Signpost - Ellingham and Kirby Cane


From a question of a bridge to the riddle of Ellingham Island

Sometimes a simple inquiry can start you on a fascinating journey, and discoveries one really didn’t expect. In this case I was asked, “When was the first bridge at Ellingham?” I really didn’t know, but it got me thinking, and raised many questions.


Where to start?

The story of this land goes back millions of years, but I’ll focus on the sliver of time that is the past two millennia. The ice sheets had long retreated and the land bridge to Europe had submerged. This period is important. Nature shaped our ways of life and we strived to use the land for our purposes.


0AD: this valley we call The Waveney looked significantly different. It is likely the water level was higher than today, although it is really difficult to say because there were no maps or written records back then. Large swathes of land were under water or marshes. Man settled in small communities on the edge of these wetlands and on islands, utilising them for wildfowl, fish and reeds. Peat was extracted from the drier lands for fuel.


Sea levels started to rise. Then came the Romans and what did they do for us? Well, with their arrival came records, and thanks to these records we know they built two castles in the third century, either side of a Great Estuary: one near Caister-on-Sea and the other at Burgh Castle. Apart from keeping marauding pirates at bay, the castles enabled them to keep an eye on the locals – very important, having had a bit of a bust-up with Boudicca previously. The Romans left in 476AD.


But what did the valley look like?

The Anglo Saxon History site (saxonhistory.co.uk) suggests the sea levels were almost 5m higher those times than they are today (although sea levels are starting to rise again!). We know the river was navigable far up the Waveney because Earsham was raided by the Vikings in 869AD. The river was much wider than now and the valley bottom was largely underwater or marshlands.


Are there any maps?

A map drawn in the 16th century by Samuel Woodward (held in the Norfolk Record Office) claims to show this area in 1000AD Part of it has been redrawn below).

1000AD: part of The Great Estuary

Strangely, there appeared to be a large island in the estuary between Gillingham and Bungay. I did have my doubts about this map: how could someone in the 16th century know what the land was like 500 years earlier?


I sought more maps. The “island” cropped up again in the Ordnance Survey map, 1st edition, of 1838. It showed an area of land named “Ellingham Island”. Ellingham Island extended northwards, from what is now the old railway station, to the school and eastwards to the grain store.


Sea levels continued to rise until the mid 14th century, so the island shown in Samuel’s map could have been around for a long time, centuries even. It’s existence is confirmed in a very useful, modern publication by The Broads Authority, about the evolution of the Broads. It contains a map depicting the scene in 250BC to 400AD and it too shows a large island in the Waveney.


Certainly the river at Ellingham was too wide for there to be a bridge across... or was it?

The Iceni had been busy long before the Romans came, and recent discoveries were made (in 2006 to 2011) of a causeway running 500m across wetlands in Geldeston, and a similar one on the other side of the river at Barsham. Given the effort involved in their creation, it’s doubtful there would have been another lengthy river crossing at Ellingham too.


Rising sea levels caused water to break across into the ancient peat diggings (1348) and the waterways of the Broads came into being. From near that time, sea levels began to fall and marshes were drained for farming.


I turned to Jo Gooderham’s A chronology of Ellingham and Kirby Cane. This referred to Ellingham Island as being a place of early settlement located between Dockney and the Beck. It noted the sale of a watermill at Ellingham in 1197.

Jo's book contains a map of Ellingham Mill, drawn in 1612 - no sign of a bridge (indeed, none of the 16th century maps I looked at indicated a bridge at Ellingham), but there is reference to a ferry in Ellingham in 1614.

With falling sea levels, the Waveney slowly became silted and blocked. Boats could no longer reach Bungay, therefore, in 1670 an Act was passed to improve navigation between Beccles and Bungay and locks were constructed. It is likely that the bridge at Ellingham was built then. Maps from 1750 onwards do show a bridge at Ellingham.


In answer to the question “When was the first bridge at Ellingham?”

The first bridge at Ellingham was built in the 1670s.


Until the mid 14th century the Waveney valley between Beccles and Bungay had been largely marshes and wetlands, with an ‘island’ at Ellingham. In pre-Roman times, there might have been some form of river crossing at Geldeston. There may well have been a small ferry at Ellingham. As water levels lowered, both naturally and by drainage systems, the Waveney silted and the first bridge was probably built when the lock was constructed in the 1670’s.



We’ve long been used to having bridges to the west of Ellingham. The A143 crosses several dykes and the old Yarmouth Road has Longford Bridge, but the latter was built in 1910 – until then it had been a ford!

There is a very useful site where you can not only see ancient maps, but you can overlay them too, see http://britishlibrary.georeferencer.com/


Try comparing Samuel Woodward’s map with those on the Gov.uk Flood Warning Service – the match is quite impressive.