Voyage of discovery on Norfolk Broads

After growing up messing about in boats Andy Russell sees the Norfolk Broads in a new light with his first cruiser holiday.

I've sailed them, canoed them, even swum in many of them… but unlike so many visitors to Norfolk I've never had a holiday on them.

I'm talking about the acclaimed network of rivers and manmade lakes that are the Norfolk Broads. You never appreciate what you have on your doorstep… but so often when people in different parts of the country find out I'm a Norfolk boy they reminisce about wonderful holidays on the Broads.

And as much as I know the Broadland rivers and villages well, sitting just above the water in a canoe or sailing dinghy, I've often never seen what lies beyond the reeds or banks.

I grew up with boats as a Sea Scout, spent summer holidays working at a riverside business moving and refuelling cruisers but to spend a week with one was a voyage of discovery – right on our doorstep for we collected our Hoseasons-booked cruiser from Alphacraft's hire fleet at Brundall just down the road from home.


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For someone used to canoes and dinghies, a 44ft cruiser looks huge but it means Mustang, one of the Alpha Spitfire class, is surprisingly spacious. Sleeping four to six, there's a double bedroom at the back, with en suite shower and toilet, a compact galley complete with gas cooker and microwave and lots of storage cupboards, a main saloon living area which easily accommodates six people in comfort, a small double bedroom and another spacious double in the bow of the boat along with another shower room with toilet.

It's all very cosy and well equipped with radio/CD, flat-screen TV, PlayStation for games and DVD, security safe and warm-air heating which we were glad of in late March with warm sunny days and cold, even frosty, nights.

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You can steer it from the saloon or from the spacious upper sun deck which is high enough to give good visibility which, combined with bow thrusters, makes it quite easy to manoeuvre in tight spaces… with a little practice.

With clothes and groceries stowed, we six nautical novices left Alphacraft mid-afternoon on the Saturday, gingerly chugging along in the drizzle and tied up in the free mooring cut at Thorpe opposite one end of Whitlingham Country Park and, to celebrate our safe arrival, headed to The Buck pub on River Green for a fine evening meal.

We slept well, lulled by the gentle movement of the boat, and next morning, with the sun trying to peep through, enjoyed cruising into Norwich – an interesting experience to come into a familiar place by a different route and means of transport – with a very different view of Norwich City's football ground and a close-up of the new apartment developments beside the river. Fortunately the tide was low enough to allow us to get under Trowse, Carrow and Foundry bridges and up to Bishop Bridge. Here navigation of the River Yare ends so former tank commander Major Mike pulled rank, because he had a natty Breton cap, and took charge of turning the boat round in the narrow river.

By now the water was sparkling in the sunshine and at the southern bypass bridge at Postwick, near Thorpe – which I cross daily going to work – it was odd to see cars passing overhead rather than being in the car and watching boats on the river. Back at Brundall we did a little detour on to Surlingham Broad, a short paddle from my old Scout group's riverside plot, which revived memories of canoeing over the sunken hulks of wherries and on to the inner broad which is accessible only by kayak.

And then it was on to Cantley and a close-up of the British Sugar plant which borders the river before the day's cruise ended mooring up at Reedham where we were one of only a handful of boats tied up… in the height of summer we were told that cruisers are often two abreast all along the quay.

Here we put the galley to good use, with the girls cooking the evening meal while Mike helped fill the water tank and secured the cruiser for the night. His Army training meant he also enjoyed the morning routine of spending a couple of minutes topping up the engine coolant and cleaning the weed filters!

We awoke to a foggy morning, so thick you could not see the railway swing bridge but as the temperature rose along with the sun it soon burned off and we were able to head back up river a couple of miles to the River Chet – uncharted territory during my boating days – and on to Chedgrave and Loddon. At first the narrow 3.5-mile stretch of river with tight turns, quite tricky to negotiate in a 44ft cruiser, passes through reed beds and we were led by a heron flying ahead and landing on the channel markers to wait for us while marsh harriers swooped and glided. They were soon joined by an owl which accompanied us all the way past the wide expanse of water that is Hardley Flood to the public staithe.

A short walk to Loddon to restock with provisions and we were soon back-tracking to Reedham and continued up the the New Cut – a 2.5-mile canal opened in 1833 and built by Thomas Townsend to link the Waveney and Yare rivers and make Norwich more viable as a port – to St Olaves as we headed to Oulton Broad with a short stop at Somerleyton to stretch our legs with a walk into the village.

We had planned to stop the night at Oulton Broad but after doing a circuit decided to take advantage of the extra hour of daylight of the clocks going forward – hire cruisers have to be moored up before dark – and press on for Beccles 11 miles away.

It proved a great decision and a memorable couple of hours cruising along the Waveney in the hazy late afternoon golden sunlight and we arrived at Beccles Yacht Station with half an hour to spare, ideal timing to watch the sun go down with a glass of wine before wandering into the town to eat.

Next morning, with Mustang too high to get under the old Beccles road bridge, it was time to turn round again and start retracing our voyage. This time we followed the Waveney all the way to Breydon Water, passing reed-cutters and the Roman fort at Burgh Castle, before turning on to the Yare and passing the remote Berney Arms Mill reached only on foot or by water before arriving for a second night at Reedham.

I thought I knew the rivers and Broads pretty well but a week on a cruiser opened my eyes to new delights and made me fully appreciate this really is a beautiful part of the world.

FACTFILE

Andy Russell stayed on Alpha Mustang, within the Alpha Spitfire class, sleeping four to six, and cruised the Norfolk Broads, courtesy of Hoseasons. A week's stay on Alpha Mustang starts from �920. Fuel is an additional charge and optional extras are available including pet-friendly boats, car parking and bicycles. For more information about boating holidays in the UK and Europe visit www.hoseasons.co.uk or telephone 0844 847 1100. He collected his cruiser from Alphacraft at Riverside Estate, Brundall, a family-run company which has been in business for 45 years. As well as running its own fleet of 21 hire cruisers, sleeping two to 12 and all named after aircraft, the yard builds boats for its own use as well as for other hire companies. Prices for our Alpha Spitfire class cruiser start from �130,000. There's a lot to learn when you collect your cruiser but hirers are given tuition and Alphacraft provides a useful folder containing everything you need to know from how the boat works, local information, mooring, tying knots, tide tables etc. With 225 litres of diesel on board you'll have plenty for a week but need to keep the 100-gallon water tank topped up each day because it is surprising how much six people get through. Mid-week you need to call into a boatyard to get the toilets pumped out – it takes about 10 minutes and cost �18 at Reedham. Brundall to Beccles by river is about 25 miles so in a week you can comfortably cover the southern rivers of the Yare, Waveney and Chet, taking in Surlingham, Rockland and Oulton broads, Whitlingham Country Park and getting as far as Norwich Yacht Station. You can also hire cruisers through Hoseasons from several other boatyards on the Broads including many on the northern rivers of the Bure, Thurne and Ant which give access to broads including Ranworth, Salhouse, Hickling, Barton and Martham and Horsey Mere.

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