The Norfolk Broads are 125 miles of rivers, lakes and streams that weave their way across East Anglia, which if your unfamiliar with the geography of the United Kingdom, is the big lump of land sticking out of the country towards Europe. England’s curvy arse gleefully mooning France over the North Sea.
The area has more waterways than Venice and Amsterdam put together. Some call it the ‘Venice of the East’. Of course, some people also call Birmingham the ‘Venice of the Midlands’. But these people have never been to Venice.
Unfortunately, sticking out away from the rest of the country means that for most people Norfolk is bloody miles away. I’d certainly never been. To me Norfolk was not much more than Alan Partridge, mustard and of course, these famous Broads. One is fictional, one I can get for 80p from Morrison’s, and the other…well, if I want a river I’ll get the Northern Line to London Bridge. However, it was the girlfriend’s birthday and a pot of Colman’s Original by the Thames wasn’t going to cut it, so what better excuse to travel for far too long to visit somewhere a bit different?
The 110 mile early morning drive from the terrifying roads of furious South London to the snaking countryside of sleepy North Norfolk took three and a half hours. For you arithmetic fans that’s an average of 30 miles an hour, and probably explains why I’ve never bothered to make the trip before.
We were staying in an Air B&B in Coltishall, a village on the northwest corner of the Norfolk Broads. It’s known as the gateway to The Broads. Which I think means that once you’d tried Coltishall it can lead to stronger and more addictive Broads villages, such as Ludham, or Ormesby St. Michael.
Welcome to the Broads
We spent the first day exploring the area by foot and car. We ate in the sun by the riverbank and then went on a wander through the long grass and reeds alongside the River Ant to the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey. Only the gatehouse really survives of the 1000 year old Abbey, and that’s only because a farmer built a windmill over the structure in the eighteenth century. The elaborately carved arches have been well preserved within the tower of the mill, and have been additionally carved into by over 200 years of wannabe Banksys.
The ruins were nice, but no more than an excuse for a walk really. The Broads may have been a three and a half hour drive away but this countryside was a million miles from the smog of London. Acres of wild meadows, lush, green and overgrown due to the constant supply of water. Even the tread of tourists along the footpath do little to hold back the spread of flora. Where the land is dry enough cows and sheep graze away, water birds splash about in the meandering rivers, whilst marsh harriers and kestrels soar slow and low over everything in between.
The actual broads, or the large lakes feeding off the rivers and marshlands, were long thought to be completely natural features of the landscape. It was only in the 60s that it was discovered they were actually flooded medieval peat excavations. As sea levels rose the low lying pits filled with water and the wild landscape of rivers, lakes, marshland and reedbeds was formed. Windpumps were build throughout the area to try and drain the pits but these largely failed, and thus were converted into windmills instead.
What this curious history has left behind is a landscape that is often too marshy to be heavily built on and is carved into by miles upon miles of beautiful winding rivers and streams and lakes, speckled throughout with antiquated windmills and thatched roofed farm houses. A landscape that can often seem untouched by the 20th century at all.
Water lovely day for a sail
Now I enjoy nettle stings as much as the next guy, but as any Norfolkian worth his mustard will tell you, the only way to properly explore the Broads is by boat. So there was Norfolk-ing chance I wasn’t hiring one. Most tourists hire big sleeper barges for days or weeks at a time, but there are a few companies that also offer day boats. And being the Captain Planet that I am, I opted for a natty little electric powered number.
The boat cost £95 for 6 hours. It’s not pocket money but they seat 6 so if you manage to get a full house it could be as little as £15-20 each for the day. There’s a hair-raising speed limit of 5mph throughout most of the waterways, and most boats are mechanically limited to this so unfortunately there’s no real chance of any high speed chases from the river police.
However, with only the weight of two passengers on our little eco vessel, I think we must’ve been hitting speeds of 5.1, maybe even 5.2mph! Because we were overtaking every mother out there! And let me tell you, there is no thrill on earth like very, very slowly, over the course of 8 or 9 minutes, overtaking a big river cruiser. You’ve just got to try not to look the other driver in the eye as you’re doing it, otherwise it can be a pretty awkward 8 or 9 minutes. And sometimes you hit a narrow stretch of river just as another boat is very sluggishly coming the other way and end up in a very slow game of maritime chicken. I’m getting adrenaline tingles just thinking about it!
As it was a hot day, and the driver’s seat was slightly canopied, I decided to follow my electro-boat’s renegade attitude to the river and try to drive perched on the back of my seat with my head and shoulders sticking out through the top. This of course meant I couldn’t reach the wheel and had to steer with my feet, which took a bit of getting used to but after I’d ploughed us into the reed banks half a dozen times and narrowly missed a couple of luxury cruisers it really became quite easy.
The birthday girl also took to steering a boat with her feet like a duck to…well, steering a boat with its feet really. What happened was probably partly my own fault. “Take the wheel” I said, and jumped off the seat leaving the boat unmanned and the throttle locked to full speed. “No, just sit up there so you can take a photo. Steer with your feet, it’s easy”.
I then climbed over onto the front of the boat, stood on the edge and pulled the old ‘looking out to sea’ pose. Although ‘looking out for tree’ might’ve been more useful because before I could say ‘cheese’ we’d veered wildly into the bank and the low hanging branch of an alder tree whacked me in the back of the head and sent me face first into the windscreen.
By some miracle, or some subconscious agility picked up from watching too many Westerns where cowboys fight on the top of moving trains, I somehow managed to grab a piece of boat and stop myself plunging straight into the drink.
It wasn’t the water I was worried about. Although falling into a Norfolk river fully dressed wouldn’t have been my ideal Sunday afternoon. It was the swans that made me nervous. It must be baby bird season at the moment because all of the ducks, geese and swans that had been getting any action over the spring were now being followed by tiny, fluffy clones. All paddling along in a line like fuzzy waterborne Hari Krishnas. These little fellas were of course achingly cute and made the whole place look very Beatrix Potter, but they also made the swans even bitchier than usual.
There are two things every child learns about swans, and frankly they’re the only two things you’ll ever learn about swans in your entire life:
1) All swans are owned by the queen, and therefore she’s the only person who can eat them. Or as my biology teacher worded it, “she can wipe her arse on a swan’s neck if she wants, but if you so much as touch one the wrong way (whatever he meant by that) you’ll rot in a jail cell for it.”
and 2) A swan can break your arm. Nobody’s ever explained how but they can and will gladly break your arms, and probably more, if you piss them off.
So you can imagine the fear we felt a gang of them suddenly surrounded us. You’re probably thinking “No, I can’t imagine anything so dangerous. I live a safe surburban lifestyle and rarely encounter deadly beasts, so it’s hard for me to put myself in your shoes.” And I thank you for your honesty, but let me tell you, firstly, I wasn’t wearing shoes. It made steering difficult. And secondly, I’m glad you can’t imagine it, because I wouldn’t wish a situation like that on anyone. But if you do find yourself on the waterways of Norfolk, stay vigilant, stay safe.
We’d parked the boat up at the edge of Barton Broad and were just innocently enjoying a few snacks. Ham sandwiches, crisps, cheese twists, you know, and being the generous guy I am, I sprinkled a few crushed chilli heatwave Doritos into the water for the fishies. But no fishies turned up. Only swans.
They swooped in out of nowhere and surrounded the boat, gobbling every delicious flake of crisp in sight and then, with a collective air of menace, turned on us. Now some ‘experts’ might’ve said they were just after more crisps. I’m no Bill Oddie, but I did see the looks in their eyes, and I’ve seen the Jurassic Park franchise enough times to make an educated guess as to what it meant.
Just like Chris Pratt in the raptor cage I jumped up and held out my arms to keep them from getting in the boat. They raised up and hissed at me like Hannibal Lector. It didn’t work at all. If anything they looked more intent on getting in and taking turns to break my arms repeatedly until they hung at my sides like rubber gloves. There was only one thing for it, I leapt into the driving seat, grabbed the steering wheel with my hands (there was no time for mistakes), kicked the throttle to maximum and with an economical sounding whirr, very slowly got the frig out of there with our arms intact. “Have you finished taunting the wildlife now?” The girlfriend asked. She hadn’t even looked up from her sandwiches.
There’s not a huge deal to do in the way of activities out on the rivers, unless you have a fishing rod, which we didn’t. But to someone who’s usual mode of transport is a grimy underground train carriage filled with other people’s farts and super flu, cruising along a river with the sun shining, Bloc Party pumping out the ol’ mini bluetooth, and an open box of cherry bakewells, is just about as close to heaven as you can get.