The Canal Guide

Norfolk Broads

Article researched, written and photographed by Jeannette Briggs

No survey of Britain's leisure and pleasure waterways would be complete without a mention of the Norfolk Broads. This amazing complex of rivers, large lakes, meres, and dykes covers a huge area of Norfolk and Suffolk. Collectively they are known as "The Norfolk Broads".

The Norfolk Broads are cut off from the rest of England's canal and river network, but they are among the most popular and frequented waterways in the whole of the UK.  Indeed, tourists have been traveling
to the Norfolk Broads to go sailing for more than 70 years, as pre-war posters advertising Wroxham railway station will testify.

The River Bure in Wroxham

Nowadays, the Broads cater for a whole new range of tourists, from families on large self-drive motor cruisers and spending a week or two on the rivers to day boats hired out by the hour. There are intrepid energetic people who still attempt to sail the traditional Norfolk sailing boats on the large expanse of open water in Wroxham Broad, or to navigate their way up the reed-edged channels towards Hickling Broad or Horsey Mere.

However, not just boaters come to the Broads.  The whole area is a haven for bird-watchers and fishermen and is also famous for being the home of such wildlife rarities as the bitterns and marsh harriers and for otters, swallowtail butterflies, and Norfolk Aeshna dragonflies. It is one of Europe's finest and most important wetlands for nature conservation, a fact recognized by its designation as a National Park.  Climate change is threatening the whole area, which -at one point near Horsey Mere - lies only three miles from the North Sea.  The Northern Broads in particular are in grave danger of flooding in the event of a surging tide here. Such a very special environment needs our constant attention and protection from us all, as far as possible, so that future generations can enjoy this wonderful part of Britain's waterways as we do.

A lovely day on the Norfolk Broads - windmill, cruiser and sailing yacht

The Norfolk Broads consist of five long rivers. The Northern Broads run off the River Bure, plus its tributaries the Ant and the Thurne, which then flows out to the North Sea at Great Yarmouth. The Southern Broads consist of the River Yare  - which flows from near Norwich to the sea, together with the Rivers Chet and Waveney, which join it at Breydon Water before the estuary at Great Yarmouth.  It would take much more than a week to cover the entire river system and this just adds to your enjoyment, as you can keep discovering new parts of "The Broads" every time you visit the area.

The tranquil beauty of the  River Bure near Wroxham

The River Bure near Coltishall 

The river reaches the outskirts of Wroxham, the largest village on the Bure, home to several boatyards, plus pubs and restaurants and Roys of Wroxham, which just has to be the largest supermarket store in any village in England.  Wroxham is also famous for its low bridge which straddles the Bure and which sorts out the men from the boys when it comes to navigating your large boat through a small space under the bridge- especially when the tide is in....

Wroxham Bridge with the tide in..


Wroxham and Hoveton, its neighbour just over the bridge, are a bustling center for boating of all kinds, and the population of both villages swells hugely in the summer months, when thousands of people who enjoy a week by the river in a rented cottage or who want to actually be on the water in a hire craft descend here.  Despite all this, it is a pretty spot, with manicured lawns sweeping down to the riverbank from the many houses and bungalows that are alongside the river, weeping willows and huge trees that seem to descend to the very water's edge.


Pleasure boats moored on the river south of Wroxham


Beyond Wroxham the first large Broad that you reach is -of course - Wroxham Broad, which you can sail or motor around, and admire the skill of the yachtsmen who love this huge area of open water.  The Broad is designated as being mainly for sailing yachts,but motor boats can creep around the edges of the broad and rejoin the main river lower down.

After Wroxham Broad you continue down the River Bure until you reach the entrance to Salhouse Broad.This is one of my personal favourites, because it is totally unspoiled and free from commercial developments.  It has a little sandy beach for moorings, fringed with great oak trees and green meadows.  In the sunshine it is an idyllic spot to spot and enjoy nature, and fishermen often moor out in the Broad for the day.


The Swan Inn at Horning

Leaving Salhouse Broad the River Bure proceeds down to the village of Horning, which is spectacularly beautiful and often appears on calendars and biscuit tin lids! The famous view is if the Swan Hotel overlooking the river as it takes a huge 90 degree bend south.  The river is wide here and is busy with cruisers, day boats, canoes, little sailing dinghies such as Toppers and craft of all kinds.  The village has some nice shops, a wonderful ice cream parlour and public moorings at the staithe.

From Horning you can leave the main river and sail down the dyke to Malthouse Broad and the village of Ranworth.  This broad is a delight, with an information centre, public loos, a nice pub right by the village moorings and a stunning church with a huge tower (St Helen's). I recommend an overnight stop here for a complete Broads experience!

South Walsham Broad - a peaceful scene

Yachts moored in South Walsham Broad

Returning from South Walsham to the Bure you can now travel northwards up the River Ant to Stalham.  You will pass Ludham Bridge, which has a pub, the Bridge Stores and How Hill Country Park which comes complete with the picture perfect combination of a windmill and thatched cottage. There are moorings available here too.

You next reach the great expanse of Barton Broad, where the River Ant widens out to resemble a huge lake. Barton Broad is a wonderful place to sail.

Beyond the northern end of Barton Broad the little town of Stalham comes into view.  This little town has everything a boater could wish for,  including a large supermarket and lots of pubs with moorings.

The famous mediaeval bridge at Potter Heigham

A yacht motoring across Barton Broad

If you continue down the river Bure you will reach the confluence with the River Thurne to your left. This river leads past Thurne Dyke and Womack Water (both worth exploring if you have time) until you reach the boating village of Potter Heigham.  This is world famous for its mediaeval bridge which is particularly difficult to navigate with a large boat. Indeed most large boats need a pilot on board to get under it.  Day boats and sailing yachts by and large do not have this problem, and this means that you can explore what for many is the most fascinating part of the whole Broads network - Hickling Broad, Heigham Sound and Horsey Mere.

The River Thurne complete with boats and windmill

If you continue down the River Bure  beyond the confluence with the River Thurne and in the direction of Great Yarmouth you reach Upton, the home of Eastwood Whelpton sailing yachts  Eastwood Whelpton run a RYA Sailing School from here, and you can hire one of their boats for a week's holiday and do the sailing courses at the same time.


Photos by Eastwood Whelpton

Heigham Sound, Horsey Mere and Hickling Broad are huge reed fringed inland sheets of water which epitomise everyone's idea of what a Norfolk Broad should look like....  With the huge expanse of wide blue open sky above you, no sounds other than those provided by nature - coots and moorhens calling, gulls mewing high above you, the loud raucous honk of geese on the start of their epic journeys to far flung parts of the world .. the list is endless. If you are lucky, you may experience the feeling of being out in the wild, alone with nature. It's like nothing else I can think of in Britain, except possibly the Far North of Scotland.

The dyke from Horsey Mere

A tranquil afternoon near Horsey Mere The sea is just over the horizon.

Perhaps the best part of all the Northern Broads is Horsey Mere and the dyke leading to the pretty little windmill and the National Trust information centre and coffee shop alongside some delightful moorings in the dyke.  Moored here you can enjoy magnificent scenery all around you and actually smell the sea - which is only 3 miles away across the sand dunes.

Retracing your steps you rejoin the River Bure at Acle and then commence the long sail downriver towards the sea at Great Yarmouth which it joins the River Yare on the Suffolk Broads. The picture below epitomises for me the beauty of the northern Broads set in a unique part of Britain.

Boats moored in a tranquil summer setting


The Southern Broads

The Southern Broads area consists of three rivers; the Yare from Norwich to Breydon Water near Great Yarmouth, the Waveney from Geldeston near Beccles  and Lowestoft, and out to Breydon Water and the little River Chet which runs from Loddon to Reedham where it joins the Yare.
These rivers offer yet another aspect of the Norfolk Broads and an alternative perspective to the  landscape you might have thought was the definitive "Norfolk Broads" if you had cruised exclusively on the northern rivers.

Enjoying a fine day on the River Yare

The River Yare flows near the beautiful city of Norwich (which is actually on the River Wensum, a tributary of the Yare) under many bridges and past Thorpe St Andrew until it reaches Whitlingham, where there is an Information  and Visitor centre and a country park.  From here the Yare flows through some gentle countryside past Bramerton and the busy and bustling boating centre of Brundall, until you reach the first of the two Broads on this river. Surlingham Broad is fringed with trees and is a delight to visit, although it can get a bit crowded at the height of the summer holidays.  Just a little way down the river you will find the entrance to Rockland Broad, which is again a great favourite with boaters and fishermen. From here it is a long sail down the Yare past Cantley and Hardley Staithe until you reach the confluence with the River Chet at the old chain ferry just west of the little town of Reedham.  Reedham is a true Norfolk Broads centre complete with shops, Pettitts Animal Adventure Park and boat hire companies of all kinds.

The River Yare at Reedham - photo by Ian Russell and reproduced by kind permission

Once you leave Reedham the scenery changes - you are now in the lower river with reeds fringing the sides on each bank. To your right is the entrance to the New Cut, artificially created by the navigators to help the passage of boats from Lowestoft and Oulton Broad upriver to Norwich. This joins the River Waveney to the River Yare.


Canoeists enjoying a day out on the Norfolk Broads

Open Skies and sailing boat on Suffolk's rivers

The Yare now flows north east and soon you reach the Berney Arms, a well known navigation point.  Beyond here is the entrance to Breydon Water which leads ultimately to Great Yarmouth and the open sea.  Breydon Water is not for the faint hearted and great caution has to be exercised because it is tidal and you have to "make it" across Breydon Water at high tide, getting through the Great Yarmouth complex and up the River Bure at Stokesby before you can relax.

The source of the River Waveney is deep into Suffolk, but the head of navigation is the lock at Geldeston.  Beyond here the river reaches the lovely little town of Beccles with pretty little streets full of quaint shops and a nice local history museum. From here the river flows under the "old Bridge" and the "new Bridge" in an eastward direction until it reaches the junction with the cut from Oulton Broad. Oulton Broad is actually in the town of Lowestoft which is a haven for boaters and fishermen as well as walkers, bird spotters and nature lovers. The Nicholas Everitt Park borders the broad here where children can play and adults enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the park. You can hire day boats from here and enjoy a day trip on the Liana, the Broads Authority's electric day boat. Oulton Broad actually connects to the open sea through Mutford Lock and Lake Lothing.

The Yare near Reedham

From Oulton Broad you continue north westwards past Somerleyton swing bridge and the nearby Great Hall. complete with beautiful gardens and a maze. Beyond here the River Waveney reaches St. Olaves with its bridge and 13th century priory plus Fritton Lake and Decoy which has lots of outdoor activities for children. The river here is surrounded by flat countryside with tall reed beds and it twists and turns past Burgh Castle one of the few notable landmarks. The Castle is the remains of a Roman Fort with some of the best views in the Broads across the marshes to the Berney Marshes and the Berney Arms.

Just beyond Burgh Castle the River Waveney disgorges into Breydon Water and boaters should heed the warnings to be careful about navigating across this huge open sheet of water,
which is subject to high tides, swift, dangerous currents and occasional vicious winds from the North Sea. If you plan to navigate across Breydon Water you need to be fully prepared and have the tides information from the Harbourmaster at Great Yarmouth.

Above: Breydon Water - photo by Evelyn Simak and reproduced by kind permission.

I do hope that this brief introduction to the Norfolk Broads has given you an insight into the unique delights of these waterways. You can come and try for yourself canal boat hire or join others taking Canal boating holidays on these rivers and broads!

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