Day out: River Bure, Norfolk Broads
There’s only one way to fully experience a landscape shaped by rivers and waterways – climb into a canoe and let the surrounding natural world overtake your senses, says Patrick Barkham
Vivid yellow willows line a liquid path that meanders through a landscape almost emptied of mechanical sounds. Into this aural void rushes an orchestra of competing arrangements: I can hear the red-wine-rich melodies of a blackcap, the seesawing of a great-tit, the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker and a sonorous cuckoo from a meadow a mile beyond.
It is difficult to reach the sensual heart of the Broads on foot. In such a low-lying landscape, a vertical person is conspicuous and noisy – cracking twigs and making glooping sounds with their wellies if they foolishly attempt to explore the Broads’ boggy alder carr, the nearest thing in Britain to mangrove swamp.
Far better to walk on water, by taking a canoe along the dykes that link this national park of medieval peat diggings.
To journey by canoe is to look at the world upside down. Familiar places, and wild things, are revealed in a fresh light when seen from the water. On the still spring day we take to the River Bure, the world seems mirrored: reflections of the willows and chocolate-brown bullrushes form a perfect picture in the water.
We set out downstream from an old water mill at Buxton, where our canoe hire company meets us and launches our slim vessel, and we glide through an unspoilt valley of woodland and water meadows dominated by yellow flag irises. There are freshly cut stumps of alder on the riverbank, glowing a brilliant ginger in colour.
Hiding in plain sight
A person in a canoe is far less threatening to wildlife than a walker. Ordinarily timid grey herons, which stalk the riverbank every 500 yards, stand motionless by the water as we pass. They add a pleasing greyness to the lurid spring greens – dark slate eyebrows, mid-grey wings and a paler nicotine grey around their necks.
My ears are pricked for the weird booming of another species of heron, the bittern, but although the bird is thriving on the Broads, I’ve never yet heard its call here. It sounds like the low note of someone blowing across the top of an old-fashioned milk bottle.
The possibility that really awakens my senses, however, is that of an otter; I perpetually scan the water’s edge, where collapsed willows form a tangle of possibilities. I’m more likely to spot its traces in the water – an arrow of ripples swimming away from me – and after some hours on the river, I begin to learn the subtle language of water.
Slow-moving broadland rivers do not tinkle like upland streams; they slip towards the sea, their silence amplifying aquatic activity. A sudden liquid plop is the turn of a fast-moving pike; a skitter on the surface is a dabchick; a great thrashing whump, a swan launching itself into the air.
A day on the river offers tactile pleasures, including the smooth wood of the oar in my hand and the cool shock of the water when I dangle a hand into it, but particularly memorable is Britain’s most spectacular explosion of colour. It takes a while to get your eye in but suddenly they materialise around every corner: a rich rusty-coloured breast and a flash of turquoise: a kingfisher darting low across the water ahead, a dazzling jewel in the spring sunshine.
The Canoe Man offers guided and self-guided canoe trips along the Broads. Hire a double canoe from £55 per day. The “Paddle Steamer” package provides tickets on a miniature steam railway from Wroxham to Buxton, where you launch into the River Bure with your canoe, for a day-long paddle downstream to Wroxham (with two well-sited riverside pubs halfway along your route at Coltishall). £80 for two people.
Patrick Barkham is an author and natural history writer for The Guardian.