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Norfolk’s ‘newest river’ creates a wonderland for wildlife

Bayfield Hall - a listed Georgian-style house - overlooks the lake and 'new river'
Bayfield Hall - a listed Georgian-style manor house - overlooks the lake and 'new river'

Landowner Robin Combe and a team of river and wildlife experts have created a ‘new’ river in North Norfolk - complete with meanders, gravel riffles and slower-flowing deep-water pools.

It took six years to overcome planning hurdles and bureaucracy but just eight weeks of physical toil to turn this dream into reality. It now reconnects the River Glaven which was by-passed more than 100 years ago to feed Bayfield Hall's artificial lake.

The new chalk stream, called Robin’s Reach, is the longest known man-made river in the UK. Its creation as a long and sinuous stream with deep pools has seen an increase in numbers of fauna and flora including acquatic plants, birds, and species such as otter, water voles, bats, wild trout and eels. Wildlife is flourishing in the newly-created habitat.

The 1.2 km (three-quarters of a mile) channel running through a meadow on Mr Combe's Bayfield Hall estate in Glandford (just two miles from Blakeney), has more than 30 meanders and riffles, shallow sections of the river with fast-flowing water over gravel and rocks. This provides ideal breeding ground for fish.

The shallow water design of the new river provides ideal breeding waters for fish. Picture credit: Tim Jacklin Wild Trout Trust
The design of the new river provides ideal breeding waters for fish. Picture credit: Tim Jacklin Wild Trout Trust

The river engineering, design and site implementation was carried out by Professor Richard Hey, expert in river mechanics and chief executive of Streamwise Ltd. Management of the overall project was by Tim Jacklin of the Wild Trout Trust. They completed this project removing 8,200 tonnes of soil in eight weeks in 2014 using heavy plant to change the course of the river for the first time in 120 years.

Archaeologist Heather Wallis confirmed evidence of pre-Bronze Age pot-boilers which were uncovered when the new river was cut. Pot-boilers are 3000 BC flints used to warm clay pots by heating them on a fire before dropping them into the pot to warm its contents.

The new river reconnects two parts of the River Glaven which had been diverted through a brick tunnel by Sir Alfred Jodrell, the previous owner of Bayfield Hall who inherited the estate in 1882. He used the river waters to feed into an ornamental eight-acre lake on the estate.

Sir Alfred built a brick-built culvert to control the river flow into the lake and help prevent it silting and flooding. The tunnel remains untouched after the creation of the new river and is home to Pipistrelle and Daubenton bats. Pipistrelle can eat up to 3,000 tiny insects in one night while the Daubenton bat is also known as the water bat. It flies just above the water feeding on midges, caddisflies and mayflies. And these are just two of the seven bat species feeding in the tunnel and on the lake.

A brick-built culvert once used to divert river water to the lake is now home to bats.
The culvert, once used to divert river water to the lake, is now home to bats. Picture credit: Tim Jacklin Wild Trout Trust

The long, thin lake at Bayfield Hall is part of the beauty of the lower Glaven valley, one of the most beautiful valleys in England which reaches the sea behind the shingle spit of Blakeney Point.

The River Glaven is a 17 km chalk stream flowing through wooded hills, lush countryside, grazed meadows, arable farmland, and picturesque flint villages. It is forded at Glandford. Norfolk’s only remaining working mill at Letheringsett still harnesses the river’s power while another mill at Glandford has been converted into a fine home.

Sir Alfred Jodrell, known for his philanthropy, died in 1929 and the estate was left to Robin Combe, a relative of Sir Alfred’s. By the 1950s the lake and the tunnel had become heavily silted. Robin Combe set about exploring ideas to restore the river to its former glory as the tunnel was not ideal for migrating fish or the wildlife.

He worked with the Wild Trout Trust and Streamwise Ltd,, the River Glaven Conservation Group, the Norfolk Coast Partnership, the Norfolk Rivers Trust, and a number of contractors and consultants dealing with a mountain of paperwork and permissions to achieve their goal of restoring the river.

The project team succeeded in attracting funding for the work from the Anglian Rivers Sea Trout Project. More money was needed to complete the scheme and funding came from DEFRA’s Catchment Restoration Fund following an application from the Norfolk Rivers Trust’s Nine Chalk Rivers Project - an educational, conservation and community scheme working on nine chalk streams in Norfolk – and the Norfolk Coast Partnership.

The first work on this scheme began in 2008. Funding was achieved four years later and the ‘new’ river was completed in 2014 after jumping numerous hurdles and working through mountains of paperwork and permissions.

Work in progress shifting soil to create the new river after six years to get planning permission
Work in progress to restore the river to its former glory. Picture credit: Tim Jacklin Wild Trout Trust

Today, the new chalk stream, as pure as any in Norfolk, has spawning and migrating fish such as bullhead, brook lamprey, dace, roach, stone loach, and stickleback. It has created a rich habitat for acquatic plants and flow-loving invertebrates.

The Bayfield project was the missing link in a number of earlier improvements to the River Glaven and has removed a block which isolated species above and below the brick tunnel. Robin’s Reach has created a wonderland of habitat for species which live in and beside this chalk stream and those species which use it such as heron and kingfisher.

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