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The Broads of Norfolk


NGLAND has, in miniature, scenery representative of that of nearly every European country. While the hills and lakes of Westmoreland and Cumberland are tiny replicas of the great Swiss mountains and lakes, flat, marshy Norfolk presents us with Dutch pictures, some of which have a quiet charm and beauty that must not be ignored.

The Broads, as the Norfolk lakes are called, cannot be seen without admiration; the expanse of tranquil water, the beautiful reed borders, the mills that dot the marshes, and the cattle feeding on the plains, are worthy of a landscape painter's best skill. The levels of the rivers are frequently above the land, and thousands of acres of rich pastures are only saved from inundation by embankments, as Holland is saved by her dykes. The rivers also are slow of current, wide and navigable for vessels of large burden, such as small steamers, billyboys, and wherries, as a Norfolk sailing barge is termed. The chief rivers are the Yare, which winds inward for thirty miles to the city of Norwich; the Bure, or North River, which, after a long and winding course, leaves the marshland and enters a richly wooded country; and to the south the Waveney, a clear stream that flows past Beccles and Bungay, in Suffolk 1-ho banks of these rivers are fringed with tall reeds, in which grow and bloom many varieties of sallows and sedge, and they flow through miles of level marsh, where nothing is to be seen but the white sails of yachts and the dark sails of the wherries.

The Norfolk Broads

The Norfolk wherries are of peculiar build. They are long, low, and shallow rather flatbottomed, but sharp at the stem and stern. They have one mast, stepped forward and weighted at the foot, so that it can be lowered to pass under bridges and be raised again. This mast has one immense sail, black or red-brown. These boats sail very fast with a fair wind, their black or tan sails gliding up or down the stream steadily; they are generally worked by two men who live on board, but when the wind is not fair, we see the boatmen using the long pole, called a "quant," for moving the vessel along. This pole has a large knob at one end to push with; while to prevent the quant from sinking too deep in the mud, there is a shoulder "cot" or cap at the end in the water. The boatmen are strong and skilful, and use this kind of boat-hook with great ease and success.

The great flatness of Norfolk, and the sluggish course of the rivers caused by it, originate the Broads, pools of water of various extent in the marsh - sometimes covering acres of land, in other times not bigger than a large fishpond. They lie chiefly in the north-eastern part of Norfolk and in a portion of Suffolk. The word "Broad" is provincial, and only used in Norfolk and Suffolk, and is better "translated" by the word "lagoon" than by "lake."

All these Broads are shallow, and surrounded by aquatic vegetation, reeds, rushes, bulrushes, and flags, which are the haunt of many rare birds, and swarm with waterfowl. Here, also, land first the migratory birds coming from other lands, and many of these are rarely seen elsewhere in England. The Broads abound with fish - large pike, perch, and bream.

Of these Broads, one of the most beautiful is South Walsham Broad. It belongs to the network of Broads that line each side of the river Bure from St. Benedict's Abbey to Wroxham. It is almost surrounded by trees, some of which rise in a gentle elevation, and above them we catch a glimpse of two churches that occupy the same churchyard. On the left is a velvety smooth lawn of some gentleman's seat sloping to the water, the lovely surface of which is covered in places with exquisite water lilies. The calm and sweetness and sense of home beauty on this small Broad must strike every one.

Returning to the river' and going up to the left, a dyke is reached, which leads to Ranworth Broad. This one is larger than South Walsham, and equal to it in quiet loveliness.

Four other Broads cluster here, but are not especially worthy of notice, the river itself being much more picturesque, winding from Salhouse to Wroxham between wooded banks edged with tall rushes, with pretty glimpses of scenery caught between the trees. Passing through a narrow opening, on each side of which grow reeds seven feet high, we find ourselves on the spacious waters of Wroxham Broad, a grand expanse, surrounded by gigantic reeds and with masses of trees that come down to the water's edge on one side; while on the other is the great marsh, stretching miles and miles, with its tall waving reed beds, its tracts of white cotton grasses, and the many coloured marsh grasses that the wind sweeps over, changing repeatedly their hue and sheen, while the sun brings out on them golden red gleams of light. Gazing on this great marsh-land, we must allow that it has a strange picturesqueness peculiar to itself.

Here and there the dark sails of the wherries, or the snowy canvas of yachts, are seen above the reeds and lower foliage moving to and fro, though the water on which they sail is not visible.

At one end of this Broad is a maze of wooded islands and banks covered with ferns; the water is crowned, too, with white and golden lilies and the more pointed leaves of the arrow head; and many coloured flowers - some rare specimens - nestle amidst the plants and reeds that fringe the water, forget-me-nots and speedwells raising their blue eyes from amongst them.

Birds and insects are found on the Broads in great numbers. All the waterfowls - the land birds who are but visitors - the butterflies and dragonflies, and all other creatures that haunt the reeds or build on the shores, make the Broads instinct with life and the sounds of life; the call of birds in spring, the incessant cry of the cuckoo that in great numbers haunts the Broads. Blackheaded gulls breed in multitudes, and make much noise; swans float also on the calm waters silent and graceful; and snipes make a strange bleating in the air. These sounds increase about twilight, when the water fowl come from their hiding-places; the reedwrens sing shrilly in the reeds; the reed buntings chatter; the coots and water-hens croak.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the sense of the fecundity of nature, and the fullness of life more strongly awakened; nowhere are we more impressed with the power of the great Giver of Life than on these Broads at eventide.

The vegetation of the banks and water adds greatly to the beauty of these lagoons. They are edged with reeds ten feet high; flags wave their yellow flowers; tall, smooth rushes whisper in the breeze; sweet sedge, with its curious catkins, is there; all kinds of grasses; foxgloves, and tall spikes of purple loosestrife; and dense clusters of white, sweetly-scented meadow-sweet, forget-me-nots, and speedwells.

In fact, the naturalist, the botanist, and the landscape painter may well rejoice in the Broads of Norfolk, of which there are many more; but a description of one or two suffices generally for a description of all.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004