Cruising the Waterways
The appeal of the Norfolk Broads is that it is vast being Britain’s third largest inland waterway, yet accessible too, more than 125 miles of it are navigable
Article by Mark Nicholls
The sun is high in a clear blue sky; the vista stretches for miles across reed-lined banks and open marshes where cattle and sheep graze. Wind pumps rise like sentinels on the banks every few miles. Some are now derelict and abandoned from the days they managed the water levels, while others have been lovingly restored as landmarks across the Norfolk Broads.
We are moored on the River Bure, close to one of the waterside pubs that offer refreshment along the way. The only sound is the lapping of the water on the side of our vessel, Emerald Light, and the distant tone of an idling engine as another cruiser further along the mooring prepares to cast off. It epitomises the pace of life on the Broads in summer.
We had hired the Emerald Light from the Herbert Woods boatyard at Potter Heigham and set off to explore these fascinating waterways over a long weekend. While the natural landscape is lovely, it is easy to forget that the Norfolk Broads were actually man-made as a result of peat extraction. Over time, the excavations filled with water and provided one of Britain’s best-known tourist attractions.
Having picked up the boat on a Friday evening, our journey initially took us down the River Thurne and then east along the Bure towards Great Yarmouth. Here, the option is to cross Breydon Water and enter the southern Broads, which opens up the network towards Oulton Broad, Beccles and Geldeston Lock, or take the River Chet towards Loddon, or even navigate the River Yare to Reedham or on to Norwich. But given we only had a couple of days, we headed back along the Bure and explored what is arguably Norfolk’s prettiest waterway, the River Ant.
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The landmark to seek out is the atmospheric remains of St Benet’s Abbey, though now with the ruins of a later wind pump (windmills used for marsh drainage) incongruously built within its ancient walls. The best view of the abbey is from the water. By the 12th century it was an important ecclesiastical institution and the monks who lived there were heavy users of the peat extracted from the landscape in the process which created the Broads we know today. While its importance had waned by the 16th century, it remains an iconic landmark for those cruising on the Broads.
We branched off the Bure, which eventually leads to Wroxham – the ‘capital’ of the Norfolk Broads – and set off along the Ant. Meandering and quiet, the River Ant heads north-east through reed-high banks bordered with pasture. On the water, you will see mothering swans and their grey cygnets, ducks and a fluffy brood as well as moorhen, geese and long-legged herons swoop over the river. In comparison to neighbouring waterways, the Ant is narrow but relatively uncrowded as day boats, yachts and motor cruisers pass in close proximity. Comfortable, quiet, well-equipped and relatively straightforward to manoeuvre and moor, Emerald Light was the perfect for exploring the Ant at a sedate 3-4 mph. (Maximum speed on the Broads is 6mph)
Our routine had also quickly formed – breakfast on board, cast off, head a little further, pause for lunch and then moor up near a pub for a spot of afternoon fishing and then dinner. After Ludham Bridge, the river passes Neave’s Drainage Mill and before long to the right on a ridge looms a large house, which was built as the family home of Edward Thomas Boardman, the son of renowned Norwich architect Edward Boardman, in 1904. Among his children were Humphrey who represented Great Britain in the 1928 Summer Olympics in the double sculls and Christopher, who won a yachting gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
With Turf Fen Drainage Mill in the foreground, the residence is now the How Hill Trust residential centre which endeavours to improve public education of the Norfolk Broads environment. Heading further along the Ant, there are more drainage mills as the river closes in with overhanging trees mirrored in the stillness of some stretches before a sharp bend brings you to Irstead village with its thatched cottages and neat lawns fronting the river. Beyond that is Barton Broad – the second largest broad in Norfolk – as the Ant continues up to Wayford Bridge past the lovely Hunsett Drainage Mill.
The appeal of the Norfolk Broads is that it is vast, yet accessible too. With picturesque stretches of open water and broads linked by the seven natural rivers of the Bure, Ant, Thurne, Yare, Chet, Waveney and Wensum, and many channels and dykes, it is Britain’s third largest inland waterway and more than 125 miles of it are navigable. Even novices to the world of cruising can soon get the hang of steering and mooring and with helpful maps which give advice and warning on narrow or shallow stretches or other potential hazards, or highlight notable landmarks, delightful days can be spent touring the waterways of Norfolk and North Suffolk.
Among the numerous operators, Herbert Woods is one of the longest-established Norfolk Broads holiday hire operators and has had a presence on these waterways for nine decades.
Overall, there are more than 60 Broads, with the area a haven for a quarter of the country’s rarest species, while rare birds include crane, bittern, and marsh harrier plus a whole host of insect and plants. And there are 28 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the area.
Across this landscape are villages, monuments, landmarks and mooring spots and plenty of riverside pubs to call at. Most areas of water are interlinked and picking up a hire cruiser in places such as Wroxham, Horning or Potter Heigham for example, opens up an extensive area to explore.
Having enjoyed the beauty of the River Ant, we soon discovered the Broads is an area to re-visit and plot a different route each time. Next time, perhaps it will be the southern Broads, and a journey into Norwich.
Enquiries: Mark experienced the Broads aboard one of Herbert Woods’ holiday hire models, the Emerald Light. Spacious, easily manoeuvrable and capable of sleeping 6-8 people, it features three cabins and a dining/saloon area / www.herbertwoods.co.uk / 0800 144 4472