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Petch's Corner

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There are many beautiful sights to be enjoyed while walking alongside the River Wensum as it winds through the city centre, but few match the view from the bend below the Kett’s Hill roundabout.

Standing with your back to Zak’s looking west there is the tree-lined river park and beyond, the grounds of the Great Hospital. Looking south, towards The Close, Pull’s Ferry and Bishop Bridge, there is more greenery on both sides of the gently flowing water. Straight ahead is Cow Tower and its pond, the most accessible and best preserved gun tower which survived Kett’s Rebellion and nearly half a millennium. Magnificent in the background is Norwich Cathedral.

The area you will be standing on, enjoying these stunning views, is also historic, but in recent years has lost its good looks through neglect. It is called Petch’s Corner and it was the site of the last wherry boatyard in the city centre.

William Petch was publican of the “Horse Barracks” public house that had been opened in 1841, across the road from the Cavalry Barracks that gives the road its name. The site is now part of the St James’ Meadow riverside flats development. On the land between the pub and the river, a boatyard was established, and is first recorded under Petch’s name in a directory of 1845. Among the wherries built there was the Jenny Morgan, from whose imaginative wind vane (depicting a girl in a Welsh costume) all wherry vanes came to be known as ‘Jenny Morgans’ whatever their design.

Petch ran his boat building business until 1865, after which he concentrated on managing his pub for another thirty years. Zak’s building, incidentally, was originally the City’s morgue with the adjacent boathouse used as a loading point to transfer the bodies down the river.

In 1977, some twenty years after commercial river transport in Norwich had ceased, The Norwich Society transformed a derelict piece of land alongside Petch’s site into a public open space where the Norfolk wherry might be commemorated, and where citizens could sit and enjoy the stunning views.

A wherry mast, made of Baltic pitch pine and weighing one-and-a-quarter tons, was winched by pupils of the Blyth-Jex school out of a dyke in the Norfolk Broads, where it had been lying for many years. In 1977, it was one of only three trading wherry masts still in existence. The others were from the Lord Roberts (at Gressenhall Museum) and the Albion, restored and kept sailing by the Wherry Albion Trust.

After its removal to the school grounds, it was scraped, repaired, treated with preservative and linseed oil, and repainted in its traditional colours, the work being carried out entirely by pupils.

The wherry mast “tabernacle” was designed by a professional engineer but made by voluntary labour, under skilled supervision from the Norwich Skill-Centre. The wooden shuttering was made by Norwich East Venture Scouts. Nine cubic metres of concrete were reinforced by 350ft of steel reinforcing bars bent in the school workshops.

A one-and-three-quarters-ton wherry-mast counter-weight was rescued from a scrapyard where it had been lying unidentified for many years. Most counter-weights were made of lead and had been melted down for scrap long before, but a few were made of cast iron and have survived.

B.M. Adams in The Norwich Society’s 1977 Annual Report recalled that: “Our very sporting Lord Mayor (complete with crash helmet) allowed himself to be lifted some 40 ft., in the bucket of a streetlight inspection vehicle, to unveil the “Jenny Morgan” at the top of the mast – and to celebrate his safe return to earth, the Lady Mayoress baptised the tabernacle in which the mast sits with champagne!”

The surviving alcoves are from the stables of a 3-storey late-Georgian terrace block called “General’s Buildings”. The buildings collapsed after a fire in 1962 and the seven vaulted bays were filled with rubble, saplings etc. which were cleared as part of the project.

Norfolk Museums Service erected a series of panels depicting the story of the wherry. These were researched and written by the pupils of the Blyth-Jex School, and attractive metal lettering and a wherry symbol were made in the school workshop.

Subsequent planting was carried out by Norwich City Council. The Norwich Society entered the enterprise in the 1978 Civic Trust Awards competition.

Alas, there is no happy ending to this uplifting tale of youthful endeavour, collaboration, historic research and preservation from almost 40 years ago. Petch’s Corner has not been maintained, and it is now an ugly eye-sore despite being surrounded by stunning beauty. At some point over the past couple of years the neglected wherry mast was felled, presumably by the City Council. The remains of the story boards lie bleached and broken on the ground, and the words and motif of Petch’s Corner, so skilfully crafted in the workshops of Blyth-Jex School, have gone.

It is a further reminder that calling Norwich “A Fine City” needs more than fine words. Resources – not necessarily financial - and the drive to deploy them are needed to preserve the features which combine to make this one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.