May 4, 2003
Low Country Cruising in East Anglia
By AURELIA C. SCOTT
T'S easy," the young man said, demonstrating the combination throttle and gear shift in our rented 12-foot electric boat. "Forward, reverse, stop."
As I settled into the driver's seat for the morning excursion, he added, "Don't trail your ropes or they'll snag."
Then, with a grin, "And if the ducks are passing you, you're going too slow."
Last September, my husband, Bob, and I spent two weeks exploring East Anglia, a rural area of eastern England that is home to a 117-square-mile wetland (slightly bigger than the borough of Queens), the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. We exchanged homes with an English couple, trading our Victorian in Portland, Me., for a white-washed cottage in Hemsby, a village on the edge of the Broads.
Part nature preserve, part recreation area, the Broads welcome about a million visitors annually, who fish, bird-watch, bicycle, hike and boat along nearly 125 miles of navigable rivers and shallow lakes, or "broads." The waterways wend through a bucolic landscape of reed beds, windmill water pumps, manicured fields confined by blackberry hedgerows and medieval villages of flint-walled churches and thatched cottages.
We spent our days walking, boating and exploring villages. That first self-drive expedition on the River Thurne was as easy as promised.
We rented our craft in Potter Heigham, a village famous for a medieval stone bridge built low over the water. Instead of testing our bridge-avoidance skills, we steered downriver, past brightly painted vacation cottages and boathouses.
Sailboats and swans glided through the waterside neighborhood; ducks cropped postage-stamp lawns; homeowners waved from deck chairs.
After several hundred yards, we left the houses behind and entered typical Broads habitat. Six-foot-high marsh grass and reeds blanketed the shore of the 50-foot-wide river. Marsh harriers wheeled overhead. White-beaked black coots rode the swells.
I counted eight solitary fishermen, each of whom had carved out a space among the reeds. The only sounds were the calls of birds, rustling reeds and the gentle chug of the few slow-moving boats.
This serene, seemingly natural landscape is actually the result of centuries of human intervention. From possibly as early as the ninth century until the 14th, peat quarries were excavated in the treeless marshes beside East Anglia's many rivers.
The peat heated such grand buildings as Norwich Cathedral, which in 1343 burned 400,000 pounds of Norfolk peat. By the 15th century, however, the water table began to rise and the quarries gradually filled, becoming the Broads.
On that first day on the water, we turned left at the whitewashed Thurne Dyke wind pump. Like most Broads' wind pumps, the one in Thurne village is a beautiful and nonfunctional artifact; plain electric pumps regulate the water levels in the marsh today.
After mooring our boat more or less proficiently, we walked along Thurne's winding lanes admiring the undulating thatch roofs, each unique to the thatcher. Then with our boating map spread on a table at the Lion Inn, we debated our next destination and ate a hearty plowman's lunch of local bread, cheddar, ham and pickled onions.
While we loved the freedom of steering our boat along the waterways, we also enjoyed two guided tours.
One day, we boarded a Broads Tours Company double-decker riverboat in bustling Wroxham on the Bure. After reassuring us that the river is only eight feet deep, our captain-cum-tour guide took us downriver past fanciful riverside cottages, including one shaped like a windmill and another like a beehive.
Throughout the 90-minute tour, the captain regaled us with an entertaining mix of history and personal reminiscences. We learned, for example, that older cottages are built on 90-foot alder wood stilts sunk into the marsh, while newer ones are built on steel.
We learned also that the Broads' distinctive wide-hull, gaff-rigged sailing vessels known as wherries can navigate fully loaded in three feet of water. And we learned why most of the Broads' pubs are located on a bend in the river:
In the days before engines, when the wind died, the wherries congregated at river bends. "And what better is there for sailors to do when there is no wind," asked our captain rhetorically, "but drink?"
Another day, we joined a naturalist and another couple on a "wildlife water trail" managed by the How Hill Nature Reserve on the River Ant near Ludham. In a small electric boat, we left the river and glided into the reed bed, following a channel dug 200 years ago by reed cutters.
Reeds swayed above our heads and brushed the sides of our little boat. We watched ruddy darter dragonflies lay eggs on the strawlike stems and listened to the call of a rare Cetti's warbler.
The waving reeds are a crop as well as a refuge for rare species. An 18-inch-thick Norfolk reed thatch roof, we were told, can last for 70 years.
Suddenly, we heard a quiet putt-putt and behind us appeared a flat-hulled open boat driven by a ruddy-faced man in a squashy hat. It was Eric, a thatcher, out to cut marsh grass to use as roof capping.
"Beautiful day for it," he called as he edged past us in the five-foot-wide channel.
That evening, we celebrated another day on the water with dinner at the Fisherman's Return in Winterton-on-Sea. In a 300-year-old flint and brick building, this pub offers exceptional meals in a cozy dining room warmed by a small fireplace and a large, dark-paneled bar room with a dart board.
I tried a fizzy hard cider that came with a "careful, it's strong" warning from the smiling bartender (it was), while Bob sipped a Norfolk Wherry Bitter. Then we settled into a table near the fireplace for thick slices of hot, locally smoked salmon followed by fresh grilled lemon sole, tiny new potatoes and caramel apple tart.
We had intended to do as much walking as boating in the Broads. Paths are marked on local maps and identified with roadside signs. Yet we discovered that river walks often confined us between towering stands of reeds with no view of the water.
And one meadow looked much like another as we trudged across it. So we shifted our focus to visiting nature preserves and ambling through villages.
Typically, we would see a hand-made sign picturing the main historic occupation of a village (fishing boats, farmers, reed cutters), a village green, pub, church, grocer and tidy flower-bedecked homes. We found that grocers give directions, churches welcome visitors, local people love to discuss their gardens, and pubs offer well-prepared local specialties.
We combined village and nature walks one day in tiny Ranworth on the Bure River. Our first stop was St. Helen's Church - to see the view from its bell tower and to admire its prize possession, the most complete 15th-century rood screen in England. Painted in faded blues, greens, yellows and reds the carved dark wooden screen depicts then-popular saints and the apostles, all looking, to my modern eyes, pale, hopeful and hungry.
Bob's poor eyesight made it unwise for him to climb the bell tower, so I set off alone. As I climbed up the narrow tower's steep, uneven stone steps, it was easy to imagine that the year was 1402, not 2002.
I paused to breathe when I reached the wooden platform beside the bells, then climbed two iron ladders to the roof. Our informants had been right - the view of church spires, white sails and blue ribbons of water threading through green fields was worth the quaking in my legs.
I rejoined my husband on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's boardwalk nature trail, which guides visitors through all the Broads' habitats - open water, reed bed, fen and alder woodland. The trail - less than a mile - leads to a visitor center in a thatched wooden building set on pontoons in Ranworth Broad. There, we collected a stack of postcards and toured an informative display about the Broads' ecology, economics, and social history.
Just upriver from Ranworth is Horning, a village whose traditional prettiness made it one of my favorites. Its long main street beside the boat-filled Bure is lined with thatched cottages abloom with window boxes, local shops rather than tourist traps, pubs and several 19th-century hotels.
On the day we visited, we ate a vegetable curry and local sausages and mash at the New Inn, a half-timbered pub with a beamed ceiling, and watched a heron stalk across a waterside lawn.
To visit villages that weren't on a river, we drove narrow country lanes - for instance, from tiny Sea Palling on the coast, south past the vast red Horsey wind pump, to stately Martham, whose Georgian houses range along its village green.
By the end of our visit we were already waxing nostalgic about the call of gray lag geese, the whisper of reeds and the sight of a thick thatch roof curving above a window like an embrace.
East Anglia is a drive of around three and a half hours from London. We took the M11 to the A11 toward Norwich. From Norwich, the A47 leads to the Broads.
Several airlines fly to Norwich International Airport from Manchester, Edinburgh and Amsterdam, but none from London.
But there is fast train service from Liverpool Street Station in London to Norwich, taking 1 hour 40 minutes.
Boating and Walking
A comprehensive guide to activities, restaurants and accommodations in the Broads can be found at www.norfolkbroads.com.
The Broads Authority, 18 Colegate, Norwich NR3 IBQ, (44-1603) 610-734, publishes excellent maps and guides to the area. Its Web site, www.broadsauthority.gov.uk, also provides a helpful introduction to the area.
Another source of information is the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which manages several nature preserves in the Broads. Contact it at Bewick House, 22 Thorpe Road, Norwich, Norfolk, NR1 1RY; (44-1603) 625-540, fax (44-1603) 598-300; www.wildlifetrust.org.uk/norfolk.
Broads Tours, a boat company consortium, offers guided tours and boat rentals by the hour, day or week, with rates starting at $16 an hour, $83 a day and $830 a week, at the rate of $1.60 to the pound. It has offices in Wroxham, Potter Heigham and Horning. For more information, call (44-1603) 782-207 or see www.broads.co.uk.
Where to Stay
As house exchangers, we had our own home in Hemsby. But the Norwich Area Tourism Agency, Guild Hall, Gaol Hill, Norwich, NR2 1NF; (44-1603) 662-661, fax (44-1603) 666-687, www.visitnorwich-area.co.uk, lists many accommodations in its guide to the Broads.
An option is staying on the water. Norfolk Broads Direct, a subsidiary of Broads Tours, (44-1603) 782-207 and www.broads.co.uk, rents fully outfitted houseboats for three to seven nights. Prices range from about $500 to $1,500 depending on size of the boat and time of the year.
We toured several bed and breakfasts in the Broads:
The Old Station House Bed and Breakfast, North Road, Hemsby, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk NR29 4EZ, (44-1493) 732-022, has three beautifully appointed, sparkling queen bedrooms. They share a bathroom, but each has a sink and they are being converted to private baths. The rate, $60 a room, includes a full breakfast.
The Swan Inn, Lower Street, Horning, Near Wroxham, Norfolk, NR12 8AA, (44-1692) 630-316, fax (44-1692) 630-821, is a historic inn on the River Bure. The 11 pleasant, modern rooms with private baths go for $95 to $105, with breakfast.
Where to Eat
The Fisherman's Return, the Lane, Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk, (44-1493) 393-305 and www.fishermans-return.com, serves lunch and dinner daily. Dishes include grilled sole, battered cod, lamb shank in ginger, and fresh local crab. Dinner for two with wine runs about $50.
The New Inn, Lower Street, Horning, Norfolk, (44-1692) 631-223 is open for lunch and dinner daily. Dishes include vegetable curry, Cromer crab, steak and ale pie, lamb shank in tomato. Dinner for two with ale, about $40.
The Lion Inn, the Street, Thurne, Norfolk, (44-16692) 670-796, offers lunch and dinner daily. Choices include lamb balti, cumberland sausages and mash, grilled bream, six types of curry. Dinner for two with ale, about $40.
AURELIA C. SCOTT writes frequently about travel.
"Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish"