Our first visit to Wroxham was to stock up on provisions at Nisa prior to arriving at our accommodation, a converted barn on a farm near North Walsham. Pre-planning was vital, as this store was the only supermarket in the region open on a Sunday evening. However, any smugness was shortlived as when we arrived at our barn and unpacked, we discovered 2 jars of pasta sauce and no pasta. Not fancying pastaless sauce, I rang the local pub to find out if it was serving food and had a table available. I had a good friendly chat with the landlord and after a while, he revealed that he was speaking to me from Cornwall, a mere 400 miles away! My heart sank before he told me not to worry, the pub was open and he’d text the chef to let him know we were coming.
Driving into the small village of Worstead, it was surprising to see a large almost cathedral like church. This is a sign of the village’s former importance as a centre of the wool trade. It was so important, it gave its name to Worstead fabric. A friend once told me that if you see a church tower in the British landscape, there’ll be a pub next door. This advice helped us locate The White Lady, apparently named after the ghost which haunts the establishment. Stepping through the front door, we saw a splattering of locals propping up the bar. The barman looked up and exclaimed “you must be the people who’ve come for food – follow me”. He led us into a light and airy restaurant with a garden view, sparsely populated making social distancing easy. After a pleasant evening, the lack of pasta was long forgotten, but I digress.
Returning to Wroxham 2 days later, we found it to be a very busy little town. It is often called the capital of the Broads. It’s not the most picturesque of rural settlements, but visitors are attracted because it is one of the best access points to the Norfolk Broads National Park. Several boat hire companies make this the first port of call for many seeking a vacation on the water. My wife and I were looking for a shorter boating excursion so booked onto a 2 hour trip on an open topped vessel. We had some time to kill first, so had a coffee at a riverside hotel.
After boarding the Cordon Rouge, we cruised past the bustling boatyards, quays and holiday homes of Wroxham, but within minutes we had turned into what appeared to be Millionaires’ Row. Beautiful homes, many with their own boathouses lined the banks of the River Bure. Many were thatched with reeds, harvested from the local reed beds. We were advised that one of them used to belong to the singer, George Formby.
As we progressed, the scenery became more rural, although the river remained busy with pleasure boats. Our captain pointed out wildlife, including a grey heron observing us from the reed beds near the riverbank. He informed us that despite being a national park, the Broads are largely a man-made landscape. In ancient times, people dug out peat for fuel and water gushed in from the surrounding rivers creating lakes, or broads. The resulting wetlands have become an important habitat for a range of wildlife including otters, orchids, waterlillies, butterflies and waterfowl. We soon arrived at our first broad.
Wroxham Broad is home to the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club. Many sailing dinghies were being propelled along by the wind. Our boat progressed at a sedate pace, easily avoiding other pleasure craft with all the extra space, compared to the river. Egyptian geese, ducks and swans also found plenty of room on the broad.
Further down the river, our captain steered us into Salhouse Broad. Smaller than Wroxham, Salhouse unusually is a privately owned broad with nature trails, canoes for hire and a camp site. Profits, however, all go into the conservation of the broad.
My wife S absorbed the scene as she drank a glass of red wine. Yes, there was a bar on board too. I might have taken more pictures, if it had not been for the need to hold my glass. Just the one though, as I was driving later. After Salhouse, we cruised a little further down the river before doing a u turn and travelling back to the relative metropolis of Wroxham.
Cruising on an excursion boat, with bar on board and our Captain’s commentary to advise us of points of interest that we passed, we weren’t exactly slumming it. Our next visit to the Broads was more of a back to basics affair – well for me anyway. I had read in the Rough Guide to Norfolk and Suffolk that Hickling Broad represented the Broads at its best, a large expanse of water fringed by reed beds , which were home to a variety of wildlife. Much of its shore is a nature reserve, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The Guide recommended hiring a canoe to explore this area and when I read that the Pleasure Boat Inn served good food, that sealed the deal. We were off to Hickling Broad.
Our first impressions were not good, as on turning into the pub car park, we discovered it was closed for refurbishment. I think the temporary enforced closure at the height of the Covid pandemic had encouraged many establishments to take the opportunity to do a refurb, which for some overran into the period they were allowed to open. Undeterred, we found our way next door to the Whispering Reeds boatyard. On asking for a kayak, a friendly gent initially shook his head, thought a little more, and then said “wait a minute”. He’d rented a kayak to a couple who were out in a different boat that day, so couldn’t be using it. “Follow me” he said, “it’s a nice double”. At this point, S, who isn’t the most outdoorsy type, ran in the opposite direction at a rather impressive pace. I apologised for not explaining the kayak was just for me, after which I was led to the boat shed. “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a Canadian canoe?” I was asked. “Most people do, because you tend to get a wet bum in the kayak”. At my age, if it’s a choice between a backrest and a dry bum, the backrest always wins, so a kayak it was. The boatshed was opened, revealing a car. Our man said he was respraying it, but assured me there was a kayak in there somewhere. After a while, he came out with it, placed it on the slipway for me to get in and pushed me into the water. I was off. S was directed to a little beach area by the Broad, where she could sit and read her book – and take a photo of me.
Hickling is the largest broad, and it became clear that it was far quieter around here than our first wetlands venture at Wroxham. Although there were other boats in the distance, it felt like I was alone on this huge expanse of water, apart from butterflies flying in front of my face. I headed for the reed beds and explored a water channel feeding the broad. Unlike the busy River Bure, I had this stretch of water to myself – that is until I encountered a chatty fisherman in his boat. I got the impression I may have been the only person he had seen all day, as he told me of his lack of luck so far, the other boats he owns, the cost of a licence to launch at Hickling and other snipets of life on the Norfolk Broads. Once we’d had a good chinwag, I said my farewells as he finally had some luck with the fish, and headed back to the main broad.
Ahead of me in the reed beds, I could see a grey heron. I paddled gently towards it and it took flight. It was quite a majestic sight and exactly the same thing happened with the 2nd heron. I pondered as to why my gentle paddling disturbed these birds, whereas the one we’d seen on the M1 of the waterways near Wroxham seemed totally unperturbed by the huge volume of river traffic passing close by. They must have their own personalities. I did get closer to a 3rd, while being careful not to paddle directly towards it. A variety of other wildlife was present, including dragonflies, several species of duck and the aforementioned butterflies. While this Broads excursion was quite different from the first, the Cordon Rouge captain’s wildlife tips definitely enabled me to get more out of my solo kayak trip. As the wind picked up, I paddled back towards the staithe. By now, the breeze had attracted the sailors onto the water and I had to avoid a catamaran travelling at the pace of a speedboat. I also saw a couple of Norfolk wherries, the traditional sailing boats designed for navigating these waterways, gliding along at a more sedate pace.
Arriving back at Whispering Reeds, it occurred to me how the yard got its name. The attendant pulled the kayak up the slipway so I didn’t have to get my feet wet, but he was right about my bum. It was soaked. As I headed towards the public toilets to change, S informed me that she’d heard the Gents was closed and the state of the Ladies was not pleasant. She said I would have to put up with my drenched posterior for the rest of the day. Luckily, I said I’d check anyway and I found an open Gents loo in a perfectly satisfactory condition. I still don’t know if she was winding me up. I changed into some dry clothes and returned to the car.
It had been a great morning exploring Hickling Broad in a kayak, but with a rumbling tummy, it was time to search for food.
The Norfolk Broads are in the East Anglia region of England. Wroxham is 8 miles north east of Norwich and 126 miles north east of London. Hickling Broad is 19 miles from Norwich and 135 miles from London
Wroxham can be reached by train (Hoveton & Wroxham station) with direct services from Norwich and indirect services from London Liverpool Street and other locations via Norwich. It is on the A1151 road from Norwich and has 2 large car parks, which can get very busy in the summer.
Public transport links are not good to Hickling Broad. Buses are available from Great Yarmouth or Wroxham to Catfield, a 30 minute walk away along a narrow road. By car, it is 2 miles off the A149 Cromer to Great Yarmouth road. Limited car parking is available streetside. The Pleasure Boat Inn has a car park (still closed as at September 2021) as does Whispering Reeds Boat Yard, if you are using their services. Further parking is available further around the Broad at Norfolk Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre
Food and Drink
There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and takeaways in Wroxham. With the Pleasureboat Inn closed, the nearest refreshments to Hickling Broad are at the Greyhound Inn, half a mile away in Hickling Green. More options are available in the nearby town of Stalham (4 miles)