By Haydn Brown
William Alfred Dutt was born at Ditchingham, Norfolk, on 17 November 1870. Later in life he became well known as an author and journalist, writing about wildlife in East Anglia and many other East Anglian topographical works. His 1901 book “Highways and Byways in East Anglia” is particularly interesting for it refers to local myths and legends, but it also highlights the following which provides a fascinating insight into the Norfolk Broads of the early 20th century: its people, their environment and their distinctive way of life, particularly of the wherrymen (river sailors) and the marsh men who made their living by farming, hunting and fishing on the swampy land:
“Then, too, there are the wherrymen whom you meet in the evenings at the marshland staithes and ferry inns. Approach them without displaying that ridiculous condescension which is characteristic of too many visitors and amateur yachtsmen and you will find them able and willing to impart much curious information concerning the river life and wild life of Broadland. For these men are not simply fair-weather voyagers; they are afloat on the rivers from January to December, and see the broads and marshes under all aspects and in all seasons. Many of them have known no other life than that which is spent in cruising between the East coast ports and the inland towns; but it has taught them many things of which the world that lies beyond the borders of the marshes has little knowledge.
Join a group of them some summer night when they are gathered in the low-ceiled bar-room of a riverside inn, or lounging about a lock or staithe in the midst of the marshes. Hear them talk of the voyages they have made when the ” roke ” (fog) was so dense as to hide even the windmills on the river banks; of the days when their wherries were icebound and the snowdrifts rose higher than the river-walls; of the marsh-fires (Will O’ the Wisp) which used to flicker over the festering swamps; and of the mist wraiths and phantom fishermen of the meres and marshes. Watch how their faces assume a fixed expression and their pipes are allowed to go out while some old man among them tells of a strange sight he saw one autumn night when his wherry was moored near the ruins of St. Benet’s Abbey”:
Behind all this is the Norfolk accent, which was and remains very distinctive, not one which many outsiders will often hear. The passage from Dutt’s book will allow you to get a taste of the accent, but only if you pronounce the words as you see them written. Do that a few times over and you will have an idea how it sounds. It really does work.
“There wor a full mune, an’ you could see th’ mills an’ mashes as clear as day. There worn’t a breath of wind, not even enow to set th’ reeds a-rustlin’; an’ for over an hour arter sunset you couldn’t hear a livin’ thing a-movin’ either by th’ river or on th’ mashes. I wor a-settin’ in my cabin along wi’ my mate Jimmy Steggles (him as used to hev th’ owd Bittern), an’ we wor a-talkin’ about one thing an’ another for a while afore turnin’ in for th’ night. All of a suddent we heered th’ quarest kind o’ screechin’ a man ever heerd, an’ lookin’ out o’ th’ cabin I seed a man a-runnin’ towards th’ wherry as hard as he could put foot to th’ ground. He soon got alongside on us, and I axed him what he wor a-screechi-n’ about. `It worn’t me, bor,’ he say ; ‘it wor suffin’ what come outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd abbey. I wor a-goin’ home to Ludham, arter lookin’ arter some bullocks what are on a mash yonder, an’ I thowt I heard suffin a-movin’ about agin th’ ruins.
Thinks I, that must be one o’ them there cows what wor browt down here from Acle yesterday forenoon. So I went outer my way a bit to see if anything wor amiss. When I got within about twenty yards o’ th’ walls suffin come a-wamblin’ outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd mill,’ (you know there wor a mill built on th’ owd abbey years agone) ` an’ started screechin’ like a stuck pig. I never stopped to see what it wor, but jist come for yar wherry like hell in highlows ! ‘
He wor a chap I knew well-his father had an eel-sett up th’ Thurne River-an’ he wor a-tremblin’ all over like a man wi’ th’ ayger. Both I an’ my mate went ashore, an’ I took my gun chance I’d wantin’ it; but all we seed wor an owd harnsee (heron) go a-flappin’ away acrost the mashes. An’ it worn’t a harnsee what made that screechin’, I’ll stake my life; though what it wor I never knowed. Whatever it wor it give that Ludham chap a funny fright, an’ he wouldn’t hear o’ goin’ home that night. So we had to find a berth for him aboard th’ wherry, an’ he went on to Wroxham Bridge wi’ us in th’ mornin.”
That wasn’t too bad was it!