The Norfolk Broads by boat

Labyrinthine and beautiful: this man-made wetland is best seen from the water

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The Broads in Norfolk and Suffolk comprise seven rivers – the Yare, Waveney and Bure are the largest – but their interlocking patterns are punctuated with no fewer than 63 shallow lakes of varying size.

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In local parlance they are the ‘broads’ that give the region its name, and all were formed by medieval labourers digging peat for fuel. Slicing it out turf by turf, the fuel merchants excavated vast depressions over the centuries which slowly flooded with water.

The other glaring irony of the area is that no wetland is more man-made than this, yet none seems wilder or more inaccessible. Come here by car and you feel all those rivers and fens, with their serpentine twists and tides holding you completely at bay, while an endless geometry of dykes frustrates pedestrians from making even the simplest of transects across the landscape.

The best way to get along with the area is not to try to get around it, but to float at leisure upon it. Taking to the Broads in a boat is not just the easiest way to go exploring – in many cases, it is the only way.

All the major Broads settlements – Beccles, Potter Heigham, Stalham and especially the twin towns of Hoveton and Wroxham – have somewhere to hire a boat. These range from massive luxury cruisers that could accommodate extended families for weeks, right down to Canadian-style canoes leased by the hour.

Among the reeds
All vessels put you on nodding acquaintance with the region’s wildlife, but the smaller and quieter the means of transport, the richer the resulting sense of intimacy. Great crested grebes, ducks and coots will ride and bob on the water’s swell just beyond your own bow wave. Terns hover above the deck, while four-spotted chasers and Norfolk hawker dragonflies (the latter found nowhere else in Britain) will actually come aboard. Occasionally you feel you could almost reach out and touch the herons and kingfishers waiting at the edge. In some of the narrowest back channels, the overhanging vegetation – meadowsweet, great hairy willowherb and purple loosestrife – reach into the boat.

This wetland complex is so labyrinthine it takes a lifetime to know it well. Yet there are many fabulous locations with their own exceptional character. The tidal flats at Breydon Estuary near Great Yarmouth hold large flocks of waders, ducks and gulls.

At high water, these birds inscribe wild wheeling patterns against East Anglia’s famously large skies. At Barton Broad, which is one of the largest of all, visitors see otters almost on a daily basis. At the epicentre of the Broads, near the stark ruins of St Benet’s Abbey, there are areas of grazing marsh where no house stands or car passes – the essence of wilderness itself.

Useful Information

HOW TO GET THERE
You can reach Hoverton, Wroxham and Stalham by following the A1151 out of Norwich, then Potter Heigham on the A149 out of Stalham. Follow the A146 south-east to get to Beccles from Norwich. 

FIND OUT MORE
Norfolk Broads
Tourist Information
www.norfolkbroads.com

EAT
Barking Smack and Bullitt BBQ
16 Marine Parade
Great Yarmouth Seafront
Norfolk NR30 3AH
01493 859752
www.barkingsmack.com
Homemade locally sourced food, barbecued to perfection.

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STAY
Eveleigh House B&B
49 London Road, Beccles
Suffolk NR34 9YR
01502 715214
www.eveleighhouse.com