Norfolk Broads by kayak

Despite the notorious lack of access to most of England’s rivers there are still quite a few available around the country, particularly in the lowlands, to visit. Last year I paddled the Thames and in August this year I dipped my paddle in the river Bure on the Norfolk Broads. The experience of paddling these rivers is quite different to the challenge of the sea, it brings its own special sense of adventure. There is a tranquillity, a real sense of travelling through the landscape and a timeless connection with the countless lives that the river has touched through the ages.

The sea smashes most things to bits more than a few years old but on the rivers everywhere are relics of history stretching back to into the mists of time. The broads themselves are believed to be the flooded remains of medieval peat-digging pits. The surrounding land has been used for reed-cutting for thatched roofing for centuries and the romantic remains of windmills, draining the land for agriculture, cast proud silhouettes above the landscape everywhere.

Day one

My first day’s trip was from Horning on the river Bure, upstream to above Caltishall. August bank-holiday week is one of the busiest of the year, the weather was glorious too, so the river was filled with a great assortment of vessels. Due to their proximity, The Broads are particularly popular with Midlanders. Much of the traffic comprises hire craft, ranging from small electric powered launches up to huge floating holiday chalets, piloted largely by drunken Brummies. This mode of travel also seems popular with stag and hen parties, so my modest kayak received quite a lot of light-hearted ribaldry as I was rocked by the wake of passing revellers.

Surprisingly, the river here is tidal, being some 4.5 hours later than Great Yarmouth, although the flow and rise-and-fall are pretty negligible. At intervals along the river are connections to some of the actual broads themselves. These lakes vary in size from just a few hundred metres to some sizable expanses, which take a good 20 minutes to paddle across. There was not time to explore every nook and cranny of every Broad or progress to my campsite would have been slow, but there are many tempting openings between the alders and reeds which only a shallow boat like a canoe can fit through. Some of these wander off into the ‘mangrove swamps’ for miles, relics of old navigation or drainage channels. Only a few yards into these channels the sounds of the river die away to be replaced with an eerie stillness, the musty smell of anaerobic decay bubbling up through the shallow mud and the buzz of an occasional mosquito.

On the lower sections of the rivers, which comprise the majority of the parts navigable by powered craft, there are no locks and the current flow is only very limited. The rivers are almost flat with man-made embankments further downstream, built as part of the overall drainage system. Above the navigable limits, their character is quite different. These parts are relatively narrow, in places shallow and with a healthy current. These are the loveliest stretches too. Idyllic English countryside, gently nodding willow trees, grazing cattle, darting king fishers.

Canoes are well catered for in The Broads. There are several specialist hire companies and portages are well organised and maintained. Unfortunately there are not many campsites within striking distance of the water but there did look to be a lot of opportunity for wild-camping, which I’ll know for next time. On this occasion though I had pre-arranged campsites for my night’s rest. The first of these was The Goat Inn at Skeyton. It was not exactly on the river, but careful scrutiny of an OS map and a bit of light ‘Google Earthing’, seemed to suggest a small tributary and then a beck which should put me just a short wheeling distance from my goal – theoretically!

The tributary showed up just fine and was plenty wide enough. The beck showed up too but quickly narrowed to about 3ft wide and 6 inches deep. Unperturbed I pushed my way steadily through the reeds and shallows. I only needed to cover about a half a mile so I was sure I could make it through. After about 200 metres the beck became a ditch along the edge of a field. Unfortunately the field was occupied by a small herd of shaggy cattle, with long horns. I looked at them and they looked at me. Then they started to stampede. I’m sure they had nothing but friendly intentions and the big bruiser in the lead, with a ring though his nose, only wanted to say ‘hello’ to my bright orange kayak, but I didn’t think I’d chance it. Monday night’s backwards paddling practice at Tipner possibly averted a very bizarre kayaking fatality!

Safely back in the tributary I was now faced with how on earth to get a fully laden sea-kayak across a half mile of assorted fields, ditches and woodland without even a clear idea of exactly where I was going. What followed was possibly not the Club’s finest hour and any spectator would have puzzled to workout how I had ever got into such a ridiculous situation. An hour later, scratched, stung, exhausted and muddy I managed to wheel my craft to the sanctuary of a proper farm track which led to a road. ‘The Goat’ was mercifully not far away where I awarded myself a well earned pint. For the record, if anyone else needs to retrace my steps, there is a much more sensible short path, which somehow I had missed, that leads directly from the camp-site to the water.

Day two

I took this sensible path the next morning for my return. Back the way I had come, with the following current this time, for a splendid paddle through dappled sun-shine, with just the birds and the trees for company – apart from the two frogmen that is - something about dropping a Rolex into the water, I didn’t quite grasp why they were swinging from a rope hanging from a tree though. It’s extraordinary what you encounter when you travel slowly.

There are over 200km of navigable rivers within The Broads Authority region and possibly twice that available to shallow drafted craft. They connect to the sea at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, so a combined river/sea trip would be feasible. There is easily enough water to explore for several weeks and anyone determined to paddle every available inch would have a major challenge on their hands. Few people could claim to have paddled all of it. The character of the region changes from the winding narrow upper reaches to slow lazy flat rivers closer to the coast, passing countless charming spots en route. Something new awaits the paddler around every bend.

Day three

I set off downstream again. The tree-lined banks soon gave way to expanses of low waving reed-beds. This was a landscape of big skies and windmills. Timeless and serene. Occasionally the top-sail of a traditional wherry could be seen catching the breeze above the vegetation. I paddled up the river Thurne and on to the famous Potter Heigham bridge, the lowest and narrowest on The Broads, notorious for hosting nautical calamity. The river here is lined with small, pretty holiday cottages all sitting with their toes perilously close to the gradually rising river level. Flooding is a real problem. But the bustling throngs of friendly holiday makers didn’t seem to be too concerned.

Day four

Further downstream I stopped to investigate the intriguing sight of an old windmill Siamese-twinned with a derelict medieval church.

It turned out to be the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey, once the most important in England and the only one not to be despoiled during the Dissolution. The windmill was built on top of the remains sometime in the 18th century. It was extraordinary to reflect that here, in this bleak, remote scrubby field, miles from anywhere, once stood an Abbey which would have rivalled Westminster. All that remains today is a small amount of the gatehouse and some fragments of wall. “The lone and level grasses stretch far away.”

After four days my time was up but I shall be certain to return again in the future to sample some more of the many delights that The Broads rivers and lakes have to offer. This would be a very good place too, to spend a few days camping from an open canoe. Maybe I’ll hire one of the club canoes next year and give it a try.