All Aboard on the Norfolk Broads

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 2nd March 2008.

When I retire, I’d like to compile the definitive guide to holidays afloat, especially little-known ones that are unusual, delightful and affordable. My favourites would include a trip on THV Patricia, the vessel that maintains the lighthouses and navigation marks of England and Wales, and accepts a dozen passengers on her rounds. And it would certainly include a spell on board a traditional pleasure yacht on the Norfolk Broads.

It was on Patricia that I met Bryan Reed, a fellow passenger who is chief guardian of Hunter’s Yard at Ludham and its fleet of charming 1930s wooden sailing boats, now protected by a charitable trust, the Norfolk Heritage Fleet. If I hadn’t met Bryan, I wouldn’t have had one of the most delightful summer weekends I can remember, in a landscape of unexpected calm and endless visual interest: a windmill here, a church spire there; sails moving between fields along narrow, unseen channels; herons, the flash of a kingfisher; picturesque timber bungalows at the water’s edge; and jolly boating parties on colourful cruisers with names such as Sweet Dawn and Lilly of the Valley.

The peacefulness of our meanderings, tacking along narrow rivers and into wide Broads, came as a surprise. Gone are the days when the Broads were packed with holidaymakers. Fifteen years ago, there were 2,000 boats for hire; now, thanks to the advent of cheap holidays abroad, there are 600. The Broads, a network of waterways formed by peat digging in medieval times, are beginning to feel as much of a time warp as Hunter’s Fleet, their oldest flotilla.

Our boat, Wood Violet, was built in 1934, a 24ft gaff-rigged sloop made of varnished mahogany. Inside, there are three berths, a loo, a ceramic sink and a deep cockpit that, when covered by its canvas awning, doubles as the galley. This has neat drawers and cupboards that open to reveal a two-ring gas stove, the original 1930s-pattern crockery and everything else you need for a meal on board.

With a huge sail to catch the breeze, she’s as perfectly adapted to her environment as the secretive bitterns that can, if you are lucky, be heard in the reed beds lining the water. To create standing room, the main cabin roof can be lifted, while lighting is by paraffin lamp.

There are no drawings in existence of the superb designs that Percy Hunter dreamt up between the wars for his new fleet of pleasure boats. It’s a miracle that these engineless craft are still intact, still being eagerly sailed, and still being beautifully looked after by a dedicated band of master boat-builders, one of whom, Tom Grapes, has been with the yard for 47 years. His son Ian has worked alongside him for many of them, as has Graham Cooper (between the three of them they’ve notched up more than 100 years of experience).

The two elegant boat sheds that Hunter built with his sons Cyril and Stanley and the dyke that they dug by hand to link the yard with Womack Water remain unchanged, and exude a palpable sense of time standing still as the craftsmen go about their soothing, measured work (a new yacht, Lucent, is currently being built to the original design).

Having been bought by Norfolk County Council from the Hunter family in 1968, the yard was about to be sold off in 1995, and lost for ever, when it was rescued by the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust. Hunter’s “lovely ladies” survive today as a symbol of the golden era of sailing holidays on the Broads.

You don’t have to be a proficient yachtsman to sail a Hunter boat. A group of volunteers offers its services for two-hour skippered trips (£39 per boat, for up to four people) when you can take the helm for the first time on either a day boat or a cabin yacht. This service is also useful for those, like me, nervous of handling a yacht, albeit a small one, without an engine.

Rodney Storey, a superb sailor, mine of information and lifelong devotee of Hunter’s and the Broads, demonstrated how to tack Wood Violet in long, gliding arcs (“imagine you are carving turns on skis”) and to slip along the edge of the river, brushing the reeds as you pass, to maximise its width.

We didn’t try quanting, but we will next time. That’s when you take down the mast and use a long pole (or quant) to punt the boat under bridges, including the notoriously low medieval one at Potter Heigham. Once learnt, such manoeuvres open up many more miles of wonderful cruising.

Without lowering your mast to pass beneath a bridge, you’re restricted to six or so miles in one direction and a mile and a half in the other. One way takes you past the enigmatic ruins of St Benet’s Abbey, the other to Horsey Mere, with a fine windpump, an unspoilt pub, the Nelson, and a short walk to the almost deserted Horsey Beach, often thick with seals.

There are plenty of other opportunities to pause, perhaps at the edge of a broad using the “mud weight” anchor, or simply tied up to the riverbank. As often as not, though, you’ll want to return at night to the delightful little basin at Hunter’s Yard, where there are loos and showers.

From October to April, the whole fleet is winched from the water and stored in the boat sheds, where varnishing and repairs are carried out for the following season. None of Percy Hunter’s boats can remain in the water all year: the one mistake he made was to use mahogany, which, lovely though it looks, quickly rots in fresh water.

Unusual? I think so. Delightful? Undoubtedly. Affordable? This has to be one of the least expensive ways of having a holiday afloat. And if you are part of a youth group, there’s a 40 per cent discount (introducing young people to sailing is one of the trust’s main aims).

Talk about a time warp. In 75 years, almost nothing has changed at Hunter’s Yard. Percy Hunter used to keep a steely eye on his boats through binoculars. Anyone leaving their fenders or their washing out, or not hoisting their mainsail correctly, would get a ticking off. Let me tell you that, in his memory, they still do.

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