Running through the heart of East Anglia, the Broads are a network of mostly navigable rivers that stretch all over the county of Norfolk and part of its neighbor, Suffolk.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, many thought that the Broads were a natural phenomenon and simply a part of the wetland landscape.
However, in the 1950s the botanist and archaeologist, Joyce Lambert, demonstrated that the Broads had been formed in a much later era by man. As far back as the Roman period, the region’s rich peat had been exploited by locals to burn as fuel and this continued right through Medieval times.
Indeed, local monasteries in the area excavated peat on a massive scale during the Middle Ages to sell to the nearby trading hubs at Great Yarmouth and Norwich.
During the peak of these excavations, millions of tonnes of material were being removed from the landscape a decade.
Over time, the sea level rose so, inevitably, the pits became flooded.Damming up the sea water became a losing battle and the landscape gradually gave way to wetlands – the Broads as they appear today.
Some construction of drainage wind pumps stemmed the flow of water in certain localities, but as time passed, reed beds and marshes took over.
Since the Broads established themselves as a wetland, a number of attempts were made to make them navigable by boat.
In the mid seventeenth century an Act of Parliament aimed to make the river Waveney fully navigable by the introduction of improved locks.
The result was that boats were able to get inland as far as Bungay and subsequent parliamentary schemes opened up more and more of the Broads to form a network of rivers. A transport network like this improved the area’s ability to engage in commerce and it was only well after the arrival of rail transport that the Broads’ economic purpose began to decline.
Indeed, goods continued to be carried to market towns such as Aylsham until 1912, and that only came to a cessation after flooding had put the nearby locks out of commission. Merchants in the county town of Norwich made plans to upgrade the navigable route to the North Sea in the early years of the nineteenth century.
They had noticed that the relative shallowness of the primary route of Breydon Water had created problems of trading vessels becoming stuck and even looted. Schemes that included dredging Breydon Water, to make it deeper, and the construction of a canal to link Norwich to the river Yare were strongly opposed by the townsfolk of Great Yarmouth.
They feared that any new navigable route would take business away from the town, which for centuries had been the main port in the region.
Eventually, the construction project was completed in 1833, following a government loan, but the people of Great Yarmouth must have felt vindicated as the scheme failed to be a commercial success.
Since the Second World War, the Broads have become increasingly devoted to tourism and leisure craft.
Though tidal, the Broads are relatively easy to navigate and the effect of the tide is noticeably less strong away from the coast.
The Norfolk Broads now have a large number of boat hire businesses that cater for tourists eager to seek out the largest and most bio-diverse wetland environment in the country.
Written for Boating Holidays Norfolk