Out & About
No place like home
Jade Soanes takes a look at the National Park she calls home
The Norfolk/Suffolk border has been my home for seven years now, but prior to this I lived my entire life in the lovely, yes, but entirely landlocked Midlands. Perhaps because of this I have always been drawn to water – I am the first to gleefully shout ‘I can see the sea!’ when we get close to the coast, (much to my husband’s amusement; we are only ever a few miles away from the beach here), and I am at my happiest when paddling my toes on a river bank or attempting to stay vertical on a paddleboard.
Little did I know when I hurriedly moved eastwards after said husband, that I was getting much more than just a gorgeous coastline to sate my fascination. Norfolk and Suffolk are perhaps most famous for the man-made Broads, a National Park quite literally on our doorstep. Britain’s largest protected wetland, the Broads boasts more miles of water than Venice and Amsterdam – over 125 miles of navigable waterways that wend their way through bucolic countryside, towns and villages.
Created in medieval times when peat was dug out and used for fuel, the Broads today are an internationally important haven for some of the country’s rarest species of wildlife. Offering myriad ways to explore, including pathways, bike trails and countless lock-free river routes, it has also become a peaceful, windmill-dotted haven for those wishing to get away from it all and spend some time enjoying the area’s natural beauty.
With lockdown easing but plans to travel further afield on the backburner for now, the big skies and sprawling outdoor spaces of our counties have never been more precious or, indeed, more appreciated. Here Places&Faces offers up some inspiration for a day out or much-needed staycation here in our beloved Broads – Dorothy was on to something I think, there really is no place like home.
A wetland wonderland yes, but there’s more to the Broads than just its rivers and lakes. The only National Park with a city in its midst, there really is something for everyone – whether you want to shop, birdwatch, eat, explore village churches, expand your mind at museums or find fun for the whole family, these are just a selection of the diverse attractions you can find on or around the water’s edge. Being mindful of the current Covid-19 restrictions, we have chosen mainly outdoor options or ones you can safely socially distance at.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Floating Wildlife Centre
The Ranworth Broad Nature Reserve winds its merry way through woodland and reedbeds where you will find a boardwalk leading to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s (NWT) Wildlife Centre, an impressive thatched building that floats at the Broads’ edge. Inside, you’ll find information on the history of the area and the abundant wildlife to look out for – purpose-built windows offer panoramic views with binoculars and telescopes to get you started.
The largest broad in the Ant Valley and the second largest in the National Park overall, Barton Broad may be a popular boating paradise, but it has more than enough room for everyone – including otters. A successful multi-million-pound project to clear the broad of silt earlier in the millennium has seen these cute critters return to the area. Wander the boardwalk and nature trail to the viewing platform and see if you can spot any signs of their presence.
Wherryman’s Way footpath
Stretching from Great Yarmouth’s golden sands, the 35-mile Wherryman’s Way footpath hugs the River Yare all the way to the fine city of Norwich. Named after the distinctive flat-bottomed sailing barges that were once a common sight on these waters, the walking trail passes through the heart of the Broads and its vast open marshland, with a welcome wealth of riverside pubs ready to quench your thirst along the way.
Wroxham and Hoveton
If you’ve never ventured Broad-side before, these two charming connected villages are a good base to start from. Known locally as the ‘capital of the Broads’, you’ll find countless boats for hire, river cruises, restaurants, tearooms and of course, Roy’s. This proud local gem claims to be the ‘world’s largest village store’ and is well worth a browse, not least for the hundreds of products from local suppliers.
Bure Valley Steam Railway
See the Broads and its surrounds from the comfort of a carriage by taking a steam train from the historic market town of Aylsham to bustling Wroxham. The 18-mile round trip follows the river through the Bure Valley’s meadowland and pasture. Along the line are wayside halts serving the picturesque Broadland villages of Brampton, Buxton and Coltishall where you can hop off, explore, then hop back on the next train. The railway has introduced a number of safety measures to ensure you can continue to enjoy their journeys worry-free.
RSPB Strumpshaw Fen
This enchanting nature reserve has now re-opened and is encouraging visitors to enjoy the tranquillity of its trails through the reedbeds, woodland and meadows. Species to spot during the upcoming autumn months include barn owls, bitterns, kingfishers, marsh harriers, starlings and ospreys. Visit again next spring and summer to see the meadows bursting with wild orchids and chance a glimpse at the rare swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk Hawker dragonfly (see page 29 for our list of unique Broads wildlife to look out for).
Windmills, windmills, windmills
Close your eyes and imagine the Broads and I can guarantee there’s a windmill or windpump somewhere in amongst the picturesque scenery. These whimsical structures can be found dotted around the National Park in varying states of restoration. Entries inside are limited at the moment, but some are still offering informative talks. Combine two must-see attractions and head to Burgh Castle Roman ruins, which offers unspoilt views towards Berney Arms windmill, one of the tallest in Norfolk.
Whitlingham Country Park
Perfect for a gentle stroll or a cycle, there’s also a 2-mile wheelchair accessible path around the Great Broad, with two all-terrain wheelchairs available to book from the visitor centre, which is in a beautiful converted flint barn. You can also try your hand at sailing, canoeing, paddleboarding and a number of other adventure activities at Whitlingham Adventure, which hopes to resume its courses from September.
St Benets Abbey
The romantic ruins of this landmark thousand-year-old monastery sit on the River Bure. In Tudor times, this was the only monastery in England not to be closed by Henry VIII, but over the years the building began to crumble along with its centrepiece church. Legend says that the ghost of the traitorous monk who granted access to William the Conqueror can be seen hanging from the former bell tower on each night of the 25th May – otherwise though, the site should be serene and ghoul-free!
Carlton & Oulton Marshes
Don’t forget that the Broads also extends into Suffolk, as showcased at the Carlton Marshes Nature Reserve, where you can see all the diverse ecosystems of the National Park in one condensed chunk. The marshes and pools teem with life – an astounding 28 species of dragonfly have been spotted here. The brave-hearted can scan the dyke edges for the fen raft spider, Britain’s biggest, which was introduced here in 2012 to bolster their low UK population.
Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden
This delightful secret garden hideaway offers 130 acres of cultivated, wild and natural plantings and miles of woodland pathways to amble down while forgetting all about the madness of the outside world. There is also a private Broad – time it right and at the moment you may just get it all to yourself.
Broads pubs & restaurants
Not to be forgotten are the area’s many fantastic waterside pubs and restaurants. These local haunts will need your support now more than ever, and most offer ample pub gardens or outdoor seating so you can continue to soak up those unforgettable views. P&F favourites include The Locks Inn at Geldeston, the Fur and Feather at Woodbastwick and The New Inn, Horning.
Whether you prefer dry land or want to spend as much time in the water as possible; your favoured transport has two wheels or four legs, there are a number of diverse ways to explore the Broads. If, like me, lockdown has seen you trying your hand at new things and discovering fresh hobbies, why not opt for something you’ve never done before on your next visit?
Part of the National Park’s magic is that much of it can’t be reached by road, so undoubtedly the best way to experience the seclusion, peace and quiet is to take to the water. There’s nothing quite like leisurely cruising through the sparkling rivers with the only sounds being birdsong and the rustling reeds. Taking an organised boat trip is the easiest way of comfortably seeing the best of the Broads without having to fight over who will drive (or in my case, fight about getting stuck on the bank… again). Boat tours and trips are offered from almost every major hub in the Broads, so you won’t be short of choice.
Alternately, hire your own boat for more freedom to discover every secret river bend and private fishing spot. Go at your own pace, stopping as often as you like to explore, picnic or have a pint (just don’t drink and drive!). From basic facilities to every home comfort, there are a multitude of boats to suit the length of trip and amount of people, as well as a choice of motor. For a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary, you can go full James Bond and hire skippered boats, so all you have to do is sit back, relax and sip your bubbly.
If you want to get even closer to nature, paddling through the Broads in a canoe, kayak or on a paddleboard is as close as you’ll get to experiencing the water as though you’re one of its resident ducks. Head to hidden parts of the waterways that boats can’t reach and glide noiselessly through the streams, meaning you’re more likely to come across wildlife without startling it. It’s also great exercise and – other than paddleboarding, for which I would recommend at least one lesson to get your bearings and balance – needs little instruction.
Canoes, kayaks and paddleboards are widely available to hire, and have seen somewhat of a boom in business since lockdown began easing – in fact, British Canoeing has seen a 40% rise in members since last year, thanks to the health benefits and easy social distancing being out on the water provides.
Whether you’ve got a week to slowly amble your way through one of the National Park’s longer trails – such as the Weaver’s Way, which starts in Great Yarmouth and ends 61-miles later in Cromer – or simply need to stretch yours and your dog’s legs, there are 300km of waymarked footpaths and walking routes all over the Broads. There are no steep peaks or treacherous drops here, so it’s safe and manageable for all the family. During the day, stop to watch a heron catching its lunch, listen out for the call of a cuckoo or see a swan and its cygnets gracefully gliding by.
At night, the National Park transforms again, and the low landscape gives way to endless starry skies. The dark, unpolluted sky of Norfolk and Suffolk is ideal for stargazing; the Norwich Astronomical Society runs a number of events locally, including at the Seething Observatory in Bungay. So for a different view of the Broads, simply wait for a clear night, grab your binoculars and head for an late evening stroll. You can find a selection of downloadable walking routes at:
Cycling is another activity that has always been popular, but the pandemic seems to have gotten even more bums on saddles, as people find themselves with fewer options for recreation and exercise. Take your experience of the Broads up a gear and travel further afield by hopping on a bike (either your own or hired) and whizzing your way through one of the peaceful and largely flat trails, country lanes and woodland tracks on offer. If you’re feeling very energetic, a section of the number one National Cycling Route passes through parts of the park, or there are 16 smaller, circular routes across both counties provided by the Broads By Bike network.
Take the plunge – literally! Perhaps the Broads isn’t the first place you’d think of having a dip on a warm day, but in recent years, many have extolled the virtues of wild swimming in freshwater. Chlorine-free, clear and refreshing, enjoy this pastime safely throughout spring and summer with the help and expertise of Tri-Anglia, who offer weekly open water swimming sessions for club members at Whitlingham Country Park’s Great Broad. Some of TheCanoeMan’s popular guided canoe trails also offer up the opportunity of a splash about at the end – while I’m sat in my stuffy home office, I can think of nothing better!
Whether meadow or beach, the dramatic landscapes of the Broads and their surrounds were simply made to trot through atop a horse, feeling the wind run through your mane (and theirs). There are 20 bridleways within the National Park, from Fritton & St Olaves to Ludham, all providing equine-friendly rides through ecologically diverse surrounds. There are also several riding schools nearby if you’re less experienced and want to gain confidence.
If getting behind the reins isn’t your thing and you’d rather admire horses from afar, head to Buttle Marsh at How Hill where you can often see wild ponies grazing. A vital part of the Broad’s conservation plan, one of the breeds here, the Konik pony, is also an incredibly unusual sight within the UK.