The Norfolk Broads: Boating, Pretty Riverside Villages & More

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” – The Wind In The Willows.

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There’s something about messing about on boats that’s so very English summer (when it’s not raining of course).

Kenneth Grahame nailed this in the above quote from the Wind In The Willows; it is indeed true that there are many opportunities to ‘mess about’ on boats in England. There are is the extensive canal system, a network of rivers such as the Thames and, of course, the sea.

One place where this is particularly true is the Norfolk Broads in the East of the country. This network of rivers and (man made) lakes, or Broads, has neither canal locks nor the sea’s tides, and is therefore a pretty easy way to do some boating.

It is therefore very popular with the British and other holidaymakers (and writers: Arthur Ransome of Swallow & Amazons fame based many of his books there).

Because the Broads are in a relatively unknown part of England, East Anglia, it is perhaps not all that well known outside the UK. But don’t worry, here’s our guide to get you up to speed so that you too can do your own “messing about in boats”.

About The Broads

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The Norfolk Broads are in East Anglia, an extremely flat and low part of eastern England. East Anglia was joined to Holland many centuries ago and has very similar geography.

The Broads are a series of wetlands lying on seven connected rivers: the Yare, Thurne, Ant, Wavernay, Bure, Chet and Wensome.

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How Were The Broads Formed?

People believed, until less than a century ago that the Broads had always been there, but in the 1960’s a botanist discovered the lakes were actually formed by the flooding of extensive medieval peat excavations.

Peat is a mixture of decomposed plant material on its way to becoming coal which, being carbon rich makes a wonderful, slow-burning fuel. Archaeologists think monasteries sold peat to fund their activities.

Boating On the Broads

The Broads were for a long time a key commercial transport system for the many wherries that transported goods around Norfolk.

One great by product of this is the extensive numbers of pubs and inns on the Broads, which now cater for thirsty holidaymakers rather than wherrie-men.

As vacationers are now the main users of the area, it is very well serviced for leisureboats, with equipment easy to operate and well-spaced services if you need to top up the water, ‘pump the bilges’, or replenish the diesel fuel for the motor. The motor is also used to generate ample electricity, as long as you run it regularly.

There are two main types of boats, namely cruisers and traditional long boats, both of which are fully self-contained. All you need to add is yourselves, clothes and toiletries, and food and drink.
They are comfortable, if rather compact, since they may need to pass through narrow waterways, or beneath low bridges. .

Charming Towns and Villages Along The Broads

Norwich, at the west end of the Broads is the only city of a reasonable size.

It has a population just over 200,000, and a heritage dating to Roman times. Its cathedral is justifiably one of the great Norman buildings of England. It has a magnificent historical and cultural heritage.

By contrast, Great Yarmouth twenty miles away on the coast is a characterful seaside resort where nothing much changes.

Between these two lie a variety of towns and villages, some fairly modern, and some historic and quaint.

We can’t possibly write about all of them in a single article, so we mention just a few. Charming Woodbastwick village on the River Bure has a delightful set of thatched houses around the village green. Do try the local beers with names like Wherry Bitter, Nelson’s Revenge, Norfolk Nog and Headcracker.

Ranworth is a short distance from the nearest river, but it offers notable views from the tower of its 16th Century “Cathedral of the Broads’. The steps on the winding staircase are narrow, but once at the top a special landscape unfolds.

Finally, Stalham on the River Ant hosts the Museum of the Broads. The museum advertises it is ‘dog, child and parent friendly’ and provides rides in a vintage rowing boat with a steam engine.

(We have a separate post on villages in Norfolk, many of them in the Broads: Norfolk Villages)

So, in summary, the Broads are a great place for non-boaty people to experience life on water without some of the hardships – locks, lack of services etc.

Highly recommended.