Broads History

Norfolk Broads History

The visitor to the Norfolk Broads is initially unaware of its history, but they are surrounded by abundant evidence of the past heritage, from the peat diggings that formed the Broads, to the historic docks of Great Yarmouth and its fantastic fishing heritage through to the heart of the Broads and the trading wherries, many of which are still sailing and provide us with a fascinating living history and then of course there is the wool trade and the weavers who created real wealth in rural Norfolk and the Broads.  There are the many Norman Churches plus a Cathedral nestled amongst the mediaeval streets of Norwich in the heart of the Broads, again all showing the great power and wealth that was generated throughout the centuries in this sleepy part of England. Today there are many influences in the Norfolk Broads and Norfolk. The City of Norwich has a magnificent university and an renowned art college which attract thousands of international students, drawn here in part to our arts, the history and not to mention the way of life here and of course tourists from all over the world come to experience all that this peaceful and beautiful part of Norfolk county offers.

The modern day Norfolk Broads is a wonderful area for Tourism, with the rivers and broads a holiday destination, especially for boating since the late 19th century.  Through careful conservation and management, the waterways and land of the Norfolk Broads is now an area of outstanding natural beauty teaming with wildlife.

Of course all of what can be found today has grown out of the original commercial roots of the Broads. It is now well documented that what was once thought to be a naturally formed wetland, was in fact mostly created during the Middle Ages.

There is some suggestions that peat and clay were extracted during the Anglo-Saxon era, however it began in earnest in the Middle Ages when the Monasteries starting the harvesting of peat. Demand for the peat fuel rose with thousands of tons being sent by river to Norwich Cathedral alone.

Eventually huge pits were created bordering the rivers and unfortunately as the sea level gradually rose, the pits flooded and despite valiant attempts to hold the flood at bay with the use of wind pumps and dykes, the flooding continued and created the landscape that we all see today.

In the Middle Ages, the ease of moving goods and people by water helped this area become very important to trade within Norfolk. The first small wherries, whose design probably went back to the Viking invasion, carried small cargoes and people. They plied their trade until around 1800 when they were replaced by trading wherries, larger, shallow drafted and much more manoeuvrable versions that could carry bigger cargoes of wool, reed, sedge and bricks faster down the rivers to the coast. The cargoes were then transferred to the large Thames barges for the onward journey to ports around the coast. The trading wherries would return inland carrying consumables such as coal.

With the introduction and success of the railways, the wherry trade could not compete on cost or speed and slowly went into decline. This gave rise to the use of the waterways for pleasure, with the railways bringing in the new cargoes - tourists!

Boatbuilders quickly turned from the building commercial vessels to producing the elegant pleasure wherries with luxury facilities such as toilets, bars and pianos, passenger boats and sailing yachts, with the first small yachts for hire available from Lloynes In 1878 and by the time 1908 came around the first booking agency for boating holidays was formed by Harry Blake.

One of the first hire yards was Ernest Collins of Wroxham already an established boat builder. As this boating popularity soared, other boatyards were soon added to the business.

Motorboats made their appearance in the 1930’s and by the time the Second World War was over, Hoseasons had been born.

At the peak of demand, there were up to 2,500 hire boats plying the waters let alone large numbers of private craft. However the number of boats available to hire now has dropped to around 800.

A great variety of boats can be found on the Broads today, from the elegant wherries, which represent a living history of the Broads, to the electric or solar powered boats. The Broads Authority is promoting sustainable boating, and the use of electric boats is being encouraged by the provision of charging points.

Fishermen too have played their part in the ever increasing popularity of the Norfolk Broads as a recreational area with many spending a week or more enjoying the thrills of catching pike or just enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the waters and surrounding countryside, whilst waiting for that elusive tug on the line.

The countryside of the Norfolk Broads has also seen a great rise in the provision of leisure facilities and recreation. The quiet lanes offer the walkers and cyclists sanctuary, the grand houses open their gardens to the public, the wildlife conservation areas offer the birdwatchers a huge variety of habitat to explore and the growth in first class cafes, restaurants and pubs ensures that time spent in and around the Norfolk Broads is a wonderful experience from start to finish.