The Norfolk Wherries
Norfolk Wherries are large-sailed, shallow-draught vessels unique to the Norfolk Broads. This low-lying, waterlogged area relied on rivers for transport for centuries, and in the late 19th century this culminated in the black-sailed trading wherry. Its design had evolved to make best use of the local conditions: a single large sail with a high peak to catch the wind over any trees; a gaff rig with a forward mast to maximise cargo space; a finely counterbalanced mast to allow passage under bridges with minimal effort; shallow draught to allow access far upstream. The sails were black due to the mixture of fish oil and tar used for weatherproofing, and while their size allowed movement in most conditions, in the case of no wind or unfavourable direction the wherryman would progress by means of a quant pole, setting it in the river bed or on the bank and walking the boat along.
As the road and railway system improved, wherries were soon surpassed for cargo transport, and many were sunk, dismantled or burned. However, while taking away trade with one hand, the railways brought tourists with the other, and a new wherry industry was born. At first, a few trading wherries were converted from cargo carriers to passenger boats, but as visitor numbers grew, the boatyards turned their skills to purpose built vessels allowing greater luxury: first pleasure wherries, and then wherry yachts. Pleasure wherries shared the black clinker-built hull design of the traders, but featured a clean, white sail; below decks were cabins, a saloon, galley, and sometimes a bathroom. Luxurious accommodation commanded a higher price, leading to features such as gas lighting, toilets, pianos, and even baths on board. Above decks, passenger seating was at the bow, in a relatively small space by the sail winch gear. Wherry yachts were the final and most genteel version of the wherry, adding a sleek white hull and a spacious counter stern for relaxing away from greasy gears, splashing quant poles and other crew activity at the bow.
While hundreds of wherries have existed overall since the 19th century, today only eight are left. Pleasure wherries Solace and Ardea are under private ownership, but can often be seen moored at Wroxham Broad and Horning respectively. The Norfolk Wherry Trust looks after trading wherry Albion at their yard on Womack Water, where Maud (privately owned) can also sometimes be found, and Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust cares for pleasure wherry Hathor and wherry yachts Olive, Norada and White Moth at their base on the Bure in Wroxham. Both wherry organisations offer chartering and public events over the summer - please visit their websites for details of the vessels' current status and opportunities to view and sail the boats.
Credits for the photos in this article go to Katy Walters and Wherry Yacht Charter