It Takes Wistfulness and skill to sail the fluky waters between the bungalows of the River Thurne at Potter Heigham in Norfolk. The river and dyke sailing on the inland Broads is a close match to the ‘short board’ creek sailing around the Kent, Essex and Suffolk coastal marshes that I partake in. In that respect my skills for this type of smooth water sailing were already honed. But I admit to never feeling completely comfortable with trailering a boat. And yet I’ve only ever owned small trailer sailors for one of the handful of main reasons that they have ability to trail to new waters as and when it suits. This is, perhaps, the Joker in the small boat sailor’s hand and I played this card when I began the 2014 sailing season by trailering Shoal Waters up to the north Norfolk Broads for an extended period based at Hickling Broad.
I launched the boat on Saturday with the help of yard staff at Whispering Reeds. She slipped into the quaint little dyke where I tied her to the staithe and prepared her for sailing. To save time I had rigged her back at the club the previous week but she still took a few hours to load all the gear. The yard was a fantastic help in accommodating us, and found room for her to sit when I returned so I could leave her up in Norfolk for as long as I wanted to. For the trailer-sailor owner planning a visit here the yard is well placed with all the amenities either on hand or close by and in such a wonderful setting. They have ample parking, toilets and a shower if needed, and will do all they can to fit you in or find you a space to moor. They even hire their own fleet of day boats, some of them classic wooden half-deckers that would appeal to the most discerning sailors. Three of these are very special old-timers indeed and undergo a program of restoration. There’s ‘Silver Tip’, ‘Cigarette’ and the 106 year old ‘Marigold’. There are lugsail dinghies too, and the more usual motor launches.
Hickling Broad is a reed-fringed nature reserve and at a mile long is the largest of the Broads. It is shallow throughout with an average depth in the main channel, which is marked by wooden port and starboard posts, of 5 feet. Anywhere above Potter Heigham Bridge, the lowest bridge in Broadland, sees less traffic from the flybridge-decked all-mod-cons motor cruisers that proliferate the southern waters. Mainly because these type of vessels are too large to fit under the old bridge at Potter.
I had put aside seven days for this first cruise and had three main objectives to aim for. The 1st was to get up to Horsey Mere and Dyke, moor at Horsey Wind Pump, and walk the short distance across the marshes to climb the sand-dunes at the seashore.
Now, Hickling has its gems, Catfield Dyke with its resident kingfishers and Mrs Myhill’s Marsh being just a few of them, but the one and a quarter mile long sail through Meadow Dyke, which meanders in a north-easterly direction, to reach Horsey, with a southerly wind and a fading sun was absolute bliss. Every sailor who comes to sample inland Norfolk should experience tackling this charmed stretch of reed-lined water...
|Meadow Dyke - a charmed stretch of reed-lined water|
I had hoped to pop into the Nelson Head pub and grab a refreshing pint but it was almost dark by the time I had finished quanting to the top of Horsey Dyke. Instead I made the walk through glistening sedge at 04.45 and witnessed a glorious sunrise and herds of wild deer galloping through the misty marshes.
On my return from the seashore I poled us out to the mere; past silent cruisers moored in their dyke haven, and enjoyed a lone dawn sail on the broad flanks of Horsey Mere. I anchored by the reeds for breakfast and then headed over to an aperture in the north-west corner of the mere where trees waved beside the entrance to my 2nd cruise objective; Waxham New Cut. The aim was to reach the limit of navigation in the cut. Rarely does a wide-beamed or lengthy Broads motor cruiser enter the confined water of this cut as it narrows down to around 10 feet in a couple of places with overhanging trees and bushes adding more obstacles to negotiate and no suitable turning place to get out again. For the small sailing boat this is a peaceful and safe cut to explore and positively a challenge in anything other than a favorable wind.
The wind had backed to north-east and disappeared completely between the covering trees. I resorted to quanting into the cut and round a couple of delightful bends to where the trees thinned out and swaying reeds began to whisper as they brushed together in the warm breeze. I stood up on the lazarette and steered with my foot while quanting. With a joint effort of the quant and staysail driving her Shoal Waters slipped upstream quite happily and I found I could peer over the 6 foot high reeds and across the marshes to the sandy Marram Hills that buffered the coast, about half a mile away, from Winterton to Sea Palling.
|Brograve Mill in Waxham New Cut|
It was a gloriously sunny day and the sky a canopy of deep blue. I was enjoying some of the most charming cruising that is to be had in a small boat. This tiny cut was simply stunning. It even had its own wind mill, albeit the crumbling ruins of Brograve Drainage Mill, which made an impressive image as I approached. I made a stop here to look over the site, before sailing the remaining straight line up to a picturesque setting by the bridge at Waxham. There are half a dozen small motor boats moored here, and a few in a small area beyond the bridge, in what is a hidden gem of a place in the quieter backwaters of the Norfolk Broads. When the time came to leave the wind had veered to the south again which meant a hard slog on the quant pole to get back down to Brograve Mill but a turn in the cut here allowed me to hoist the mains’l and harness the afternoon sea breeze that came in over the marsh and charge down the remainder of the tight waterway, which was barely wider than the boat itself, under sail with Shoal Waters on her beam ends and with the close bushes and overhanging branches clipping the terylene material of the mains’l as we scraped past.
On the way out of the cut I met with a chap cruising in his West Wight Potter Roamer. I pulled over for a chat and was delighted to learn he knew of Shoal Waters and he was overjoyed to meet up with her again with her new owner. We eventually sailed in company down to Candle Dyke where both boats moored for the night against a neatly carpentered quay heading. I was beginning to enjoy this novelty of pulling alongside a staithe and stepping cleanly out of the boat. Everything seemed to be laid on to make the cruising easy and pleasant. Quite a contrast to the mud ooze I was accustomed to on the East Coast!
I slipped away at 06.00, about 20 minutes before high water, and began the drop downriver for my 3rd and final objective of this cruise which was to reach the disused North Walsham and Dilham Canal. This was the first time on this cruise I had to make any real allowance for the tide as it begins to make itself felt the further south you go from Hickling. The tide times on the Broads are worked from Gorleston and are given at low water as this is what is more important for passing under bridges but the skipper of a sailing boat will still want the predicted high water times for passage planning.
The new day found Shoal Waters mast going up and down like a well-oiled yo-yo to clear bridges. I left the paddle to hand just in case she failed to tack while sailing in close-quarters with the bungalows on the River Thurne. I exchanged compliments with some of the chalet owners who were sat watching as the world floated by and received a couple of comments like “I like your boat” and in return I gave them marks out of 10 for the quirkiness of their chalets as most of them are unique little structures.
|River Thurne chalet|
I passed the entrance to Womack Water, home to the Wherry Trusts Albion and then felt the true grip of the tide for the first time on this cruise. I had to concentrate as we carefully made way south down to Thurne Mouth and took a turn starboard headed west along the River Bure, past the ancient ruins of St Bennets Abbey and starboard again this time heading north up the River Ant. By the time we were under the Ant’s Ludham Bridge I had the whole procedure of dropping the mast down to an average of 5 minutes, and if I could find a space near enough on the other side of the bridge, there are designated Mast Lowering Only Moorings near bridges, I would be sailing on barely 15 minutes after I had begun the whole process.
|Ludham Bridge dedicated mooring space for sailing vessels|
The last time I sailed up the River Ant was with my family and we had hired the 28 footer Lustre, one of the Hunter Fleet of engine-less, gaff rig, classic Broads cruisers. We had ventured up to Ludham Bridge but never went further. This time I was alone and in my own boat and would be sailing all the way up. After Ludham I pulled into Howe Hill Staithe, at the free moorings, to speak to a local reed and sedge cutter. One of the joys of this area is to be able to see people practising the old ways of the marsh - that of cutting and gathering Norfolk Reed. At certain times of year you can see the ancient sight that is bunches of reed stacked beside the river on Turf Fen or Reedham Marsh, among other places, where it was cut, or stacked up on the staithe beside the moorings.
|Reed cutter at Howe Hill staithe|
There are around 20 reed cutters in the Broads area and each has his own patch, or area. The reed is cut every two years and most , if not all, Norfolk Reed stays in the county as there is only so much that can be cut and demand for it is high. Sedge is another matter as not much of this is used by the thatchers. I was told me he only cuts reed in dry weather as mould growth can take hold on a wet thatch. I had a lovely evening at Howe Hill chatting to and watching the reed cutter come and go with his boat load of thatch before piling it upon the staithe and taking off again to collect more.
The Barometer fell that evening and as I lay in the bunk watching the bright stars twinkle over Howe Hill through the porthole in the forward hatch. I reflected on the sailing I had done up the Ant earlier and how picturesque Toad Hall and Turf Fen Mill were while coming up, and soon dozed off to sleep. Church bells chimed on the hour throughout the night and, while untying the mooring rope the following morning, I watched a muntjack dear slipped through a nearby hedge literally 20 feet away. I was away early again, at 04.45. There was no wind and the Ant was a mirror image of the patterned sky. An hour later I was still paddling through Irstead - past some very pretty thatched residences and one of the prettiest village staithes in the whole of Norfolk. At 06.00 Barton Broad opened up and we were swarmed by swans. I hoisted the mains’l and ghosted across the magical landscape. A breeze eventually picked up and we sailed further on; up the glorious Ant...
|Turf Fen Mill, and Toad Hall at Howe Hill, River Ant|
Above Howe Hill, mature trees, taller than Shoal Waters mast, curtain the banks and curtail any hope of a driving wind. I resorted to the odd paddle stroke and grabbed whatever ‘lift’ of favorable wind would come our way. One soon gets used to the frustration of four winds coming at him at once, a trait of Broads river sailing, and somehow we reached Wayford Bridge. I downed the mast and was under the bridge and gently ambling along the disused canal by 11.30. The overhanging branches and choked water put paid to sailing in the traditional manner between Wayford Bridge and Tonnage Bridge but Shoal Waters carries just the sail for these conditions: a bridgesail in the form of our topsail which I set low from the tabernacle and pole out the clew with a sounding cane attached to the sheet. The Norfolk Wherry once used this canal to transport goods all the way to North Walsham and though the canal is overgrown there is a consistent depth of four feet and there is talk of clearing it and opening it up to marine traffic again. At present only small craft like canoes are able to access the waterway but I revelled in the jungle-like terrain and enjoyed every moment of our slow African Queen style amble. Our cruising pace of 1knot per hour was sedate to say the least but I wouldn’t dare go any quicker. This is a part of the journey I wanted to last forever. It was worth the effort to reach this canal as it was as wild and as peaceful as I had hoped - another of north Broadland’s secret gems.
|The delightfully wild North Walsham and Dilham Canal|
Thinking of visiting the Broads?
- Pubs: Hickling Broad: Pleasure Boat Inn, and a pub I really liked, The Greyhound - a ten minute walk away.
- Horsey Mere: The Nelson Head
- Top of River Ant: Wayford Bridge.
- Supplies can be got at Lathams in Potter Higham and the Pleasure Boat Inn has begun selling basics.
- For a small fee water can be obtained from most boatyards.
- Nature reserves like you to use the Free Moorings provided in most areas.
- On rivers like the Ant many cruisers find a gap in the trees and go ‘wild mooring’
- For Sailing vessels there are designated Mast Lowering Only Moorings near bridges.
- Recommend taking a Ordnance Survey map of The Norfolk Broads
- In local stores pick up a free 'What To Do on the Broads' users guide - a newspaper which has basic river maps and things to do.
- Broads Authority tide tables.
- Learn your boat's 'air height' for going under bridges, which have height markers placed either side.
Wildlife is everywhere on the North Broads. Deer can be seen in the marshes around Horsey and rare birds such as the Bittern in Hickling, Horsey Sound and Martham Broad. Kingfishers were notable in Catfield Dyke marshes.
Three Rivers Races takes place in May and is when the whole place is taken over by sailing boats. Best bet is either join in or plan your cruise around this weekend.
Last, but no means least, have a fantastic trip, Tony