Broad-minded in Norfolk

by Tracey.Davies

Stretch those sea legs and say so long to stress, with a cruise around the riverside hostelries of East Anglia

A boating break on the Norfolk Broads would not be my first choice for a holiday in the UK - but reinvent it as a sailor’s pub crawl of East Anglia and you’ve got me hooked.
Norfolk has been a holiday hotspot for folk of a certain age for many years, but suggest it to anyone under 30 and they will look at you as if you have suggested a fortnight on the far side of Uranus. Much of the region's tourism tends to be shabby old resorts offering vintage kiss-me-quick hats and tacky theme pubs, each one a remnant of holidays from years gone by. However, the Norfolk Broads, named for the broad, shallow lakes that lie along the county's five rivers, are a different barrel of fish altogether. A boating holiday here offers a completely different view of this often-forgotten outreach of eastern England.
The result of a peat harvest in the Middle Ages, the broads are home to a multitude of rare plants and birdlife as well as dozens of small communities that dot the riverside. With 40 broads stretching over 200 kilometres, it seems that this county is more water than land. Tiny streams grow into great lakes, the largest being Hinkling Broad, which is so big that once across it we thought we’d reached the continent. 
Adorable villages with their rose-hued thatched cottages and customary waving residents adorn the riverside from Norwich to Oulton, which is the most southerly broad, in the neighbouring county of Suffolk. Normally, holidays that involve crawling from pub to pub are the domain of the 18-30s crowd, but here on the water it’s pretty much the way to go and, to be honest, there isn’t a great deal else to do. Thankfully, there are many good-quality drinking establishments en route, all as pretty as a picture and each offering good regional ales, decent wine and fine local food. The Swan at Horning is exceptionally good, although you will rarely go wrong at any of the traditional country inns.
A typical boating holiday will start at a boathouse such as Brundall or Horning. A quick lesson followed by a sailors salute and you’re on your way. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of driving the boat - or, in my case, to get bored of it and retire to the main deck for a late-afternoon Pimm's. The men were left to decide the route and man the helm, which is probably why we stopped at our first pub less than 45 minutes after we left the boathouse.
The broads are not canals, despite all the similarities, and therefore require something a little more glitzy than the traditional wooden longboats. Shiny white cruisers of all sizes glide the murky waters, helmed by men in pastel-coloured polo shirts, all with a distant look in their eye, dreaming they’re cruising the French Riviera rather than the broads of Norfolk. We ladies kick back on deck and enjoy the peace and quiet of life on the water, whilst the men check out the other vessels in an obvious manner. It seems that the size of your cruiser is in direct relation to the size of your wallet and (ahem) inside leg measurements, a large cruiser being the equivalent of DB9. Ours (more Ford Granada than DB9) is called ‘Silver Serenade’, and is a comfortable four-berth with double en-suite, comparable to the size of a largish motor-home.
Three days into our trip and I am well and truly relaxed. The constant, gentle lap of the water is like a metronome that slows us down to the Norfolk pace. With no rush to do anything at all, our biggest decision of each day is which pub to stop at and whether to have the scampi or the lamb shank. 
A holiday on the Norfolk Broads is utterly relaxing and a great antidote to city life (although, saying that, so is a Caribbean cruise). It’s an ideal opportunity to spend some quality time with your partner or family, catch up on some reading or paint the odd watercolour. Throw in a few pints of fine Norfolk ale and the odd ploughman’s and you just might have a very nice time indeed.