The Broads is a wetland where fens, waterways, woodlands, marshes, shallow lakes and rivers combine to provide protected habitats for many plant and animal species.
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Birds seen in the Broads include bittern hiding in the reedbeds, coot swimming on the open waters, marsh harrier gliding in the sky, heron fishing in the shallows, cormorants sitting on posts, and great crested grebe diving for dinner.
From medieval times and continuing over a period of several centuries man dug this land for its peat deposits and created depressions in the process. St Benets Abbey, constructed circa 1070, was in charge of the early peat digging.
40 large shallow lakes, called broads, were created when these low lying lands flooded in the 14th century. They are linked together by channels and rivers. In the north are the rivers Bure, Ant and Thurne. Reedy fens and grassy meadows comprise the landscape. In the south the river Waveney (on the border with Suffolk) and river Yare traverse hills, wooded banks, fens and marshes.
There are a number of fascinating nature reserves in the Broads. Hickling Broads, the largest section of open water in the Broads, contains meadows, fen, woodland, dykes and reed and sedge beds. It is a rich site for plant and wildlife. Migrant birds use it for overwintering and breeding. It is a favourite with dragonflies and butterflies.
At How Hill there are stretches of sedge and reed, marsh meadows, dykes, a woodland and open water. Here there is a small information centre and museum detailing life as a marshman in the early 20th century. The sedges and reeds of the Broads are still used for traditional thatching.
The Bure marshes, under the care of English Heritage, is accessible only by boat. At Ranworth, part of the Bure marshes, down a woodland trail is the floating Broadland conservation centre. In the summer terns nest on artificial rafts. Swallows, swifts and grebes live here alongside a cormorant colony. In winter wildfowl take advantage of the abundant food.
At one time the waterways were used mainly for transportation of goods. The wherry was the traditional boat used. They were particularly suited for traversing the shallow waters. Then the railroads came, putting an end to most of the water transport except for recreational use. Visitors today can rent a modern boat or take an organised tour. 124 miles of lock free waterways and riverside villages make it easy.
Watermills and windmills are synonymous with the region and were built either to grind grain, power farm machinery or drain the fields. In the 1800s, 240 drainage mills helped keep the Broads from further flooding. Approximately 70, many in ruins, survive at the present time.
The Norfolk Windmills Trust looks after 20 windmills. A well known windpump, the four storey red brick Stracey Arms, is in their care. The National Trust owns Horsey Mill, another four-storey mill, with views over the countryside. Sutton Mill, built in 1789, is nine floors high. Berney Arms, a drainage mill, is a fine surviving example of its kind. The author, Robert Louis Stevenson, fell in love with all the mills and said that, after his visit, windmills kept turning up in his dreams.
Other buildings of note in the Broads are the medieval churches. Of particular note is Ranworth church, nicknamed the cathedral of the Broads. In the church are a painted medieval rood screen and a 15th century illuminated songbook, the Ranworth Antiphoner.
There are many mooring points for boats along the waterways. Villages and towns invite exploration—Wroxham, Potter Heigham and Burgh Castle among many others. At Stalham is the museum of the Broads where you can learn about the area’s history.
Windmills, winding rivers, reeds waving in the wind and a sky stretching in all directions—the Norfolk Broads, Britain’s largest protected wetland, is a unique place to visit.
In 1989 the Broads Authority was set up giving the Broads status equivalent to a national park.
Thomas Harvey House
Norwich, Norfolk, NR3 1BQ
Tel. 01603 610734
Website: Broads Authority
Norfolk Windmills Trust
County Hall, Martineau Lane
Norwich, Norfolk NR1 2SG
Tel. 01603 222705
Website: Norfolk Windmills Trust
Photos courtesy of Ian Davey at Suffolk Cam, Cornwall Cam