Official Visitor Website

The Broads National Park – 2000 years in the making

If you’re driving along the Acle Straight to Great Yarmouth just imagine what this scene would have been like two thousand years ago. Well, for one, you’d have been underwater!

Broads yachts aerial Mike Page

Yachts sailing on the Norfolk Broads.

Norfolk has possibly the most dynamic coast in the UK, but our inland waterways have changed considerably too – not least in the Broads National Park, the birthplace of the boating holiday.

The Broads National Park now.

Travel through this unique inland waterway landscape and discover how the Broads have been dug, drained, built and shaped by people over 2000 years of history. Explore the landscape created by peat-digging in medieval times, when monks brewed beer and the distinctive round-towered flint churches were built.

How the area looked in Roman times.

When the Romans were here, Great Yarmouth didn’t exist and what we know now as the Broads were actually marshes, fen, reeds and water-logged peat soil with a series of islands.

The largest was the Isle of Flegg, a huge area of land hemmed in by the River Thurne and River Bure.

Back then, the rivers entered the sea though a vast saltwater estuary called Gariensis. In the late 3rd century the Romans built a ‘Saxon shore’ fort to deter marauders at Burgh Castle, which you can visit today, and another across the mile and a half wide estuary at Caister, which comes from the Latin word ‘ceaster’, meaning fort.

Breydon Water, Burgh Castle, Gt Yarmouth

Burgh Castle, overlooking Breydon Water.

Roman ships were able to sail all the way up to their town at Venta Icenorum (literally, the market place of the Iceni) at Caistor St Edmund near Norwich. The site was abandoned in the 8th century and was only rediscovered in 1928 during an aerial reconnaissance – the lines of streets and buildings could be seen clearly as parch marks in the barley crop.

Romans, Boudicca and Iceni in Norfolk

As the Romans began their retreat from the country, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons took over, establishing their authority over the native Britons at the start of the 7th century. But by the end of 870, the Vikings had taken East Anglia, their shallow boats perfectly suiting the estuaries and rivers of the region.

The River Yare and harbour’s mouth at Gorleston-on-Sea.

It would be another 700 years before longshore drift created a sandbank across the Gariensis estuary mouth that eventually became the east coast’s top seaside resort.

The sand spit across the estuary was used by fishermen and by 1086 the Domesday Book recorded a small borough with a church, 70 burgesses and 24 fishermen belonging to the neighbouring manor of Gorleston.

Acle Bridge Inn

The river at Acle, where once there was a seashore.

In Saxon times, Acle was on the shoreline and was a prominent port – some properties in the village, built on the line of the beach, have front gardens of sand and back gardens of flints. In the Domesday Book, it was noted that Acle had 23 villagers, 38 smallholders and three slaves!

Breydon Water estuary behind Great Yarmouth’s north beach.

As the estuary gradually silted up to become the Breydon Water we see today, rivers were formed, and embankments were created during the 13th and 14th centuries to claim valuable farming land.

Sheep rearing to make wool for cloth became a hugely successful venture, making Norfolk the wealthiest county and Norwich the second largest city in the British Isles. The downside was that in clearing land of trees and vegetation there was little wood to burn during the Winter.

Wroxham Broad and Hoveton Great Broad.

Digging for peat created huge holes in the landscape and as the climate changed, sea levels rose and the rivers inundated those excavations to create huge areas of open water – the iconic National Park and its 41 Broads, the largest being Hickling at 141 hectares.

Peat digging and climate change – how the Broads were made

Only in the 1960s was the Broads’ best-kept secret finally revealed when it was found the Broads were shallow and had vertical banks, meaning they couldn’t be natural. Further investigation revealed that in the 14th century, Norwich Cathedral Priory was burning 400,000 peat turves a year.

Pub & Paddle Wensum Norwich

The River Wensum in Norwich, within the Broads National Park.

With no fast-running water, Norwich was left behind by the Industrial Revolution which means much of it still looks as it did in medieval times. Visit Tombland, Elm Hill, and the Cathedral with its beautiful cloisters and famous spire. Oh, and we should have said that the Broads are the only English National Park with a city in it – Norwich!

St Benets Abbey River Bure

St Benet’s Abbey on the River Bure.

Another medieval site to visit is the 1,000-year-old St Benet’s Abbey on the River Bure, which linked the rural landscape to the bustling city of Norwich. The Abbey was the only one in the country not officially closed when Henry VIII was shutting the monasteries, and the Bishop of Norwich still officiates at a service every year to ensure it stays consecrated, arriving by wherry.

A wherry at sunset on the Broads.

The unique landscape of the Broads meant a unique boat, the shallow-keeled, black sailed wherry, was needed to transport goods like herring, coal and wool to and from Great Yarmouth, which had strong links with the Low Countries. In fact, it’s said it was quicker to sail to Amsterdam than to get to London.

How the Dutch, Low Countries and Continent helped shape Norfolk

Reedham Chain Ferry Broads

The Reedham chain ferry is the only way to cross the River Yare between Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

At villages like Reedham and Horning you’ll find churches away from the current village – a sure sign that the Black Death called and settlements were abandoned leaving the church alone.

Today, the Broads can be enjoyed on foot and by cycle, but the best way is undoubtedly by boat from which you can explore 125 miles of lock-free navigable waterways. To put that into perspective there are just 30 miles of canals in Venice and 60 miles in Amsterdam.

Thurne windpump.

You might see reed cutting for thatching properties, you’ll see wildlife from birds to otters, and you’ll definitely see lots of windpumps and windmills, not least because the flat landscape offers amazing views. It’s said the windmills were brought back from the Middle East by Crusaders and the windpumps were the instrument by which the land was drained to provide the pasture and arable land we enjoy today, very different from 2000 years ago.

Broads and rivers of the National Park

Top 10 Broads wildlife spots

Heritage and history in the Broads