About The Broads

Known as the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, Broadland consists of a landscape of slow-moving rivers, fens, marshes and waterlogged woodland located in the eastern parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. It takes its name from the sixty three shallow lakes which form the ‘Broads’, the majority of these were dug in mediaeval times as a source of peat for fuel. There are around 120 miles (190 kilometres) of lock-free waterways in the Broads, and it forms one of Britain’s most important centres for waterborne holidaymaking and recreation. Broadland also contains a wealth of bird, insect and plant life, and is of international importance as one of Europe’s largest remaining wetland habitats.

Originally proposed as a National Park in 1947, the region was eventually afforded comparable status in 1988, following the passing of the Norfolk & Suffolk Broads Act. The Broads Authority was set up under this legislation acting as the planning authority for 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) included in the region. It is also responsible for maintaining the waterways in a navigable condition.

The Rivers

The rivers traversing Broadland comprise the Bure and its tributaries, the Ant and the Thurne; the Yare, which is joined by the Wensum just downstream of Norwich; and the Waveney in the south. The latter unites with the Yare upstream of Breydon Water – all that remains of the large estuary that existed in Roman times – and after being joined by the Bure, the combined flow of all the rivers runs out to sea through the port of Great Yarmouth. Although all the rivers are tidal as they flow through the region, the Yare and Waveney and Chet especially so, they are normally only brackish (ie, slightly salty) in their lower reaches.

For the waterborne holidaymaker, the most important feature of the Broadland rivers is that they are lock-free, unlike other navigable waterways such as the Thames. This means, in effect, that the region’s rivers, and the broads linked to them, provide unrivalled opportunities for trouble-free boating, the only real impediment to navigation being the low bridges at Beccles, Potter Heigham, Wroxham and Yarmouth. Care is always needed in the vicinity of the last because of the strong currents which occur there, though passage between the northern and southern groups of rivers through Great Yarmouth is perfectly safe and easy at low tide – advice on the timing of this is readily available. Some of the larger holiday craft cannot pass under Beccles, Potter and Wroxham bridges, but pilots are available to assist holidaymakers at Potter Heigham and Wroxham.

 The Broads

The broads range in size from small pools to the expanse of Hickling Broad, about 140 ha (350 acres) and are very unevenly distributed, being far more numerous in the northern part of the region than the southern. There are some 63 broads which have a combined water surface of about 836 ha (2066 acres) most of them being 2 metres (6 ft 6 in) or less in depth.

Many broads are physically isolated from the main rivers, while others are too shallow for general navigation. However, thirteen are open for all-the-year-round boating, while navigable channels traverse three others (Martham and Sutton Broads, and Womack Water). Two further sites, Black Horse Broad and Horsey Mere, are available for boating during the Spring and Summer months. Together these eighteen broads provide some 400 ha (990 acres) of navigable water.

In the past, the broads contained a wealth of water-loving plants and animals. Although this persisted in a few sites – notably Hickling Broad – until the late 1960s, the rivers and all but a few broads became devoid of waterweeds, their place having been taken by minute algae. Most of these are invisible to the naked eye, but their presence gives the water in the broads and rivers a greenish hue.

These changes were caused by increases in the quantities of phosphates (mainly derived from treated sewage effluent) and nitrates (most of which comes from farm land) being discharged into the rivers, and therefore the broads. Steps have been taken to restore selected sites, including Cockshoot and Barton Broads, to the condition they were in during the 1930s. This involves reducing the phosphate concentration in the rivers by installing additional equipment in sewage treatment works, and removing the phosphate-rich sediment which has accumulated in the broads concerned.

The Fens

The word ‘fen’ is used here to denote the undrained, peat-forming vegetation which adjoins many of the broads, and the middle and upper reaches of the Broadland rivers. Fens differ from bogs in that the water supplied to them from an adjoining river, or from neighbouring higher ground, is neutral or slightly alkaline in reaction, rather than acidic.

Fen vegetation occupies some 5225 ha (12,900 acres) in the region, but over 60% of this comprises scrub or the wet alder-dominated woodland known locally as ‘carr’. Much of the latter is inaccessible and jungle-like, and constitutes the nearest we have in Eastern England to the American Everglades

The fens display much variation between one part of the region and another, and this makes them of great ecological interest. In addition, they provide a habitat for numerous rare – and in some cases endangered – plants, insects and birds. These include Crested Buckler Fern, Fen Orchid, Swallowtail butterfly, Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier and Bittern.

The great majority of Broadland’s fens were actively managed in the past, the main products being fen hay, litter (used as cattle bedding), reed and sedge. The two latter crops are still harvested here and they are used as thatching materials, but the market for the other fen products collapsed during the 1920s. As a result, many fens have undergone natural succession to sallow and alder-dominated communities.

Conservation organisations such as Natural England, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB as well as the Broads Authority are now making strenuous efforts to restore selected fens to the ‘open’ state they were in until the 1920s – that is, without trees and bushes. This involves using new specially-designed harvesting equipment and finding alternative markets for the fen produce. This £750,000 project called ‘New Wetland Harvester’ (including £345,000 from Europe) was the first stage of a project to develop an environmentally-sustainable wetland management technology.

The Drained Marshland

Over the centuries, much of the alluvial land bordering the rivers was embanked, thus protecting it against flooding and allowing it to be farmed. An extensive system of ditches (known locally as ‘dykes’) was dug to facilitate the drainage of the land, and although this was initially achieved by gravity, wind-powered pumps came into use later. These drainage mills gave way to diesel-powered machinery during the First World War, and they in turn were replaced by electric pumps from the 1930s onwards. There are seventy one wind-powered mills in varying states of repair to be seen in the region, and together they form one of the most characteristic features of the Broadland landscape. Although only one is still used to drain marshland (Clayrack Mill at How Hill where demonstrations can be arranged) several others such as those at Polkey’s, Hardley, Herringfleet, Thurne Dyke, Berney Arms, Horsey and Stracey Arms have been restored, mostly by the Norfolk Windmills Trust.

Traditionally, the drained marshes were used as cattle pasturage, but from the 1960s onwards, farmers were encouraged by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to lower the water level in the dykes, and put the land under the plough. As a result, about a quarter of the 22,000 ha (54,400 acres) of marshland in the region was being used for arable cultivation by the early 1980s.

These land use changes were regarded by conservationists as disastrous, as surveys had shown that the fauna and flora of the dyke system of grazing marshland was extremely rich and varied. Moreover, most of the aquatic plants and animals formerly found in the rivers and broads, but which had been lost as a consequence of the nutrient enrichment changes described earlier, still occurred in the dykes. These therefore formed a refuge for many species which might otherwise have been totally lost from the region. Unfortunately, this wildlife interest is almost completely destroyed when water levels in the dykes are lowered prior to the marshland being put under the plough.

After much discussion, and considerable controversy, the Drained Marshland Area was designated by the MAFF as an ‘Environmentally Sensitive Area’ (ESA), the object being to give ‘grant aid’ to farmers willing to keep their marshland under grass, and maintain the associated dykes system by traditional methods. Grants are also available for owners wishing to put their marshes back under grass, and several hundred hectares have been converted as a result of this prescription.


For centuries the rivers formed the main lines of communication in the region, being used by both passenger craft and trading vessels. The latter initially comprised square-sailed craft known as keels, but from the 16th century onwards these gradually gave way to wherries. Being fore-and-aft rigged, these were better able to sail close to the wind, and were therefore more suited to Broadland’s winding rivers.

The arrival of the railways in the mid-19th century brought ever-increasing competition, and wherry-based trading virtually ceased during the 1930s. One such vessel, the Albion, has been restored by the Norfolk Wherry Trust, and another, the Maud, was renovated privately.

From the mid-19th century onwards, the River Yare was used by numerous steam, and later diesel, freighters bound to and from Great Yarmouth and Norwich, the traffic peaking in the 1930s, with over 500 vessel movements each year. The predominant cargoes were grain, timber and coal for the gas works and power station at Norwich and fuel oil for the Cantley sugar beet factory. Trading rapidly declined during the 1970s and 1980s, and no freighters are currently visiting Norwich.

Waterborne holidays and recreation


The waterways have been used for pleasure boating for at least 200 years, and probably much longer. Yacht and wherry races were held regularly, and water frolics (or what today would be termed regattas) were held at various locations from the early 19th century onwards. Pleasure steamers catered for multitudes of day trippers from Yarmouth and Norwich, and from the 1870s onwards some of the trading wherries were leased out to holiday makers wishing to explore the rivers and broads during the summer months. Later, ‘pleasure wherries’ and wherry-rigged yachts were specially built for this purpose. Two of the former (Solace and Hathor) and three of the latter (Olive, White Moth and Norada) have been restored, and are in regular use in the region.

The arrival of the railways provided a major stimulus to the holiday industry, and by the 1920s, several hundred vessels were available for hire. Most of these were sailing craft, and the region acquired an enviable reputation as a centre for sail-based holidaymaking. Increasing numbers of motor cruisers were introduced during the 1930s, and powered craft soon predominated after the Second World War.

Of the 2381 craft available for hire in 1998 (1008 in 2004) 1436 (952) were motor cruisers, 76 (56) were auxiliary yachts and 246 (161) were sailing craft. Information about these holiday craft can be obtained from the web sites managed by the two principal booking agencies in the region, Blakes and Hoseasons. Passenger craft, locally known as ‘water buses’ (of which there were 16 (13) in 1998) are also available for hire.

Several of these passenger craft are able to accommodate over 100 persons and they are therefore ideally suited for parties of visitors. Smaller groups can enjoy a trip in a self-drive day launch, of which there were 329 (291) in 1998. These craft can be hired out by the hour from numerous locations in the region, and are very popular.

Of the 10,844 (11,205) privately-owned vessels licensed for use in 1998, the numbers of motor cruisers, auxiliary yachts, sailing craft and day launches were 3726 (4,411), 1472 (1,387), 1826 (1,600) and 743 (734) respectively. Although private craft far out-number those available for hire, it needs to be borne in mind that they are in use far less often. Privately-owned vessels therefore exercise less environmental ‘pressure’ on the waterways than hire craft.

The waterways formerly teemed with fish, and although species diversity has tended to decline as a consequence of nutrient enrichment, the region remains very popular with anglers. Roach and bream predominate in most sites, and excellent pike fishing is still obtainable, particularly in the River Thurne and its associated broads.