Boat firms on the Norfolk Broads are fearing for their future as months of high water have left vessels unable to pass beneath a notoriously low bridge.

Yards on the Thurne river rely on boats being able to navigate under Potter Heigham's medieval crossing.

But because of persistent high water since October the bridge has become almost impassable for all but the smallest vessels.

Eastern Daily Press: High water levels at Potter Bridge, which was built six centuries agoHigh water levels at Potter Bridge, which was built six centuries ago (Image: Robin Richardson)

Hire firms have been forced to weigh their boats down with water to try to sink them low enough to attempt to pass under the structure, or even ferry holidaymakers to craft which cannot get through the bridge.

One yard next to the crossing is unable to start winter repair work on boats as they are stuck on the wrong side.

The companies say they are "worried sick" about the situation.

Eastern Daily Press: A boat in difficulty at Potter Heigham Bridge from the Eastern Daily Press archivesA boat in difficulty at Potter Heigham Bridge from the Eastern Daily Press archives (Image: Newsquest)


Potter bridge is the lowest on the Broads and is notoriously difficult to pass through, even when water levels are lower.

In the summer, the clearance under the bridge can be almost 7ft. But even then, many boats are too large to fit under to reach the Upper Thurne area, which includes the vast Hickling Broad - the largest of the Broads - as well as Horsey Mere and other peaceful, popular stretches.

However, the extreme high water seen since Storm Babet, in October, have almost cut off the area from the rest of the Broads, threatening businesses which depend on navigation through the bridge. Locals say clearance in recent months has fallen below 5ft.

READ MORE: Calls for coastal erosion to be taken seriously as more than thousand homes at risk

Eastern Daily Press: Martham Boats' vessels sailing on the BroadsMartham Boats' vessels sailing on the Broads (Image: Martham Boats)


The worst hit firms are Martham Boats, about a mile upstream of the bridge, and Phoenix Fleet, which is next to the crossing.

Ian Curtis, of Martham Boats, which has been trading for 77 years, said: "We've had problems since before Storm Babet in October.

"That half-term we had to swap people over on boats on either side of the bridge. This is starting to affect people's livelihoods." 

Eastern Daily Press: Robin and Patrick Richardson, of Phoenix Fleet which is based in Potter HeighamRobin and Patrick Richardson, of Phoenix Fleet which is based in Potter Heigham (Image: Owen Sennitt)

Brothers Patrick and Robin Richardson, who run Pheonix Fleet, which also offers piloting services through the bridge, have been unable to work for months due to the flooding, which has left their car park and yard swamped.

The yard carries out repairs on privately-owned craft, but has been unable to work on some of them as they are stuck on the wrong side of the bridge.

Robin Richardson said: "No one is denying there has been heavy rain but in all our lives we have never seen anything like this. It has showed little sign of going down for months because water is not getting out of the river.

“Our car park is completely under water. We can’t not open but whether people will come under these circumstances is another matter.

Eastern Daily Press: A map of the Potter Heigham areaA map of the Potter Heigham area (Image: Google)

“In previous years we would flood if there was a storm but it would drop back, this year it has stayed very high. It is as if the water is going round in circles.

“Spring tides normally draw it out but there is no sign of it going down.

“We’ve had boats waiting for maintenance since November but we have been unable to get through to our yard on the other side."

Mr Richardson has a postcard of a photograph taken in the 1950s, which show significantly lower water levels next to the bridge, with larger vessels able to pass with comparative ease.

“A lot of people are worried sick,” he added. 

Paul Rice, a flood warden in the area, said this year has seen an unprecedented number of flood alerts and warnings, with his team on standby almost non-stop since October. 

Eastern Daily Press: Drone images show flooding in HicklingDrone images show flooding in Hickling (Image: Mike Page)


Boatyards are not the only businesses suffering.

Nippy Chippy, the fish and chip shop next to Potter bridge, has endured frequent floods this year and fears it may have to close in the next six months if the situation does not improve.

Manager Liam Chipperfield estimates he has lost 21 days of business since October. 

"We just don’t see an end. We’re barely keeping open at the moment. If this continues throughout the summer we won't be open come the winter" he said. 

Other communities on the Upper Thurne are also affected.

In Hickling, villagers have had raw sewage coming up through their baths because the water table is so high, while farmers have had to move livestock from flooded land.

Eastern Daily Press: George Elliott, of Ludham Bridge Boatyard, has been under water for monthsGeorge Elliott, of Ludham Bridge Boatyard, has been under water for months (Image: Ludham Bridge Boatyard)


The problems are not unique to the Thurne.

George Elliott runs a boatyard at Ludham bridge, on the Ant river.

Much of his yard is under water, as the river has topped over the banks.

"We have been severely impacted but the whole area is suffering. It is affecting my mental health, having to wade through this water for eight hours a day," he said.

"It is getting harder and harder to pay the bills.

"There needs to be serious questions asked to stop this."

Eastern Daily Press: Ludham Bridge Boatyard under water which has prevented managing director George Elliott from carrying out work on customers' boatsLudham Bridge Boatyard under water which has prevented managing director George Elliott from carrying out work on customers' boats (Image: Ludham Bridge Boatyard)


The problems come at a tough time for boatyards, which have faced increasing financial pressures in recent years caused by a drop in the number of holidaymakers combined with increasing toll fees to use the waterways.

The Broads Authority is having to put up tolls year on year to cover its own growing demand for funds caused in part by challenges caused by climate change.

Despite the difficulties, the Broads continue to be a major contributor to the local economy, with tourism and other industries estimated to bring in £711m to the county.

READ MORE: Broads Authority say 'no conspiracy' over toll fee increases

Eastern Daily Press: The 24-hour moorings downstream of Potter Heigham Bridge at low tideThe 24-hour moorings downstream of Potter Heigham Bridge at low tide (Image: Robin Richardson)


Many on the waterways believe the recent problems of heavy rainfall and high water levels have been exacerbated by a long-term lack of maintenance on the Bure, which the Ant and Thurne both flow into. At Great Yarmouth, the Bure joins the Yare, which then flows into the sea - the only outlet for the entire Broads.

Businesses believe that more dredging on the Bure could remove silt which they say is limiting the flow of water.

Eastern Daily Press: Dredging on the River BureDredging on the River Bure (Image: Broads Authority)

Mr Elliott said: "Dredging is a dirty word. But the Broads is a man-made river system and needs to be maintained. 

"You can compare the River Yare to the M1 but the Bure is like a B-road - it is narrow and if silt builds up, water struggles to get away."

Mr Curtis added: "They used to dredge the lower Bure, which is the main drain, every year but it hasn't been done in recent years. It is like having a pint glass half full of sand and pouring a pint of water in - it will overflow."


But the Broads Authority, one of the statutory bodies responsible for the waterways, says more dredging is not the answer.

It works with engineering experts, the Environment Agency and Internal Drainage Boards when deciding on the best approach to managing the waterways.

It says an unprecedented level of winter rain combined with tidal surges creating a tide-locking effect at the mouth of the river is to blame.

It has highlighted recent studies that indicate mass dredging of a tidal water system could let in a much larger volume of water - potentially causing more flooding.

Eastern Daily Press: Boats motoring along the River Bure during the summer monthsBoats motoring along the River Bure during the summer months (Image: Newsquest)

Hydrographical surveys it has conducted of the Bure have shown that the depths of the river have not changed significantly in the last decade.

The Environment Agency added it continues to safeguard vulnerable areas and regularly reassesses the situation. Quick fixes like sandbags and wooden boards to fortify embankments have been deployed. Currently, it does not believe dredging is needed.

A spokesman said: "While dredging may seem a conventional approach, our decision not to pursue it, is based on our current understanding of the river's dynamics and ensuring that our interventions are focussed on long-term efficacy over short-lived fixes."