Treasures of the broads

Generations of visitors to Norfolk have been enthralled by the sight of magnificent wherries gliding along the waterways. EMMA LEE finds out more about one of one of Norfolk's greatest nautical treasures.

Generations of visitors to Norfolk have been enthralled by the sight of magnificent wherries gliding along the waterways.

As part of EDP2's series celebrating the Broads, EMMA LEE finds out more about one of one of Norfolk's greatest nautical treasures.

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Although not Norfolk born and bred, Katy Walters has been enraptured by wherries since she was a child. She came to know the quintessentially Norfolk craft during trips with her Nottinghamshire school in the early 1990s.

And sailing them was, for her, an unforgettable experience.

“It was just fantastic. So different to anything I had done before,” she says.

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Katy moved to Norfolk to study at UEA, and last year took part in a training sail with the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust, which cares for three of Norfolk's few surviving wherries.

She discovered that her enthusiasm for crewing the distinctive and graceful large-sailed vessels hadn't waned one bit.

“It was just amazing - it just came back to me,” she says.

Katy is now a committee member of the Friends of the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust. It owns the Pleasure Wherry Hathor and the wherry yachts Olive and Norada and is working hard to preserve the Norfolk sailing tradition - the wherry is much a symbol of the Broads as the windmills.

A Heritage Lottery Fund grant allowed them to buy them from their previous owners, Peter Bower and Barney Matthews, in 2006 and rely on donations to help secure their futures.

Wherries were once the workhorses of the slow-flowing rivers and shallow lakes - a vitally important part of the area's prosperity.

In their heyday, in the 19th Century, hundreds would be seen on the Broads, with their sails blackened with tar and herring oil for protection, transporting cargo such as timber and coal to and from the sea-faring vessels at Yarmouth.

They are a classic example of a design working in harmony with the environment.

Because of the low depth of the waterways, the wherries have shallow hulls - and the mast is tall, so the massive sail can catch the breeze over the trees.

There are two surviving trading vessels - the Albion and Maud.

In the late 19th Century, with the growth of the tourism industry, trader wherry owners spotted their potential and would convert them for pleasure cruises. It was also a means of survival - at this time trains were replacing some wherry trading routes, and eventually wherries were built solely for cruising on the Broads.

Wherry holidays were popular in extravagant Edwardian times, and the vessels were lavishly fitted - sometimes with luxury items including baths and pianos.

The final evolution of the wherry was the wherry yacht, which was generally smaller and often fitted with an engine so more distance could be covered in a day.

The three vessels in the care of the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust each have their own stories to tell.

Hathor, which recently celebrated its centenary with a grand tour of Broadland, is an absolutely stunning vessel. Built in 1905 by Halls of Reedham for the Colman family, she is named after the Egyptian goddess of love and joy, and her interior is decorated with hieroglyphics.

Wherry yacht Olive has a quiet electric engine, and was built a few years later in 1909. Wherry Yacht Norada is the baby of the fleet, having been built in 1912, and is described as “small and sprightly”.

Taking a trip on a wherry is like stepping back in time, and is one of the best and most memorable ways to enjoy Norfolk's spectacular scenery.

It's exhausting listening to Katy describe the launch procedure - just thinking about it brings you out in a sweat. The massive sail has to be winched aloft and quant poles, which are like punts, are used to manoeuvre the vessel through the water.

As well as a skipper, there are usually two or three crew members, and it takes around 15 or 20 minutes to get ready to sail. As you cast off the mooring, the crew has to be ready for action. “It's hard work, because it's heavy-duty sail cloth,” says Katy. “You keep going until the skipper tells you to stop. It really gets your heart going.

“On the sail winch mechanism there is a metal ratchet that stops the sail falling down again when you stop winching. When the crew winch up the sail, there is a very distinctive - and loud - metallic clank-clank-clank noise from the ratchet - it's extremely evocative, and it was wonderful to hear it again when I came back to crewing last year,” she says.

“I'm sure it must make an impression on many passengers too. It does briefly disturb the wonderful peace, but when the sail is up and we stop winching, it seems all the more peaceful,” she adds.

As Katy enthuses, it's the perfect way to experience and reflect on the beauty of the Broads. Very different from modern boating, being on board the historic vessel somehow brings you closer to the environment.

“It's the perfect sail when the wind's with you and the crew aren't running around and quanting,” says Katy. “There's no engine on the Hathor, so there's absolutely nothing to disturb the peace. Gliding through the water is really quite magical. You can see the moorhens and grebes on their nests. You feel like a part of the Broads environment.

“When you're going slowly you're not there to get from A to B - you take a step back from everyday life,” Katy says.

If you would like to help the Norfolk wherries - Norada, Olive and Hathor - you could become a Friend of the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust.

As well as receiving regular newsletters and exclusive invites to trips and events, there is also the opportunity to get involved on a practical level through crew training or maintenance and helping with administration. For information write to Mrs J Bryant, 25 Fletcher Way, Acle, Norwich, Norfolk, NR13 3RQ.