The Broads

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A typical view of the Norfolk Broads

The Broads or the Norfolk Broads as they are best known, are a network of mostly navigable rivers, cuts and lakes in Norfolk and Suffolk; those on either side of the county boundary are the Norfolk Broads and Suffolk Broads, to the north and the south respectivley.

Locally the word "broad" is a name for a lake, of which there are graet many opening along the course of the rivers, both tidal and non-tidal. These characteristic lakes have given their name to the whole area.

Yachts on the Norfolk Broads

The Broads are at sea level, which prevails all the way inland to Norwich. It is a landscape like no other in Britain: the rivers, some canalised in modern times, others in the Middle Ages of before, are the major highways linking lakes (the broads themselves), and linked by channels, both man-made, natural and engineered, while at the edge of each main river is a swathe of land cut perpendicularly with channels known as dykes, a system perhaps dating from Roman times. There are great areas of marsh and reedbeds, and villages on the solid ground, once mainly linked by water and served by frequent staithes.

The Broads are popular for sailing and for mere pottering in boats.

Terminology of the Broads

When writing about the Broads, features are named in a local manner appropriate to the uniqueness of the place, for example:

  • Broads and Broadland: the whole area of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads; rivers, broads, dykes and the lands beside and between them.
  • Broad: a lake or broad water amongst the broads, whether on the course of a river or beside it.
  • Cut: a channel cut for navigation between rivers or broads.
  • Dyke: a channel, generally a cut channel of any sort.
  • Staithe: a public mooring place.


The Rivers Yare and Waveney merge into Breydon Water
How Hill
St Benet's Abbey

The total area covered by the broads is about 120 square miles, most of which is in Norfolk. It has over 120 miles of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and 63 broads, mostly less than 13 feet deep. Thirteen broads are generally open to navigation, and a further three have navigable channels. Some broads have navigation restrictions imposed on them in autumn and winter.[1]

The division between the Norfolk Broads and Suffolk Broads is the county border, which follows the course of the River Waveney until it empties into Breydon Water along with the River Yare, and thence the boundary follows the Yare to the sea between Great Yarmouth (Norfolk) and Gorleston-on-Sea (Suffolk).

A statutory body, the Broads Authority, was erected in 1989, with powers and duties almost identical to those of a national park authority, but also with authority over navigation; it is the third-largest inland navigation authority in Britain. In this role it is the successor to a number of navigation authorities, such as the Bure Commissioners who are invoked often in Arthur Ransome's Coot Club.


The Broads largely follows the line of the rivers and natural navigations of the area. There are seven navigable rivers, the River Yare and its (direct and indirect) tributaries the Rivers Bure, Thurne, Ant, Waveney, Chet and Wensum.

There are no longer any operational locks on any of the rivers (except for Mutford Lock in Oulton Broad that links to the saltwater Lake Lothing in Lowestoft, Suffolk), but all of the waterways are subject to tidal influence. The tidal range decreases with distance from the sea, with highly tidal areas such as Breydon Water contrasted with effectively non-tidal reaches such as the River Ant upstream of Barton Broad.

The broads themselves range in size from small pools to the large expanses of Hickling Broad, Barton Broad and Breydon Water. The broads are unevenly distributed, with far more broads in the northern half of Broadland (the Rivers Bure, Thurne and Ant) than in the central and southern portions (the Rivers Yare, Waveney, Chet and Wensum). Individual broads may lie directly on the river, or are more often situated to one side and connected to the river by an artificial channel or dyke.

Besides the natural watercourses of the rivers, and the ancient but artificial broads, there is one more recent navigation canal, the lock-less Haddiscoe Cut which connects the Rivers Yare and Waveney whilst permitting boats to by-pass Breydon Water.

There is also a second navigable link to the sea, by way of the River Waveney and its link to Oulton Broad. Oulton Broad is part of the Broads tidal system, but is immediately adjacent to Lake Lothing which acts as a harbour for Lowestoft and connects to the North Sea. Oulton Broad and Lake Lothing are connected by Mutford Lock, the only lock on the broads and necessary because of the different tidal ranges and cycles in the two lakes.

River Bure

A Norfolk wherry on the Bure

The River Bure is a Norfolk river, a tributary of the River Yare. It rises near Aylsham in Norfolk and joins the Yare just downstream of Breydon Water. On its way it flows through or passes villages and broads:

River Thurne

The derelict Brograve Mill, on the Waxham New Cut

The River Thurne is a Norfolk river, a tributary of the River Bure. It rises near Martham Broad and flows for about six miles to Thurne Mouth where it joins the Bure. It is wide open and wind-swept, and on its way it flows through or passes:

River Ant

Barton Broad
River Ant at Hunsett Windmill

The River Ant is a Norfolk river, a tributary of the River Bure. It rises at Antingham and joins the Bure at St Benet's Abbey. It is winding and narrow, and on its way it flows through or passes:

River Yare

The Yare from Hardley windpump near Langley

The River Yare is a Norfolk river until Breydon Water and thereafter marks the county boundary. The Yare rises far from the Broads, south of East Dereham, and flows through the southern fringes of the city of Norwich, passes through Breydon Water and flows into the sea between Great Yarmouth and Gorleston. On its way it passes through:

River Chet

The free moorings at Loddon

The River Chet is a Norfolk river, a tributary of the River Yare. It flows through, or passes by:

River Waveney

The Waveney at Beccles Quay
Oulton Dyke

The River Waveney is a boundary river of Norfolk and Suffolk, serving that duty from its very source intil it discharges its stream in Breydon Water, out of which the waters flow as the River Yare. Amongst the Broads, it flows through, or passes by:

:Suffolk: :Norfolk:
Bungay Ditchingham
Beccles Gillingham
Barnby Broad and Marshes Burgh St Peter
Oulton Broad
Fritton Decoy
St Olaves Haddiscoe Marshes
Burgh Castle
Breydon Water

River Wensum

The Wensum in Norwich

The River Wensum is a Norfolk river which rises near Fakenham in north-western Norfolk and flows southeast and through the centre of the city of Norwich before joining the River Yare just to the east of the city. Although the Wensum is the larger of the two rivers at their confluence, it is regarded as a tributary of the River Yare. The navigable section of the river is entirely urban and runs from the centre of Norwich, past Norwich Cathedral to the confluence with the Yare.

Trinity Broads

The Trinity Broads are an exception to the general rule, in that whilst they are connected to each other they have no navigable connection to the rest of the broads. The broads are:


Muttons Mill, a drainage windpump

For many years the broads were regarded as natural features of the landscape. It was only in the 1960s that Dr Joyce Lambert proved that they were artificial features, that they were flooded Mediæval peat excavations.[2] In the Middle Ages the local monasteries began to excavate the peat lands as a turbary business, selling fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. The Cathedral took 320,000 tons of peat a year. Then the sea levels began to rise, and the pits began to flood. Despite the construction of windpumps and dykes, the flooding continued and resulted in the typical Broads landscape of today, with its reed beds, grazing marshes and wet woodland.

Various attempts were made to extend the navigable rivers. The longest-lasting was on the River Waveney, where an Act of Parliament passed on 17 March 1670 authorised improvements which included three locks, at Geldeston, Ellingham and Wainford. The head of navigation became a new staithe at Bungay. The new section was a private navigation which was not controlled by the Yarmouth Haven and Pier Commissioners, who had responsibility for the rest of the Broadland rivers.[3] It remained in use until 1934 and, although the upper two locks have been replaced by sluices and Geldeston lock is derelict, the Environment Agency have negotiated with local landowners to allow use by canoes and unpowered vessels which can be portaged around the locks.[4]

The next attempt was to extend navigation on the River Bure from Coltishall to Aylsham, which was authorised by an Act of Parliament on 7 April 1773. Five locks were built, to bypass mills, at Coltishall, Oxnead Lamas, Oxnead, Burgh and Aylsham. There were financial difficulties during construction, but the works were eventually completed and opened in October 1779. At Aylsham, a one-mile cut was made from the river to a terminal basin, where several warehouses were constructed. Despite the arrival of the railways in 1879, goods continued to be carried to Aylsham by wherries until 1912, when major flooding badly damaged the locks. Unable to fund repairs, the Commissioners closed the 9-mile section above Coltishall, although it was not formally abandoned until 1928.[3] All of the locks are derelict, but the course can still be used by canoes and light craft, which can be portaged around the locks.[4]

The third attempt was to make the River Ant navigable from Dilham to Antingham. An Act of Parliament was obtained on 5 May 1812, which authorised the North Walsham & Dilham Canal, but work on its construction did not start until April 1825. The canal was a true canal, as its route did not use the bed of the river, and its construction, including six locks, was completed in 1826. It was about 8¾ miles long, and the locks raised the level by 58 feet. In 1886 the canal was sold to a miller called Edward Press for £600, but the principal clerk absconded with most of the money and it was never recovered. In 1893 the section from Swafield locks to Antingham was abandoned, and the lower section was damaged by flooding in 1912. Some attempts were made to improve it in the 1920s, but the last commercial traffic used it in 1934, and it gradually became derelict after that.[3] There is still a public right of navigation to Swafield, and there is a campaign to reopen it.[4]

In 1814 the merchants of Norwich first suggested a plan to improve the route between Norwich and the North Sea, as the shallowness of Breydon Water created difficulties for trading vessels, and there was organised theft of cargo during its trans-shipment at Great Yarmouth, for which 18 men were convicted of taking the goods and one of receiving it in 1820. The initial plan was to dredge a deeper channel along the southern edge of Breydon Water, but the scheme was opposed by the people of Yarmouth. A more expensive scheme, involving the construction of a new cut to link the River Yare to the River Waveney, together with a channel between Oulton Broad and Lake Lothing, where a sea lock was needed, was also opposed by Yarmouth, but formed the basis of a Bill to Parliament. An Act of Parliament was passed on 28 May 1827, creating the Norwich and Lowestoft Navigation Company, and the work of construction and dredging of the River Yare and the Oulton Dyke was completed in 1833. The initial capital of £100,000 was inadequate and a further £50,000 was borrowed from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission. The venture was not a commercial success, and, with expenditure exceeding income, the Company was unable to repay its loan. The Haddiscoe Cut was taken over by the Commissioners in 1842 and sold to the railway developer Sir Samuel Morton Peto.[3]


The Broads have been a boating holiday destination since the late 19th century. In 1878 small yachts were available to hire from John Loynes, and with easy access to the area by rail from London, Harry Blake created an agency for yachting holidays in 1908. The first boats were owned by the boatbuilder Ernest Collins of Wroxham, but other boatyards were soon added to the business. The range of boats expanded to include powered cruisers in the 1930s, and the Hoseasons agency was founded soon after the Second World War. By the 1980s the number of cruisers available for hire was 2,400, but had decreased to around 1,700 by 2004. For conservation reasons there is a strict speed limit enforced on all vessels, to reduce waves eroding the riverbanks. These speed limits are hardwired onto most rental vessels.

The Broads have also been an important centre for racing yachts since the late 19th century, and the design of the boats have included several innovative features, including short fin keels and a separate rudder. The design was eventually used on seagoing yachts from the 1960s.[4]

The waterways are lock-free, since the land is all at sea level, although there are three bridges under which only small cruisers and smaller boats can pass. The area attracts all kinds of visitors, including ramblers, artists, anglers, and bird-watchers as well as people "messing about in boats". There are a number of companies hiring boats for leisure use, including both yachts and motor launches. The Norfolk Wherry, the traditional cargo craft of the area, can still be seen on the Broads as some specimens have been preserved and restored.

The late Ted Ellis, a local naturalist, referred to the Broads as "the breathing space for the cure of souls".[5]

A great variety of boats can be found on the Broads, from Edwardian trading wherries to state-of-the-art electric or solar-powered boats. The Broads Authority are promoting sustainable boating, and the use of electric boats is being encouraged by the provision of charging points at a number of the mooring sites provided by the Authority.[4]


The Broads, and some surrounding land, were constituted as a special area with a level of protection similar to a National Park by The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act of 1988. Broads Authority|The Broads Authority, a Special Statutory Authority responsible for managing the area, became operational in 1989.[6]

Legislation gives the navigation of the waterways equal status with the conservation and public enjoyment of the area.

Specific parts of 'the Broads' have been awarded a variety of conservation designations, for instance:

  • Special Protection Area (SPA) status for an area named 'Broadland' composed of 28 Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) status for parts of the Halvergate Marshes
  • National Nature Reserve (NNR) status for:

A specific project being considered under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan is re-introduction of the Large Copper butterfly, whose habitat has been reduced by reduction of fens.


Eutrophication is a serious problem in the Broads. Changes in farming practices and sewage disposal in the 1950s and 1960s released high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen into the Broads, causing eutrophication.[7] Algal blooms can be toxic, posing a health risk to mankind and to wildlife.[8] Mass decay of plant matter removes oxygen, damaging fish stocks, preventing recreational fishing. The loss of larger plants and reed fringes in eutrophic waters increases erosion of banks and the build up of sediment on lake floors,[9] and this impedes navigation and requires costly dredging to remove. Environmentalists urge that beauty of the area is damaged by eutrophication, which is detrimental to the tourism industry. The Broads Authority and Environment Agency have been working to return the broads to a more natural state since the problem was identified in 1965.[10]

The first stage in reversing eutrophication in the Broads is to reduce phosphate input. Reducing nitrate input would have a similar effect, but due to the relatively higher solubility of nitrates, it is harder to control.[9] The discharge of treated sewage was recognised as the main source of phosphates in the waters of the broads. Iron compounds have been used to precipitate phosphates out of treated sewage in all nine treatment plants upstream of Barton broad, initially cutting phosphorus levels in sewage discharge by 90%.[10] High levels of phosphate can remain present in the sediments at the bottom of waterways, preventing dissolved levels decreasing, even when the source is eliminated. Suction dredging has been used across the broads to both deepen waterways and remove phosphate rich sludge. Without stabilising the compacted peat beneath the sludge, the peat loosens and can release phosphorus at a similar rate. The growth of larger water plants, which stabilises the floor is therefore necessary to complete the transformation.[10]

Even with reduced nutrient levels, algae tend to remain dominant, blocking light and preventing plants from growing on the floor of the waterway. By manipulating the food chain, a process called biomanipulation, algae can be removed. To allow zooplankton to thrive, zooplankton-eating fish have been largely removed from some Broads, normally by electrofishing. Around 75% of such fish must be removed for successful treatment.[10] The explosion of zooplankton that results eats almost all algae, creating clear waters. Plants are allowed to naturally recolonise the clearer waterways. The plant growth stabilises the floor, reducing the release of phosphorus. Their own nutrient uptake reduces nutrient available to algae. Larger plants also create a favourable environment for predatory fish such as pike, which eat zooplankton-eating fish, continuing to control their numbers. These effects tend to create a stable ecosystem where low growing underwater plants dominate.[10]


The Broads are Britain's largest protected wetland and are home to a wealth of wildlife, especially birdlife. Amongst the waterfowl: Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, Great Crested Grebe, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Egyptian Goose. Larger birds include Grey Heron, Marsh Harrier, Cormorant, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Bittern.

The scarce Cetti's Warbler breeds in the Broads, and Britain's only breeding Common Cranes are found in the area.

Among the rare insects are the Norfolk hawker, a dragonfly and the Old World Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon subsp. brittanicus).

Some of the broads are surrounded by true fens, characterised by reed and sedge beds. Norfolk reed from the broads has been a traditional material for thatching houses.

In literature

There is a wide range of literature which has been inspired by or set in the Norfolk Broads.

  • The children's novels Coot Club and The Big Six, both by Arthur Ransome, are set on the Broads.

Outside links


  1. The Broads - Living Lakes Partnership (1998–2005)
  2. The Making of the Broads, (1960), Dr J M Lambert, Royal Geographical Society
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 The Canals of Eastern England, (1977), John Boyres and Ronald Russell, David and Charles, ISBN 978-0-7153-7415-3
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Inland Waterways of Great Britain, 8th Ed., (2009), Jane Cumberlidge, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3
  5. Letter_from_Bishop.pdf
  6. The Broads Authority. The Broads Act. Retrieved 23 January 2006.
  7. Madgwick (1999) Restoring nutrient-enriched shallow lakes: integration of theory and practice in the Norfolk Broads, U.K. Hydrobiologica. 408: 1-12=
  8. Madgwick (1999) Strategies for conservation management of lakes. Hydrobiologica. 395: 309-323
  9. 9.0 9.1 Sigee (2004)Control of Eutrophication on the Norfolk broads. Freshwater microbiology
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Madgwick (1999) Restoring nutrient-enriched shallow lakes: integration of theory and practice in the Norfolk Broads, U.K. Hydrobiologica. 408: 1-12

Coordinates: 52°43′27″N 1°38′27″E / 52.72417°N 1.64083°E / 52.72417; 1.64083