What's in a Broad? Delving beneath the surface of Norfolk's wonderful waterways

Norfolk Is... The evening light touches the moored boats at the Berney Arms windmill and sums up eve

The Norfolk Broads are one of the region's treasures. - Credit: Denise Bradley

Broads Society member and former chairman Robert Paul delves into the science and history behind north and east Norfolk's fascinating waterways.

It’s all about hydrology. What is hydrology I hear you ask? It’s all about the movement of water. It is actually a science studying the distribution, occurrence, properties, and yes, movement of water usually in relation to land masses.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the  Broads Society.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the Broads Society. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

You may think this is a bit heavy for an article in the North Norfolk News. 

But actually it affects us all in this part of the world, will continue to do so, and in a more concerning way in view of climate change.

I find the long history of Norfolk and Broadland fascinating, probably because of my long association with the Museum of the Broads and, sadly, not because of my school history lessons, although I am sure history lessons have improved a lot since my day.

Ever since the Roman invasion of 55BC water has dictated how we live in the east both in our county of Norfolk and our neighbouring northern counties.

Cutting and loading peat on to a cart on the Norfolk Broads.  

A historic image showing cutting and loading peat on to a cart on the Norfolk Broads. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

In those times, open sea was as far as Acle and large estuarine rivers stretched towards where Norwich is today.

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Since those times there is a history of climate change, continual land shrinkage and sea level rise.

The combination of incoming salt tides and fresh water flooding created probably the most biodiverse environments in Europe.

Holidaymakers on board a pleasure wherry on the Norfolk Broads, sometime in the 1920s.

Holidaymakers on board a pleasure wherry on the Norfolk Broads, sometime in the 1920s. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

It created an area of wetland rich in resources not only for food – fish, eels in their thousands, waterbirds but also materials for construction of dwellings such as reed, sedge, rush and a source of fuel – peat, when cut into cubes locally known as turves.

In fact there was such a bountiful supply that the indigenous people of the Broads and Fens fought hard to protect their ‘common land’ from the authorities who wanted to enclose and drain it which they eventually did. In the 18th century there was huge demand for peat, fish, eels, game, feathers, hay and dairy products most going to the rapidly increasing population of London.

A historic photo of the Norfolk Broads. 

A historic photo of the Norfolk Broads. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

The peat diggers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries removed an estimated 900 million cubic metres of peat for selling as fuel. That is a lot of peat - it equates to 360,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. 

Today peatlands across the world are recognised as important ‘carbon sink’ – absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.

And what it did leave us with, once the land had shrunk and sea levels had risen again were The Broads, treasured by countless numbers of people today.

Tourism on the Broads and in North Norfolk today contributes in excess of £400 million to the local economy with around seven million visitors annually.

The Ludham Bridge on the Norfolk Broads in flood. 

The Ludham Bridge on the Norfolk Broads in flood. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

The Broads are under constant threat from many quarters not only from climate change and potential devastating sea level rise but also from pressures of development, pollution and tourism, if not managed sensitively.

That is why I am proud to be a member of the Broads Society founded in 1956 with more of an emphasis on the social element than anything else.

People enjoying a day out on boats on the Norfolk Broads.

People enjoying a day out on boats on the Norfolk Broads. - Credit: Danielle Booden

It has developed into a strong campaigning body seeking to engage all interests of the Broads, from navigators to naturalists, but with the overall purpose of promoting the future well-being of the Broads.

If you are interested in joining, and all ages are very welcome, please visit www.broads-society.org.uk to download a membership form or call 07393 422006.



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