Yachting on the Norfolk Broads

Find out more about the Norfolk Broads

The area that we know today as the "Norfolk Broads", consists of a collection of open areas of water and interconnecting rivers in the flat and low lying, mostly rural area east of Norwich and into North Suffolk. The three principle rivers are the Yare, Bure and Waveney which all converge and discharge into the largest area of open water which is Breydon, a brackish estuary at Great Yarmouth where the whole system discharges into the sea. There are numerous tributaries off these, including the smaller rivers Ant, Chet, Thurne and Wensum.

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There is reckoned to be nearly 150 miles of water navigable by yachts, and many more miles of river that in their upper reaches, are still accessible by rowing boats and canoes. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty that has long provided inspiration to painters, notably John Sell Cotman, Batchelder, Crome and latterly the renowned horse painter Sir Alfred Munnings, who is recorded as sailing here in the early years of the last century. It is a haven for wildlife, with several bird reserves and major areas designated as being of special scientific interest, such as Halvergate Marsh which remains largely uninhabited and not easily accessible other than by river.

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The area is today recognised as a National Park, it attracts m people a year afloat and of course many many more into the surrounding coastal area. For the record however, there is only one way to properly see the Broads and that is by boat. The Broads are a natural playground for competitive yachtsman, and a nursery sailing water for Holidaymakers, who for decades have learned to sail on its sheltered benign waters. Admiral Horatio Nelson was in fact taught to sail here as a boy, on Barton Broad before joining the Royal Navy and going to sea at the age of 12.

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The origin of the Broads is traced back to Roman times, when in pre-history the whole area was for the most part under water. It then formed a great salt-water estuary called "Gariensis" by the Romans who built defensive forts on either side of its mouth to the sea. These were at Caister in the north and at Burgh Castle in the South where they also built a huge harbour for their ships, which traded with Rome and throughout the rest of the empire. After the Romans left, the area was later extensively settled by the Vikings, who arrived in the 6th and 7th centuries and first settled on easily defended islands within the rapidly changing geography of the estuary. Today many Danecised names remain, such as Clipesby, Mautby and Filby: ("by" meaning settlement or farm). Later place names such as Ship meadow at Beccles, which is now many miles in land also attest to the extent of the estuary that then existed. Vegetation and man himself quickly took over in medieval times though and today Breydon Water is all that is left of the Great Estuary.

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The Broads were man made. Although the whole area is now commonly called the Norfolk Broads, it is actually just specific open areas of water that are correctly termed "Broads" rather than the rivers themselves. Although a lot of open water has disappeared over the last 150 years, there are still around 50 "Broads" identifiable and there are today perhaps 20 which are large enough and otherwise suitable for sailing on. The origins of these Broads was not known until very recently as everyone just assumed they were shallow naturally formed lakes which were simply related to the surrounding and interconnecting rivers. In fact they were all man made many hundreds of years ago, but their use was long since forgotten and no-one had really thought to question why we had so many or why they were shaped the way they were.

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It was not until the late fifties that a remarkable lady called Dr J.M.Lambert, wrote a book called "The Making of the Broads", in which she proved that in fact they were all medieval peat diggings dating back mostly to the 12-14th century. In those days each parish possessed "Turbary rights" which meant that they had the right to dig peat that was extracted from the ground for fuel. Peat is a loosely compacted mass of very old vegetable matter (typically dead reed root and stem), decomposed and party carbonised, which when dried makes a slow burning but none the less effective fuel. Ancient "Tithe" maps showed the boundaries for Turbary rights and Dr Lambert realised that these co-incided with the shape of each Broad and in some cases; outcrops from the shore and lines of little islands dotted across the water. Further investigation also revealed that the Broads were generally "basin" shaped with near vertical sides detectable under the later mud silt, and in places physical evidence of the digging itself was still evident. They are all between just 6 & 12 feet deep, although some are now made shallower still by silt which has only formed in the last century.

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The Peat Diggings became flooded sometime around the end of the 14th century, for reasons that today remain unclear and there has been no peat digging to speak of in this part of the country since then. It is probable that the workings had to be kept drained by man when they were being worked, and it is quite possible that a catastrophic storm surge overcame the fragile defences and flooded everywhere, making it impossible to dig anymore. More likely though, is that wood and coal took over as a more effective form of fuel (the latter was easily imported into the area by boat from Newcastle) and the diggings simply flooded from neglect, probably almost overnight.

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The result today, is a unique and extensive waterway,, within an area of unspoiled outstanding natural beauty, which is quite unlike anywhere else in Britain. It is a delightful place to enjoy a sailing holiday, and probably the only place where you can so easily hire such old and historic craft. Please refer to the links page for contact details of where these may be hired. To find out more about the Broads, please go to our History page or the Photo galleries, which will provide you with much more information.