East of England special: The Traveller's Guide To The Norfolkbroads

Be drawn in by the native wildlife, the Broad walks or the pleasure of gliding on still waters, says Rhiannon Batten
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The Independent Travel

A BROAD: WHAT EXACTLY IS IT?

Basically, a shallow lake on the eastern edge of England. The 188 square miles of rivers, lakes, marshes and broads that form a watery triangle between Cromer, Norwich and Lowestoft have a distinct - and very graceful - geography. The Broads may look natural, but they're not. From around the 12th century, peat digging was a big industry here and, later, as water levels rose, the abandoned diggings flooded, forming the Broads - and a whole new landscape. There are now more than 40 Broads. The best-known are Barton and Hickling, which is also the largest. Both are in Norfolk, which has the lion's share of the Broads, but a few stretch over the border into Suffolk. What makes the area special for visitors is that 125 miles of the area's waterways are easily navigable.

ISN'T IT A BIT FLAT?

Yes. The highest point, How Hill, is only 40ft above sea level. The variety comes from the nature of the land and water rather than dramatic topography. Freshwater lakes, slow-moving rivers, water meadows, sedge- and reed-filled fens, bogs and saltwater marshes, are all part of the picture.

The wetlands habitat is also a draw for wildlife; Norfolk is one of only four counties in the UK where you can see bitterns, a rare relative of the heron, and East Anglia is the only area boasting swallowtail butterflies.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Most people set out from Wroxham or Potter Heigham, the two main villages within the Broads. Another excellent place to get to grips with the region is the Broads Museum at Stalham Staithe, which has displays on everything from local boat building techniques to Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome, who holidayed in the Broads and set some of his books there. As with many attractions in the Broads, the museum is right by the water, so if you're in a boat you can moor up alongside. It's open from 11am-5pm on weekdays and at weekends during school holidays. Entry costs £3 (01692 581 681; www.museumofthebroads.org.uk).

Nearby Ranworth is home to the Broads Wildlife Centre, set on a floating platform and accessed by a boardwalk. It's open 10am-5pm daily, admission free (01603 270 479; www.wildlifetrust.org.uk/norfolk).

CAN I TAKE A BROAD WALK?

There are over 185 miles of footpaths in the Broads, ranging from short strolls to more strenuous hikes. The Broads Authority (01603 610 734; www.broads-authority.gov.uk) information centres can give you details of local and longer walks - and the best ways to reach them.

One of the most enjoyable places for a walk is the recently opened Barton Broad boardwalk, a 670-yard path through swampy carr woodland, which is suspended above the water in what was previously a wilderness area. The walk opens out onto a viewing platform over the Barton Broad nature reserve and is also accessible for wheelchair users. Barton Broad is where Admiral Horatio Nelson first took to the water; he sailed here when he was young, and legend has it that he once lost a chain and locket to the depths. Other good places for a stroll include the RSPB nature reserves at Berney Marshes and Strumpshaw Fen. The RSPB (01603 715 191; www.rspb.org.uk) often runs guided walks and other events there.

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SEE?

The Broads aren't just about wilderness and nature reserves. At the more closely cultivated Fairhaven woodland and water garden, there are woodland walks and nature trails, or you can pay a bit extra and take a boat trip on the adjacent Broad. It is open 10am-5pm daily, entry £4 (01603 270 449; www.norfolkbroads.com/fairhaven). There are also pretty gardens at Hoveton Hall (01603 782 798; www.hovetonhallgardens.co.uk) and at East Ruston Old Vicarage (01692 650 432; www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk).

WHAT ABOUT WINDMILLS?

Some of the most characterful features of the area are the graceful silhouettes of windmills stretching up out of the flat Broads landscape, although many were used for drainage or building purposes rather than for milling corn. One of the best to visit stands on the National Trust's swathe of marsh and farmland at Horsey Mere (01493 393 904; www.nationaltrust.org.uk). It's open 10am-4.30pm daily in summer, admission £2. Others include the Victorian, seven-floor Berney Arms (01493 857 900; www.english-heritage.org.uk) outside Reedham, which is open in summer for pre-booked groups, and St Benet's Abbey, in Ludham, open every day, with free access.

AND HISTORICAL HOMES?

Somerleyton Hall near Lowestoft is the Anglo-Italian style ancestral home of the Crossley carpet-making family. They swapped industrial Halifax for a life of grandeur in Suffolk in the 19th century. Carpets aside, the Hall boasts elaborate stonework, full-blown wooden panelling and the traditional sweeping staircase. The hall (0871 222 4244; www.somerleyton.co.uk) is open in summer 1pm-5pm (garden from 11am) from Thursday to Sunday (plus Tuesdays and Wednesdays in July and August). Entry costs £6.20 for adults, £3.20 for children. For a different kind of domestic history, head to Toad Hole Cottage Museum (01692 678 763), hidden away in the trees by the water's edge at How Hill. This tiny eel-catcher's cottage has been restored to show what it would have looked like in Victorian times. It opens 9.30am-6pm daily in summer, admission free. On a similar theme, the English Heritage-run Row 111 and The Old Merchant's House, in Great Yarmouth, illustrate daily life in one of the area's main towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Open 10am-6pm daily, admission £3 (01493 857 900; www.english-heritage.org.uk).

I WANT TO SINK MY TOES IN THE SAND

The North Sea coast east of the Broads has plenty of beaches, although none here is as scenic as those on Norfolk's north coast. Sea Palling has a big sandy stretch but the approach, with caravan parks, a grim pub and an amusement arcade, is pretty desolate. It's a similar story at Winterton, Hemsby, Caister, Great Yarmouth, Cromer and California, the small village north of Caister.

AREN'T YOU FORGETTING ABOUT SOMETHING?

Suffolk's Broads often get overlooked in favour of Norfolk's, but there's plenty to see here, too. Carlton Marshes, for example, is home to the Suffolk Broads Wildlife Centre with its range of freshwater snails and 15 kinds of dragonfly. Call the Wildlife Trust for more information (01473 890 089; www.wildlifetrust.org.uk/suffolk). Another big local attraction is Bungay Castle (01986 896 156; www.bungay-suffolk.co.uk/tourism/castle.htm), the remains of a Norman fortification in the centre of Bungay. It's open daily from 10am to 4pm, admission just £1.

ACTUALLY, I MEANT BOATING

The boatyards around Wroxham and Potter Heigham have the biggest concentration of boats for hire. Charges range from £10 for an hour in a 2-6 seater to £100 for a full day in an 11-seater. Prices between the 50 or so local operators vary a lot, so ring around.

Companies here and elsewhere in the Broads offering day hire include Sheerline (01603 782 527; www.dayboathire.com), Fineway (01603 782 309), Sutton Staithe Boatyard (01692 581 653; www.suttonstaitheleisure.co.uk), Barnes Brinkcraft (01603 782 625; www.barnesbrinkcraft.co.uk) and Broads Tours (01692 670 711; www.broads.co.uk). King Line also provides wheelchair accessible boats (01692 630 297; www.norfolk-broads.co.uk).

I WANT TO LET SOMEONE ELSE DO THE STEERING

Companies offering guided boat trips include Waveney River Tours near Lowestoft, which has one-hour trips from £4.90 per adult or £3.90 per child (01502 574 903; www.waveneyrivertours.com) and Broads Tours (see above), which also offers boat trips that connect with a ride on the Bure Valley steam train from Aylsham. For a more unusual experience, ride a Mississippi paddle boat from Horning, from £5 for 90 minutes (01692 630 262); meander downstream in a solar-powered boat from Gay's Staithe on Barton Broad (01603 782 281); take the Electric Eel along a wildlife water trail from Toad Hole Cottage (01692 678 763); or sit back on the genteel Edwardian style Liana from picturesque Beccles (01502 713 196).

HOW CAN I ESCAPE THE CROWDS?

Book a seat on the Little Tern for a two- to three-hour boat trip through Hickling Broad nature reserve. At most you'll be sharing the space with 11 other people. The trail takes you through some of the area's quietest stretches of water. Boat trips cost £7 for adults, or £4 for children. It's best to book for this (01692 598 276).

OR GET CLOSER TO THE WATER?

All kinds of watersports are available in the Broads, from paddling a Canadian canoe to windsurfing. You can also learn to sail. Try Sailing (01603 782 897; www.trysailing.com) runs courses from £47 per person for a half day (it goes down to £22 if other people book), and three-day RYA "start sailing" courses from £385 near Stalham. Another company offering courses is the Norfolk Broads School of Sailing, based at Upton Yacht Station (01603 783 096; www.norfolksailingschool.co.uk).

MUST I BE AN ABLE SEAMAN?

Not really. Boat hire companies will run you through the basics before they let you take one of their boats out. Be aware that some companies now refuse to hire to all male/female groups, after bad experiences with stag and hen parties. The two main operators for boating holidays on the Broads are Hoseasons (0870 902 3113; www.hoseasons.co.uk) and Blakes (0870 238 9703; www.blakes.co.uk). Blakes offers sailing boats and motor boats, Hoseasons just motor boats. Reckon on paying between £330 for a four-night break on a two-berth cruiser in August to £730 for a week on a cruiser sleeping eight in September. Some of the day hire operators listed above also do longer hire, as do Moore and Co (01603 783 311; www.boatingholidays.co.uk) and Broads (01603 782 207; www.broads.co.uk).

I WANT SOMETHING MORE STYLISH

How about an Edwardian wherry? These were originally single-sailed cargo boats especially built for the shallow Broads. Eight of them are left and have been refitted for holiday use. Three are available to hire, costing from £560 for a weekend to £1,280 for a week's cruise (01508 530 793; www.wherryyachtcharter.org).

I'D RATHER SLEEP ON DRY LAND

The Victoria (01328 711 008; www.holkham.co.uk/victoria) in Holkham is easily the most glamorous hotel in Norfolk, and only an hour's drive from the Broads. It offers Portobello-style by the sea, with rooms starting at £110 per double, including breakfast. For something closer to the Broads, try the award-winning Beechwood (01692 403 231; www.beechwood-hotel.co.uk) in North Walsham (see page 3) and the Norfolk Mead Hotel (01603 737 531; www.norfolkmead.co.uk) in Coltishall, where Hugh Grant stayed last year. Doubles start from £86 including breakfast. For more ideas, the Broads Authority's Broadcaster (01603 610 734 or www.broads-authority.gov.uk for more details) has an accommodation section, including local B&Bs.

WHAT ABOUT SELF-CATERING?

Companies offering cottages and other self-catering options in the Broads include The Great Escape Holiday Company (01485 518 717; www.thegreatescapeholiday.co.uk), Countryside Cottages (01263 713 133; www.north-norfolk.net/cottages), Norfolk Country Cottages (01603 871 872; www.norfolkcottages.co.uk) and Hoseasons (01502 502 588; www.hoseasons.co.uk ). There are also several caravan sites, mostly along the coast (again, see the Broadcaster for details).

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The main rail approach is Norwich, with a fast link to London Liverpool Street using "one" (0845 600 7245; w ww.onerailway.com). There are also direct trains from as far afield as Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool to Norwich, plus services from the south to Lowestoft. National Express (0870 580 8080; www.nationalexpress.com) runs buses from various places to Norwich and beyond. You can fly to Norwich airport, en route to the Broads, from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Manchester on Eastern Airways (01652 680 600; www.easternairways.com). Luton and Stansted are also reasonably convenient, and offer flights from Scotland, Northern Ireland and various airports in England.

AND GET AROUND?

The area used to be criss-crossed with railways, of which only relatively few survive (see page 2). Until trains and buses become frequent enough, it helps to have a car. Try Holiday Autos (0870 400 0000; www.holidayautos.co.uk); Avis (0870 010 0287; www.avis.co.uk), or Hertz (0870 590 6090; www.hertz.co.uk), who often have weekend deals.

Cycling (see page 8) is excellent thanks to the unchallenging terrain. Hire companies include Broadland (01603 783 096; www.broadlandcyclehire.co.uk) at Hoveton and Ludham.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

The East of England Tourist Board (0870 225 4800; visiteastofengland.com). Alternatively, the Broads Authority (01603 610 734; www.broads-authority.gov.uk) offers information on everything from where to stay and how to hire a boat to details of river races and regattas.

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