For someone hefted to the hills it’s a rare treat to set foot in the relative flat lands of Norfolk. But for two days this week I was enhanced by water and big skies; from living in a lighthouse to cruising in a pleasure boat on the Broads. A lovely few days holiday with the extended family opened my eyes to the quiet delights of coast and inland waterways.
The promise of 125 miles of navigable lock free rivers allows most of us untested travellers to confidently set sail on inland waters during the easy months of summer. We hired our motor cruiser for the day, complete with sink, fridge, toilet & overhead retractable covers. Embarking from the boatyards at Potter Heigham we soon joined the sedate River Bure which has been fully navigable since 1685. In the old days the seven rivers that make up the Broads had locks in strategic places and the extensive waterborne trade on wherries and skiffs made this a prosperous rural area. The coming of the railways and better roads, combined with a disasterous flood in 1912 all helped put an end to this phase of industry. Sail boats still ply the waters but now purely for pleasure. Engine gives way to sail on the water road and in pausing our progress we witnessed them skillfully tacking cross the current, bank to bank, to catch the wind. Was put in mind of all those genre paintings of sails under huge skies with complex lighting effects skillfully captured in oil or water colours.
Our principal destination, where we came ashore, was Ranworth Staithes. Once a centre for maltings and brewing and now a popular port of call for boaters and boats of all descriptions. After a convivial lunch in the pub we walked up to the village church of St Helen on the heave of land which passes for a peak in these parts. My only regret on leaving was not taking the opportunity to climb its tall tower via ancient steps and ladders to take in the view it would offer of the wider wetlands. Never mind. Just viewing close up the outstanding 15th century rood screen and wood panel paintings of saints was reward enough. How this luminous and exquisite example of late medieval art survived the reformation is a miracle in itself.
One of the reasons I chose not to delay our party in ascending the open door to belfry and roof was that I was sleeping for two nights at the top of the lighthouse the family had rented for the week at Winterton by the Sea, so already had my happy fill of heights and views. Lovingly restored by architect wife and publicist husband, this was their idylic country retreat from London along with their two children. A host of magazines featured the building and its location. My bedtime eyrie was 75 steps up. The last two floors being pitched very steeply, requiring all who passed to practice backward descent. The 360 degree view from this ultimate mezzanine, complete with sunken mattress and arty lamps, provided a view to another lighthouse northwards and the suburbs of Great Yarmouth southwards. East, an expanse of grey north sea stretched to the horizon beyond marram grassed dunes (a protected S.S.S.I.) A seemingly endless strip of sandy beach gave way steeply to crashing waves. Further down the coast a line of wind turbines pointed in the direction of Holland. At one point lightning flashes told us of storms over that country. The next night, gathered in our circular viewing platform from 10 – 10.10 pm, we were treated to a firework display over Great Yarmouth. To the west golden stubble cut cornfields, mature trees in hedges, churches, hints of the inland water world of the Broads beyond.
Fascinated to discover the history of evolution that produced these intensively plied rural waterways. Rich religious houses, like Saint Benet’s abbey, whose ruins we passed on the River Bure, were behind exploitation of the land they owned or rented and which consequently brought the Broads we know today into being. Their extensive turbary activity in the middle ages resulted in the removal of some 900 million cubic feet of peat around the seven rivers of the sub region. Combined with gradually rising sea levels this resulted in flooding of the low lying river valleys, leaving inland promontaries in between. All this further further accelerated water borne import/export of agricultural produce, coal, bricks, tiles, timber etc to towns even further inland and increased the importance of Norwich as the regional centre. St Benet’s strikes the eye with its hulk of an 18th century brick windmill dominating the remains of its medieval stone gatehouse.
Masses of masking reeds, isolated ancient oaks, woods of water loving willows and alder masking silted wharves and inlets…I think of the ghost story I will be reading this autumn on tour in Northumberland & Dumfries; ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1951). Inspired by living on a canal longboat just after WW2 and her role in founding the Inland Waterways Association, her beguiling tale really is the most disturbing of fictions, combining on board love triangle with exploration of unchartered waterways. Quite brilliant and chilling. Having this chance to be on the water has given me experience of a dream like setting to play with in my head and project into the reading.