The Wash

The Wash is also the name of a 2001 film.

The Wash is the square-mouthed estuary on the north-west 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 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 sea-wall 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. This last aspect is and 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 north-west, 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 shrimps, 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 about 300,000 birds.

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 supposed to be somewhere near Sutton Bridge, on the River Nene. The name of the river changed as a result of re-direction of the Great Ouse during the seventeenth century. Bishop's Lynn became King's Lynn as a result of Henry VIII's re-arrangement of the English Church.

There is a suspicion that John left his jewels in Lynn as security for a loan and arranged their "loss". However that may be, he passed the night at Swineshead, moved on to Newark-on-Trent and died of his illness.


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


Poole, A.L. "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.)de:The Wash


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