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The Norfolk Broads

Most people assume that the Norfolk Broads are a natural phenomenon, but they are actually the result of medieval peat diggings that became flooded. (The name Barton Turf gives some indication of this earlier activity.) The man-made nature of the Broads was first discovered in 1952 by Brundall-born botanist Dr Joyce Lambert who noticed that they had steep sides and flat beds -  both factors indicating peat extraction.

Aerial View of Barton Broad

In total there are 63 broads. Most of these lie in the northern section and are linked to the rivers Thurne, Ant and  Bure. However, there are also a number of Broads further south linked to the River Yare   - such as Rockland and Surlingham. In addition, there is also Oulton Broad which lies over the border in Suffolk.

G. Christopher Davies (1849-1922)

The Norfolk Broads as a holiday destination was popularised, in large part, by G. Christopher Davies in his books The Handbook to the Rivers and Broads of Norfolk and Suffolk. The handbook was first published in 1882 and subsequently ran for fifty editions. Here is a beautiful description of wherries which used to carry cargoes through the Broads:
 

'No Broad scene would be complete without the presence of a wherry, which is perhaps the most picturesque and graceful of all sailing goods-carrying craft, and certainly the swiftest and handiest of all which voyage on smooth waters. The course of the river through the green marshes is, where the water is itself invisible, marked by the tall high-peaked sails of these craft, which seem to be gliding along the land itself.'


However, Davies was aided by the fact that new railway lines (The Great Eastern) were opening up the county. The line to Norwich arrived in1844. His work also coincided with the increase in leisure time and the beginnings of mass tourism.

Davies was also a novelist and wrote the children's book The Swan and Her Crew which is set at Hickling. This tale of boys and boats was obviously a major influence upon the work of Arthur Ransome.


Hugh Money-Coutts

In 1919 Money-Coutts published an account, in verse, of a tour through the Norfolk Broads entitled The Broads. The quality of the poetry may not have been tip-top but the topographical details are fascinating:
 

On Breydon Water, when the tide is out,
The channel bounds no sailorman can doubt
Starboard and port, the miry banks reveal
Where safety lies beneath its cautious keel.
But when the flood has wiped the water clean,
- Hiding the muddy haunts where seagulls preen
Their wings, and shake their heads - black pillars mark
The channel's edge for each adventuring bark.


Arthur Ransome (1884-1967)

Arthur Ransome visited the area in the 1930s and soon began to use the area as inspiration for his childrens' books Coot Club (1934) and The Big Six (1940).

Arthur Ransome

Both of these stories centre upon the village of Horning. Ransome was knowledgeable about both sailing and the bird life of the Broads and his descriptions are detailed and affectionate. Here is a passage from Coot Club, which bears some resemblance to Davis' description above:
 

'And so, rejoicing in their freedom, the outlaw and his friends sailed on their way, through a country as flat as Holland, past huge old windmills, their sails creaking round, pumping the water from the low-lying meadows on which the cows were grazing actually below the level of the river. Far away over the meadows, other sails were moving on Ant and Thurne, white sails of yachts and big black sails of trading wherries.'

Interestingly, Ransome seems to have been aware that it would be the coming of the motor-cruisers that would spoil the pristine wilderness of the Broads. In Coot Club - it is the noisy, uncouth 'Hullabaloos' aboard the Margoletta who are the villains of the story. They disregard the speed limits, cut up the sailing boats and spend much of their time in the riverside pubs - when not pursuing Tom, Dick and Dorothea along the River Bure. Our heroes, in contrast, navigate the water ways in the gentle, wind-powered Teasel.

Soon would come the explosion of the Broads holiday trade and the deterioration of the environment - a far cry from P. H. Emerson's nineteenth century photographs of reed cutters and marshmen. The escape of coypu into the Broads also had a part to play in bank erosion - a problem which was greatly exacerbated by the wash from the cruisers.


Rockland Broad

Rockland Broad

Rockland Broad

 

John Betjeman (1906-84)

As a child Betjeman used to visit the Broads with his father and, later in life, reminiscences of these holidays inspired two of his finest poems East Anglian Bathe - which is set at Horsey and Norfolk - which recalls his time aboard his father's yacht the 'Queen of the Broads' and contains the evocative lines  'The lap lapping of the weedy Bure,/A whispering and watery Norfolk sound'.

John Betjeman Photo

Sir John Betjeman

In fact, Betjeman has admitted that it was the view of St Peter's church at Belaugh from his father's boat which first inspired his love of churches.

 

Alan Hunter (1922-2005)

Hunter is best know for his series of detective novels featuring the stoic Inspector Gently. Hunter, who was born and brought up in Hoveton, tried his hand at both poetry and plays before settling down to write over 40 crime novels starring his eponymous hero. A number of the stories are set in the Norfolk Broads including Gently Down Stream and Gently Floating.

In his 1944 collection of poetry (entitled Norwich Poems) there is charming piece about holidaymakers arriving in Wroxham and rushing round to gather all the provisions they need for their week afloat: Saturday at Wroxham.

Hunter's detective novels were recently adapted by the BBC but, unfortunately, the original Broads location was changed to Northumberland. In the programme, Inspector George Gently was played by Martin Shaw.

 

George MacBeth (1932-92)

In 1979 the poet George MacBeth moved to the Old Rectory at Oby. The house is situated on a slight rise overlooking the low-lying land and marshes of the River Bure and River Thurne. This unique landscape inspired him to write his collection Poems from Oby. Here is the first verse of his poem Yuletide in Norfolk:
 

The long-ships drove up the Bure, and the horned men were
   there to rape and to burn,
Seeding their names, Rollesby and Billockby, Fleggburgh,
   Clippesby and Thurne,
Ashby and Oby. Our church roofs came from the rot of each
   oak-warped stern.

Read complete poem


One of the best views of Broadland can be obtained from the top of the tower of St. Helen's Church at Ranworth - sometimes referred to as 'the cathedral of the broads'. The tower has 89 uneven steps - followed by two ladders and a heavy trap door which gives access to the roof. Once outside, there is a magnificent view of both Malthouse and Ranworth Broad. It was on Ranworth Broad that Dick and Dorothea in Coot Club first learn to sail. Further a field can be seen St. Benet's Abbey - not to mention hundreds of church spires. With the aid of binoculars, it is also possible to see Happisburgh lighthouse and the spire of Norwich Cathedral.

Today the Broads Authority is eager to promote the area as a centre for sustainable tourism and is therefore encouraging the use of electric boats.

Other writers who have been inspired by the Broads include: Mark Cocker (Buckenham), James Blyth (Fritton), Gladys Mitchell (Ranworth), Wilkie Collins (Horsey), Arthur Patterson (Breydon Water), Ted Ellis (Surlingham) and Chris Crowther (Hoveton).
 

Links:

More photographs of the Norfolk Broads

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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