Natural Wonders: Boating in the Norfolk Broads

In the third part of our Natural Wonders series, Susan Griffith relaxes in 'England's Everglades'

Floating gently along a Norfolk river at a maximum speed of 5mph is unlikely to set the pulse racing. And that is precisely the point. Penetrating the secret corners of the watery worldbeyond Norwich can feel at times like stepping into the pages of an old-fashioned children's storybook. As your body and soul grind down through the gears, it feels as though you are entering a contemplative world of rivers and dykes, of brew-ups and cheese sandwiches, of cycling, bird-watching and narrow-gauge steam railways, such as the Bure Valley Line (01263 733 858; bvrw.co.uk).

Belatedly awardednational park status in 1989, the Norfolk Broads are now recognised as a rare and precious wetland habitat, England's very own Everglades. What is mostremarkable about these flat expanses of water is that they are of man's making, something that was discovered as recently as 1952 by a "stratigrapher" called Joyce Lambert. Our mediaeval ancestors dug peat by hand for fuel, not knowing that underground water and rivers would fill up the holes, forming great shallow lakes or "broads".

Visitors who stick to the main roads will catch a flash of water between trees and the odd glimpse of sails moving on the far side of a field, but will miss what makes the Broads unique. Messing about in boats, or at least exploring riverside paths, is called for.

All kinds of boats from canoes to gin palace-style motor cruisers can be hired by the hour, day or week from boatyards, including Hunter's Yard in Ludham which has a fleet of 1930s wooden yachts (01692 678 263; huntersyard.co.uk). Potential embarrassments include getting stuck under the low arch of Potter Heigham Bridge (fun for spectators), grounding your rudder in mud or reversing into a tight mooring.

For non-boaters, Ordnance Survey Sheet 134 is the equivalent of the door at the back of the wardrobe. A filigree network of footpaths and tiny lanes with next-to-no gradient invite exploration on foot and by bicycle.

Bikes can be booked ahead on theBittern Line railway (0845 600 7245; bitternline.com) to Salhouse or Hoveton & Wroxton stations, or hired from Broadland Cycle Hire (07887 480331; norfolkbroadscycling.co.uk). A perfect riverside destination is the atmospheric ruin of St Benet's Abbey stranded at the end of a long farm track near the picturesque village of Ludham. The arresting sight of a crumbling ecclesiastical gateway framing the ruin of an 18th-century brick windmill is a memorable landmark on the River Bure and an ideal place for a picnic. Buy supplies at the Galley @ Horning or Truly Local in Stalham, a new deli stocking only products from within a 35-mile radius.

Tranquil How Hill combines all that is lovely about the Broads. Boats meander along the River Ant and moor near the tiny one-up, one-down marshman's cottage, now a free museum called Toad Hole Cottage. Fifty-minute trips on the six-person Electric Eel boat leave hourly between 11am and 4pm (01603 756086); the cost is £7 for adults, £6 for children, £17 families.

A one-hour wildlife walking trail through the How Hill nature reserve (admission £1.50) delivers views of red dragonflies, water boatmen, butterflies and birds that seem to be saying tsk-tsk or playing kazoos. Opening the hinged shutters of bird hides reveals hidden broads where terns duck, ducks turn and waders walk on water. At first they seem to be floating, but the water is so shallow they are standing on the bottom.

Another miracle can be experienced in the Broadland village of Ranworth. With only a nod in thedirection of health and safety, signs in the splendidmedieval Church of St Helen's encourage visitors to climb the uneven tight spiral stairway of the tower and emerge to survey a vast panorama, a rare treat when there are no mountains or skyscrapers within a hundred miles. Even if you are afraid of heights, the Ranworth church is worth visiting for its magnificent 15th-century painted rood screen and illuminated Latin book of service or Antiphoner.

The next village along is Woodbastwick, where Woodforde's has established itself as Norfolk's pre-eminent brewery (woodfordes.co.uk), producing Wherry bitter,citrusy Sundew, glugable Nelson's Revenge and Mardler's Mild. Mardle is Norfolk dialect for idle chat, much in evidence in the lovely garden of the Fur & Feather Inn (01603 720 003; thefurandfeatherinn.co.uk) next door to the brewery.

Families should not missBeWILDerwood near Wroxham (01603 783900; bewilderwood.co.uk) where kids can build dens, hurtle down vertical slides, cross aerial walkways to treehouses and race on zip wires. Access is on pensioned-off Broadland ferries rechristened BeWILDerboats; admission is £12.50 for everyone over 3.5 feet tall. Story-telling, face painting, 'twiggle twirling' and other special activities will take place next week (Aug 22-29).

Three places to stay Norfolk Broads

CLIPPESBY HALL CAMPSITE

This leafy site with 100 spacious pitches offers greatfacilities including a small outdoor swimming pool, mini-golf and on-site pub. The loo blocks are kept immaculately clean, and an 11pm curfew for noise isenforced. Cycles can be hired to pedal two miles along back lanes to the River Thurne. The cost of a pitch with two adultsin high season is £30.50 (01493 367800; clippesby.com).

REGENCY GUEST HOUSE

With a pretty walled garden, generous breakfasts, slipper baths and friendly proprietors, this self-styled boutique guesthouse in the quiet village of Neatishead makes a comfortable base. Only four or five miles from bustling Wroxham, this area near Barton Broadis surprisingly untouristy.En-suite double rooms with breakfast cost £80 (01692 630233; regencyguesthouse.net).

Next door, the congenial White Horse is a proper local pub with a warren of rooms and unpretentious dishes like sausages and mash. Look for kingfishers along Neatishead dyke.

THE HAIRY PIG

In the remote village of Langley just south of the River Yare, this new B&B is run by enthusiastic hosts who keep rare breed pigs. The organic farm breakfasts use eggs from the owners' hens (but not bacon from hairy pigs). The double or twin roomsin a converted cowshed cost £65 with breakfast (01508 521107; hairypig.co.uk). The long-distance Wherryman's Way footpath passes nearby (wherrymansway.net). Within sight is Hardley Windmill, which is being renovated by two enthusiasts (hardley-windmill.org.uk; £2).

Broads Authority Tourist Information: enjoythebroads.com

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