Nicola here, back from a holiday sailing on the Norfolk Broads. The Broads is a vast area of connected rivers and lakes in the East of England and it has been a tourist destination since the 19th century. I’ve wanted to go sailing on the Broads since I read a book by Kathleen Fidler called “The Brydons on the Broads” when I was about 12 years old. The Brydons were a family who had lots of adventures but I remembered the story set on the Norfolk Broads in particular because it involved the children seeing a ghost ship and finding a secret Broad. Exciting! One of the special things about the Norfolk Broads is that when you are there, the atmosphere is so strong you can really imagine this happening. There are all sorts of secret little waterways with sailing boats slipping silently by. A kingfisher will flash past flying along the river and disused windmills stand sentinel over the reed beds. It’s a magical landscape.
A Brief History
The Norfolk Broads look like a natural phenomenon but they are manmade. From the 9th century people cut the peat in the area to use as fuel for heating and cooking. This was a major industry until the 14th century but when sea levels began to rise the water filled the holes created by the peat cutting and formed a series of lakes, the Broads. In the 16th Century, Norwich was England’s second largest city after London and it was very convenient to have a network of waterways to transport wool and agricultural produce for export. For several hundred years Norfolk wherry ships were an iconic sight on the Broads. We saw several restored wherries that are still sailing today, including the one in the photo.
By the 18th century work was underway to drain the marshland of the Broads because it was becoming too flooded. It is from this time that we have the other iconic Broads image – the beautiful windmills that were used as drainage pumps. Some of these have been turned into houses. Others have fallen into ruin. Most are extremely photogenic!
By the 19th century the Broads was starting to be used for pleasure. Fishing was very popular as were the sailing “frolics,” the forerunners of regattas. During the Victorian and Edwardian era the Broads became a holiday destination for rich families seeking an “adventure” holiday! These days anyone can visit the Broads for an adventurous holiday afloat!
The Broads also have a connection to Horatio Nelson; his sister lived at Barton House in the village of Barton Turf. It felt pretty cool to be sailing on Barton Broad and thinking that Nelson had probably done the same thing!
St Benet’s Abbey
One of the places I was keen to visit was St Benet’s Abbey, a monastery founded before the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the only abbey in England that was not closed as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries. There is a major archaeological project taking place to excavate St Benet’s. You can read about it here. In the 18th century a windmill was built into the ruins of St Benet’s gatehouse, which gives it the rather extraordinary appearance that it has today.
St Benet’s is a very atmospheric place so it is fitting that there are lots of ghost stories associated with the ruins. One refers to a monk called Brother Pacificus who can be seen rowing across the river in a small boat, accompanied by his dog. It is said that the wherrymen would refuse to moor overnight near the ruins of St Benet’s because they were afraid of the ghosts.
St Benet’s was also a very special place for us for finding a rare butterfly – not the very beautiful swallowtail, which we also saw, but a Wall Brown. This was first named in 1699 and referred to as “The golden marbled butterfly with black eyes.”
There is a rather nice UK/USA connection at South Walsham, where we visited the Fairhaven Water Gardens. When we went there we discovered that Lord Fairhaven, who created the gardens, took his title from Fairhaven, Massachsetts, which was the place where the first Lord Fairhaven was born. The water gardens are stunning. They formed part of the South Walsham estate that Lord Fairhaven bought after the 2nd World War. The house and formal gardens had been used as a convalescent home and the woodland and water garden as a training ground for the home guard. Pleasure boats were sunk in the inner broad, which was also covered with barbed wire, to prevent German flying boat from landing. Tanks were hidden in the garden; some of the tank bays can be seen in the garden today. The house had fallen into disrepair and the garden had become a jungle. From this, Lord Fairhaven created the gorgeous woodland and water gardens that are there today.
We also visited the thatched Edwardian mansion of How Hill, built initially as a holiday home for the Boardman family and another place with a gorgeous garden. How Hill looks the epitome of Edwardian luxury but in the grounds is a very different sort of building, a cottage of the type that a marshman and his family might live in. The cottage was built in about 1780 and was tiny. There was one main living room downstairs, a scullery, a larder and tool room. Upstairs were two bedrooms, one for the adults who shared it with the baby, and a room next door for the children (sometimes as many as seven in one tiny room). The cottage was thatched in sedge and reed, harvested on the Broads. Marshmen did all sorts of work, from operating and maintaining the drainage mills to cutting the hay, which was sent to London to feed the hackney carriage horses. They were also fishermen and they caught eels and shot duck and pheasant. It was a way of life lived mainly afloat. Transport was more likely to be by boat than on the roads or tracks and it struck me that this was completely different from the way that most people would have lived on the land in the Georgian/Regency period.
All this was a far cry from our boat, which was comfortable if not luxurious with a hot shower and four poster bed! But what was the same was that you get a very different perspective when travelling by water than you do on land. Roads disappear, as does any sense of distance and direction (at least it did for me!) Time seems to slow down (although maybe that is just the effect of being on holiday!)
At the wonderful Museum of the Broads I read up a lot more about the history of the Norfolk Broads.One of the boatmen we met commented that there wasn't much historical fiction that features the Norfolk Broads. This is surprising since it's such an evocative landscape and there is so much history to write about! I can feel a series coming on…
All this from a book that inspired me when I read it as a child! And knowing what voracious and wide-ranging readers we all are I wondered if there was a book you had read as a child - or as an adult - that inspired you to visit a particular place, and whether it lived up to the expectation when you went there?