MENTION ‘DENVER’ and most people will immediately think of a city close to the Rocky Mountains in the American state of Colorado. Recently, we visited Denver, not the city in the USA but a village in the English county of Norfolk. This small settlement lies a few yards west of the A10 road between Ely and Kings Lynn, immediately south of Downham Market. Norfolk’s Denver derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon words, ‘Dena fær’, meaning ‘the ford or passage of the Danes’. This name dates from the time that the Danes and Vikings were invading Britain after the Romans had abandoned it. Denver is located close to the River Great Ouse that flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn. It was this river that the Danish invaders needed to cross as they headed on their way to invading parts of England.
The village of Denver is attractive and is arranged around its parish church of St Mary. Surrounded by its graveyard, the walls of this mainly mediaeval edifice, mostly 13th to 15th century, are made of large irregularly shaped boulders held together with mortar and trimmed with carved stone. Many of the village’s other buildings have walls constructed similarly, a feature that we observed in several other north Norfolk villages. St Mary’s has a square tower at its western end. Inside, its nave has a wonderful timber barrel vault ceiling decorated with carved features typical of gothic design. Otherwise, the church’s interior is simple without being plain. We could not spend too much time examining the place because we did not want to disturb a small group of elderly people praying aloud.
Denver has a tall historic windmill. This is on the western edge of the village and was built by John Porter in 1835 to replace an earlier mill on the same site. In 1863, a steam powered mill was erected next to the windmill. Further modernisation followed that. The large sails of the mill have gone, but the small fantail remains. The mill forms the centrepiece of a small complex of commercial enterprises housed in buildings that were formerly part of the mill compound. These include a café and a coiffure, aptly named ‘The Hair Mill’. Denver Mill is one of several lovely old windmills we saw dotted around northern Norfolk.
A narrow thoroughfare, Sluice Road, leads west from Denver towards the River Great Ouse, which is about 1.6 miles away. The road reaches a complex of sluice gates that regulate the levels of water in the river and other waterways including the River Wissey and the New Bedford River (man-made) that meet here. Now managed by The Environmental Agency, this set of sluice gates was first established, albeit in a simpler form, in 1651 by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677). It was he who introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England, mostly in East Anglia and the Lincolnshire Fens. He married an English woman, Katherine Lapps, and his descendants remained in England, having changed their surname to ‘Youdan’. In 1647, Vermuyden lived in Maiden Lane in London’s Covent Garden.
There are at least five modern, electrically operated sluice gates at Denver. By operating them judiciously, water levels in much of Norfolk and its surroundings can be regulated. The Duke of Bedford River was built by Vermuyden to shorten the distance that water had to travel to and from Bedfordshire. According to the season, this was either flood water or water needed for agricultural purposes. The system of rivers and canals regulated by the sluices at Denver is far from simple. So, I will not attempt to explain it, but visitors to this impressive water-controlling complex can read all about it on a series of informative panels posted next to the sluices.
Sluice Road crosses the River Great Ouse and other streams along bridges to which some of the sluice gate mechanisms are attached. Although the river system would have been quite different when the Danes invaded England, it is possible that where Vermuyden built his first sluice might be close to where the invaders forded the Great Ouse and lent their name to Norfolk’s village of Denver.