All aboard for the Broads: The joys of exploring Norfolk's waterways

All aboard for the Broads: The joys of exploring Norfolk’s 200-mile seven-river network of tranquil waterways

  • Jo Kessel and her family set sail from Brundall on a hired boat – an eight-berth, 42ft pleasure craft
  • They accidentally maroon the boat on a sandbank, only to be rescued by a Broads ranger and a tow boat
  • Once the boat is back in motion, they sail past Burgh Castle and a number of ‘captivating’ windmills 

Not many holidays require emergency rescue within the first 24 hours, but our boating break on the Norfolk Broads is special in many ways.

One minute we’re pootling along in our hired motor cruiser. Moments later… clunk! Our boat halts at an ominous tilt. I race to the top deck with my daughter, Hannah, 16, and son, Gabriel, 18.

‘We’re stuck,’ says my husband, Marc, looking sheepish. We’re marooned on a sandbank, warning buoys misinterpreted. No reversing or thrusting can shift us, so I dial the Broads equivalent to 999.

Jo Kessel and her family hire a boat and explore the 200-mile, seven-river network of tranquil, navigable waterways of the Norfolk Broads. Along their way, they spy the ‘showstopping’ Berney Arms windmill (above, file photo)

Pictured is Jo and her daughter Hannah on board their hire boat — an eight-berth, 42ft pleasure craft

Until this point, the trip had been plain sailing. At Brundall, near Norwich, we’d picked up our hire boat — an eight-berth, 42 ft pleasure craft which squeezed in plenty without feeling cramped, including three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a well-equipped galley kitchen.

Skipper Gareth supervised a test spin, then declared us fit to go. Little did he know…

Nobody fancied cooking so, after exploring eastwards for a while, we moored for the night outside a thatch-roofed tavern where we headed for drinks and burgers.

In the morning we were greeted by swans gliding around and a sunrise so strong the river steamed and sparkled under its glare.

This 200-mile, seven-river network of tranquil, navigable waterways is split into north and south (we’re in the latter) and crisscrossed by marshes and farmland. Otters are thriving and birdlife is tuneful.

Over-eights are allowed behind the wheel so, as we set off again along the River Yare, we take turns driving, spotting geese, ducks and countless species unfamiliar to us. When a bevy of swans takes flight in formation, their wingspan and speed make them look more like light aircraft than avian.

Jo and her family stop for a picnic beside the ancient flint walls of Burgh Castle, pictured, at the edge of the River Waveney

The swans are a distraction, but they aren’t responsible for the events that lead to my SOS call just minutes later. The lady who answers the phone assures me that help is on the way and I apologise for our idiocy. ‘If it makes you feel better,’ she says, ‘this happens to about 250 people every year.’

Rescue comes within minutes in the form of a Broads ranger, who banks sharply to create a massive wave which he hopes will dislodge us. When that doesn’t work, he calls in the cavalry: a tow boat.

Despite being a quarter of the size of our motor cruiser, it frees us in seconds. We thank our saviours profusely and move on.

There are windmills ‘at every twist and turn’ of the rivers of the Norfolk Broads, ‘most built in the late 1800s to drain the marsh water’. Above is the area’s Brograve Windmill


A boat sleeping four with Broom Boats costs from £955 for a week (01603 712334,

Burgh Castle is where we’d been heading, the site of a 3rd-century Roman shore fort at the edge of the River Waveney and on Angles Way, a 93-mile footpath which trails from Great Yarmouth to Thetford. We moor and climb to the fort’s remains, then picnic beside the ancient flint walls.

From here, binoculars help identify peacock butterflies fluttering from hedgerows, and orange-beaked oystercatchers down by the water.

The beauty of captaining your own craft is that you can stop whenever and wherever you like. That night we moor in the south Broads hub of Reedham and head for the chippy.

With a 5 mph speed limit on the water, this is life in the slow lane. Passers-by wave. It’s all smiles.

The windmills are particularly captivating. They’re at every twist and turn, most built in the late 1800s to drain the marsh water.

Berney Arms is one of the showstoppers, but Hardley Mill is fully restored and you can climb to the top. Built in 1874, the 43 ft mill leans like the tower of Pisa and, while the steps up are a bit rickety, it’s worth it for the view.

The trip ends with a lunch of barbecue ribs at a bustling, waterside pub. Our table is the perfect vantage point for watching other skippers moor up. Turns out we’re not such bad drivers after all.

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