Like 57% of our fellow Brits, my partner and I took a staycation this year. We decided that we simply couldn’t face long waits in airport departure lounges, jet lag, or any of the other countless grievances that come with travelling abroad.
Furiously Googling destinations closer to our home in London, we had lengthy discussions about the best places to visit in Britain. We imagined ourselves surfing in Cornwall, hiking in the Lake District, and mountaineering in the Highlands of Scotland.
Then, we thought it might be nicer to just take things easy and head out to the Norfolk Broads.
We pictured ourselves idly cruising down its endless waterways, mooring up for pub lunches, and enjoying sunset after sunset from the comfort of a sports cruiser.
No sooner had we dreamed up this idyllic scene than we booked ourselves a boat with Norfolk Broads Direct.
As a budding travel writer, I naturally spent my time on the Broads studying up on its history between our pub lunches and evening cruises. Over the course of my research, I discovered 10 interesting facts about the Norfolk Broads.
The Creation of the Norfolk Broads Was a Complete Accident
Until the 1950s, the Norfolk Broads were presumed to be a natural formation. Due to the sheer size of the waterways and their appearance, it never once occurred to anyone that they might have been man made.
Enter Dr Joyce Lambert, a British botanist who carried out research to reveal that the Broads were actually the result of the extensive peat digging which was carried out in the medieval period. Totally flooded by the 14th century, the pits which were once dug out to retrieve fuel now form the basis for the broads that boaters cruise on today.
This all makes for a great story, of course, and it’s something that visitors can get a better feel for when they head to the nature reserve at Surlingham. Here, it’s possible to take a look at the site where Dr Joyce Lambert carried out her work in conjunction with local school children to identify the way that the Norfolk Broads were originally formed.
It’s Home to an Awful Lot of Nice Churches
Boasting a positively thriving wool trade back in the medieval era, Norwich attracted a fairly wealthy crowd. This wealthy crowd decided that there were few better ways of spending money than building churches. The net result of all this? 659 churches. This figure makes the Broads the most highly concentrated area for medieval churches in the world.
Known locally as “the Cathedral of the Broads”, St Helen’s Church in Ranworth is perhaps the most talked about attraction. Made up of 14th and 15th century architecture, the church tower can be climbed providing you’re prepared to take on 89 steps and two ladders. If you do take on the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with a sublime view of the River Bure and its surrounding broads.
Not only does the church offer outstanding views but the opportunity to view some exciting artefacts too. Specifically, St Helen’s is home to an illuminated service book written in Medieval Latin that was gifted to the congregation by William Cobbe back in the 15th century. In remarkably good condition, this book is sure to excite any history buffs visiting the Broads.
Besides St Helen’s, St Michael’s in Irstead, St Peter’s in Belaugh, and the church of St Nicholas in Potter Heigham are all exciting points of interest to visit when on the Broads. All largely accessible to visitors, trips to these churches provide a unique view of the world which once defined the Broads.
- It’s Quite Common to See Rare Wildlife
Along with its various other boasts, the Norfolk Broads can also lay claim to being home to more than a quarter of the rarest wildlife in the UK. From bitterns to a breed of swallowtail butterfly that can only be found on the Broads, visitors can expect to see the unexpected when getting out on the water.
In addition to these miniature wonders flying overhead, there’s rare hawker dragonflies floating above the reeds, marsh harriers perching on tree branches, and black longhorn beetles crawling in the undergrowth of the Broads. In many ways, hiring a boat on the Norfolk Broads is like being on safari. It’s also the best and most comfortable way to see all of these things.
- It Abounds with Ancient Monuments
As a destination that’s steeped in history, it’s no surprise that the Norfolk Broads has plenty of significant points of interest. From the remains of Burgh Castle to the ruins of St Benets abbey, it’s far too easy to escape to the past when holidaying on the Broads. Somerleyton Hall is another standout attraction. Celebrated for being one of the best examples of Tudor architecture, the country house, its grounds, and lakeside are all open to visitors providing there isn’t a private event hire taking place.
Caister Castle is one more site of historical interest that the Broads can shout about. Complete with a fully intact 90-foot tower that can be climbed to the very top, this 15th century monument affords stunning views of history as well as the surrounding countryside. As if all of this wasn’t cool enough, the castle is now used to house a massive collection of vintage cars and motorcycles. Described as “probably the largest and certainly the best privately owned motor collection open to the public in the UK”, it’s a total paradise for petrol heads. A 1983 Panhard et Levassor, Jim Clark’s Lotus, and the very first Ford Fiesta to leave the production line make up the highlights of this uniquely fascinating museum.
- It Features in Plenty of Books
Packed full of wildlife and picturesque landscapes, it’s no wonder that the Norfolk Broads has been the source of literary inspiration for many years. First popularised as a holiday destination in 1882 by G. Christopher Davies, the British writer explained how “it is to Norfolk only that one can now look for the wildness and solitude of marsh and mere so dear to the naturalist and sportsman”. The masses clearly heard his rallying call when they began to descend in large numbers following the development of the rail line to the Broads two years later.
No doubt the most recognisable representation of the Norfolk Broads in literature comes courtesy of Arthur Ransome and his Swallows and Amazons series. Describing the adventures that a gang of school children get into during their school holidays, his fifth book, Coot Club, takes place around the north and south broads. In this installment of the series, Ransome perfectly articulates the experience of a boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads when he articulates how:
“His friends sailed their way around a country as flat as Holland, past huge old
windmills, their sails creaking round, pumping the water from the low-lying
meadows on which the cows were grazing actually below the level of the river. Far
away over the meadows, other sails were moving on Ant and Thurne, white sails
of yachts and big black sails of trading wherries.’
In more recent years, the Norfolk Broads have inspired an international bestseller – in her novel Swallowtail Summer, Erica James uses the national park as the backdrop for an exciting romance that takes place around a cottage on the Broads.
- You Can Access a Lot of it on Board a Boat
It’s possible to explore a great deal of the Norfolk Broads whilst remaining on board a boat. In more precise terms, there’s 125 miles of navigable water that can be discovered from the comfort of a cruiser. Thankfully, you needn’t be a seasoned skipper with sturdy sea legs to enjoy this experience – many boat hire companies will provide you with all the guidance you need to get out on the water in no time at all.
Once you’re out and about on a boat, you’ll be able to decide where you visit, where you moor up, and how you spend your time on board. Some boaters we passed were clearly happiest when moored up and fishing whilst others were cruising around to see as much of the waterways as they could during their holiday.
- It Became a National Park in 1989
Joining a very elite club at the end of the eighties, the Norfolk Broads is officially recognised as a national park. Not merely a fancy title that helps to attract the attention of tourists, this status has ultimately helped to ensure that the waterways and surrounding countryside receive all of the conservation work necessary to preserve the natural beauty for which it has become known for. Due to its proximity to Norwich, the Norfolk Broads is also the only national park in the UK to include a city.
- It Spans Two Counties
Despite its name, the Norfolk Broads actually spills ever so slightly into the neighbouring county of Suffolk. The Waveney district, for example, actually belongs to Suffolk and can be explored as part of a holiday on the Broads. Here, you’ll discover a very similar charm to that which defines destinations in Norfolk, but there’s certainly a local character that sets them apart.
- It’s Actually Very Easy to Get to Norwich From the Broads
Tour operators in the Norfolk Broads are very proud of the fact that their national park is the only one in the UK to feature a city. And so, they should. It’s a fine city, after all. Established back in 924, Norwich is no doubt better known for Alan Partridge and its (often underperforming) football team than its rich cultural history. But look beyond the canary yellow shirts and radio host buffoonery and you’ll find a city that bears traces of Norman, Middle Age, and Victorian history. Amongst the must-see attractions of Norwich are:
- Norwich Cathedral
- Norwich Castle
- Eaton Park
- The Maid’s Head Hotel
- The historic streets of Tombland
Each of these places provides a remarkable insight into the storied history of a city that has become famous for its stories. It also provides an impressive contrast to the rural scenery of places like Oulton Broad and the seaside surroundings of Great Yarmouth.
To access Norwich from the Broads you’ll simply need to moor up at a nearby location and choose from one of the many friendly taxi services to whisk you away to the city centre.
- You Can Take Your Dog with You
No doubt one of the best things about the Norfolk Broads is that it’s almost entirely dog friendly. From pubs to attractions and the boats themselves, it’s possible to take along your furry best pal who will be more than accommodated for upon arrival. The boating company my partner and I used, for example, allowed dogs to hop on board and even provided them with adorable little life jackets to keep them safe. Similarly, when visiting Fairhaven Woodland and Water Gardens we noticed that the majority of areas were open to pooches too. Should you stop at either the Bridge Inn at Accle or the King’s Head in Hoveton you’ll also be greeted by a sea of pups.
Altogether, the Norfolk Broads is a national park that doubles up as the perfect destination for a boating holiday. Sure, to please budding boaters as much as budding travel writers, the Broads is home to such a rich variety of activities that everyone will find themselves drawn in. Sure, to inspire future generations of writers and wildlife enthusiasts, there’s certainly few destinations that lend themselves so beautifully to the staycation crowd.