The Wash

The Wash

The Wash is the square-mouthed estuary on the northwest margin of East Anglia on the east coast of England, where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire. It is among the largest estuaries in the United Kingdom. It is fed by the Rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse.


The Wash shows as a large indentation in the coastline of the map of eastern England, separating the curved coast of East Anglia from Lincolnshire. It is formed by a large bay with three roughly straight sides meeting at right angles, each about 25 kilometres (15 miles) in length. The eastern coast of the Wash is entirely within Norfolk, and extends from Hunstanton in the north to the mouth of the River Great Ouse at King's Lynn in the south. The opposing coast, which is roughly parallel to the east coast, runs from Gibraltar Point to the mouth of the River Welland, all within Lincolnshire. The southern coast runs roughly northwest-southeast, connects these two river mouths, and is punctuated by the mouth of a third river, the River Nene.

Inland from the Wash the land is flat, low-lying, and often marshy: these are the Fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

Owing to deposits of sediment and land reclamation, the coastline of the Wash has altered markedly within historical times; several towns once on the coast of the Wash (notably King's Lynn) are now some distance inland. Much of the Wash itself is very shallow, with several large sandbanks—such as Breast Sand, Bulldog Sand, Roger Sand, and Old South Sand—exposed at low tide, especially along its south coast. For this reason, navigation in the Wash can be hazardous for boats. A lightship marks the entrance to the Lynn Channel, the one safe channel from the North Sea to the Wash's south coast.

Water temperature

The Wash varies enormously in water temperature throughout the year. Winter temperatures are brought near to freezing from the cold North Sea flows. Summer water temperatures can reach into the low 20s degrees C after prolonged high ambient air temperature and hot sunshine. This effect, which typically happens in the shallow areas around beaches, and often only in pockets of water, is exaggerated by the large, sheltered tidal reach.

Wash River

At the end of the latest glaciation, and while the sea level remained lower than it is today, the rivers Witham, Welland, Glen, Nene, and Great Ouse joined into a large river.

The deep valley of the Wash was formed, not by the interglacial river, but by ice of the Wolstonian and Devensian stages flowing southwards up the slope represented by the modern coast and forming tunnel valleys of which the Silver Pit is one of many. It was this process which gave the Silver Pit its depth (the chart soundings are in metres) and narrowness. When the tunnel valley was free of ice and seawater, it was occupied by the river. This kept it free of sediment, unlike most of the tunnel valleys. Since the sea flooded it, the valley seems to have been kept open by tidal action. During the Ipswichian interglacial, though the Wash river probably flowed by way of the site of the Silver Pit, the tunnel valley will not have been formed at this stage as its alignment seems inconsistent.


The Wash is a Special Protection Area (SPA) under European Union legislation. It is made up of very extensive salt marshes, major intertidal banks of sand and mud, shallow waters and deep channels. The seawall at Freiston has been breached in three places to increase the saltmarsh area, to provide an extra habitat for birds, particularly waders, and also as a natural flood prevention measure. The extensive creeks in the salt marsh, and the vegetation that grows there, helps dissipate wave energy thus improving the protection afforded to land behind the saltmarsh. This last aspect is an example of the recently developing exploration of the possibilities of sustainable coastal management by adopting soft engineering techniques. The same scheme includes new brackish lagoon habitat.

On the eastern side of the Wash, one finds low chalk cliffs with their famous stratum of red chalk, at Hunstanton, and gravel pits (lagoons) at RSPB Snettisham, which are an important roost for waders at high tide. This SPA borders onto the North Norfolk Coast Special Protection Area.

To the northwest, the Wash extends to Gibraltar Point, another Special Protection Area.

The partially confined nature of the Wash habitats, combined with the ample tidal flows, allows shellfish to breed, especially shrimp, cockles and mussels. Some water birds, e.g. Oystercatchers, feed on shellfish. It is also an important breeding area for Common Terns, and a feeding area for Marsh Harriers. Migrating birds, such as geese, ducks and wading birds, come to the Wash in huge numbers to spend the winter, with an average total of around 400,000 birds present at any one time. [Waterbirds in the UK 2004/05: the wetland bird survey. Banks, Collier, Austin, Hearn and Musgrove. ISBN:1-904870-77-5] It has been estimated that around two million birds will use the Wash for feeding and roosting during their annual migrations.

The Wash is recognised as being Internationally Important for 17 species of bird. This includes pink-footed goose, dark-bellied brent goose, shelduck, pintail, oystercatcher, ringed plover, grey plover, golden plover, lapwing, knot, sanderling, dunlin, black-tailed godwit, bar-tailed godwit, curlew, redshank and turnstone. [Waterbirds in the UK 2004/05: the wetland bird survey. Banks, Collier, Austin, Hearn and Musgrove. ISBN:1-904870-77-5]

It was featured on the television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Historical incident

The most famous incident associated with the Wash is the loss of King John's royal treasure. According to contemporary reports, John travelled from Spalding in Lincolnshire to Bishop's Lynn, in Norfolk, was taken ill and decided to return. While he took the longer route by way of Wisbech, he sent his baggage train, including his crown jewels, along the causeway and ford across the mouth of the Wellstream. This route was usable only on the lower part of the tide. The horse-drawn wagons moved too slowly for the incoming tide, and many were lost.

The present-day location of the accident is normally supposed to be somewhere near Sutton Bridge, on the River Nene. The name of the river changed as a result of redirection of the Great Ouse during the seventeenth century, and Bishop's Lynn became King's Lynn as a result of Henry VIII's rearrangement of the English Church.

Astronomical study, however, permits a reconstruction of the tide tables of the relevant day and it seems most likely, given travel in the usual daylight hours, that the loss was incurred in crossing the Welland estuary at Fosdyke.

There is also a suspicion that John left his jewels in Lynn as security for a loan and arranged their "loss". This looks likely to be apocryphal. However that may be, he passed the following night, that of 12 to 13 October 1216, at Swineshead Abbey, moved on to Newark-on-Trent and died of his illness on 19 October.

Local traditions

Sailing from out of the South Lincolnshire Fens into The Wash (especially with respect to shell-fishing) is traditionally known locally as "Going Down Below".Although still used today, the origin of the phrase is unknown, and is generally an oral tradition without documentary evidence.


The Boston Stump, a Lincolnshire landmark, can on clearer days be seen from the Norfolk side of the Wash.


*A. L. Poole, "Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216" Oxford History of England. (1955) ISBN 0-19-821707-2. (p.485 gives the official version of John's last days.)
*Cook, J. & Ashton, N. "High Lodge, Mildenhall" in Current Archaeology No. 123 (1991)
*West, R.G. & Donner, J.J. "The Glaciation of East Anglia and the Midlands" in "Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London vol.112" (1955)----

External links

* [ Flood warning status]
* [ Fenland that borders The Wash]

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