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Peat digging and climate change – how the Norfolk Broads were formed

The Norfolk Broads may look natural, and they are rightly regarded as the best example of a lowland wetland system in Britain, but they are actually a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings, mismanagement of the environment by mankind, and climate change. Yes, really! 

Broads yachts aerial Mike Page

The conventional theory was that the Broads had been created naturally. In JN Jennings’s 1952 book, The Origin Of The Broads, published by the Royal Geographical Society, the stratigrapher concluded that the lakes had been formed by natural processes. But his apparently definitive interpretation was about to be challenged… by a female rival!

Botanist Joyce Lambert was born in London but brought up in Brundall, Norfolk. She was educated at Norwich High School for Girls, and graduated from University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. After a stint as a schoolteacher in Norwich she was appointed lecturer in botany at Westfield College, London and, mentored by Norfolk naturalist Ted Ellis, she was encouraged to study the ecology of the Surlingham and Rockland area.

Dr Lambert’s investigation of the Bure and Yare valley broads and fens coincided with Jennings’ work – but she came to a very different conclusion, one that would challenge received wisdom.

Dr Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. She also found their floors, just some three metres or so below the surface, were almost flat. This, coupled with the historical evidence of demand for fuel, proved irrefutable – the Broads were actually the result of medieval peat-digging.

In 1952, the same year Jennings’ book was published, Dr Lambert gave the presidential address at the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, revealing her new findings. These, together with a follow-up article in the Geographical Journal, caused a sensation.

Backed by Cambridge University, a multidisciplinary team, including Dr Lambert, was set up. Their findings were to be published in a second Royal Geographical Society memoir, The Making Of The Broads (1960). The team noted that there was documentary evidence, especially from Norwich Cathedral, that substantial amounts of peat had been dug for fuel between the 12th and 14th centuries, in a region which was then one of the most economically successful and populous parts of the country.

Canoeing Broads

Imagine a time when there were no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. In the 12th century the population of east Norfolk was growing rapidly and the area was documented to be the most densely populated in Britain.

But materials for living became scarce – timber and fuel supplies were drained as much of the woodland areas were cleared to make way for sheep grazing, which also made Norfolk one of the richest areas of the country.

A new source of fuel had to be found. It was at this time that peat digging, also known as ‘turbary’, was tapped into and this provided a suitable fuel alternative. Dr Lambert’s research revealed that local parishes possessed ‘turbary rights’ to dig peat in their own areas, which coincided with the configurations of parish boundaries within the Broads.

Another clue was that the area’s names were not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They were named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.

Filby Broad boats

The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort by hand. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.

Norwich Cathedral records from the Middle Ages show that the building burned over 400,000 turves of peat a year. Indeed, the diggers had excavated to a depth or three metres to gain access to brushwood peat, because its calorific value was superior to that of material near the surface.

Digging took place throughout all the east Norfolk settlements until the 14th century, when finally nature overcame man’s force. Flooding, caused partly by a deterioration in the East Anglian climate, was taking place on a regular basis and peat extraction was simply no longer possible. Where once there had been peat digging, there were now economically important fisheries.

But eventually rising sea levels inundated the lakes and they were joined to the area’s many rivers. What had once been ‘holes’ were much later to become a popular tourist destination.

Over 200 km of navigable Broads and rivers had been created and these provided essential channels for communication and commerce throughout the 16th century.

Norwich was the second largest city in England after London and its tradable goods of wool, weaving and agricultural produce were exported throughout the world from the port of Great Yarmouth. The waterways were also used to transport coal, bricks, timber and tiles.

The boats that plied these routes were large Norfolk Wherries, with their single black sail and shallow keel, and smaller, square-sailed flat boats.

Dr Lambert retired in 1979 and returned to live in the Yare valley house built by her grandfather in the early 1920s. She died on May 4, 2005, aged 88. And it’s thanks to her we know that Norfolk has the only man-made National Park in the country!

For those wishing to discover more about the fascinating history of the Norfolk Broads visit the Museum of the Broads in Stalham where you can see how the mystery was solved. You’ll also find Dr Lambert’s auger tool used to take mud samples for analysis, as well as her typewriter,  mascot coypu, and copies of her work.

Best things to do in the Broads