Travel: ‘Who needs Barbados when you’ve got the Broads?’
- Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis
Our break on the north Norfolk Broads was bookmarked by kingfishers.
The birds are one of the most majestic species to be found along the 125 miles of waterways. Their startling, shimmering coats of teal and orange striking against the golden, spiring reeds, which carve a familiar pathway through the county’s notoriously flat landscape of freshly tilled fields.
My son spotted one of the fiercely territorial birds as he and my husband returned from their trial run in our boat for the weekend – Richardson's Monaco. They’d taken it for a spin with a couple of staff, returning, ironically, to the company’s Kingfisher Quay at Stalham.
It was clear from my husband’s face he’d got rock star vibes behind the wheel of the two-berth vessel. Naturally 20 minutes after docking he was ‘king of the river’, and would watch the rest of us like hawks when it was our turn to steer on the holiday – with the kind of ‘knowitallness’ that seems built into dads.
I’d already decided I was going to let him be captain for our trip. Especially if it meant I could put my feet up with the latest book club read.
The boat was handed over by two brilliant Richardson’s team members, who were almost too jolly for a Friday night, when the rest of us are lagging, and desperate for a glass of wine. There was a fair bit of banter, safety information was expertly relayed, and suddenly we were in charge, which is, if you ask me, a bit daunting. I don’t even feel comfortable driving my own parents’ car! “Ah, you’ll be fine, it’s easy!” was the departing call from one of the staff.
The Monaco was, we all agreed, hands-down the best boat we’d been fortunate to stay on in the Broads. For starters, she looked pretty darn impressive, especially when the people who like buttons (husband and son) drew back her roof, turning the living quarters (which could transform into additional sleeping for two) into an open sundeck.
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She has two bedrooms, each with clever storage areas (some even eliciting ‘oohs’ as they had built-in lighting), and both with their own toilet/shower room, and TVs – ours popped out of the ceiling, which was another huge tick in ‘gadget man’s’ eyes.
A lower-level dining space included a well-equipped kitchen, with everything we could need to whip up a modest meal.
I’d been worried about getting cold, despite the snap of bright, warm weather. I needn’t have been, because the heating, once the fans were on, was surprisingly good at staving off the evening chills.
For supplies (wine) it’s only a five-minute walk to the nearest Tesco store. But I’d recommend arriving early. Head into Stalham itself where there’s a butcher for breakfast bits and pieces, and sweet treats from the newest addition to the high street – Scrumptious Home Bakes.
Waxham beach, a little-known treasure along the east Norfolk coastline, is only around 10 minutes' drive away, and well worth a visit before your boarding time. You’re also less than 20 minutes from Horsey – famed for its seals, languidly bathing on the shoreline.
It was food-o-clock by the time we’d sorted ourselves out. I highly recommend the award-winning Ingham Swan (five minutes journey) for foodies. But with two teens in tow, that wasn’t an option for us. Dinner was plentiful tapas, sharing plates and cocktails at the, again, award-winning, Shambles café-restaurant, 15 minutes up the road in North Walsham. Real ale lovers will note the Hop-In next door, one of the county’s smallest, most charming micro-brewery taps.
After a calm, quiet night on the water, we woke to the cheery calls of fellow travellers hauling lines from the jetty onto their boats...bustling about making the morning coffee.
By 8.30am the sun was streaming in, and we were able to fling back the roof, pile under blankets on the deck, and enjoy the pure pleasure of cruising along on a 30-minute trip to nearby Wayford Bridge.
Moor for free just before the bridge (you’ll never get under it), walk under to the Wayford Bridge pub, and follow the pathway to A G Meale & Sons – a large garden centre, farm shop and café where you can stop for breakfast at Vera’s Café or, do as we did, and buy the wherewithal for your own brunch.
The shop is so well stocked – with a plethora of local produce. From steaks and sausages, to chocolate-flavoured spirits, and even locally-milled flour. We bundled out with thick cut bacon, bread, delicious carrot chutney from Candi’s, local strawberry and apple juice, and, of course, ice creams – eaten at approximately 9.30am, “because we’re on holiday”, said the kids.
After firing up the hob, it wasn’t long before we were at the table tucking in...the sun still favouring us, and beaming down so fiercely I had to get out the Factor 50.
“Who needs Barbados when you’ve got the Broads?” My son chirped. “I know right!” added my daughter, who’s own holiday hit list for 2022 included the Maldives – though I’m not sure she can afford it on her pocket money!
We all enjoyed watching the newly ‘qualified’ and therefore expert Mr J negotiating a 100-point turn out of the space he’d moored in.
A short while later we were pootling (you can only go 4-5mph) back along the river Ant...the captain eventually relinquishing control of steering to the teens under his watchful eye – for a few minutes.
He was secretly relishing driving. It was written all over his face the entire weekend as he proudly waved and nodded at fellow boaters passing by.
When I wasn’t stuck in a book, I was happy absorbing the scenery as we swept along the water.
There’s an almost dreamlike quality to navigating the Broads. A sense of time standing still. You cannot rush. It’s impossible. I think we all, even the 14 and 16-year-old, found solace in that slower pace of life.
As a Monica-alike, I do panic about timings, and getting everywhere on the dot. So it was handy to download the Aweigh app, which showed exactly where we were on the river, and gave us estimations of how long it would take to get from A to B.
After passing through Barton Broad, a wide, glimmering sailors’ paradise, it wasn’t long before we arrived at How Hill, where mooring is free (but busy in high season).
The property, built in the early 1900s, perches on the hilltop, surveying the meandering river and grounds below. It’s used as an environmental study centre through the year, with the gardens, wildlife trail, restaurant and cottage open during the ‘on season’.
Sadly, we were a few weeks shy of this date, but still had a lovely time kicking a ball about on the freshly cut lawn...feeling like we’d stepped into a period novel. Families stretched out on blankets with picnics, taking advantage of the warmth. Their children doing cartwheels and handstands in between bites of sausage roll.
The main garden was open, where thousands of spring flowers blossomed in the green, occupied by bumblebees and butterflies. A highlight was the series of outdoor rooms, cut from topiary trees. With reflection benches, obelisks, pergolas, and the first signs of late spring peeking through – from budding roses, to the just-opening petals of magnolia trees, there was an almost Alice in Wonderland quality to the grounds. Naturally the teens decided to use our visit as an opportunity to flood their Instagram accounts with 1001 poses.
Back on the boat, and a turn onto the rivers Bure then Thurne took us to Potter Heigham, about an hour away.
You’ll be told you can go under the bridge here at very low tide with a pilot. I wouldn’t risk it. If you wanted to explore the river beyond, making your way to Hickling or Martham, I suggest hiring a smaller day boat from Potter Heigham instead.
My husband has fond memories of this part of the Broads. A stopping point en route to his childhood holidays in Bacton. There isn’t, it has to be said, a great deal here. But we had a few missions.
First was a trip to the Lathams fishing store - a favourite with the Mr for its bargain basement prices. We nipped over to the Lathams main store too, where you’ll find everything you do and don’t need – for a snip.
Then there was lunch. We’d eaten breakfast at Bridgestones café before and I’d clocked the groaning cake counter on the way out, vowing to return some day.
It’s a very family-friendly, welcoming spot, with takeaway food and ice creams available. Sat in a cooler part of the building, we tucked into generous portions of hearty homemade food. A three-meat roast with all the trimmings (only £12.95), all-day breakfast, freshly made egg mayonnaise sandwich, and a savoury cream tea. This was a steal at just £5.95 for a pot of tea, cheese scone, cheese, butter, Tiptree chutney and grapes.
We were stuffed. But still couldn’t resist those cakes. It's almost impossible to choose from the counter, where fresh berry slices sit shoulder to shoulder with Norfolk tart, Kinder Bueno millionaire’s slice, coffee and walnut cake, and Nutella flapjacks. I’d say there were at least 15 different options from the on-site bakery. We left, weighed down by a caramel slice, and enormous piece of chocolate Easter cake. Both under £3, and easily cut into two.
The captain and the eldest decided to take a nap while my son and I walked off lunch. There’s the option of a six-mile circular walk from Potter Heigham bridge, touching on Hickling Broad. We were too knackered for that, finding a 5km trail following the same path, taking in a section of the long distance Weavers Way. Past the holiday sheds. Past a quaint converted mill. Avoiding the birdwatchers and their binoculars seeking out Cetti’s Warbler and bitterns.
As the sun sank lower into the landscape, turning the fields and wetlands yet another shade of gold, we felt totally at one with nature in this little part of the world.
Our mooring for the night was about half an hour away at Thurne Staithe (£5 via the warden or pub) where we were having dinner at The Lion. A note. Take a torch with you as the staithe isn’t well lit.
The Lion has large gardens, and greenhouses available for pre-booked set dinners. But we chose to eat inside. The pub belongs to the same local group as The White Horse at Neatishead (also very good), and has become known for its own Pell & Co beer, gin and vodka, and handmade pizzas.
From a cosy dog-friendly bar, to the richly coloured dining room with its log-burner, there was a sense of finesse about the interior of the pub. A really nice place to sit and ‘be’. The menu is, like many of those you’ll find on the Broads, largely geared to a family palate – burgers, fish and chips and the like, but made well.
I was more than happy with my Norfolk ham, egg and chips. Mr J declared his Southern fried chicken burger one of the best he’s had. Our son could barely finish the huge, beef brisket topped pizza (you can order a half with chips), having to lug the rest back to the boat in a takeaway box. Our daughter, though, would have preferred wholetail scampi rather than what arrived.
I was mightily impressed by the selection of real ales and ciders at The Lion. The list includes both their own brews, bolstered by other local and national beers, with the option (which we took), of a beer or cider flight for £4.90 (three thirds of each). Fat Cat’s Tom Cat took top spot beer-wise, while I quickly drained a glass of mango cider.
A new day and a new destination. We’d got the hang of this boating malarkey by then. And were praising its practicalities. No boring holiday traffic to sit in. Not having to pack everything but the kitchen sink for a day out because...well, the kitchen sink’s on board.
We were bound for Horning, about an hour away. One of the most picturesque villages on this stretch of the Broads, pegged between simply stunning waterside houses, with their James Bond-esque boats in private moorings, and lavish open-fronted porches. Disappointingly we hadn’t won the lottery the night before, but still took pleasure in playing the ‘which one would we buy if...’ game.
Don’t do as my husband did and try to moor in the village itself. It’s nigh-on impossible. We were very lucky to find a space at The Swan (we had to buy a drink), but it would have been easier and more stress-free to pull into Horning Marina – less than 10 minutes’ walk away.
Charming Horning has a couple of pubs, a café, restaurant, gift shops and other amenities. I’d already decided on a Sunday picnic, singling out café/deli The Galley. They will pre-make picnic and grazing boxes with notice, but we hadn’t been that organised.
I left armed with Norfolk cheeses and charcuturie, sausage rolls, doorstep sandwiches, homemade pepper hummus, crisps, local beer and cocktails in cans – a good haul if you ask me.
Then it was simply a case of about turning the short drive to Salhouse Broad – tucked away off the river Bure, and a favourite with kayakers and paddleboarders, with a small mooring fee to be paid online.
There are some lovely walks from here, and you can, as we did, easily get to Woodforde’s brewery tap, the Fur and Feather in Woodbastwick for food, and to sample their beers, Adder cider, and growing array of gins.
Or, simply sit on the grass, as we also did, enjoy the weather, and tuck into a picnic in one of the most peaceful parts of the Broads.
Opposite, from April, you can moor up at Hoveton Great Broad, and follow the short (30 minute) boardwalk.
Absolutely stuffed and lazy from the heat, we swept the around the Salhouse, making one last journey back to Stalham, saying ‘hi’ to that same kingfisher we’d encountered on day one as we prepared to disembark.
A glorious few days of nature, food, family and exploration. What more could you possibly want from a holiday?
Charlotte was a guest of Richardson’s Boating Holidays which has bases in Stalham and Wroxham, letting out both day boats and holiday boats. For the best deals book direct via richardsonsboatingholidays.co.uk
What to do on the Norfolk Broads
1. The Southern Comfort steamer boat makes trips out from Horning to Ranworth Broad and back, offering unrivalled views. There are refreshments on board, and the boat has wheelchair access. It’s £10 for adults and £7 for children (two to 17) call for timings. 01692 630262.
2. Hire canoes and kayaks from salhousebroad.org.uk to explore the river Bure. Kayaks from £25 for three hours.
3. Go deep into parts of the Broads not navigable by your holiday boat, by booking a 50 minute trip on the Electric Eel from How Hill. It’s £8 for adults, £7 for children and £25 for families of two children, two adults (no under twos). Trips run at 11am, 1pm and 3pm from April, and must be pre-booked via 01692 678763.
4. Bewilderwood is a superb day out for all ages. A ‘theme park’ unlike no other. With treetop look outs, slides, zip wires...and a mystical boat ride to get there from the entrance. See bewilderwood.co.uk for prices and opening times.
5. Wroxham Barns has long been a favourite place for visitors to the Broads, with an animal farm and play park, mini golf, independent shopping, and a café. It’s open from 10am to 5pm daily. Entrance to the site is free, but there’s a charge for the farm, golf and play areas. It's about a 1.5 mile walk from Wroxham. Buses run daily from Roys of Wroxham.
6. Tour on a steam train from Wroxham to Aylsham on the Bure Valley Railway. Find prices and timetables at bvrw.co.uk
Where to eat on the north Norfolk Broads
The White Horse Inn, Neatishead: Really nice pub food, and their own beer and gin. Approach by boat via Barton Broad. Be wary as the moorings nearby are quite narrow. Typical dishes include a fisherman’s burger, kebab flatbreads, and Swannington gammon steak, egg and chips. thewhitehorseinnneatishead.com
Fizz & Fromage, Wroxham: Everything there is to love about cheese....with a menu of fizz to compliment. From gourmet toasties, to fondue, and around 25 cheese ‘tapas’ plates to enjoy. fizzandfromage.com
Bure River Cottage Restaurant, Horning: A much-loved seafood restaurant where dishes have included chargrilled scallops with salsa verde, baked Cromer crab with chilli and ginger, pan-fried local skate wing with capers and black butter, and char-grilled sea bream fillets with basil, walnut and feta pesto. burerivercottagerestaurant.co.uk
The Station Smokehouse, Wroxham: A railway themed restaurant at the station. Very tasty burgers, ribs, brisket and smoked chicken – and irresistible warm cookie dough for dessert. A winner for families and American food lovers. thestationsmokehouse.com
Garden Kitchen Café, Hoveton: Catch a bus from Park Road (or call a taxi) from Wroxham. Chef Alex serves truly delicious, fresh, seasonal food in this café in the grounds of Hoveton Hall from Good Friday to the end of September, Sunday to Friday. hovetonhallestate.co.uk
Pre-book for the most incredible afternoon teas on Wednesdays, made by Hestia Patisserie.