The Broads in Norfolk

This week is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings when thousands of young men died on the beaches of France as the allies landed to begin the liberation of Europe in WW2. It was quite fitting that at the start of our day, we came across a large batch of poppies growing wild beside a wheat field.

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To the east of Norwich is an area known as ‘The Broads’. These are a network of mostly navigable rivers and lakes in the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. For many years the lakes known as broads were regarded as natural features of the landscape. It was only in the 1960’s that they were proved to be artificial features—flooded medieval peat excavations. In the Middle Ages the local monasteries began to excavate the peatlands as a business, selling fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. (Norwich Cathedral alone took 320,000 tonnes of peat a year). Then the sea levels began to rise, and the pits began to flood. Despite the construction of windpumps and dykes, the flooding continued and resulted in the landscape of today, with its reedbeds, grazing marshes and wet woodland.

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The area of The Broads is 303 square kilometres, most of which is in Norfolk, and they contain over 200 kilometres of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and 63 broads, mostly less than 4 metres deep. Thirteen broads are generally open to navigation, with a further three having navigable channels. The broads are Britain’s largest protected wetland and are home to a wealth of birdlife.

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Near the quaintly named village of Horsey, we saw the Horsey Windpump with its distinctive windmill structure. The purpose of drainage wind pumps like this one was to pump water from the dykes, which intersect and drain the land, into the high level system of the broads and tidal waterways. The water pumped at Horsey from the low level system to the high reaches the sea at Great Yarmouth after a course of 23 miles.

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The wind pump has a fascinating past. The main brick structure of the present windpump was built in 1912 on the site of another old mill. It was completed just in time to deal with the exceptional floods in the summer of 1912.

At Horsey, the maximum lift from the level of the marsh is just 7 feet. Drainage windpumps like this have always been a prominent feature of the Norfolk Broads and at one time large numbers could be seen at work in every direction. Now practically all these windpumps have been replaced by diesel or electric pumps. This pump was converted to diesel power in 1939 and later to electricity.

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The vertical shafting was renewed in Scandinavian Pine specially imported for the purpose of transferring the forces required to drive the horizontal pumping shaft at ground level, which along with the machinery is still the original. The teeth of the wooden cog wheels are made of hornbeam. When the pump was in operation the sails would turn at 10 to 12 revolutions per minute, but in a gale they would often go round at up to 15 rpm.

The coast next to the village, known as Horsey Dunes, is a major wildlife site. During the months of November to January, a colony of Grey Seals heads on to the beach to give birth to seal pups. I walked over the sand dunes to the beach  and could see a seal swimming in the water. The beach is almost up to Australian standards – a long sandy beach but intersected with many groins that prevent erosion.

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On the way to see the town of Great Yarmouth (which is quite unremarkable), we passed though two towns that gave us some insights into two very different types of culture.

At Caister on Sea, we saw the partially excavated remains of a Roman ‘Saxon Shore’ fort. It was built around AD 200 for a unit of the Roman army and navy and was occupied until the end of the 4th century.

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At nearby Burgh Castle, we could see the ruins of another Roman Fort. Here, the Romans built a trapezoidal fort sometime between AD 260-280. Very little is known about the fort, but it is known that a cavalry unit was stationed here in the mid 4th century.

It is possible that the fort was initially intended as a trading centre or as a naval base to guard merchant vessels. During the 4th century raiders from the European continent became a greater threat, and the fort would have formed part of a system of coastal fortifications aimed at repelling these invasions. The fort has a maximum inner width of 205 by 100 metres. The walls on three sides of the fort are fairly intact and still near their original height. The wall on the west side has collapsed into the water. The walls stand to a height of 4.6 metres, and are supported by six pear-shaped bastions.

It was quite amazing to be looking at this infrastructure that was built 1600 years ago!

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In Hemsby, there is a evidence of a completely different culture. We came across this seaside town by accident. It has the most gross and kitsch street to the sea front that one could imagine. The main road was lined with a long collection of amusement arcades, fun parlours, tattoo parlours and fish and chip shops. It was a horrible example of  everything bogans like. They only need to walk next door for more. Who on earth would want to go to the beach and enjoy all this crap?

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By mid afternoon, it was raining continuously so we cut our time short and headed back to our hotel. It was getting cold and uncomfortable. Our ‘turn around point’ was the village of Frittion. I did stand out in the rain for a minute, or two, to take a photo of the only thatched roof church I have ever seen.

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