wanted to be 14 year old boys again. So we decided that was what we were going to do and we spent five days starting up at Redgrave, Lopham Fen close to the source, paddling our way down, camping overnight in some legal some not so legal places, I don’t mean illegal but we just found the bank and we didn’t know who the landowner was and it was a phenomenal trip. I can still remember almost every hour of the time we were paddling. I recommend it to everybody. Two lasting memories: one is you see the whole river from the swan’s eye view. Even better than walking along a river is to get down into it, swimmers know what I’m talking about, canoeists know what I’m talking about cos canoes are virtually silent, you leave no footprint. You creep up on things and you get surprised by things. It was May when we did it, good nesting time for the swans. Near Flixton we went round a corner and a very angry cob started from behind the boat when I was in the back, flapping his wings and coming at us and trying to attack the back of the boat, really very scary. We pulled into the side and sure enough half a mile further on there was the hen sitting on the nest and he was doing his stuff and as soon as we’d passed her he gave up. It was a wonderful, wonderful time and if you are going to do the trip May is the time to do it because the weather is good and spring is just bursting out everywhere.
The uniting effect of rivers and the book that is still to be written
Rivers join communities and that is always a fascination for me and many people. On the River Waveney we have four wonderful market towns: Diss, Harleston, Bungay, and Beccles, each sort of equidistant and each with their own culture and community but the river is what unites them and joins them. Of course Saxons, Romans and possibly even those before were using the river as a form of transport because there was nothing else. I love water, I love boats and have done since I was a child but they have a whole impact, particularly on the people who live near rivers and in valleys which is not often investigated or thought about. How does that river…..the flow of the river have an effect on you, a very soothing effect on most people, and how does it act as something which all our communities have been built on. So that all came together as the second thing which came from that canoe trip. Stewart and I said ‘we are going to write a book about this aren’t we?’ and here we are nine years later, and we haven’t even written a word of that book. It’s given us some wonderful memories and it’s given us a project which I’m now going to start very shortly but I’ll talk about it a little bit later because it’s a little bit of future about the river and how man has built its crossings and what the rivers meant to the people who live along side it. So that was why the River Waveney became important.
Ninety percent of the people in Harleston don’t even know the Waveney’s bubbling away just down the hill from them but it is a rather interesting river. It’s a very classic lowland, slow moving, lazy river. It only drops I think something like 50-60 feet from the source to Yarmouth which is 60 miles away. It has no gradient, but it has been interfered with dramatically, first of all by the mill owners in the 18th century and more recently by the Environment Agency who are trying to protect us all from flooding. So there’s nothing wrong with that, that is what is needed and that is what allows a lot of farming control of the grazing marshes and so on so farmers can actively still make a living and we still fortunately have two dairy herds in the upper Waveney so we can still use those marshes for productive purposes rather than being inundated and rather more like a tidal marsh which is not much use for grazing purposes.
Setting up the River Waveney Trust – am I bold enough?
That was why the Waveney became important: the canoe trip became important and sitting back and thinking about all this I thought ‘right, am I bold enough to set up an organisation’ because I did know you have to work quite hard to set things up from scratch and it’s not all funding, it’s organisation and really getting people to buy into your dream, likeminded people. I’ve done this twice in my life and it’s great fun, it’s hard work but it doesn’t matter, you always get there if you do it in the right way. So, I was inspired in 2012 to set up the River Waveney Trust which is a charity still in existence. The Rivers Trust movement in England, which the River Waveney Trust is part of, is all about water quality and trying to maintain good water quality and the ecology of the river and the water bodies. So, it’s an ecological, conservation type of business and it went very well. We had a kick off meeting in the back room of the Swan on March 29th, 2012, I remember it well. We thought twenty or thirty people might turn up, one man and his dog and all the rest and if it wasn’t much good, we’d go down to the bar and have another pint and say oh that was a good idea but… anyway 100 people came!
It was a brilliant meeting and one of our speakers, was John Wilson, the very well-known angler who ran the tackle shop in Norwich. Those people who are anglers will know of John Wilson. John had an absolute loathing of otter because they would come into private angling lakes, and he got on his high horse and gave quite a strong and impassioned plea about not having anything to do with otter and preferably wringing their necks. That wasn’t quite what I expected him to talk about but anyway John was quite a personality and a very nice man; sadly he died just two weeks ago and he will be well remembered by a lot of people in Norwich and particular anglers all over the country.
So, we started the River Waveney Trust. We had a sort of a plan because the Rivers Trust do things in a particular way and that helped us a lot and they gave us £5000 which was a very generous large sum because you can’t start organisations with nothing. Volunteers have a lot of love and sometimes they have reasonably deep pockets but they don’t really want to fund an organisation which isn’t going to be sustainable, so that £5000 paid for us to become a charity and set up a few things and pay the insurances and all the boring things which you have to do to set up an organisation. Very early on we split the membership, we got to 200-300 members very quickly, into five separate groups along the river, each with their own stretch based on the four market towns; so that the work we were doing was local to the members and the volunteers. It was taking up a lot of time but it was great fun, with relationships with the Environment Agency, the Broads Authority, Norfolk County Council who began to get involved in a lot of the issues which faced the River Waveney, the Broads in general and what is important in their catchments.
The importance of the catchment of the River Waveney
The catchment is really the area well away from what we know as our main rivers, where the tributaries and the water which fall on them all drain down onto the main river. So, the catchment of the Waveney is from Pullham Market to Mendlesham down in Suffolk and from way west of Diss down to Yarmouth so it’s a much bigger geographical area than just the river. I began to explore these and realised how important the tributaries are. A little tributary like Starston Beck, our local one in Harleston, is only four miles long but it has its own ecosystem. It can be polluted which causes a danger to the main river or it can have successes and a lot of fish will go up tributaries to get out of the main stream to breed because they like the quiet life in the tributaries; so tributaries are very important and it changed my thinking.
Different types of ecology: a river divided by the tidal gate: saline and freshwater
I was learning all the time about this and marshes became something we looked at a lot and in depth to try and understand. Now the interesting point about the marshes related to the Waveney is that they fall into two very clear and distinct types of ecology. Above Ellingham which is 3-4 miles upstream from Beccles is, what we could call, the tidal gate. All the water below that is tidal so Ellingham, through Beccles to Oulton Broad and Breydon has two tides a day. The water levels rise and fall according to the tides not according to rain fall. They’re also more saline so different fish, different invertebrates will live in the tidal stretch than the other side upstream which is called the fluvial or freshwater stretch. That was a bit of understanding and the way the water is controlled by the Environment Agency and their sluices and all the rest of it. We had to learn all this and it’s quite interesting, quite fascinating as to how the big things happen.
Also, how important history has been. Back to the water mills, long before the Environment Agency there were massive fights and battles going on between farmers and millers. Funnily enough it was often the farmer’s grain which had been milled by the miller, but the farmer didn’t like his water being held back by the mills and the millers needed the power from the river of course to drive the mill.
So upstream we’ve got what we call the grazing marshes and lovely, lovely areas they are too. They used to support a very, very big dairy industry but now we’re down to two herds only, such is the state of the cost of milk and all those things and supermarkets and the way that the milk is traded now as opposed to fifty years ago. There is still in existence one of the great beauties of the landscape in the Waveney valley, seeing a herd of happy cows. Seeing those animals meant we all got very involved with the local farmers. Some wonderful, wonderful people and very hard working they are too. So, the grazing marshes upstream of Ellingham have very few ecological challenges, they have lots of little dykes and so on. And they act to provide an incredibly well behaved flood plain.
The tidal marshes
The tidal marshes below Ellingham include the wonderful and massive Carlton Marsh and more recently, thanks to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s million pound appeal, the Peto’s Marsh, which sit at the back of Lowestoft. They have some of the most magnificent marsh landscape anywhere in the East of England and possibly in the country. So they are very different and they are wonderful walking areas, wonderful for wildlife. I have to say as far as the River Waveney Trust was concerned there was very little impact we could have on them because they have a rhythm and a land usage which has been there for a long time which includes reeds and reed cutting and so on. Wonderfully now we have this project funded by Heritage Lottery Fund for restoring I think fifteen of the water pumps. The mills, the very visible things which at the minute look like they’re all going to fall into the ground. So, we were all very enthusiastic about that but weren’t able to do much about it other than support it as a project. Then of course downstream further is the magnificent estuary of Breydon which is just the class act in terms of estuaries in East Anglia, wonderful wildlife, you can walk both banks and end up in Yarmouth at the seaside and it is just fantastic.
Eels – a miraculous life cycle
More recently I managed to help get quite a lot of money out of the Environment Agency for investigating eel. Eel are very interesting fish, which they are of course. They have an incredible life cycle being born out in the Sargasso Sea and somehow finding their way into the Waveney. I mean I could just sit for hours and listen to a scientist who can tell me how that happens but the eel population in Western Europe crashed in the 80s and suddenly the big commercial eel fisheries in France and in the West Country and the Severn all said ‘where have all the eel gone?’ and nobody knows. They still don’t know. The scientists in Lowestoft and those who study these things don’t really know what happened. Was there something happening in the Sargasso Sea? My theory putting it all together is that these little tiny almost leafs as they are, once they’re born, drift in the ocean currents up to North West Europe and then down the North Sea and into our estuaries, that’s just nature that’s miraculous how that happens.
The future of the marshes – nothing but good news
The current situation is very much in the hands of the landowners; of course all land in this country is owned by somebody. In many cases it is the RSPB or Norfolk Wildlife Trust or even the National Trust, fantastic. So the future of the southern broads, the tidal marshes, is very much in the hands of the Broads Authority and particularly the Suffolk Wildlife Trust who are doing magnificent work down on Carlton Marsh and Peto’s Marsh and I think it is widely recognised this will become probably as significant as Minsmere and Cley. It will be one of the top three destinations for people who just want to go out into the landscape and observe wildlife in a peaceful, unobtrusive way. The future of the marshes upstream, the grazing marshes again is in the hands of the landowners. It’s not threatened other than the huge threat which exists over the next couple or 100 years that the whole lot may be inundated by North Sea surges and the rise of water levels in the sea. That’s something that none of us can really do very much about and we don’t like to think about it too much. But at the minute they are very beautiful, very well managed by the landowners. The grazing is well done and I think they’re returning now because there is less and less use of chemicals and so on. They are returning the whole grazing marsh structure, including its dykes to wild life and the farmers and landowners are getting very, very sensitive about this. So, I can see nothing but good news and I do hope the future is to make as much access as possible. It’s not always easy but people and cows don’t always mix but access to see these wonderful landscapes is one of the things I hope will improve in the future.
Formation of the Waveney Heritage Community Interest Company
One of the pieces of unfinished business which was left when I retired from the River Waveney Trust after six years of being a Trustee was the heritage and the history of the river and its catchment and all the communities. The River Waveney Trust as I explained is really an ecological organisation and not a historical, heritage organisation. So, in, 2017, a group of us in Harleston formed Waveney Heritage Community Interest Company to start some projects around the river. I’m about to start a big one on river crossings. We also already have heritage lottery funding for a local community parish project here in Brockdish and in Needham. Three months after we started we were offered a lease on Brockdish School which had been closed in 2016 by the diocese of Norwich. We thought hard and long about it because we are a small organisation but we jumped at it because we wanted a home for all our archives and for talks particularly and so on. That’s what we are doing now, we have just finished our first year and it is going like a train.
Geoff Doggett (b 1945) talking to WISEArchive on 18th November 2018 at Brockdish.
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