Before the coming of the railways, livestock and farm produce would be carried to market along the roads, tracks and drove roads that had been used for centuries. Within living memory, cows were herded into York along the A19. However, heavy goods would be transported up the River Ouse.
The siting of the city of York owes a great deal to the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss where the Blue Bridge now stands. The River Ouse has been used for transporting people and goods since the ice age. The Romans had a wharf further up the River Foss and later the Vikings used the river first to plunder and then to settle and trade.
Alcuin, the 10th-century Anglian scholar wrote of ‘flowery meadows’ leading to the ‘high walls and lofty towers’ of the city. In 1066 a Viking army sailed up as far as Riccall before marching on to York and the battle of Fulford, the first of three battles that year that led to the Norman Conquest.
Trade with Europe led to York becoming the second richest city in the land. However, the river at that time was tidal all the way to York and as ships became larger, York gave way to Hull as the seaport. Goods would be loaded onto smaller ships or barges to continue up the Ouse.
In 1857, Naburn lock was built, maintaining water levels back up to the city but the lock was too narrow for the larger ships, and goods continued to be brought up to the city in barges from Hull.
The opening of the East Coast Main Line route from Selby to York was a further blow to the river trade which could soon only compete with rail and, later, road in the transport of bulk goods where time was not of the essence.
A short-lived attempt to deliver newsprint to the York Press site on the River Foss was the last commercial use of the river for the transport of goods, and the River Ouse is now only used for recreation.
The Solar System Greenway crosses the River Ouse between Naburn and Bishopthorpe and users often stop to watch the sailing club boats that are parked beneath the iconic swing bridge. Although no longer in use, the bridge is the twin of the bridge at Selby, which does still operate for trains going to Hull.
Thanks to Fishergate, Fulford and Heslington Local History Group for these notes, which also form the basis of an interpretation board the Railway to Greenways project has erected on the Naburn Bridge. More of their work on the history of the Rivers Foss and Ouse can be found in the archive.
More information on the role of the River Foss can be found on the River Foss Society website.