A bridge too far for Driffield

LANDLOCKED Driffield does not rate as a maritime centre. Yet at one time it was a key part of a trans-ocean network of waterways. Cargoes of up to 70 tonnes were once carried to and from this grain capital of East Yorkshire.

David Hamilton, chair of Driffield Trust Navigation Commission, thinks the canal can bring back the good times to this market town. But what stands in the way may prove to be a bridge too far – or in this case, too low.

Driffield Navigation is an 11-mile broad-gauge canal, built as an extension to the River Hull to carry heavy-duty traffic. It runs from the end of Aike Beck, near Beverley, and continues through the Holderness plain to Driffield. A 1767 Act of Parliament brought it into being, and David Hamilton believes its historic significance cannot be underestimated.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“This was the M1 of its day, the only commercial route for heavy goods in any quantity. Square-rigged 60ft long x 15ft wide keels drawing six feet of water, would carry up to 70 tonnes of grain from Driffield to the River Hull basin and from there either to the rest of the world or into the UK canal system.

“The boats would be powered along the towpath by sail, by horse or the barge owner’s wife. This was far more commercially viable than a horse and cart that might be able to carry only a tonne at a time because the roads were also narrow and steep.

“Driffield grew and eclipsed Kilham which had been the main market town in the area. The grain trade was responsible for this, and the mills of Driffield used the canal to great effect, particularly during the 19th century. Bradshaw’s Mill is still a major building at Riverhead today.

“The idea for the canal had been proposed by the grain merchants of Driffield and Malton. Malton was served by the River Derwent but the merchants there regarded the tolls as being too high, so when the Driffield Navigation opened, they sent grain here by road. The commercial centre was here at Riverhead, and the opening of the Navigation, in 1770, effectively kick-started Driffield’s economy.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

From 1870, trade began dwindling. By 1931, profits were down to £11. Maintenance fell away and gradually the waterway slid into disrepair.

The last commercial craft to reach Driffield was the keel, Caroline, loaded with 50 tonnes of wheat, on March 16 1945. The last commercial craft on the Navigation was the vessel, Ousefleet ,which delivered coal to Frodingham Wharf in December 1951.

Driffield canal is now growing in popularity among leisure boaters, and David Hamilton thinks that making the full 11 miles fully navigable again would once again kick-start the town’s economy.

“Driffield needs a bit of a renaissance and I think this could provide it. There are a lot of people who want to see Riverhead developed as a tourist amenity with moorings for boats, a visitor centre, information centre, chandlery, town museum, shop and café. It could become Driffield marina.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Driffield Navigation Trust Commission and Driffield Navigation Amenities Association have restored Town Lock, reopened Snakeholme Lock, returned Brigham swing-bridge to full operation and restored Whinhill Lock. Two years ago, they restored and replaced the lock and gates at Wansford, as well as providing a flood relief channel (bywash) to carry excess flow during heavy rain. Eight houses were flooded in Wansford during the summer flood of 2007 and the volunteers’ work has been much appreciated by residents.

But there’s a snag. In 1967, East Riding County Council replaced the bridge at Wansford with a fixed rather than a swing-bridge. There was very little waterway traffic at the time and little prospect of any significant growth. This bridge left little headroom for getting any kind of vessel through.

It’s only two miles from Riverhead, but seems to be a bridge too far for enthusiasts to overcome.

“We were quoted £1.5m for a new swing-bridge at Wansford a few years ago and we had various fundings in place to cover the bridge work. But at the last minute the funding was pulled. So we now have two bits of canal and no way of joining them together, but we are still working on it.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

David and his colleagues will promote the canal with a Dinghy Cruise Day on May Bank Holiday when small craft will be sailed from Hempholme, on the River Hull, to Riverhead.

But what about the awkward bridge?

“You will have two options. If your craft is small enough, you can go under; or if your craft is appropriate and if it can be carried, there will be people around who will carry it to the other side of the bridge, allowing you to make it right to Riverhead itself.

“Technically, you could put your boat in downstream at Wansford Bridge now and sail to America, although I wouldn’t recommend it in a canoe.”