The words ‘Norfolk’ and ‘Broads’ go together like ‘Coffee’ and ‘Cream’, or ‘Tom’ and ‘Gerry’. Why? Because the Broads are to Norfolk what the lochs are to Scotland and Snowdonia to Wales. Except for
one two major differences. The Broads aren’t natural, and they are not old. In fact, it’s unlikely even the oldest broad predates the late 9th century. Why? Because the Broads were dug by the Danes. Honest. It’s true.
That the Broads are the known result of flooded medieval peat-diggings. But while the bulk of that digging was at the behest of the numerous monasteries, priories and other religious foundations that proliferated across Norfolk’s rich sheep-grazing lands in the post Norman period, that wasn’t the start of it.
That the Danes in their homeland had been toasting their toes and their bums around peat-fired hearths since around 500 BCE.
That the Broads are clustered in an area of high Danish settlement.
Of course, the Danes settled elsewhere. They settled in Ireland and Scotland, too—both areas with a tradition of peat-digging. So, lest I labour the point, I’ll kick onto the next part.
Making the Peat:
How did the peat get there in the first place for these Danish incomers to dig it, to burn in their hearths, to toast their ‘parts’? Excuse me while I consult my notes on this.
1: At the start of the Iron Age the Norfolk coastline was at least a mile further east. Between where’s now Norwich, and that shoreline, the rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney wended their way across an area of marshland. (Looking at the map above, that’s the three main rivers flowing in from the north, the middle, and the south)
Note on Fens and Marshes:
A fen is a wetland formed of freshwater. In low-lying areas where the land’s gradient borders on non-existent, the rivers aren’t able to disgorge their waters. Instead, those waters overflow the river bank—they seep and spread; they inveigle and insinuate into every little dip and hollow until the entire area becomes a swamp beloved of a certain flora community—not to mention the fauna. Then, when these plants succumb to death’s final hand, their fibrous bits can’t rot away. Held in the anaerobic waters of the fens, they form peat. And the chunkier the fibres, the higher the calorific value when they’re eventually dug up as peat to be burned—i.e. the toastier your hovel and your toes.
A marsh, on the other hand, is formed 1: when silt is deposited with the periodic (late winter) flooding of river waters (inland); 2: when sandy-silt is deposited with the periodic inundation of marine waters—the flood tides, the surges, the seasonal springs tides.
So, to return to East Norfolk’s marshland, and still in the Iron Age . . .
Lacking any kind of decent gradient, the rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney began to pool at their seaward end, egress (or should that be outgress) to the North Sea being much restricted by a split of land. (Yea, go, Yarmouth go!—okay, right place, wrong time). A thick layer of high calorific peat was busily forming.
2: Circa 300 BCE—around the time that La Tene art motifs were decorating the locals’ shields and probably their faces—sea levels began to rise. (There ain’t nothing new, baby), and the sea, thrusting itself against that sandy spit at the Yare’s mouth, broke through and ravaged the virgin marshes beyond.
3: Another 300 years and ‘The Great Estuary’ was fully formed. The former fenlands, with their willows and alders and reeds and sedges, had become a sludgy, shallow mudflat snaked through with tidal creeks and a few deeper, riverine channels. The peat soils were entirely covered by marine sands and clay.
Contemporaneously, the sea breached the slither of land that had been the headwaters of the River Thurne (a tributary of the Bure), thereby creating the island of Flegg.
4: By 200 CE—mid-Roman Occupation— the river Yare was navigable as far as Whitlingham, and beyond via the Tas to Venta Icenorum (though today the Tas is a piddly thing). Roman ships regularly tripped up-river along the Waveney as far as Bungay.
But, as is usually the case with the tempestuous forces of nature, all was not to remain as it was. Where it had previously broken through the protective sandy spit, the sea now started to deposit, to build a new sand and shingle spit.
5: By 500 CE a land-spit had formed across the mouth of the Great Estuary. It didn’t help that sea levels again were falling. Gradually, the Great Estuary silted over, and died.
Meanwhile, that land-spit became Great Yarmouth. (Yea, go, Yarmouth go!)
And that’s how the peat just happened to be oh-so-close and convenient to where the incoming 9th century Danes were setting up camp.
The Flooding Pits Broads Become:
The rising sea-level was again the main factor in flooding these peat-diggings to make them the Broads that we see today—though probably not over the two (too?) short centuries as usually described. Water would have been seeping into those diggings right from the start. So a pit was exploited until no longer feasible, then abandoned. As it filled with water it would serve as a fishery (or might that be ‘eel-ery’), not to mention its attraction to wildfowl. These earlier pits would have been small. If colonised by vegetation, they might even have formed into ‘waste lands’, i.e. commons.
Broads National Park:
Today the Broads National Park covers 117 sq miles of East Norfolk and North Suffolk, with 120 miles of navigable waterways, 63 broads (though the Broads Authority’s own source says 58), most of which are less than 13 ft deep. Some few remain in private ownership, many others are nature reserves; a few have dwindled to almost non-existence. Most have public access, some for walkers only, others for canoes, others for sail-boats; only 13 are open to the broad’s holiday traffic.
Living in nearby Great Yarmouth, many of my walks take me out to the Broads villages and their surrounds. Earlier this year I visited Upton.
Upton Broad and Fen Reserve is best enjoyed during the summer months when its rare inhabitants can be seen flitting and fluttering (it is home to some of Norfolk’s rarest wildlife, particularly the swallowtail butterfly and the Norfolk hawker dragonflies). Also, it’s not a good idea to go wandering about the reserve alone at the best of times; it’s a veritable quagmire in places. But I walked around the area (See photos that follow, more on Google Plus) from Acle to Fishley to Upton Staithe, across the grazing marshes (only possible because the deep gludgy mud was frozen) to skirt the fringes of the reserve (in places, with thawing, slippery-slidey!)