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Denver Sluice and the Fens

Visit a working mill and a floodgate protecting the Fens from tidal surges.

Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 98ft (30m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Riverside footpaths and country lanes, several stiles

Landscape Flat fenland, river and drainage channels, arable farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 236 King's Lynn, Downham Market & Swaffham

Start/finish TF 610033

Dog friendliness Dogs can run free

Parking Pay-and-display Town Council car park in Paradise Road

Public toilets Town centre (ask at tourist information for directions)

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1 Leave the car park and turn right. When you reach Somerfield on your left, cut through its car park to the road running parallel to Paradise Road and turn right. The road winds downhill, passing the White Horse pub and the Cosy Corner restaurant, before reaching a level crossing and the station. Continue towards Heygates Flour factory on your left, and cross Hythe Bridge. On your right you will see a stile. Cross this, and walk up the track to a T-junction.

2 Take the left-hand fork, and cross a second stile to reach the Fen Rivers Way along the east bank of the River Great Ouse. The banks have been raised to prevent flooding. After about ¼ mile (400m) you reach a stile.

3 Cross the stile, then the A1122, and climb a third stile to reach the footpath again. The path continues until you reach the lock at Salters Lode. Proceed until the Denver Sluice comes into sight. Cross a stile and descend the track to the lane to explore the sluice.

4 Return to the lane, and follow it past the footpath entrance to the bridge over the Relief Channel. Keep to the lane as it winds through farmland and across a level crossing. After passing a huge field on your right and then West Hall Farm with its elegant clock tower, look for the sails of Denver Windmill. Turn to the right to visit the windmill.

5 Return to the lane and continue along it, then turn left up Sandy Lane. The lane becomes a track, which you follow until it ends at the junction with the B1507.

6 Turn left and, after a few paces, you reach the A1122. Turn left, then immediately right down the lane called London Road, signposted to the town centre. Use the pavement on the left-hand side, passing the police station on your right. Eventually you reach a junction.

7 Aim for the war memorial and turn left. Then aim for the clock tower, walking along the High Street and through the market square to the Castle Hotel. Turn left at the hotel and walk down Paradise Road a few paces until you reach the car park.

One of the Downham Market area's most famous sons was George William Manby, born at Denver Hall. In February 1807, Manby was in Great Yarmouth when HMS Snipe was wrecked on a nearby sand bar. All attempts to reach it failed and, despite heroic efforts by local people, all hands were drowned. This traumatic experience affected Manby deeply, and he decided to find a way to secure a stricken ship to the shore.

Manby devised a manner in which a line could be connected to the shot fired from a mortar on shore to the ship. Then, to use that line to get stranded seamen ashore, he produced a small boat with a number of casks fixed as buoyancy chambers, developing the principle still used as a safety measure in small boats today. His apparatus was so successful that Parliament awarded him £2,000. Manby then turned to a career as an inventor, including making developments in harpoons and harpoon guns for the whaling industry.

Denver is famous for its sluices, as well as for Manby. The first sluice was built by Cornelius Vermuyden to limit the tidal flow up the Great Ouse. The Duke of Bedford, who funded the project, was delighted to see his lands drained and become viable for farming, but not everyone shared his sentiments. The Fen Tigers were a group who did not want to see their way of life changed by drainage. They blew up the sluice to make their point.

Sailors and traders also resented the sluice, because it blocked the direct route to Cambridge and forced them to take their coal via Earith. It was destroyed again in 1713, this time by the sea, and was rebuilt several times before Sir John Rennie designed the one existing today. It was remodelled and new steel gates added in 1928, 1963 and 1983. The New Denver Sluices (1959) stand on a newer waterway called the Riley Channel. The sluices are closed to prevent sea water rushing up the Great Ouse and opened to allow fresh water to drain the Fens. Without these gates and the pumping stations around the Fens it would be only a matter of weeks before the whole area reverted to marsh and flood plain.

Downham Market has a medieval church, indicating that it was here long before the Fens were drained. If you stand at the church you will see why: the settlement stands on a ridge above the surrounding marshes. Nevertheless, most of its important buildings date from much later - the 18th and 19th centuries - many built with local carrstone.

Where to eat and drink

The Castle Hotel in Downham Market has a restaurant and serves tea and coffee all day. The Cosy Corner restaurant and the Downham Bakery are near the level crossing in Downham Market. At Denver Sluice the Jenyn's Arms is on the banks of the river. The Bell Inn is in Denver itself. There is a tea shop at Denver Mill that sells cakes and bread made from its own milled flour.

While you're there

Collectors World at Hermitage Hall represents the life work of Eric St John-Foti, who has amassed memorabilia relating to Barbara Cartland, Liza Goddard, the 1960s and Nelson.

What to look for

Denver Windmill was built in 1835 and used the wind to grind its corn for more than 100 years until hit by lightning in 1941. It was restored by the Norfolk Windmills Trust and visitors can explore the entire complex from the visitor centre on the ground floor to the views from the very top. It is open only in summer.

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