The Norfolk Broads

When you live in a world where you can often find cheaper plane tickets to places all over Europe than a train ticket from London to Manchester, you can see why holidaying in the UK has become a rarity with certain generations. Most people have a checklist of places around the world they want to visit. A city break to Rome, a trip to the Dolomites. It’s all pretty feasible nowadays, and rarely do places across our own country make the list.

The Norfolk Broads is one of those places that everyone knows about. Everyone’s aware how proud the UK is of it; like Snowdonia, the highlands or Cornwall. To the point where most people will declare “I really need to go there” at every given opportunity. I barely know anyone who’s actually been there though. And those that have tend to be from older generations. A fallout from the days where holidays were an annual car journey to the same destination. I remember vividly the yearly trips to the south coast where I’d save up a bag of 20ps to waste playing Wrestlemania on the arcade machines because my damn parents wouldn’t buy me a Mega Drive.

To be honest the only reason I decided to go to the Norfolk Broads was because me and a couple of friends had a wedding to go to nearby and we fancied making a longer trip of it. The idea of hanging out on a boat for three days whilst drinking and playing cards seemed like a bit of fun. I never really thought of it as a big trip, more like “oooh, yeah, it would be interesting to see what the Norfolk Broads is actually like, finally”.

With absolutely no knowledge of what taking a boat out on the Broads entailed, or whether we would actually be allowed to skipper it (had to looked that up), I did a bit of research. Turns out there are a few companies that let you rent out boats, with costs taking you anything from £300 for a midweek break to £3,000 for a full week. With three of us going, we opted for a three-day trip costing about £600 with a company called Barnes Brinkcraft. The boat we chose was a cheaper option called the Jazz 2, a 4-berth cruiser with a kitchen, shower, TV and DVD and a load of other stuff. Far more than we imagined we’d get on a boat. Based on the picture, and the fact the explanation said “Not the prettiest boat in our fleet but a firm favourite”, we weren’t expecting a great deal.

Booking the boat was pretty simple. All you need to do is go to the website, stick in some dates and how many people are going, fill in a form, then someone from the company calls you to confirm the trip. They take a deposit and answer any questions. It was at this point I found out that you need no experience or license to take a boat out onto the broads, just a one hour training session on the controls when you turn up. Sweet.

But anyway, before I talk about the trip itself, I should probably explain a bit about the Norfolk Broads. Because as you’re well aware, I didn’t have a clue about what they actually were before, save for there being boats and water there. The broads are a massive network of rivers that cover 200km of Norfolk and Suffolk. They were, if you’re interested, formed by the flooding of peat workings (like bogs). They’re essentially an area equivalent to the national parks, protected for various things like conservation and wildlife. The waterways snake around the area leading to various points of interests including towns, villages, pubs and a few historical and natural tourist areas. You can even get to the sea by heading over to Great Yarmouth (almost), or to Norwich, if you fancy it. You can find out loads more at the Visit Norfolk website.

So, back to the trip. We drove up from Hackney on Tuesday (although there was a slight issue with a missing cat, so we lost our window to take the boat out on the day), and made the 2-hour journey up to Wroxham in Norfolk. Here we jumped onto out boat and for a night in the little harbour. The Jazz 2 was surprisingly big, with the front room and kitchen area being more than big enough for the three of us to happily sit in and watch a selection of 90s DVD comedy shows with nautical episodes (Keeping Up Appearances and Alan Partridge to name a couple). It was actually pretty damn nice as well: clean, well stocked with cutlery and whatnot, bedding supplied and various other bits and pieces.

After a more than adequate nights sleep, we got up at 8am and went through the rules of how to use the controls, how to moor the boat and a few safety features. All of which was ridiculously simple. The steering area was pretty limited in terms of dials and buttons, meaning travelling largely came down to pushing a lever for speed and turning using a wheel. There were a few other controls: a little windscreen wiper for when steering indoors in the rain, a horn, a switch to allow control from the upper deck and a cd/radio.

We headed out of the port with the engineer to have a little run through on the system and how to turn and moor. The only difficulty here was understanding how the boat itself turned in the water (think driving a car before they invented power steering). Even that was pretty simple though, and considering the boat goes about 4mph there wasn’t a great deal to worry about in terms of going to too fast.

With our training behind us we pushed the lever and made our way out into the Broads, the sun rather fortunately and unexpectedly beating down at 26 degrees. We set out from Wroxham with no real idea of where we were going or how far was actually feasible to travel. As one of us took the helm (looked that up as well), I made some breakfast using the hob and the oven, which to be honest were more than good enough to cook normal food on – eggs, bacon, avocado and toast, if you were wondering.

The first thing we noticed is that The Norfolk Broads are ridiculously beautiful. The little houses, the sailing boats, the birds, the trees, the fact you can’t see any roads or cars. It was instantly like we were no longer in the UK. Quiet as well. Pretty much the only sound you can hear is the motor humming and the occasional “Mornin'” from boats going past you. I can’t remember many places that I’ve been that were so relaxing. Sitting alone on the top of the boat as the sun goes down, with no other boats around is probably one of the calmest things I’ve ever done. You just kind of sit there watching the banks roll past you, you’re head just drifting into to thoughts.

Anyway, we spent two days out on the Broads before heading back for the final night in the harbour. The first day we drifted down the waterways until finally mooring up to the side of a nice big beer garden, where we had a few beers and some lunch. From there we just ploughed on through various places trying to find somewhere to sleep for the night. Something that is a bit trickier than we initially thought. Turns out there’s quite a lot of boats on the Broads, most of which tend to find a place to moor up pretty early. We ended up having to moor using the some massive metal pegs hammered into the grass at the side of the river. Was pretty fun though, made us feel like proper boat people.

For the second day we headed to a town called Neatishead, a quaint little place that’s home to a popular pub called The White Horse Inn (it gets pretty impressive reviews on Tripadvisor). After finally managing to find a fairly tight place to moor – which took all the skills we’d learned to accomplish – we went for a wander round the village before sitting in the pub for a couple of hours. The reviews were right by the way, the place is pretty damn spot on.

Other than that we mainly just sat on the roof of the boat drinking beer, played cards or just took photos. Sure, if the weather hadn’t caused one of the hottest weeks of the year so far, we may have had a completely different view on the trip. But to be honest I think we’d have loved it any time of year.

The guys over at Barnes Brinkcraft were great, meaning that the whole process was really simple, especially important for first timers. The boat was full of gas and water, emptied of stuff we didn’t want in there, and with a couple of days on the water we didn’t need to stop off and do any maintenance or refuelling.

As I said, the cost of hiring a boat varies massively based on time of year and on the level of comfort you, with some of the most expensive boats looking like the kind of thing you’d expect to see Kanye West to be hosting a party on. But even if you don’t fancy sleeping on one, you can stay in one of the nearby hotels and just rent cheaper/smaller day boats.

So yeah, we loved the whole experience. A two-hour drive and we had one of the most relaxing, picturesque and fun trips we could remember.

To find out more information on boating holidays, you can have a look at the Barnes Brinkcraft website here.