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England - The Norfolk Broads

( Originally Published 1910 )

A COUNTY instead of a city, massive wherries and dainty yachts instead of gondolas, mill-towers and church steeples instead of palaces such are the differences between Venice and Norfolk. But the essential likeness is the same ; both in the city of the Adriatic and the English county the chief highways are waterways. Where the choice of transit lies between the hard roadway and the limpid path of river or Broad, the Norfolk man never hesitates which to take.

But what are the Norfolk Broads ? Roughly speaking, they are a series of small fresh water lakes connected by rivers and dykes. The word " Broad " is generally interpreted by its surface meaning, that is, a piece of water which has broadened out from its original narrow channel. Altogether these Broads and their connecting rivers furnish forth some two hundred miles of waterway, providing unlimited scope for yachting, fishing, or shooting.

There' are two methods of seeing the Norfolk Broads. The visitor may hire one of the characteristic boats of the district and thread the two hundred miles of waterway in as leisurely a fashion as befits the time at his disposal ; or he may make his home in one of the many farm or private houses which have opened their doors to holiday keepers, and use that as the centre of his explorations. Every man to his choice. If it is a family holiday party, the boat method has its inherent difficulties and discomforts ; if the party comprises only two or more young men bent on an unconventional vacation, a few weeks' experience of fresh-water yachting possesses undeniable attractions. Perhaps the real charm of the Broads does not reveal itself to those who make choice of the house instead of the boat; they know nothing of the luxury of being lulled to sleep by the soughing of the wind swayed rushes, or the gentle lapping of the water against the boat's side ; not theirs the keen-edged appetite which relishes even the most primitively-served meal amid unusual surroundings.

Wroxham is a favourite starting-place with those who elect the boat method of visiting the Broads ; but it is by no means an ideal centre for those who wish the unworn beauty of Broad-land to play upon their town-jaded spirits. Because it is such a popular port of departure it has taken on too many of the airs of a tourist resort ; it has all the bad qualities of urbe in rus. There are shops in the transition stage from the rural store to the city emporium ; hotels with "pleasure gardens" and bands " made in Germany;" merry-go-rounds which aim at greater conquests than village fairs ; Aunt-Sallys which too painfully recall Bank Holiday memories of Greenwich Park and Hampstead Heath. One does not travel a hundred miles from London for such commonplaces as these. But because Wroxham is a good place to get away from, it may be recommended as the starting-point for a cruise among the Broads. Here, where the river Bure widens out to a respectable breadth, boats are plentiful, though it would be the height of folly to leave the chartering of one's craft until the hour of arrival. Such a policy would probably achieve an unlooked for Nemesis either in a vain effort to secure a yacht, or in such an experience of Hobson's choice as would not add to the pleasure of the trip.

Quickly will the visitor to the Broads make the acquaintance of one of the most typical words of the district, the word " Staithe" ; but he will probably reflect little on the period of English history from which it has survived. Those Danish hordes which the pirate fleets of the Norwegian fiords poured upon the coast of East Anglia in the ninth century brought with them copious additions to the place-names of the districts they spoiled, and this word " Staithe " is one of the memorials of their visits. Originally, perhaps, the word meant an abode or station ; but it soon took on a new shade of meaning by being used to describe a portion of the fore-shore of a river kept up by faggots and hence its application to-day to the innumerable landing places of the rivers and dykes in the Broads. Sometimes these staithes are the public quays of villages or towns, but in many cases as at Catfield they are the private wharves of wherry owners. Even in the latter circumstances the holiday seeker will only have his own behaviour to blame if he is not made free of their use.

Save for that held at Wroxham, the regattas of the various Broads are simply rural festivities of an aquatic kind. They make no stir in the yachting world; their rivalries find no record in the London press. Each competitor is known to each, and all to the spectator. An amateur band, a few stalls sacred to ginger-beer, biscuits and vinegar-soused whelks, a liberal provision of wicker-cased gallon jars of ale, a display of the most suitable summer attire procurable from rural stores such are the outward furnishings of a Broads regatta. But enjoyment loses none of its edge. Doctor measures his sailing skill with rector, schoolmaster strives for victory with farmer, and all will hoard up memories of the day as food for village gossip until the revolving year brings back the opportunity to reverse defeats or win new renown.

Amid the fleets of snow-white-sailed yachts which crowd Broads and rivers alike during the summer months, the characteristic wherry of the district asserts its individuality with dignified persistence. These sturdy craft, sometimes of seventy tons burden, constitute one of the chief carrying powers of the Broads, and the adroit manner in which they are sailed up narrow dykes or quanted along in a dead calm impresses the visitor as a unique exhibition of sailing skill. Although they seem so unwieldy, these wherries can attain a speed of seven or eight miles an hour in a strong wind, and their huge brown sails often lend to the landscape amid which they move a tone of warmth very agreeable to the eye.

One of the essential features of the Broads landscape is provided by the dyke; too frequently its presence is aggressively felt. When the wind dies away, the towing which has to supply its place as motive power is often abruptly punctuated by the too persistent dyke, just too wide to jump and yet narrow enough to make a return to the boat wear the air of a cowardly retreat. A judicious distribution of wide planks among the Norfolk Broads would tend to the diminution of profane language. But even these dykes have their uses for beauty as well as utility. On their placid waters the broad leaves of the water lilies lave themselves in freshness and open out their golden and snowy blossoms to charge the air with a perfume as rare in quality as a nightingale's song. There are degrees of dignity in Norfolk dykes. The narrowest merely serve as drains for fields or give access to a private landing ; the broadest are the highways of the trading wherries and lead to the ports of villages.

Horning Ferry, with its quaint old inn, with its band of singing children who cultivate melody for the base reward of coppers, has always been a popular halting place with visitors to the Broads. Certainly along the reaches of the Bure from Wroxham to St. Benet's Abbey there are few riverside pictures so arresting as Horning Street and Horning Ferry the former with its picturesquely massed warehouses and wind-mill, the latter with its bosky trees and reduplication of shadows in the river's placid mirror. At the Ferry many a merry summer evening party has met to live over again the delights of the day ; and this old-world hostel must linger in the memory of thousands who owe to it

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.

A young lad fresh from India, who spent a holiday in the Broads, is reported to have employed all his days in making toy windmills. That was his tribute to the presiding genius of the district. It was quite natural ; even the most inattentive observer cannot fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of windmills among the Broads. Of course the bulk of them were built for drainage purposes, and it is often possible to map out the courses of rivers by these mills. But steam is fatal to the picturesque here, as it has been in other phases of English rural life. Most of the old windmills are falling into decay, and ere many generations have gone they will have vanished altogether. Happily the quaint boatyards which relieve the banks of river and Broad here and there have a more tenacious hold on existence :

Covering many a rood of ground,
Lay the timber piled around;
Timber of chestnut, and elm, and oak,
And scattered here and there, with these,
The knarred and crooked cedar knees.

No anglers' stories wear such an air of fable as those which are told among the Norfolk Broads. The most plentiful fish is the bream ; and here it is possible to realize that French proverb which measures the warmth of one's welcome of a friend by the quantity of bream in one's pond. Old Izaac asserts that in water and air to its taste the bream will grow as fat as a hog; " and the fact that the fish sometimes attains a weight of ten pounds proves the aquatic and atmospheric conditions of the Broads to be wholly to its liking. Eels, too, must find these waters congenial to existence ; and many tons of that savoury fish find they way from the Norfolk Broads to the London market. The eel-fisher's primitive home, a derelict boat with a rude hut covering it in, often greets the voyager from amid its thicket of rushes, a suggestive survival of a time when the conditions of life were simpler and ruder than in this twentieth century.

It is commonly believed that some of the Broads are fast growing up. One authority on the district points out with reference to a certain Broad that the vegetation grows rankly and dies down, and so adds a layer both in thickness and extent to the shallow margin. When, by a repetition of this process, the mud reaches the surface, the roots of the reeds and grasses make it firmer each year, until at last it can be drained and turned into dry land. Stalham Broad is said to be illustrating this process ; but an " oldest inhabitant " scornfully protested that the Broad is as big to-day as at any time within his memory. Womack Broad has had a curious experience. At one period this consisted of nearly fifty acres of water, but during a storm a floating island was blown into its midst and, anchoring on a shallow spot, has turned some of its area into a boggy swamp. Thus it has come about that Womack is now little more than a narrow river channel.

As might be expected, the architecture of the Broads, both domestic and ecclesiastical, harmonizes with the spirit of the district. It is true that at such places as Wroxham there are not wanting examples of Ruskin's pet abomination, modern villas " with patent everythings going by themselves everywhere ; " and the " restorer " has been at work on some of the churches. But the further one penetrates into the heart of Broadland the less one sees of modern influences. The churches, with their round towers and thatched roofs of which that of Potter Heigham is a good type recreate a mediaeval atmosphere and enable us to bridge that " gulf of mystery " that lies between us and the old English. The cottages, with their bright little windows and trim gardens stocked with the old favourite out-of-fashion flowers, make the heart to fall in love with rural life; and here and there a homestead peeps from amid embowering trees to recall the home memories which are awakened by Hood's well-known lines :

I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.

When at length the last mile has been sailed and a tender farewell taken of these peaceful meadows and reed-bound waters, one realizes how impossible it is to convey to others any adequate idea of the subtle charm of Broadland. Among the granite and slate mountains of Central Europe there grows, in the clefts of rocks and in dimly-lit caves, a delicate little plant which has been christened with the name of " Luminous Moss." If the botanist peers into these dusky recesses, he will see, amid the gloom, innumerable golden-green points of light, which sparkle and gleam as though small emeralds had been scattered over the floor. But if he grasps some of these alluring jewels and examines his prize in the glare of the open day, he will find that he has nothing in his hand but dull lustreless earth. The Luminous Moss reveals its beauty only when seen amid its natural surroundings. It is so with the Norfolk Broads. No words can express their peculiar charm ; no pictures can hope to delineate their quiet beauty.

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