New book on the history of The Broads tells some fascinating stories
- Credit: James Bass © 2009
They include the day a sleeping baby survived an explosion which tore a boat 'to atoms'
The 21st Century isn't perfect or fair by any stretch of the imagination, but many of the things we hear about the past make us glad we're living now and not in Victorian times, say. Can you imagine being Ben Grimes, for instance, as he dreamed of the woman he wanted to marry but found himself facing a stark and callous choice?
He had much experience of hard graft under his belt by the time he got a job on an East Anglian farm at the age of 17. For at eight he'd gone to work on the marshes with his father, cutting turf that was sold as household fuel.
At 21 he took a bride - a servant from "the hall". It was very much against the wishes of his employer. Ben was told in no uncertain terms he'd be sacked if he deprived the hall of a good domestic worker.
His master said there were plenty of potential alternative spouses in the village. Ask them in turn, until you find yourself a wife from within their ranks. That'll sort things out.
Ben was made of stern stuff, though. He followed his heart, married the girl he wanted by his side… and lost his job the day after the wedding.
Fortunately, he found a new position on another estate - albeit a job that meant he had to walk five miles a day to work. He was there a couple of years - until his former employer had a change of heart and took him back. And on more money, too.
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Ben gets a goodly number of column centimetres in a new book called A Look Back at The Broads. It examines aspects of the history of the Norfolk and Suffolk broads and rivers by focusing on what people said and wrote at the time.
Author David Cleveland has long lived on the Suffolk/Essex border, at Manningtree, but was raised on a small Norfolk farm at Horstead, near Coltishall.
His mother's family came from Hoveton, near Wroxham, and his grandfather had a boat on The Broads before the Second World War. "I had school friends from as far afield as Horning and Thorpe-next-Norwich, and spent leisurely time messing about on the rivers Bure and Yare," says David.
In adulthood he'd make films for the Broads Authority, and helped swell the number of Broads-related material in the East Anglian Film Archive, then at the University of East Anglia. (England's first regional film archive, it was set up in 1976 by its first director: David. He ran it until retiring in 2004.)
"The idea for this book has been to look at the developments and changes mainly through words and pictures of those who were there at the time, beginning in the early 19th century: of what life and conditions were like; not only for those that lived and worked in the Broads area, and used the rivers and Broads for work and pleasure, but also for the visitors who began coming in ever increasing numbers."
The book's full of flavour: of single-sail wherry boats; the plants, insects, birds and fish found in Broadland; of trade; of the battle to stop these magical waters being polluted by sewage, rubbish and chemicals, and over-use.
Ben Grimes's cameo illustrates what life could be like for a local born in the mid 19th Century. He had taken his first breath in Horning, this son of a marshman-cum-shoemaker-cum-shopkeeper. He had a rudimentary education at a dame school, then cut turf.
At 24, after the marriage dramas, Ben became parish clerk of Horning. His duties included grave-digging. It's said he dug more than 400. At the age of 50 he became a small-scale farmer and market gardener.
Here are some selected moments from David's book. A Look Back At The Broads (337 pages; 440 black-and-white and 293 colour illustrations) is £35 and available from The City Bookshop, Davey Place, Norwich, or www.localeastanglianbooks.com
David suggests 1834 could be viewed as the genesis of The Broads, as we think of them - "a place of beautiful scenery, much wildlife, and a pleasure playground".
Three accounts were published that year: a book called the Scenery of the Rivers of Norfolk, comprising the Yare, the Waveney, and the Bure; booklet Sketch of the Natural History of Yarmouth and its Neighbourhood; and an article in the New Monthly Magazine called "A Visit To The Broads" (a sailing and fishing "holiday" on Somerton Broad).
The author of that magazine piece waxed lyrical about how "the cottages wear an air of such neatness and comfort, the inclosures are so well stocked with herds and flocks, (and) the exquisite perfection of the tillage, the excellence of the roads, and the very flatness of the surface… all these things combine to fill the mind with that mixed sensation of liveliness and content which, for want of a better phrase, we must call pleasure".
He'd apparently been brought up in the area. Fifty years earlier, "the whole tract was little better than a morass…"
'Sharpness of wit'
Of course, the delights of the area had been cited earlier than that. For instance: Londoner Sir Thomas Browne in the 1660s wrote Notes and Letters on The Natural History of Norfolk, and celebrated the "great number of rivers, rivulets & splashes of water".
In 1781, book Geographical Description of The County of Norfolk concluded that "Norfolk is, generally speaking, a cheap and plentiful county. The gentry live in a splendid and hospitable manner. The tradesmen and farmers exceed those of any other county, and in what is termed good living; and the labourer and mechanic come in for a comfortable share of the loaves and fishes".
Meanwhile, "the wholesome air may naturally produce a sharpness of wit".
WH Claxton's Record of Local Events in Norwich says the first steam boat appeared on the Yare on August 10, 1813.
On April 4, 1817 - Good Friday - came a calamity. "Wrights Norwich and Yarmouth Steam Packet Explosion, Foundry Bridge." The boat was getting ready to depart with its 20 passengers when "the boiler of the engine burst and the vessel was torn to atoms.
"Ten of the passengers were instantly killed and six were conveyed to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, where two subsequently died.
"The others escaped without serious injury, and an infant two months old was discovered at the bottom of the vessel 'in profound sleep'."
Time of plenty
An article in the Norwich Mercury in 1924 talked of the Bure. In 1834 a weekly service of wherries had run from Aylsham to Yarmouth. Later, as many as 17 might be seen following one another upstream.
"For many years this waterway was extensively used, much trade being carried on between Yarmouth and Aylsham, while Coltishall, Horstead, Buxton, Lammas, Oxnead, and Burgh, with their mills, maltings, coal yards, brick and lime kilns, also came in for their share of the prosperity."
In 1845, the Rev Richard Lubbock's book "Observations on the Fauna of Norfolk, and more particularly on the District of the Broads" talked of a decline in birds.
The rector of Eccles blamed shooting, the drainage of fenland, and "the system of 'egging', and the general knowledge of the price which uncommon birds fetch in the London market, which causes an eager search for everything likely to sell there".
In 1888, Bernard Alfieri wrote in The Amateur Photographer: "As a photographic resort the district is, to say the least of it, disappointing; the nature of the country is too flat to afford any great variety of scenery.
"The mills, dotted over the whole landscape, remind one forcibly of Dutch pictures, and although there are some pretty bits here and there on the Broads, the rivers Yare, Bure, Thurne and Waveney have the same characteristics and the same monotonous stretches of marshy land in their vicinity."
He did like Womack Broad ("one of the prettiest bits of scenery on the river") and picturesque Ludham.
Ernest Suffling's 1891 book How To Organize a Cruise on the Broads included advice about making the most of a wet day. A game of cards or a sing-song - or perhaps the game Fill the Basket. Using a spoon, get your 12 ugly, large and knobbly potatoes into a basket or box before your opponent. Laughter guaranteed…
Need for speed
The Royal Norfolk & Suffolk Yacht Club organised the first power boat race on Oulton Broad - on August 20, 1903. It was after the third sailing race in Oulton regatta.
Alan Savory, in Fisherman Fowler, wrote about living near Brundall during the early years of George V's reign. (So, 1910-something.)
"I remember being made to carry a tablet of camphor in a little muslin bag around my neck because there was an outbreak of typhoid fever in the district.
"Personal hygiene was not a strong point with the average farm worker. The village population literally stank. No-one really washed. The popular notion was that 'washing weakens yer'."
Take own sheets
By the 1920s, Broadland was changing. There were new roads, and some people had more money for holidays.
EW Adams, writing in The Motor, said: "The Broadland roads are, generally speaking, in bad condition, although good in parts. They have been much cut up by the spate of chars-a-bancs which flow through them in the summer. Where the surface is not wavy, it is usually broken and full of pot holes."
Mind you, work was underway. A note by the editor added: "Most Norfolk roads are now repaired and in good condition."
The Broads were becoming well known, thanks to the media. They offered, as a caption to the short 1926 film "The Broads of Norfolk and Suffolk" said, "the opportunity of a unique vacation afloat at little cost".
In 1928, during a live BBC radio broadcast, the lord mayor of Norwich talked about the yachts and cruisers available to hire - "completely equipped for a long cruise, but if you go in for luxuries you must take your own sheets". He dubbed Broadland "a yachtsman's paradise".
Ferry Inn tragedy
At 9.45pm on Saturday, April 26, 1941, death came to The Broads. Nazi bombs fell around the Ferry Inn at Horning. One hit the pub. Twenty-one people died.
Charles Carrodus told in his publication "A Norfolk Village in Wartime" of two people who had retired for the night being "blown out of bed, and dropped on the thatched roof, which had been lifted by the blast onto the lawn".
'Isn't a frog left'
In 1968, naturalist, writer and angler Alan Savory declared "The Broads are finished. They have been ruined. There isn't a frog left in the Yare Valley; detergents have killed them all.
"The marshes used to teem with duck, but all is now barren water - even the duck weed has disappeared."
In 1983 naturalist Ted Ellis told David Cleveland "The broads are unique in this country - a wilderness of reed beds, and winding waterways, little placid lakes - a jewel of wildlife, flowers, birds, at all seasons.
"All of a special magic, not to be found anywhere else in these islands, and this inheritance we are treasuring now to the very best of our ability, against many forces, that carelessly could see this precious wilderness vanish."
At the end of 1979 the Broads Authority's first action plan had been unveiled: a mix of research projects, restoration work and conservation to halt the decline of Broadland. "Some of these - and other ideas - came to fruition; some did not," notes David.
In 2010, he writes, the chairman of the Broads Tourism Forum declared "The Broads are in decline. There are not enough visitors and there's a job to be done." A publicity drive was launched and there was a push to rebrand the area as "Britain's Magical Waterland".
In the years since, there have still been worries about water quality, but also "significant improvements" to look back on. And Broadland is still a magnet for many.
David's book states that in 2017 more than seven million visitors added about £600m to the area's economy.
"According to the Larking Gowen Tourism Business website 'Richardson's operates the largest fleet of cruisers on the Broads, with more than 300 boats, attracting about 75,000 holidaymakers to Norfolk each year'."
Your own master
One person for whom the magic of The Broads never waned was Margaret Bird, whose parents sailed. She was introduced to them in the mid-1940s.
"I love the rivers and Broads, because you are your own master; you decide what you want to do for yourself, or your family or visitors," Margaret told David in 2017.
"Every moment of the day is different: the light changes, the river bank changes; there is a different scene with every reach."