The Norfolk Broads
It was a long drive, all across the country it seemed, from the little hamlet of Leckhampstead via Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge to Norwich in Norfolk. We found a supermarket along the way to stock up on provisions. Our most inspired buys were some fleecy tracksuits which we really needed given that the weather had been freezing the last few days - and looked like continuing in the same vein. Is this Spring??
We collected the boat from a town called Stalham on the upper reaches of the River Ant. The boat was very similar to the one we hired on the Thames way back in 1984, in fact probably just as old. After a run-through with someone from the boatyard, we headed off to find a place to stay for the first night. The maps we were given were woefully inadequate and we soon found we were up a small tributary rather than further down the river where we wanted to be! Not only that, but the mooring places were all taken there and the channel was only a little wider than the boat was long. This made turning around an interesting exercise to tackle in the first hour of hiring the boat! We managed though and later pulled up on the riverbank and camped 'wild' for the first night.
In the 6 days on the boat we managed to explore just about all the Northern Broads. We motored around at the grand speed of 5 mph poking up into tributaries, into the broads off the main rivers and along the rivers, the Ant, the Bure and the Thurne, themselves right up to Great Yarmouth on the coast. We passed through quintessential English countryside and villages - green fields, thatched cottages, riverside pubs. The upper reaches of the rivers were prettier with trees overhanging the water and water lilies lining the banks. The lower wider reaches and the broadwaters were generally lined with stretches of reeds once harvested for thatching but now only taken in small amounts to maintain the health of the reed beds. Everywhere were windmills or wind pumps in varying stages of decay or restoration. The remains of an old abbey were in the middle of a farmer's field but worth the walk to visit it.
It was mid-term break so there were plenty of boats with families. And the weekend was a bank holiday weekend so the yobs were out as well. But in amongst all the hire boats were many, many private wooden boats: some old and carefully and beautifully restored, many newer versions of the old style common in the area. And there were the larger wherries, the cargo boats which plied the rivers before the advent of roads and rail. Of the hundreds that sailed a century or more ago, there are only about 6 left, but we were fortunate enough to see a couple of them in full sail.
And the birds! We were often surrounded by swans, geese, ducks, coots and moorhens, all looking for food. Being Spring, there were babies everywhere: cygnets, goslings, ducklings and whatever baby coots and moorhens are called. The big birds eat out of your hand and fight each other to get the best morsels. We saw all sorts of other shyer birds hiding in the reeds and on the mud banks and bought a little book to try and identify them - we seem to be becoming twitchers!
One day we walked to Toad Hall Cottage by the River Ant, built early 1800s as an eeler's cottage and now a small museum. The cottage was furnished with old household goods and farmers', eelers' and reedcutters' implements. Fascinating.
The 'Ra' is a stainless steel and teak solar boat that is run by the Broads Authority for trips around Barton Broad. We took a trip aboard and had a thoroughly interesting and informative talk about the history of the Broads and the wildlife.