Broadland in winter
The Norfolk Broads form one of the largest areas of wetland in the country. Martyn Oliver explores the landscape and its fascinating history.
Sitting roughly on the Norfolk–Suffolk border between Norwich and Lowestoft, and stretching north for about 20 miles, lies the network of shallow lakes and rivers known as the Norfolk Broads. For many years the area, which is now a National Park, has been a magnet for holiday-makers and nature-lovers, drawn to the waterways, marshes and reedbeds.
The Broads themselves are manmade, the remains of medieval peat-mining. Most of the area is formed of post-glacial peat deposits, and Norfolk peat has been cut as fuel for cooking and heating since Roman times. However, from about the ninth century, the population grew and each village had its own ‘turbery’ or digging – it’s said that at one point the episcopal monastery of Norwich requisitioned 200,000 bales of peat every year. By the time the sea-level rose, 400 years later, flooding the diggings and forming the Broads as they are today, around nine million cubic feet of fuel had been extracted from Norfolk’s peat bogs.
The Broads and waterways are maintained by the Broads Authority, which is responsible for the natural beauty of the area, the public’s enjoyment of it, and the ‘navigation’. Under these headings, the Authority looks after and balances the needs of nature and wildlife conservancy with those of both local residents and visitors to the area. The Authority’s members come from local authorities, conservation bodies and local commerce and industry, and all three of these lend strong support. Indeed when I meet Edgar Hoddy, one of the Authority’s Countryside Rangers at Whitlingham Country Park on the outskirts of Norwich, he is busy supervising a group of employees from a local insurance company who are constructing a boardwalk across a watermeadow in the pouring rain.
I ask Edgar to tell me about some of the activities the Rangers find themselves involved in, and it seems that these are large and eclectic. They’re responsible for maintaining the hard infrastructure of the wetlands, such as public moorings and footpaths. They’re also an important interface, not only with the public, but between the Authority and local landowners. At the same time they maintain an oversight of the area’s wildlife – in particular, Edgar is watchful for the appearance of bird flu in the wildfowl population.
The waterways themselves are also monitored and maintained. Water quality is paramount. At the moment, he told me, quality is improving, though its achievement is a lengthy process, and there is valuable cooperation with landowners who agree to limit spraying and fertilization close to waterways. Bank erosion has been another problem. Some years ago the pleasure boats which thronged the waterways in the holiday season would often be driven too quickly, and the resulting wash would quickly break down the riverbanks. Today, the hire companies adapt the boats’ motors to limit their speed and the problem has receded. However, more recently, rising water levels have brought their own threat, and the Authority is partway through a programme of improving the banks’ construction to enable them to resist these higher levels, and at the same time building washes beside the waterways to capture and retain the overflow from the highest tides. Once the tide recedes, the overflow water can be pumped back into the river, and within a very short space of time the washes can once again be used for grazing livestock.
Many of the marshes and reedbeds, such as those at Horsey Mere and Rockland Broad, attract huge numbers of migrating waterfowl in winter. Horsey Mere, in the north, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest which came into the hands of the National Trust in 1948, along with the rest of the Horsey Estate. Winter visitors to the mere will see several different kinds of geese, including pink-footed geese from Iceland and Greenland. Ducks in their thousands include widgeon, pochard, teal and gadwall. And all year round the marsh harrier patrols the water margins and reedbeds.
Rockland Broad, beside the Yare and just east of Norwich, is ideal for winter walkers. Footpaths between the car park at Rockland Staithe, just outside the village of Rockland St. Mary, and the RSPB hide on the edge of the broad, have been designed to allow wheelchair access even during a muddy winter. As well as kingfisher and brent, Canada and greylag geese, ducks such as goldeneye, tufted duck and shoveler spend the winter at Rockland. Spring and summer visitors to Rockland Broad and the surrounding marshes include great crested grebe and Cetti’s warbler; and ospreys will often visit for dinner in spring and autumn.
One of the main attractions of the Broads is the Wherryman’s Way, a footpath which follows the River Yare and its tributary the Chet between Great Yarmouth and Norwich. At one time Norwich was one of the most important commercial centres in England, and goods of all sorts were brought upriver from the coast in shallow-draft sailing vessels known as wherries. Several of these wherries have been restored, and can be seen moored beside the river or occasionally in majestic full sail.
Sailing craft, however, depend upon the wind to get from A to B; and when there is no wind, upon a long pole known as a quant. A crew member carries the quant to the boat’s bow, plants it firmly in the river bottom, and then holds on to it while walking the length of the deck to the stern. By repeating this manoeuvre several times, a sailboat can often be moved from the shelter of a stand of trees back into the wind, and once more she is under sail. The quant pole is also useful for negotiating bridges. The bridge at Potter Heigham on the River Thurne, for example, is low – too low for a masted sailboat to pass beneath. However, Broads boats are built so their masts are easily lowered, and with the mast down they can be poled beneath the bridge. Experienced sailors can ‘shoot the bridge’ at Potter Heigham by dropping and raising the mast, almost without losing way.
Sailing has always brought people to the Broads, and in summer the waterways are thronged with motor cruisers, yachts and dinghies. Of the 41 broads, 18 are navigable, and they are linked by almost 220 miles of waterway without a lock in sight. Overnight moorings are plentiful, and so are the riverside pubs. Fuel for the cruisers (and increasingly charging points for those with electric motors) are easy to find.
The Victorian photographer P.H. Emerson was a pioneer of Broads conservation. The railway had come to East Anglia in the mid-nineteenth century and brought day trippers and holidaymakers to what had been an isolated part of the country with a way of life unchanged for hundreds of years.
Emerson realized that the old ways were in danger of being lost for ever, and he set out to document the living and working traditions of the Broads as they changed and before they vanished, and, if possible, somehow to protect them from the march of progress. He published his images of reed cutters (Norfolk reeds are still in demand for thatching) and lily gatherers (water-lilies were used as bait to catch tench, at one time a staple of the Broads diet), of the waterways, mills and wherries, in some of the earliest volume-produced picturebooks.Though no doubt idealized and romanticized, Emerson’s work provides us today with an unparalleled record of what proved to be a time of irrevocable transition in Broads history.
Although management of the Broads is a year-round enterprise, the vast majority of the region’s economy and viability today revolves around tourism, and is to a large extent seasonal. Many of the attractions are open only during the spring and summer; for example, the restored steamboat Southern Belle plies the river Yare between Great Yarmouth and Reedham – but only in the summer. Popular centres such as Acle, Beccles and Potter Heigham can seem quiet and forsaken during the winter months.
However, this need not be a disadvantage, for the Broads in winter, with frost on the ground, raindrops in the hedgerows, log fires burning in the pubs – and above all, peace and quiet – are places of both calm and magic.