There is a railway station in Norfolk that is more than a little odd. Its history is odd; its size and shape is odd and where it is located is odd. So, what makes this particularly station odd, over and above the established ritual that passengers are expected to go through when they alight there – and when they leave! We are talking here about the Berney Arms Station on the often windswept Halvegate Marshes.
Why not start with the station’s platform, which is too short to accommodate the small two-coach train which stops on request on its way to and from Great Yarmouth (Vauxhall). Then there is the platform’s tiny wooden hut which, quite frankly should be labelled “Room for one person only”. Inside, there is a very informative map of the area which, with the aid of a pointer tells, you, “You are here”. Next to this very helpful statement someone once wrote: “In the middle of nowhere” – and that is just how you will feel if you ever get off at Berney Arms station. There is no road there, not even a track, but in a northerly direction you will see a path which is part of the Weaver’s Way which will take you, given time and stamina, to the north coast at Cromer. To the south there’s a grassy track which leads to the waterside.
Should you feel inclined to venture forth on the basis of the information so far imparted, be also prepared to attract a degree of attention from those on the train, a few of which would never dream of following when you alight. But, it’s a fair bet that they would think that you were off to go to the Berney Arms pub. This pub, by the way, is not beside the station but a good three quarters of a mile walk away! So, What’s the point?
This is a very pertinent question, bearing in mind that there are plenty of decent pubs close by in Yarmouth – in the opposite direction of course. But this sort of question has been asked ever since the Berney Arms station was created in the mid 18th century. Then, and ever since the assumption has been that the station was built because the pub was there – simply not true! The Berney Arms station is there because the original landowner, Thomas Trench Berney, would not sell to the railway company unless a station was put there “in perpetuity”.
So, a station was built, along with a row of cottages alongside, one of whose rooms served as the ticket office. But right from the very beginning of the station’s operation, very few people used it; so much so that within a decade from the station opening, the rail company announced that its trains would no longer stop there. Hey! – what about our agreement? protested Berney at the time; to which the railway company replied “Our promise was that the station would be there in perpetuity; we did not promise that our trains would stop there in perpetuity. There was, of course, much acrimony over this before it was finally ruled that one train in each direction should stop at that point on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. For this change, Berney was paid £250 as compensation.
From then and until the mid 1990s, the station seemed timeless, still retaining the old wooden name board from Great Eastern days, on top of which a lamp was mounted. Against the sign stood a short metal runged ladder allowing access to the lamp. The platform was lined with old sleepers which had seen better days and its surface was shingled and rough. From the beginning of the second millennium, the platform still looked the same but just about everything else went, replaced by the standard Anglia Railways metal name board.
The service of course runs daily, to and from Berney Arms station, with several trains a day and sometimes more on Sundays. The well established custom also continues, namely, that the train will stop at the Berney Arms Station but only if requested to do so. All the passenger has to do on the outward journey is warn the conductor in sufficient time. Returning home, however, requires a different procedure for the passenger, that of waving energetically to the driver of the oncoming train as soon as it comes into sight and approaches the station.
So, having stepped from the train on to the platform, what can you do to while away the three-hours at your disposal before you take the return train back to Norwich? There is, of course, little option other than to take a walk along the grass path that runs south of the railway – towards the waterside and the pub. It is the same path that takes you first to the Berney Arms windmill, which is sometimes open to the public. From there, you have two options; either walking eastwards, which follows the river towards Yarmouth or, walking in the opposite direction towards Halvegate. Either way, there will be boats chugging by and many water birds massed on the edge until you approach when, in domino fashion, they will dive into the river at the first sound of your feet. Butterflies seemingly will take no notice as they flit in and out the foliage and ground cover. Above there will ornithological specimens of various kinds coming and going. Beyond these meadows and the grazing cows you will not fail to notice the distant A47 highway traffic scudding along, symbolising the kind of world you probably had come here to get away from. As in almost a complete contrast, the walk west towards to Reedham is even better: little disturbance here, only passing boats and the occasional swoop of swans crash landing and then, ritually, adjusting their attire of wet feathers.
Then, there is the Berney Arms pub, all brown, homely and cosy inside, ready to quench the thirst of a long walk – but watch the clock and time your return to the station. With whatever time you have left, enjoy the company of fellow walkers, and if you choose to sit outside you can watch the multifarious activities on the water. The boats ritually dislodge their holidaymakers, they and the crews in search of a pie and a pint or two. Then there are those people, regularly seen on a Broads holiday, who find it impossible to look anything other than habitual landlubbers but intent on establishing their credentials by shouting commands which incorporate such seafarer words as “ahoy”!
It will remain a safe bet that whilst drinking in the Berney Arms there will be someone who will say “I always wanted to come here”. Equally, if that person is then asked if they knew of any other station in England as odd as the one three-quarter’s of a mile back up that grassy path, the answer would be somewhat vague at best. So, what’s the point of the Berney Arms station? Well, for those who come across it, either by accident or intent, it deserves to survive ‘in perpetuity’, as a kind of therapy for stressed out urbanites who just wish to get away! But goodness knows what they would do if it rains.
The Broads as we know them today were, originally, a man-made accident. They were formed by the flooding of medieval peat excavations which provided fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. As sea levels began to rise, the pits began to flood and by the end of the 14th century, these pits were abandoned and large individual areas of enclosed water were formed. Collectively, they were not known then as Broads and certainly not the Norfolk Broads. That name seems to have gained popularity in the mid-Victorian era, about one hundred and sixty-five years ago; this was when they were ‘discovered’ and promoted by devotees of all things picturesque.
At the beginning of what became the ‘Broads’ brand, the railway had wielded its way across Norfolk and taken much of the carrying trade out of the wherry-man’s hands; eventually to rob him entirely of his livelihood. Victorian pleasure-seekers followed, at first in small numbers to explore the waterways and try the marshland inns during what was, at the outset at least, a short season. Then, as time past, visitor numbers increased so that the Broads, like many other places became overcrowded, a situation which in some people’s opinion was quite detestable!
It seems quite natural for so charming an area as the Broads to have had so much literature written about it. However, George Borrow (5 July 1803 – 26 July 1881) was one writer who, despite having lived for a while by Oulton Broad, did not write anything about the neighbourhood or the Broads – but, there were other less eminent early writers who did. They were the ones who busied themselves in making known the attractions of the flat landscape of the Broads, its slow moving waterways, the peaceful meres, the free shooting and fishing, together with the apparent strange life of the marsh-folk who drained the waterways.
By the late 19th century, luxurious boats could be hired to navigate the waters amongst the clean white sails of yachts, all of which mingled with the dirty brown sails of the wherries on the rivers Yare, Bure, and Waveney. William Dutt, (1870-1939) wrote admirable books about Norfolk and its Broads which were read with great pleasure by those of his time, He knew the country and the people thoroughly, and wrote in a very agreeable fashion:-
“……the visitors who content themselves with what they can see of Broadland from a yacht’s deck can never become really acquainted with the Broads and Broadland life. To gain a real knowledge of these, they must, to some extent, ‘rough it,’ as the early adventurers did; trudge the river walls; associate with the eel-catchers, marsh-men, reed-cutters and Breydon gunners, as well as exploring the dykes which were non-navigable by yachts. There are also the swampy rush marshes where the lapwings and red shanks nested……..spend days with the Broadsman in his punt, and nights with the eel-catcher in his house-boat; crouch among the reeds to watch the acrobatic antics of the bearded titmice, and mix with the wherrymen at the staithes and ferry inns……..If the stranger in Broadland is unwilling to do these things, he must rest content with the outward aspect of the district and second-hand knowledge of its inner life………But there must always be many whom lack of time, opportunity, or inclination will debar them from becoming intimately acquainted with the scenery, inhabitants, archaeology, history, sport, and wild life of this most delightful and interesting district.”
Then there were the illustrators and artists who produced drawings, oil paintings and water-colour sketches of the landscape, the sailing craft, the birds, and the vegetation of the Broads. These ‘interpretations of reality’ were, and indeed still are, exceedingly attractive and capture the full charm of the area. By the very successful process of colour printing they have, for many years, been reproduced in books that did not rely on just wearisome pen sketches or tonal single-colour photographs – although the best of these have found their place.
But it must be said that if one is to understand and appreciate the real, deep laying, beauty of the Broads, it is clearly advisable to also gain at least an outline on the history of this part of the County, from its earliest days, when a great chunk of East Norfolk was the bed of a vast estuary. Close behind came the Roman days when galleys could sail up to Norwich. Then there were the years of great inundation and, at the beginning of the 17th century, the work of reclamation with much of the swamps being drained and the resulting pasture put to profit.
Fortunately, despite all this activity, the Broad’s wild life was not seriously affected when Sir Thomas Browne made his list of Norfolk birds. Then the peewits were so plentiful that cartloads were brought into Norwich and the rustics used their eggs in puddings. Cranes bred, on what is now the Broads, till 1542 and spoonbills nested in 1671. The avocet ceased to breed by about 1825 and the black-tailed godwit’s egg was last taken at Reedham in 1857. At the same time, it used to be believed that the bittern and the black tern would, most likely, never rear their young again in the county of Norfolk – but they have.
We are told about the life of the marsh-folk of old; how the eel-catchers set about their business and made a precarious livelihood; how the professional wildfowlers became an extinct race; and how the marshmen controlled the drainage, looked after the cattle, and made a harvest of the reeds. Much has been pleasantly described, not least about the wild life on Breydon, an area of thirteen hundred acres which remains, strictly speaking, not a Broad, but an estuary to which numerous sea-birds and waders come and go. Many a rare straggler from foreign countries used to be shot there; spoonbills used to appear there every year and even more commoner birds used to, and indeed still do, visit the Breydon flats at the seasons of migration. It used to be said that an old Victorian gunner boasted that he once secured over a hundred dunlins at one discharge of his punt-gun. Although Breydon is not a Broad, there are about fifty pieces of water, some, of course, small pools, which are called Broads. Hickling, Rollesby, Ormesby and Barton are good examples, each having an area of over two hundred acres, with eight others of the best-known broths each more than a hundred acres in extent. Such a district has much to make it attractive to animals, plants and humans!
On the subject of ornithology, nests of the marsh harrier can still be found and, certainly, the Montagu’s harrier was known to have been present on the Broads in past years. However, one big complaint used to be expressed against the gamekeeper’s ‘pestilent activity’ which if not restrained, would doom many species, including the ‘ruff and the reeve’ sandpipers.
Entomology is another specialism which has always thrived on the Broads and written about; the precursor to the preservation of the species, such as that of the swallow-tail butterfly which in the past had been on the verge of becoming very rare, if not extinct. At one time, this would have been due to the insatiable greed of collectors and also to the draining of places where the hog’s-fennel, on which the caterpillars feed, once grew abundantly. On the other hand, the greatest treasure still to be found in Broadland is the moth, Fenn’s Nonagria typhae (Bullrush Wainscot) which was first discovered way back in 1834.
Then there is the ‘pond life’ which has been described as a rather vague branch of natural history for it deals in the ‘research of pond life which takes the seeker, who is after knowledge, into a world totally different to that in which he may otherwise have lived.” However, for such a person to study the rotifers and polyzoan, a microscope is needed which few visitors to the Broads are likely to possess.
Then there is Botany, another of those subjects which is more likely to be studied by the intelligent tourist. In the past, popular interest in plants was almost confined to orchids and ferns which suffered accordingly. Ammophila arenaria, is a grass which did spread from the sand-hills of coast and would not have competed with the flowering fern (Osmunda regalis) had it not itself been exterminated in many spots by past fern-gatherers. Neither should it be forgotten that the small orchis (Spiranthes autumnalis) used to be dug up by ‘wretches’ armed with trowels.
In total, the natural features of the Broads, and its geological history, differ so greatly from those of other parts of England. We are told that its earliest strata was cretaceous, but goes back only to the comparatively recent geological period when East Anglia, like the rest of Europe, was under the sea. Nature, assisted by man, is still at work. But one should not forget that in the past, owing to the deposition of mud, the drainage of swamps, and the effects of tidal currents, the Broads were in danger of slowly, but surely, vanishing. Fortunately, in these days of ‘enlightenment’ that is no longer the case.
But, the Broads have always been much more than that described above. Nothing has yet been said about prehistoric men who made the flint implements which have been discovered in the valley gravels of the Upper Waveney. Then there is yacht-racing which was once known as “water frolics” and dates back to the 18th century, whilst “regattas” and “yachting” as we understand them are inventions of the 19th century. Fishing, we are told, is not what it used to be on the Broads but good bream fishing may be had in some places – the worst of the bream is that it is useless when you have caught it. Perch is even less abundant. On the other hand, pike fishing is excellent in winter, and it has been known for the occasional 36 lb specimen to be caught. Roach, we are again told, remain abundant but Rudd, which will take a fly, give better sport in places like Barton Broad and in some parts of the Bure. Wild-fowling and free shooting used to be a popular pastime, but has long been restricted if not banned. Snipe, redshanks, and plovers were once at the mercy of a reputed twenty or thirty gunners who made a living on Breydon water; these have long disappeared and life has been allowed to flourish and move on.
FInally, for the statistically minded, the area covered by the Norfolk Broads is estimated to be 303 square kilometres (117 sq mi), most of which is in Norfolk, with over 200 kilometres (120 mi) of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and 63 broads, most less than 4 metres (13 ft) deep.
Approximately one-hundred and twelve years ago, William Dutt wtote, in his book ‘Norfolk’ a charming account of his stay with a friend in his houseboat named the ‘Moorhen’ on Breydon Water; Dutt titled this account ‘A Night on Breydon’. Now is your opportunity to return with him and view this section on the Broads as he saw it – at a time when life generally was, to our minds today, forged at a much less hurried pace. Those of you who know the Breydon area, may judge that little has changed from Dutt’s time there – but there again, maybe you will feel that much has!
No lover of wild life should leave Norfolk without exploring Breydon Water, a wide expanse of ooze flat and tidal water lying inland of Yarmouth. Breydon Water, or Breydon, as it is generally known is the estuary of the three principal Broadland rivers, the Yare, Bure, and Waveney. Its length from Yarmouth Haven Bridge to Berney Arms is about four and a half miles, and its width about a mile in its widest part. Seen under whatever aspect, it presents a striking appearance, whether its flats are steaming under a mid-day summer sun or its waste of waters is reflecting the ruddy glow of sunset. There is still something primeval about it and except for the artificial barriers which have been built to protect the marshes from its tides, it must present much the same aspect now as it did when, as a vaster estuary, it occupied the entire valley of the surrounding lowlands. It can have altered little since the days when the Iceni crept out in their coracles upon its waters, and the Romans, who built the massive fortress at its upper end, signalled across it to their camp at Caister.
I think I cannot give a better idea of Breydon than by describing a visit paid to its tidal waters towards the end of August 1899, when I accepted an invitation from a well-known Norfolk naturalist, Mr A. Patterson, to spend a night with him in his house-boat the ‘Moorhen’. We left Yarmouth shortly after mid-day, starting from a characteristic Breydon boathouse, with its eel-spears, butt-darts, fish boxes, punt sails, and bobbing poles, in a typical Breydon punt. Visitors to the Broadland soon become familiar with boats of this description, which, however, often differ slightly, according to the taste and fancy of the owner. Our boat was better constructed than most of them, having been specially designed to meet the requirements of a naturalist. Space economy was one of its special features. It was flat-bottomed, decked-in fore and aft, and had a roomy central “well.” It carried a lug sail, and had a rudder instead of the customary sculling rowlock.
The sea itself could scarcely have presented a wider outlook than did Breydon when we commenced our inland voyage, for the tide was at flood and all the flats were submerged. In a little while, however, the ebb set in, and one by one the flats, instead of being wholly hidden, became simply awash, so that the succulent water weed locally known as ” widgeon grass,” which grows freely upon them, began to fall in matted masses on the mud. Then we saw our first signs of wild life in the shape of a bunch of knots which, uttering their musical note, came flying towards us over the water. An Arctic tern also came within a few yards of us, and some ringed plovers settled on a “rising” flat.
After a pleasant sail, during which we passed several stranded and rotting hulks, and the floating headquarters of “Ducker” Chambers, the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society’s watcher, we arrived at the ‘Moorhen’ a snug and well-fitted-up little houseboat in which my friend often lives the life of a water gipsy. She was moored in a creek on the north-west side of Breydon, near Banham’s Farm, the home of a handsome, fair-haired, blue-eyed, marshland farmer, in whose veins is the blood of the Vikings. Several other houseboats were to be seen not far away, belonging to local gunners and fishermen. My friend’s, however, was the only naturalist’s houseboat on Breydon, and both in situation and convenience was admirably suited to his work. Behind it stretched mile after mile of level marshland, intersected by the winding waterways of the Broadland; in front were hundreds of acres of ooze flats, to which the curlews were just returning, and on which the gulls were settling to feed on crabs and flounders. Sea asters were blooming on the shores of the creek, and whenever we emerged from the cabin we inhaled the fragrance of sea southernwood, dense masses of which grew all along the ” walls.”
As the weather was warm we lit a fire on the side of the wall and boiled our kettle there. A cup of tea and a pipe made us supremely happy, and after a few minutes’ chat with the Norseman, who, glad to exchange a few remarks with a human being, strolled down to us from his farm, we set out on a ramble along the walls towards Berney Arms. A bunch of eight common sandpipers rose from the foot of the wall as we neared one of the drainage windmills, and we counted thirty-two curlews in a flock which came over from the marshes. The year 1899 was a good one for curlews – at any rate so far as Norfolk was concerned, for we saw more there then than we had seen for many years.
Sunset on Breydon is often a sight to be remembered, but that night, as we were moored on the north-west side, we saw the sun sink, not into the water, but beyond the far off horizon of the marshes. It kindled a glorious glow among the fleecy cloud-drift, and for a few too brief moments it seemed as though the western sky were afire. The suggestion of a vast conflagration was emphasised by the mist which rose out of the dykes and creeks at sundown, and drifted like smoke across the lowlands. A quarter of an hour later land and water were hidden by a dense fog, which had a disturbing effect upon the fowl on the flats, for as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’ we heard an almost incessant clamouring of gulls, curlews, and smaller shore birds. As long as the fog lasted the fowl continued to call, chatter, and whistle ; but there were periods of comparative silence, when the fog lifted for a while and the flats were lit up by the moonlight. Most of the gulls were black-headed gulls, but now and again we distinguished the laka-laha of a “saddle-back.” After we closed our cabin door a heron flapped down close to the house-boat and at intervals shouted ” Frank ” across the flats.
I was in no hurry to sleep that night, for my companion possesses a fund of interesting information and reminiscences, and has much to say about the wild life of Breydon. We talked together of the times, remembered by some of the older gunners, when the flats were often white with fowl, and that ardent naturalist, Mr E. T. Booth, brought from them some of his rarest and finest birds. There are still a few punt-gunners on Breydon in autumn and winter, but the Wild Birds Protection Acts have made it impossible for them to gain a livelihood by gunning alone. They complain, too, that nothing like such quantities of fowl visit the flats as in former days; but it must be borne in mind that of late years we have experienced several mild winters, and only comparatively small numbers of birds have been driven southward in search of food.
The last time we had a severe winter Breydon and the Norfolk marshes were alive with wild fowl, and there is little reason to doubt that under like circumstances just such flocks will come to us again. As to the Breydon smelt-fishers, whose house-boats are moored where the Yare and Waveney unite and form the estuary, the decreasing depth of the water and the making-up of the flats has had much to do with rendering theirs an unprofitable occupation. An old broadsman whom I know can remember the time when the wherries could sail over what are now called Burgh Flats, and he tells me that these flats “made-up” four inches in one year. Smelting was once such a paying business that the fishermen ran all sorts of risks in defying the River Commissioners and police during the close season. But although smelt-fishing on Breydon has seen its best days, there are still several methods by which the Breydoners profit by the time they spend on their home waters. Eels abound in the mud of the flats, and the eel-picker is often at work with his spear ; butt-darting is a favourite sport, and trawling for butts and flounders and dredging for mussels are resorted to by some men desirous of earning an honest penny. It is impossible to record here one half of the subjects discussed as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’s’ lamp-lit cabin and listened to the cries of the fowl and the lapping of the tide.
When at length we stretched ourselves out on the cushioned settles to sleep, we found our minds still occupied with the matters upon which we had discoursed, and not a few amusing incidents of life on the tidal waters were recalled. My friend suddenly remembered how one night, while in his house-boat, he had tried to sleep, but found it impossible, owing to the uneasiness of his couch. After tossing restlessly to and fro for hours, he recollected that he had placed under his thin mattress two saws and a hammer! I, myself, while occupying a water-bailiff’s houseboat, had been kept awake all night by the singing of the sedge and reed warblers in the riverside reed beds. On another occasion my companion had been considerably startled by the violent rocking of the ‘Moorhen’ and discovered that it was due to the attentions of a horse, which was amusing itself by rubbing against the edge of the roof. No such disturbing incident occurred that night, however, though we were now and again aroused by the roar of a punt-gun, which proved that in spite of the close season extending for another week some gunner was already after the fowl.
Morning dawned upon a cloudy sky and misty earth; but the sunlight soon broke through the clouds, dispelled the mists, and the roofs of Yarmouth were seen, at first dimly and then distinctly, across the water. We opened our cabin door carefully, not knowing what strange visitors might be in our neighbourhood, and were rewarded by catching a glimpse of five sheldrakes paddling in a goose-like fashion near the boat, and a small flock of wild ducks some distance away. The flats, often so unsightly under a lowering sky, were transfigured by the sunlight, which here and there streaked them with glistening bars of greenish gold. The far-spreading marshlands, too, with their many windmills, isolated homesteads, innumerable cattle, and abundant bird life, presented a very pleasing picture, and reminded me of what a somewhat neglected Yarmouth historian wrote, some forty years ago, concerning Breydon and its surroundings. He said,
“There is a peculiar charm in the contemplation of these wide and fertile vales, under the ever-changing aspects of sun and sky, with all their subtle gradations of light and shade. Raised above the river’s banks, the eye takes in a landscape which has that true and powerful element of the sublime — wide expanse — above us soars a vast o’er-arching canopy, and below is the bright glancing stream, flowing through a rich Champaign country, and as it gleams cheerily in the clear bright sunny air, filling the soul with an infectious gladness : anon the clouds are flinging down their flickering shadows as we flit past, now in sunshine, now in shade. . . . Here are rich poetical landscapes equalling aught of the great Dutch masters, tranquil cattle pieces worthy of Paul Potter, sunny Cuyps, romantic Hobbimas, gloomy Ruysdaels, moon-lit Aert Van Der Neers.”
After breakfast we walked across the marshes to the banks of the Bure, arriving, after an hour’s easy strolling, at Mautby Swim, where lives Fred Smith, an intelligent millman who is also an enthusiastic sportsman and observer of wild life. Although still only a young man, he can boast of having shot no less than nine spoonbills. One of these is said to be the finest specimen ever procured in England; and judging from an excellent photograph in Smith’s possession, I should say there are grounds for the assertion.
In addition to a stuffed kingfisher, which unfortunately is too common a feature of the marshman’s home, the millman pointed out to me a white-tailed starling and a handsome merlin. Among the rare birds which have fallen to him of late years were a broad-billed sandpiper (Calidris falcinellus) only about half a dozen of which species have been taken in England, and four of these on Breydon; and a pectoral sandpiper (Heteropygia maculata) an American species. About two months before the date of my visit he had seen a roller (Coracias garrulus) at Mautby. One of his especial bird friends is a winged hooded crow, which, on account of its injury, is unable to re-cross the North Sea, and has frequented the marshes in all seasons for two or three years. Ramblers on the marshes and voyagers on the Bure will do well to pay a visit to the picturesque home of this entertaining marshlander, if only to climb the tower of his windmill and view the surrounding country. There was formerly a wild-fowl decoy at Mautby, but it is now disused. Plenty of good fishing may be had in the neighbourhood, especially at Stracey Arms, where, in all probability, a railway station will soon be built. Mautby is about seven miles from Yarmouth and two and a half miles from Acle.
A Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) feeds along the shoreline in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Shortly after two o’clock we started on our homeward voyage, following the winding of the walls instead of crossing the flats. We had not gone far before we saw something which reminded us of a cruel and stupid practice of some of the summer season cruisers on these inland waters. I refer to the useless and unsportsmanlike shooting at gulls which, even if they are hit, can only be left to die on the flats. As we glided along by the flint-faced wall a bird dragged itself up the stones and hid amongst the coarse sea grasses. My companion jumped ashore, and in a few moments returned with a winged black-headed gull, which he took home and placed in an aviary rather than leave to the mercy of the Breydon rats. The local gunners seldom waste their powder and shot upon gulls, and it is a pity that yachtsmen, who cannot leave their yachts and venture upon the flats to get the birds they shoot, do not refrain from this questionable sport.
Near a couple of quaint little houseboats we encountered a typical Breydoner in his gun-punt. In a few days he would probably be prowling about in search of fowl; and even though the 1st September had not yet arrived, the long-barrelled, pistol-stock gun pointing over his boat’s bow looked as if it might go off accidentally should a bunch of fowl settle on a flat. Apparently he wished us to understand that he was engaged in the harmless occupation of collecting driftwood; but he seemed to have his eyes open for other things than stray fish boxes and floating timbers. He was an elderly man, and no doubt could call to mind many days of exciting sport, when the flats were almost hidden by fowl, and the discharge of his murderous-looking gun filled the air with wheeling and crying birds which left a score or more of their kind lying dead or dying on the ooze.
By four o’clock we were back in Yarmouth, and I was saying good-bye to the friend to whom I was indebted for such a delightful holiday. If any reader is desirous of spending just such another he cannot do better than communicate with Mr A. Patterson, who of all the Norfolk naturalists knows most about Breydon, and than whom none is more ready to assist and impart information to a kindred spirit.
For almost 200 years, The Goat Inn had been an integral part of village life in Strumpshaw, a bustling public house whose name was an acknowledgement of its rural location rather than the haunted head of a goat which had, for many years, refused to leave the place where it had been slaughtered.
For this tale, however, we need only to go back to 1908. That was the year when Mrs Newton, the landlord’s wife, took a fancy to a magnificent white goat which was brought to the inn by an itinerant pedlar. She decided, for reasons best known to herself, to buy the goat and paid a whole half-crown for him. In later years, this creature was to be known as ‘Old Capricorn’; this was, of course, a long time after it had been slaughtered.
In a newspaper interview in 1958, a local regular at the Inn by the name of Harry Thompson, who was 82 at the time, remembered personally slaughtering the creature. The reason given was not stated, but this act of despatch was followed by a suggestion that the creature should be preserved for perpetuity and hung behind the bar of the Goat Inn. With its long horns, beard and glaring balefully with black and hazel eyes, it could survey all who came into the pub whilst being a centre of attraction itself! In fact, it hung above the bar for 60 years, during which time there were reports of illness, discord and misfortune attributed to the goat’s head. Added to all this, was the fact that from time to time someone or other contrived to get the creature to disappear from the Inn – but then it always found ways and means to keep coming back to haunt the place – this went on for decades.
Landlord Frank Walpole, who came to the pub in 1967, appeared to be the least fond of this goat’s head than previous landlords; he was the eleventh since Newton in 1904 when the live version of ‘Old Capricorn’ was purchased for a half-crown. It was Walpole who was the first to remove it from the bar after a series of mysterious events which seemed to upset him more than the pub’s regulars. He cited things like mirrors flying off walls, the pub piano playing by itself while the top was down; water pouring through the ceiling and his wife Lily and daughter Jane, 16 seeing figures walk about the Inn at night. Most worryingly of all, was the occasion when a 17-year-old boy was killed in a car crash the day after he had touched the goat’s head.The newspaper of the time reported that Mr Walpole said “That made me think seriously about taking the head down. Now I’ve done it – Some of the regulars don’t like it, but it’s for the best.”
Mr and Mrs Walpole’s theory was that the Goat’s Head was nothing less than a ghost; what’s more, it was Mrs Walpole’s cousin Alfred, who died on the British destroyer HMS Harvester on March 11 1943 – but that’s another tale, for another day. She had also spoken to both a medium and a priest about a possible exorcism.
These were serious misgivings of the Walpole’s, but the fact of the matter was that the goat was being missed by their customers. So, two years later, the creature was found and reinstated on the wall behind the bar. However, with the its return came renewed misfortune. This time it was the family pets who suffered: a minah bird dropped dead, a monkey died from a head injury, one of the family’s three dogs ran away while another died giving birth and its companion passed away the next day.
On Valentine’s Day 1972 the newspaper again noted that Mr Walpole “……..once again removed Old Capricorn, weighted the shaggy head and threw it in the river. He had been told he must ‘drown’ the evil spell. Only Mr Walpole was to know just where the goat’s head was hidden. He did hope at the time that the place would not bode ill for any Broads visitors that summer.”!
But, within a month, a reed-cutter by the name of Alfred Stone caught sight of the head in Rockland Dyke, “looking more malevolent than ever” after its five-mile journey along the River Yare. Alfred Stone passed it to a Mr A Loades of Broad Hall Farm in Rockland St Mary, whose son Dennis, 24, hung it in the barn saying he’d “start his own museum”. But, you guessed it – within days, the dogs on the farm started behaving aggressively and Dennis’ grandmother, who was staying on the farm, had such a prolonged attack of nose bleeding that she had to go to hospital. Consequently, the head was hurriedly given back to The Goat Inn, but by August of the same year, ‘Old Capricorn’ was discovered in a shallow grave at Strumpshaw gravel pit where the creepy cranium was found “in the ground, as if it was alive”.
As ever, spooky coincidences followed the discovery: tyres deflated, a driver was shot in the arm, dogs were filled with fear – then the trail went cold. It was not until 1984, when the Goat Inn was bought by Paul Cornwall who renamed it The Huntsman, that interest was rekindled. The new proprietor was keen to bring the goat back to his rightful home and, once again, the newspaper renewed its interest in, what to them, must have been a news-worthy story. They quoted Mt Cornwall “I’m all for local superstitions, and I am interested in the whole history of the place; I’m not a believer, but, having said that, we have all got to go some time and you might as well die through touching a goat’s head. Of course I’d like it back – I am a glutton for punishment”!
Further to this, it was never said if Mr Cornwall, proprietor of the Huntsman at Strumpshaw, was ever successful. As for the local newspaper, which made such play on the topic at the time, appeared to have been conspicuous by its silence on the matter ever since. So, it is not known if Mr Cornwall ever brought ‘Old Capricorn’ home, which means that this tale must end abruptly – unless, and until, someone comes forward to confirm that the Goat’s Head of Strumpshaw is ‘alive’ and well and still, possibly, spreading panic and mayhem!
Just the other side of Acle, on the old road leading to Thurne, Caister and beyond, there is a single-span bridge over the River Bure; naturally, as one would suspect, it is called Acle Bridge.
This single-span bridge is just the latest of several bridges which have been on the site since 1101; it was only built in 1997. Our tale is not concerned with this version, nor with its immediate predecessor, built in 1931 which had two piers supported on oak piles driven into the river bed. This wooden structure replaced a hundred year old three-arch stone bridge built in the 1830s. This tale is only concerned with the three-arched stone bridge, however, please do not dismiss the 1931 or the 1997 bridges that followed this one!
It used to be said that if you found yourself on the stone Acle bridge on 7th of April, you would discover a pool of blood, which would not have been there the night before. That was so true then, when the tragedy happened – and it remains true today on the present bridge – remember, you have been warned not to dismiss it lightly! Now for our tale:
John, or it might have been Joshua, Burge was a corn chandler. For those not from these parts, a corn chandler was a person who dealt in corn and meal. Burge lived with his wife and children in a house close to the three-arched stone bridge at Acle and was known as a man who cheated on his customers, beat his wife and starved his children. So it will come as no surprise that, eventually, he went too far when he killed his long suffering wife. His subsequent arrest was a straightforward affair, such was his track record regarding his business affairs and relationships; plus the fact that too much evidence existed about his assaults and the killing for which he was taken to gaol in Norwich.
It followed that the legal profession brought Burge to trial for his wife’s murder but, such was his wickedness and cunning that he managed to secure himself an acquittal. You see, he had managed, somehow, to bribe the local doctor to say that his wife had died of a heart attack. It would seem that a doctor’s evidence in court at that time carried more weight than the evidence of bruising and contusions to a body. Discolourations as would have been made by a length of pipe that was discovered behind the cabinet in Burge’s kitchen. But, whatever the state of his wife’s body Burge was, in short, declared innocent of her murder and released – yes, quite unbelievable isn’t it!
However, this tale does not end there. The wife had a brother who on hearing of Burge’s acquittal, decided to plan for and hand out his own form of justice on his brother-in-law for the death of his poor sister. So, on the 7th of April as it turned out, he lay in wait on the bridge at Acle for Burge, having concealed a butcher’s knife, his chosen weapon, inside his jacket; he had also planned for his subsequent escape from the scene. The position of the brother-in-law on the bridge was over its central arch and he knew that Burge, who was in Great Yarmouth that day on business, would pass by on his return late that same evening. In the event, everything turned out as anticipated and planned for. Burge did indeed walk across the bridge at a late hour and towards his assailant who leapt up and wrestled Burge to the ground. There, having pinned him firmly to the bridge’s flagstones and taken out his huge butchers knife from inside his jacket, cut Burge’s throat from ear to ear – no half measures!
Burge’s blood gushed out spraying the brother and the stonework of the bridge, before finally coming to rest in a pool around what was then a dead body. Realising that the police would probably suspect him of the deed, the brother-in-law carried out the next stage of his plan by making his way to Great Yarmouth and boarding a ship that would take him away from Norfolk’s shores. Whilst all this turned out fortunate for the murderer – it was not so for a Jack Ketch who, following the discovery of Burge’s body, was accused by the police of the murder. This man had been cheated by Burge in a business deal and had been overheard threatening to get even. Mainly on this evidence, Ketch was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.
Some years later, Burge’s real killer returned to England and pretended surprise upon hearing of his brother-in-law’s (Burge) death; no one was the wiser to this deception. Then, as the anniversary of his killing of Burge arrived, his deceptor and brother-in-law, had an irresistible urge to visit Acle Bridge again – the scene of his dastardly deed. This was on the very night where, exactly 12 months previously, he had sliced through the sinews of Burge’s throat. It was this image that began to haunt him as he stood above the bridge’s central arch, peering over its side into the murky waters below. As he did so, a ghostly figure materialised from of nowhere it seemed, a figure that was more of mist and marsh fog than flesh and bones. It drifted silently towards him!
The next morning the townsfolk found a body dangling over the side of the bridge with a rope around what remained of his neck which had been severed as if by a large butchers knife. Some say the shadowy spectre was that of Burge, others that it belonged to the innocent man, Ketch, who had been hung for Burge’s murder. Either way, on the anniversary of the original murder, a pool of blood from one or other of these two victims appeared, and continues to appear each 7th April since – for it never did confine its appearance to the old three-arched bridge long gone. So, if you choose to go there on the 7th inst, by all means look out for the pool of blood but, just be alert if you are ever tempted to glance over the bridge rail to the murky waters below – you could possibly find yourself in a very precarious situation!
Followers of Broadland Memories on Twitter and Facebook will have seen mention of the recent purchases for the archive of two sets of photographs of the Norfolk Broads from the late 19th century. These fascinating images document family holidays during the early years of the boat hire industry, providing a wonderful snapshot of boating during that era, and they include some incredibly rare photographs of pleasure wherries and the Broadland landscape.
The first collection were bought as a group of three lots of loose pages from an album which had been split apart by a dealer. It’s always sad when that happens, but I was fortunate to be able to buy the three Norfolk Broads lots which means that they will at least remain together. Precise dating has been difficult, but researching the landscape scenes via contemporary guide books, census returns and trade directories, and the subtle changes in ladies fashions during the latter decades of the 19th century, led me to the conclusion that they are c1885-1889. The presence of a photograph of the 1885 Norwich Angling Club annual dinner menu also provided an initial starting point for that date. The collection features a very well to do, probably extended family group aboard two pleasure wherries and a larger steam ship called Phoenix. I think they they were possibly taken during more than one trip. Sadly, there are no names, or real clues to where they came from. Other photos from the pages I bought include three or four which were taken on the Dutch and Belgian Canals, plus a couple of London scenes.
The first wherry is named as The Eagle – not a wherry name that I have come across before, nor can find mention of in the usual book sources, but it looks to be a quite rough and ready conversion from a trading wherry. The family group are pictured aboard The Eagle in the photograph above. The second pleasure wherry (below) which accompanies the family clearly displays the name boards of Gladys, which Roy Clark lists as being a converted trader in his Black sailed Traders book. What is unusual about Gladys is that she has a counter stern, something you would be unlikely to find on a trading wherry, the fitting of which would have required quite a major rebuild. She is rather magnificent and a wherry, it seems, that hasn’t appeared in any previously published photographs, which makes this quite a rare find. The collection also features a photograph of Buckenham Ferry in operation with the now derelict Buckenham Drainage Mill seen clearly in the background, sails intact and painted white, like Thurne Mill. These have now been uploaded to the gallery pages of Broadland Memories and can be viewed here: http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk/pre1900gallerypage4.html#bm_1880s
The second collection is a virtually complete photograph album, inscribed by the photographer as being “The Cruise of The Mayflower” and dated to August and September of 1895. Although I know nothing about the background of the photographer and his family, I do at least have a name – D.W. Brading. Mayflower was built by Robert Collins & Sons at Wroxham. Once again, it’s another beautiful set of personal photographs of a boating holiday on the Broads which will appear on Broadland Memories in the coming months. A couple of previews from the album appear further down in this article. A massive thank you to those kind people who have sent donations to Broadland Memories over the last year which have helped towards the purchase of these incredible pieces of the local history which will now be available for all to view online, and will eventually be passed on to the Norfolk County Council Archives.
As always, such photographs require a fair bit of research. My first port of call is usually the contemporary guide books and literature of the time which give great insight into how a boating holiday was conducted at the time. The allure and attractions of the region were probably not that dissimilar to our own reasons for boating on the Broads today. The adventure, the tranquillity of the rivers, the stunning landscape, the wildlife, the history and architecture … and possibly the odd pub or two along the way. The client base for the boatyards was somewhat different, however, as boating was predominantly the preserve of the wealthy and professional classes. The advertised hire charge of £10-14 per week for a wherry may seem low by today’s standards, but when you put that into context with the extra £1 or so a week paid for the services of a skipper, a cut of which may well have been taken by the boatyard before his wages were paid, you can see that it was by no means a cheap holiday. There were less costly options available to the Victorian boater, however.
At the bottom end of the scale, an open boat with an awning which could be erected at night plus a couple of mattresses, suitable for “two young men roughing it“, could be hired for around 30 shillings. Moving up in comfort levels were the cabin yachts which varied in size from a small, two berth yacht with limited facilities up to a large counter-sterned, cutter-rigged yacht like Mayflower which included a foc’sle with berths for a skipper and mate and a stove upon which to cook, two main cabins, a W.C., and storage cupboards. Costs varied from between £3 to £10 depending on the size of the craft and the time of year.
“To obtain the greatest amount of comfort it is necessary to hire a wherry, and a Norfolk wherry, let me say, is a wonderful craft;” wrote John Bickerdyke in The Best Cruise On The Broads, first published in 1895. He continued; “Wherries have for years been the trading craft of the district, but now a great many are luxuriously fitted up for pleasure parties, and on our cruise we see many happy family seated on a garden seat on the fore deck.”
Furnished with sprung berths, soft rugs, cushions and blinds, equipped with oil lamps and all the necessary crockery, cutlery, glassware and table linens one would need, the pleasure wherries certainly provided a good level of comfort, although on board facilities were still quite basic by modern standards. The saloon, according to Ernest Suffling in Land of the Broads, was; “nicely carpeted and painted, etc., with a large dining table, and, at the after end, the crowning glory – a piano. After dark, with lamps lighted, and the merry party gathered around this instrument, many a happy hour is passed away.” It should be noted that use of these small, wherry pianos was charged at an extra 15 shillings per week. He considered ladies to be “out of place” on small yachts, a separate cabin was essential, and the larger yachts and wherries were therefore best suited to mixed parties. There were lists of, and advertisements for, boat builders and owners who would let boats within the pages of some of the tourist guides and one would have booked directly with them. Suffling also offered to act as an agent for procuring suitable yachts for prospective holidaymakers upon written request.
Having chosen your boat, signed the hire agreement and paid the deposit, it was time to turn your attention to planning what to take and how to provision your holiday craft. On the subject of payment, the balance was paid upon arrival at the start of your holiday, although in How to Organize a Cruise on the Broads, Suffling recommended withholding full payment until the end of the trip “until the agreement has been properly fulfilled on the part of the owner, or his representative waterman.”
The usual suggested boating attire for gentlemen included flannel trousers, shirts, a blazer and cap or straw boater, rubber soled tennis shoes, two pairs of socks and a change of underwear. Oilskins or a mackintosh were recommended for wet weather … not that it ever rained on the Broads, of course. Little advice was given about ladies clothing, but it must be said that the long dresses, starched corsets and elaborate hats seen in contemporary photographs don’t look the most practical of garments for boating. Ernest Suffling was one who tentatively broached the subject in The Land of the Broads;
“For ladies dress (I will say little here, or I shall get out of my latitude), nothing can compare with navy serge made up in a very plain manner, so as to prevent few folds as possible for boughs of trees, oars, etc., to catch in. A little bright colour in the trimming, if you please, ladies! and be sure and wear strong watertight boots in place of dainty, fancy French shoes.”
I would add a plentiful supply of hat pins to the list in order to keep that head-wear secure during the sudden, and violent squalls of wind, known as “rogers”, which we were warned we may encounter on the Broads during the summer months.
The subject of food was covered well in the guide books and stocking up on a good supply of tinned meat was deemed to be essential. Fresh meat was difficult to source in all but the larger towns. Whilst villages may have had a butcher, the lack of refrigeration meant that the sale of meat was done rather differently. Orders would be taken for the various joints of meat and an animal would not be dispatched until the whole carcase was sold. A variety of weird and wonderful meats could be found in tins – Ernest Suffling recommended curried rabbit, ox-cheek, hare soup, spiced beef and Australian mutton. Fresh rabbits were one of the few things which might be readily found in the countryside! He also suggested recipes for any freshwater fish you might catch including baked pike, broiled bream and fried perch. A warning about a certain breakfast staple though; “Bacon, as a rule, is not good in Norfolk; some of the ‘home-cured’ being really not endurable by town dwellers.”
Fresh vegetables were difficult to find, but probably didn’t feature too highly on the priority list anyway. Potatoes, however, “must not be forgotten“, and 1lb per person, per day was thought to be sufficient. Bread, milk and eggs could be purchased quite easily from various sources. Another warning came from Suffling about buying cheese, who implored us to “remember that Norfolk is noted for bad cheese. So beware!” John Bickerdyke begged us not to grumble at being charged more for goods as a summer visitor than one would would normally expect to pay in the village shops; “The prosperity of which depends upon the summer influx of visitors.”
The photograph above was captioned, “Returning with provisions from Stalham” and is one from the D.W. Brading 1895 album, taken on Barton Broad. Mention was made of shallow upper reaches of rivers and some broads, preventing passage by craft with deep keels, a dinghy was therefore rather essential and was included within the hire of as yacht or wherry. “See that a good dinghy or ‘jolly boat’ is supplied,” Suffling entreated us in How To Organize a Cruise on the Broads,
“and that she is provided with a lug sail to fit her, and a good pair of oars; for a vast amount of pleasure is derived by small exploring excursions from the yacht, up dykes and cuttings. The ‘jolly’ is also useful to visit the neighbouring villages for renewal of food supplies, posting letters, and a hundred and one other small services.”
The holiday party were not necessarily expected to cook for themselves – this was usually the job of the skipper, or the attendant if there were two crew – although more adventurous holidaymakers were free to join in with both domestic and sailing duties on the boat should they so wish. You were, however, expected to keep the crew in food, beer and possibly even tobacco for the duration of the trip. In Best Cruise on the Broads, John Bickerdyke’s thoughts on the subject were; “It is by far best to tell a man, or men, at the outset that you will give them so much a week in respect of these items, and let them find their own. If you provide them with beer, they will either drink too much, or have a grievance in respect of not having enough. Give them money and they will hardly drink anything.”
Fresh water supplies were sourced from a village well or hand pump. This was usually stored in large stone bottles, as seen above in a photograph which was taken at Ludham Bridge c1900. Bickerdyke noted; “The places where good water is to be obtained are few and far between. Most of the county lies below the level of the rivers, and the water, though plentiful, is not very good. It is as well to take a filter, so that the water, if of doubtful purity, may be both filtered and boiled. The difficulty is surmounted by laying in a stock of mineral waters.” He continued; “It is as well to see that the man really does go to some well for the water, and does not fill the jar out of the river. River water does well enough for washing purposes.”
Other forms of liquid refreshment were of great importance too during your cruise. Whilst various riverside hostelries were recommended in the guide books (for the availability of a decent hot meal as much as the ale) you were advised to stock up on your favourite tipples before setting off as the local offerings may not necessarily be to your taste. “Beer, of the peculiar sweet flavour in vogue in Norfolk, but, nevertheless, pure and wholesome, may be had anywhere. Some of the inns keep an old ale in stock called ‘Old Tom.‘ It is exceedingly intoxicating, and costs one shilling per quart.” wrote Suffling. But if you hankered for something stronger still, then take heed; “The denizens of the coast appear to like a new, fiery spirit, be it whisky, rum, gin, or brandy, and they get what they like. Some of the whisky is warranted to kill at any distance.”
If you’ve managed to ward off scurvy due to the lack of fruit and veg, avoided succumbing to galloping consumption from drinking well water or eating the local cheese, and haven’t been left insensible (or worse!) by the Norfolk whisky, then you’ll probably be wondering what you can see and do whilst on your cruise.
Angling had become a popular pastime and prospective visitors were encouraged to bring along their tackle, with hints and tips for novices given within the guide books. Photography too was gaining interest amongst those who could afford the equipment and you may have noticed that the wherry plan further above in this article includes a dark room on board. “The artist may find anywhere, everywhere, pictures ready for his canvas of scenery that is peculiar to Norfolk.” Suffling told us:
“To the archaeologist and searcher into things ecclesiastic, there are no end of churches, priories, castles, halls, and old buildings, which will afford him a vast fund of delightful research. To the entomologist, ornithologist, and botanist, I would say ‘By all means take your holiday here, for you may bring back with you specimens wherewith to beguile many a long winter’s evening with your favourite pursuit’.”
The Victorians seem to have had an enormous appetite for shooting and stuffing anything that moved. Guns could be brought along, but the guide book authors attempted to discourage such practices. In The Handbook to the Rivers and Broads of Norfolk & Suffolk, George Christopher Davies appealed; “Let me earnestly entreat visitors not to fire off guns either at birds or bottles above Acle Bridge. The sport to the visitors is nil, while the annoyance to the riparian owners is extreme.” The Brading Family clearly ignored this advice as the photograph above shows. It is one of a series of the yacht Mayflower which were captioned as having been taken at Barton Staithe in 1895.
Ernest Suffling suggested that yachting parties bring lawn tennis and archery sets, quoits and cricket equipment with them to set up on the riverbanks, obviously with little concern for the landowners. George Christopher Davies dismissed such notions, telling his readers: “Pray don’t take such absurd advice, all riparian owners adhere strictly to their just rights.” For evening entertainment and wet weather days where the party were confined to the saloon, there were various recommendations. We’ve already mentioned the piano and, according to Suffling;
“Frequently one of the party brings along his banjo …. He is usually the funny man of the party, the buffoon, the human ass..”
Chess, backgammon, cards, book reading, sewing and “wool-work” were typical pastimes, along with compiling a scrapbook of your holiday. It was also suggested that you may use the time to take stock of the items you’ve collected during the trip for your botany collection. Various parlour games were included in the list too. In “Fill The Basket” one could make use of the abundant rations of potatoes which had been brought on board at the start of the trip. “Two players kneel on the floor opposite one another, three to four feet apart, in the centre a basket is placed, whilst in front of each player is placed a dozen of the largest, most ugly, and knobbly potatoes procurable.” Each player was then given a table spoon, or dessert spoon and by using only the spoon, the potatoes were transferred into the basket, the winner being the first to clear their pile.
Once your holiday had begun, there were a few “hitherto unwritten rules” of the Rivers and Broads from George Christopher Davies to adhere to:
“Do not, in the neighbourhood of other yachts or houses, indulge in songs and revelry after eleven p.m., even at regatta times.”
“Bathe only before eight o’clock in the morning, if in sight of other vessels or moored in a frequented part of the river. Ladies are not expected to turn out before eight, but after that time they are entitled to be free from any annoyance. Young men who lounge in a nude state on boats while ladies are passing (and I have known Norwich youths to do this) may be saluted with dust shot, or the end of a quant.”
“Do not throw straw or paper overboard to float to leeward and become offensive but burn, or take care to sink all rubbish.”
“Steam launches must not run at full speed past yachts moored to the bank, particularly when the occupants of the latter have things spread out for a meal.”
“Ladies, please don’t gather armfuls of flowers, berries, and grasses which, when faded, you leave in the boat or yacht for the unfortunate skipper to clear up.”
You’ve made it to the end of your holiday and it’s time to depart. You may not necessarily be departing from the same place where you picked the boat up of course. A man with a horse and cart will collect your party and luggage and transport you to the nearest train station for your return journey home. In 1895, a return first class”Tourist” ticket from London to Wroxham Station (as seen above, photographed by Donald Shields) would have cost 34 shillings, whilst a 3rd class ticket could be purchased for a more modest 20 shillings. The train journey would have taken a little over three hours.
The boats, the clothes and the availability of foodstuffs may have changed, but the appeals of the Broads and some of the advice given in the Victorian guide books still hold true today – with the exception of trying to sink your rubbish perhaps (lack of riverside rubbish bins notwithstanding). The facilities were somewhat basic, sourcing food and water needed greater patience and stamina and you made your own entertainment. But step on board your holiday craft, leave the cares of the world behind, cast off on your Broadland adventure and “one feels the glamour of it stealing over you.”
The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce 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. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.
Imagine a time where there are 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. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.
The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. 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.
Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.
Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.
The decline of the peat cutting industry
Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.
The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.
The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.
The accounts of the Norwich Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.
The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.
Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.
Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.
The advent of the plague
Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.
Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.
“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders. William Dene
Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.
In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.
“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges” Henry Knighton
The impact of the Black Death
Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.
It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.
The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.
A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.
The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.
Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.
The following text is of Brian Mace talking to WISE Archive on 17th November 2017 at Haddiscoe – with additional photos where appropriate. See Soundtrack below.
Generations of marshmen:
My family has lived on the marshes for generations. My grandfather Reginald Mace was a marshman on the Reedham level and he had a fairly large family. There were eight children: four brothers, four sisters. So times were tight and during the war he used to go out shooting. They used to live off the land. He would shoot starlings. I think, one day, he got 76 in one shot. And he used to take them to Pettit’s in Reedham and get about a penny a piece for ‘em. And during the war he was involved with the American bomber that crashed at Reedham. They helped carry some of the crew off to Reedham on a gate used as a stretcher. And times just were very hard to them in that period of time.
My father became a marshman. He was the opposite side of the River Yare to what Grandfather was. He came over here for a week’s work mowing thistles and stayed all his life. He got the BEM for helping finding copper deficiency in the grass and then the cattle. He had a hard life. He used to live off the land. He used to go shooting and get ducks and rabbits, hares – but we had a good life in all.
My mother Violet was station mistress at Berney Arms and looked after the Post Office and she was like the driving force behind Father. They were hard times. When we lived on Haddiscoe Island, she used to make butter and take it up to Reedham and sell it. We used to have to go to Reedham by boat to get the shopping. We didn’t have a telephone. We used to have to go, either up to Reedham to use the phone box if any of the animals were ill or anything, or later on Grandfather got a phone on his side of the river and we used to go over there and use his phone.
My mother’s grandfather was a marshman, her uncle was a marshman and her father was a ganger on the railway from Yarmouth to Reedham. He used to look after that section of the track.
Childhood by the river:
I was born at Berney Arms. Lived there ‘til I was five. Then we moved over to Upper Seven Mile House on Haddiscoe Island where I had to go to school by boat. The first years Father and Grandfather Albert used to row me up the river to Reedham and then later on we got a little motor launch and when I was about 14 I used to take myself up the river to school. I was an only child. All on my own down here and some of the boys from Reedham they used to walk down the river wall and give a shout when they got opposite the house and we used to set off down the river for the boat and they used to have two or three hours down there with me and then they go back off home.
Winter of ‘63:
I wasn’t keen on school. In the big winter of ’63 the river froze up so I had a bloomin’ good excuse for not going to school. I went shooting nearly every day of the week I think. I had a 410 at the time and I’d go after ducks and pheasants and whatever was about, and they used to end up on the table.
And then there was the coypu. We used to go after the coypu. We had a run of snares on the river wall to catch ‘em. We used to shoot them. I had a little Scottie terrier that absolutely hated coypu and she would swim in the dyke over the top of the coypu when that was on the water and wait ‘til it came up and used to grab ‘em in the back of a net and kill ‘em. So we used to get a lot of coypus like that. That was before the coypu campaign started and the owner of the marshes used to pay us sixpence a tail to kill the coypu because they done so much damage to the banks and what have you. Cattle, you know, they could put their leg in a coypu hole and break it so they were glad to get rid of the coypu. But the coypu campaign then started and they more or less took all the credit for what we done.
Before that, Dad used to skin the coypu and sell the pelts, the nutria, and I believe it used to go into fur coats and hats all such stuff like that. So the actual coypu was being used for what that was brought over to this country for, for the fur. Well we done that for several years. Lots of different things we used to do with them. Well, I once shot one during the hard winter, during the ’63 winter. And the tail had been frozen off. So I was most annoyed I’d missed out on my sixpence!
Life after school:
When I left school I went to work at Browne & Sons Garage at Loddon. From there I went to Corona soft drinks, then they finished in Yarmouth and I got a job with Sacret & Co on The Conge in Yarmouth as a delivery driver. They were general wholesalers – chocolates, cigarettes. And then after that I went to Priory Craft at St Olaves and I was fitting engines and jet units into speedboats and then when they packed up I decided to go self employed and went reedcutting.
We done the reedcutting for several years and that was bloomin’ hard work. You earnt every penny you got out of it. The reed from the Island was some of the best reed in Norfolk and that went all over England and there was even an order for some to go to Disneyland in America. The reed was a good time but that was hard work. When we started doing the reed I think if I remember right it was about three and sixpence a bunch. That’s what we used to get for it and I think now they’re getting over £2 a bunch for it.
We done the reedcutting with an Allen Scythe to start with. And then we went for a Mayfield Cutter which was a bit bigger, bit quicker and by the time we finished we’d gotten an Olympia rice harvester that actually cut it and bound it but the only disadvantage with the Olympia was you had to cut all your strings, clean it all out and then retie it all up again.
It was very hard work on your hands. We had one patch of reed, that was 500 yards from the river wall and we used to have to carry the reed from off the rond over the top of the river wall, stack it at the bottom and we had all sorts of things to try and do it quicker. We used to put about 10 proper bunches into one big bunch, hoist them up on your back and walk. Then I made a sledge out of some old gates and we used to pull that across the rond with a tractor and a long rope. But the trouble was that the tractor used to go half way across the marsh before the sledge moved because the rope stretched. And then that came in rather a hurry when it did come.
It was different when my father and grandfather done the reedcutting they used to have to use a hand scythe. And mow the reed and tie it up and carry it off because they used to take a lot longer.
Travelling around the marshes:
They would have walked round the marshes mainly. Some people had a horse. My uncle he used to have a horse to go round the cattle on and to go out shopping they had a horse and cart. And eventually my uncle, he got a bullnosed Morris Motor car and then that’s how he got about. But life in them days was very hard on the marshes ‘cos we used to, well I can remember Father used to walk two mile to get the cattle off the lorry and then used to have to walk them all the way back down to the marsh. They’d got to go on the island and I can’t remember it but he used to say about the cattle coming by train, by rail and being on-loaded at Haddiscoe. And they used to have to walk them from Haddiscoe down onto the marshes.
Cattle (and some sheep) on the marshes:
After I packed up reedcutting I looked after the cattle on the marshes. The Pettengill family moved out from down the marshes and I took their level over. When they hired the marshes, they hired the marshman with the marsh. They hired me automatically. I’ve been doing it ever since.
These days I start, well, as early as I can, at about six in the morning and go round the cattle. I use a four-wheel drive nowadays to go round the cattle. That’s a lot easier. Some people, like Tony Clarke, he uses a quad and what have you. But I use a four-wheel drive.
We check the cattle to make sure they’re all in good health. Make sure there’s nothing wrong, there’s no colds or pneumonia or anything like that. Or any foul of the foot or anything, and if there is, then we phone the actual owners and it’s up to them then to get the vet in and sort things out or take the cattle home.
The cattle calve on the marshes. Sometimes we have to help with the calving. If there’s a cow in trouble calving then I automatically get the vet in and if a caesarean that’s needed then it’s done down here. We have to cart water and everything down so it’s clean and fresh when that’s done. Well, there’s one particular farmer. The first time he come down here I was out with him until two o’clock in the morning worming cattle by torch lamp. And I quickly told him, if he couldn’t come in the daylight, he needn’t come at all.
I do that 30 weeks a year and in the winter we go round mending the gates and supervising the dykes being cleaned out and posts – we have to put in the digger nowadays where we used to do it all by hand. We used to have to dig the hole and put the rails up and what have you. But that’s a lot easier with a digger. Just give it a push and that’s it.
There are also sheep on the marshes. I got one farmer who actually owns the marshes and he’s got sheep. He has anything from 300 plus, 300 to 500. The marshes are dry enough for sheep.
Future of the marshes:
I think the marshes are going downhill all the time. There aren’t so many cattle to graze ‘em. There used to be all dairy cattle down here but now we got suckler herds and what have you. And there just isn’t the stock about there used to be so the marshes are gradually going downhill and they don’t seem to want to put the money back in to ‘em that they used to. Like the thistle spraying and the cutting of thistles. There’s not so much of that going on as what there used to be.
From coypu to mink:
My grandfather, my father and I were marshmen. My son, Stephen, he works for the mink control, the mink project. He’s still on the marshes. He’s about the marshes. He’s all over Norfolk. You know, supplying people with traps and going despatching mink and all sorts of things you know. They’re getting on top of the mink quicker than they got on top of the coypu. The coypu were about for a long while before they started being controlled.
The mink were introduced for the fur trade and then someone thought that would be a bright idea to let these lovely little furry creatures out into the wild and that’s when the problems start with an non-native species. The mink don’t burrow so much, they just kill for the sake of killing. They will kill stuff and leave it and not eat it. They’ll have rabbits, they’ll have chickens, they’ll have anything and they just kill for the sake of it. They will even get into fish ponds and kill the fish.
It is becoming a bigger problem cos they have spread into places like Bradwell and that and the fishponds and killed people’s fish and Stephen, he’s quite often called out into a town to go and set a trap to try and catch it.
The following text is of Arnold ‘Archie’ Rednall (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive in Freethorpe on 28th February 2017 – with appropriate additional photos added. See soundtrack below:
I was born in London, but my Dad moved to Reedham in 1947. He bought Brick Kiln, which was the old Reedham brickyard, although it was redundant at the time. My uncle, who lived at Ship Cottages, Reedham, told my dad that Brick Kiln was coming up for sale and so dad come down and bought it from a Mr Elvin. Mr Elvin had TB and we weren’t allowed to go and live in Brick Kiln to begin with, so I went and lived with my auntie and uncle in Ship Cottages.
When we stood on the steps of our house ready to move, the telegraph boy came up and told my mum and dad that my cousin Robert from Ship Cottages was missing, presumed drowned. So the young lad, who was to be my playmate, had drowned, which was quite sad. I went and stayed with my Auntie Ivy in London for about three months, before we actually were able to make the move to Reedham.
I can remember the first morning Jim, my brother, and I woke up at Brick Kiln and we went out in the garden, which was two to three acres, and at the back there were lots of apple trees. We made our way through all these and climbed up onto the fence, overlooking the school playing field. I can always remember it; we hung onto the triangular bits of the fence and watched the kids kicking a football about. These were the children we eventually joined at school and then, in due course, I used to kick a ball about too…
Reedham was a very sociable community. For instance, if someone was ill, I can remember my mum used to cook food and take it round to them on a plate with a dish over the top; ‘oh so and so she’s not very well; she’s in bed; she’s got a heavy cold…’ People used to go round and sit with them and cook for them, take them out for a walk, take the dogs for a walk. My sister, who’s now 86, still lives in Brick Kiln and we used to walk to school and other children would join up with us. Also, if need be, a mum would maybe take five children to school.
Reedham School and ‘Larning Norfolk’
I was just seven when I started at Reedham School, my first school, in 1947. When I first joined, as a Cockney kid, I think I was just a bit of a novelty really… Now my brother, who was 6½ years older than me, started at Reedham School and he struggled, basically having to fight his way through school, because they all would try and see how strong London boys were compared to Norfolk boys… I was lucky, because I went to the infant school and we had a woman teacher, who handled me well; she blended me in with the class and taught me to slow down and slowly get to talk Norfolk… It was difficult at first though getting used to the broad Norfolk accent.
We did Christmas songs there and I could sing. I sang solo and that brought me in. I was part of the team, because I could sing all the solos they wanted to sing at Christmas… My mum, dad and granddad were musical. Both my children are musical too, so it’s obviously in the family blood and runs in the genes…
I went to Reedham School originally, but then they decided that one boy from each village school could go to Holt Hall, which was a boarding school, and I went there. It was in the middle of woodland, with two big lakes. I think there were 60 boys and 60 girls and we had four classrooms. I absolutely loved going to Holt Hall and my spare time spent on the marshes with Brian Mace, Keith Patterson and Derek Elvin, my friends, with all the canoeing, camping and so on.
So I moved to Norfolk and grew up here and it’s the best thing my dad ever did. I loved Norfolk. I loved school, going down Reedham riverside and living in the Ship Cottages with my uncle and auntie too.
Reggie Mace, a Marshman:
One of the first boys I palled up with was Brian Mace. He and his two sisters used to walk down the railway line every day to go to school from Five Mile House, which is the last house between Reedham and Berney Arms. I used to go down to Berney Arms with him and play on the marshes and he used to show me round.
His dad, Reggie Mace, was a marshman, and I used to watch him carrying out his various jobs. He had to make sure that the marshes and dykes were clear of harmful plants, thistles and so on, because of feeding the cattle and also that all the gates were in good working order.
Slubbing the Dykes Out:
There were a couple of men who used to work with him. I don’t know whether they were family members or not. They used to slub the dykes out using a spade, shovel and fork, all on long poles. They’d put all the stuff from the bottom of the dyke up onto the edge, forming a little barrier, but the dyke was cleared. Then when the water and all the sediment settled, you could see the bottom of the dyke and the fish swimming.
He kept an eye on the levels of the dykes. He controlled the water flow from the river into the dykes and vice versa by the mills. When the dykes got low, originally they had a water wheel operated by a windmill. Very soon that was replaced by a big diesel pump house, for the obvious reason they could just switch it on and off and they didn’t have to worry about the wind.
He looked after the cattle, made sure they were safe, and then they used to take them back down to the farms to milk them, or whatever they used to do. In those days, the marshes were full of cattle. There were also a lot of horses about, because that was still the very early days of tractors and in a lot of cases they still used the horses for pulling carts. I can remember them even ploughing a field with a horse and plough; that’s going back some…
There were, in fact, marshmen all the way from the rond at Reedham right up to Berney Arms looking after the dykes and caring for the cattle.
The windmill, steam and diesel pumps:
There was also a wrecked, derelict old steam pump, but why that was there and whether it ever got used, I don’t know. So there was this, a windmill and a diesel pump all within a matter of yards of each other and I found it all interesting.
I was fascinated by the windmill. The steps from the ground floor to the first floor had been taken away, to stop us climbing up it, but we went down to a local shop and got some six inch nails. We nailed these into a wooden post, about a foot square, up the middle of the windmill and we climbed up to get onto the first floor. Once we got onto the first floor, you could then go up the steps to the very top, the dome bit and that was our den. That’s where we had all our Eagle comics and all the rest of it…
On the back of the windmill there was a big chain and by pulling that, you could turn the sail into the wind, or slightly to the wind, depending on whether you wanted it to go fast, or slow. All that was in operation at first when I was there, but over the years, from the age of 9 right up until I was 14, eventually the windmill finished; that seized up and they used the diesel pumps to pump the dykes in and out.
Spinning for pike:
When I first went down there, the dykes were all straight, level and clear and we used to go fishing. We used to go spinning for pike. We used to tow a piece of string with a spinning hook on it in the water and as you walked down, the hook used to spin and the pike would be attracted by this shining, spinning thing and go after it, grab it and then they were hooked. We’d then pull it out of the water, cook it and eat it.
‘Babbing’ in the river:
We used to go babbing in the river on a big rubber dinghy. You would get worms and sew and tie them all together. Then you’d drop them in the river until they sunk to the bottom. The eels used to suck onto the worms and you’d pull them up. You’d bring two/three, or maybe just one eel into the rubber dinghy, shake it and it would fall off. We used to cook these. I can’t honestly say I was too fond of eating eels, but that was all so much of an adventure…
The 1953 floods:
When we had the floods in 1953, I was in bed one morning and my mum came into my bedroom and she said ‘son come and have a look at this’. She rolled my blind up and I looked down towards Berney Arms and I could see the sea round the edge of Reedham Church. Unbelievable. The whole of the marshes was covered in water and on the high bits, the cows were all up in the gateways trying to get out of the water. It wasn’t deep; I mean it was only about 2ft deep, but it was an incredible sight.
That finished the dykes off and I think all the fish were killed. It never did recover after that and you no longer had the people working on the marshes.
The mill dykes:
The mill dykes were 6ft to 8ft wide and you could row a rubber dinghy down them. We cut a door off one of the derelict mills and made it into a raft and we used to float down the mill dykes on this, which was probably a silly thing to do, but we did it…
When the mills were running, that’s where the water was pumped in and out. They were pumped out from the mill dykes and all the other little dykes used to feed into the mill dykes. The normal dykes were about 3ft wide, but the mill dykes were 6ft or 8ft wide and it was like an artery of water and used to pump the water into the river, or vice versa.
When the mill was working, there was a tunnel underneath, which used to go into the river. If you looked down there, you could see half of it was full of water and the other half was just curved and that’s how they controlled the water. The water was pumped from the river into the dykes, or vice versa, by the water pump on the side of the mill. You could rotate the mill top to speed the mill up, or slow it down, or stop it. Then that was replaced by the diesel pump house, which had a big concrete square outside that was about 4ft deep. We used to go swimming in there and that was like the reservoir to prime the pumps.
Singsongs at The Ship and The Nelson, Reedham:
My mum used to play the piano and my dad used to play the mandolin-banjo down at The Ship, or The Nelson, on a Saturday night. Occasionally somebody with a violin, or some other sort of instrument would join in.
I can remember when Eddie Calvert came on the scene, who was my hero, so I decided to learn the trumpet. Then when Lonnie Donegan came along with skiffle, I decided I’d had enough of the trumpet, so I took up the guitar instead and also played at these two pubs.
People from the boats used to come in and have a drink, sing songs and dance and there would probably be 40/50 and we all used to have incredible times.
“The River Yare Commissioner’:
Mum and dad got very friendly with Jack Hunt, who lived next door to The Nelson. He was a river inspector and he had a boat, which was the River Yare Y90, and on the back was a big flag, which read ‘The River Yare Commissioner’. He used to come in the pub when mum and dad were playing and Jack said to my mum one day ‘would your boy like to come out on my boat?’ I grabbed the chance and he gave me my ongoing interest in boats…
He was in charge of the river. He checked on the boats in the summertime when the holidaymakers came down, making sure they drove safely and that there were no accidents. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for anybody that drowned in the river and had to dredge the river and bring the bodies up, which wasn’t a nice job, but that was part of his duties. All the time we lived there, there was only two or three people drowned, but my cousin was playing with his toy boat on a bit of string apparently and was leaning over the edge of the quay. He obviously toppled in and Jack Hunt found him and pulled him from the river.
We used to call them river policemen, but his proper title was River Commissioner and his area was from Berney Arms to Brundall. There was another person that covered the area from Brundall to Norwich. His boat used to be tied up underneath the swing bridge over the railway line. We used to go across this bridge to get to his boat. Leaving Reedham, just round the corner before you went up towards Berney Arms, there was Dewhurst Quay, which was where the local GP lived. I used to have to hide up in the boat until we got past this quay and then he’d let me drive his boat down to Berney Arms. We used to tie up at the Berney Arms pub and Jack used to go in there for a beer and I used to go walking down the river wall onto Breydon Water and just look round there and watch the birds.
The Wherry Albion:
One of the skippers of The Albion was a chap called Denny, he lived in Reedham and knew mum and dad. He let me go on The Albion and we sailed up from Reedham to Berney Arms…
It was a very large sailing barge, known as a wherry. The hold would be filled with various goods, for example, sugar beet, cattle feed, in fact, anything you wanted to take to Yarmouth, Norwich, or Berney Arms. It had one mast and a great black sail and it was just incredible. I loved the boats and one of my hobbies in the summertime was to go down to the riverside and collect the boat numbers. Some people would keep train numbers; I used to collect boat numbers…
There were reedcutters in those days and reed was another item the The Albion carried. They used to tie the reed up in big bundles to do the thatching and they used to cut the reeds all the way down from Reedham right down to Berney Arms. A lot of houses were thatched and they may even have sold it abroad, but there was certainly a big business in reed cutting.
The first tractor in Reedham and harvest time:
Bertie Dawson was a farmer in Reedham and my mum used to cook for him. There was an elderly lady, who lived with them and nuns used to come down from a Roman Catholic church at Yarmouth and look after her, as she was bedridden. She was a nice old lady and I used to go and sit and talk to her. Bertie had the biggest farm in Reedham and he was the first farmer to have a tractor. All the village went down there to see this tractor…
He had three or four people who used to work with him and they had horse and carts. When they used to plough the field, or load the horse and carts up with sugar beet, or turnips, or whatever it was on the back, they used to let me sit on the back of the horse and cart and I used to pretend I was driving it…
At harvest time, we had the old sail binders, which were originally pulled round by horses, and they had a sail on the side. They flattened the corn to enable it to go through the cutter. They used to go around in a big circle and, as the field got smaller, the whole village used to stand round the outside with dogs, sticks and guns and then when wild rabbits eventually ran out with nowhere else to go, they caught them and then we would have rabbit pie for days afterwards…
There were only two or three little local shops, but a lot of people grew their own vegetables, caught rabbits, shot partridges, pigeons, or whatever else was going and they lived off the land.
The ‘Thunder Box’ and the ‘Night Soil Man’:
We didn’t have conventional toilets when we first moved to Reedham, but we had a shed in the garden, which we used to call a ‘thunder box’. Inside was a wooden seat with a big hole for the grownups and there was another with a little hole for the children and you had a pail underneath.
Then on a Friday night, a man known as Hilton would bring this big horse round with a big metal cart behind, a big square box, and they used to tip all the night soil in the back of that take it down onto the allotments…
Running water and other utilities now taken for granted:
There was no piped water in the village. At the bottom of the garden at Brick Kiln was where they dug the clay out to build bricks and next door, where Keith Sales lives now, there was a sandpit. Down a slight slope there was a well, which was 10ft to 15ft deep. You had a bucket on a long piece of rope, which was used to bring the water up. The water was then tipped into another bucket and brought into the kitchen. This was stored under the sink in a porcelain pail, with a lid on the top. This was the drinking water, which was ice cold and lovely…
We used to have a galvanised bath, which you had to fill with a pail. My mum used to have an electric copper, in which she boiled the water for the bath. My sister would have a bath first, then my brother, then I would have one… So by the time I got in there, that was cooled down quite a bit, but that’s what you did.
They put in sewage and a water supply in Reedham when I was still a youngish lad. A company called Briggs Wall installed a water main and then suddenly we had taps and baths, which was incredible.
I think most houses had electricity, but it was very primitive. You tended to have one plug in the kitchen and you had a light in each room, but when I was very young, a lot of people still used candles.
We had a little narrow kitchen with just a big sink in it, a pail, a table and an electric cooker. ln the front room we had a big black stove. You had a coal fire, or wood fire, one side and then next to that was an oven with a grill on top, so you could cook on it. Before we had a very basic electric cooker put in we cooked on the fire, as did many people in the village.
Many people used to go out and gather wood, to save money basically, but there was also a coalman come round delivering coal, or coke.
Several people had paraffin stoves to heat the house with and paraffin cookers. My school friend Keith, his mum was bedridden, and in his kitchen there were paraffin heaters and a paraffin stove and so they did everything by paraffin. The Co-Op had a big tank outside and I remember you could go round there and get a gallon of paraffin for 10p.
At the top of Mill Road, where I lived, over the railway bridge there was a telephone box, which is still there, but derelict. Nobody had a telephone though, except for the doctor, as far as I know.
Church Road allotments, prize potatoes and water radish:
There was a massive field on Church Road, which consisted wholly of allotments and nearly every household in the village had one and grew all their potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and all the rest of it. Dad had the last allotment and that’s where Hilton spread all the sewage and the joke was that his potatoes were the biggest in Reedham, but nobody would eat them…
At the bottom of the allotments there was a dyke and there used to be a plant growing there called water radish and they used to take it around and sell it to the people on the boats. When I went down Berney Arms one of the things I learned, which probably I shouldn’t have done, but I did, was how to fire rifles. There was a Ray Parrot, who went out with the girl Mace, who he later married, and he taught me how to fire a gun. I fired a 410, a 12 bore and a pump gun, that for an 11/12/13 year old boy was really something, but you did those things then…
Getting out and about:
There were only a few cars in the village at that time. Humphrey’s next door to the railways station ran a taxi service, picking up people from the train and taking them to their houses, or whatever. A local vicar had a very old one with like a canvas roof over the top, which was quite a novelty. The policeman, Mr Flint, had a car. The school master and also the doctor had them, but that was about it.
Everybody else were either on bikes, or the odd one or two had horse and traps, or you walked, and that was it. There were no buses, so if you went out of the village, you went down to the station and you got on a train and you went to Yarmouth, or Lowestoft, or you went to Norwich. If you went to Norwich, you got off at the station there and you had a massive walk up to the marketplace, but you did it, because everybody just did it.
Charabanc trips, carnivals and whist drives:
On special occasions, once or twice a year, they would organise a bus, which they used to call a ‘charabanc’, and they’d all go off to Gorleston, or somewhere, and have a day out, or have a day on the pier, or Pleasure Beach, at Yarmouth, something like that. We also used to go to the circus at Yarmouth. I can remember doing that and really enjoying it.
In the summertime we used to have a carnival on the village green and everybody in the village was there. There would be marquee tents and big tables you’d sit round and have tea, coffee, cakes and so on. All the children used to be in fancy dress.
Then in the evenings, they used to have whist drives in the village hall and mum and dad used to go, in fact, the whole village would. They also held a concert party in the village once a year and I used to go and get involved with that. There was also Boys Brigade, Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies.
Boatbuilding and the tourist trade:
There were two boatyards in Reedham called Pearson and Sanderson, where mainly holiday boats were built. Down at the riverside there was a massive shed, where The Albion was built. This was later used as a mushroom factory. In the holiday season, there were boats two deep and people used to go round with a basket on their arm, selling vegetables and whatever else they could.
There was a little shop down there, selling things like cups of tea and ice cream. Then, of course, you had the two pubs, plus you had the Top House and The Eagle, which was next door to the railway station. You also had The Ferry, by the ferry river crossing. In those days, five or six people worked on the railway, including porters and ticket office staff.
We had Pettitt’s in Reedham and a lot of people worked there in those days, in fact, my sister was there all her working life. They used to do what they called feathercraft; making flowers and so on out of feathers. They also did taxidermy.
Cantley Sugar Factory:
My father was a carpenter. He was what they called a ‘first fix carpenter’. When he first moved to Reedham, he worked with a local builder installing stairs and cupboards. He used to bike to work but when it got to a stage where it was too far for him, he applied for a job as a carpenter at Cantley sugar factory. This was the first sugar factory in the country built in 1912, which was originally the Anglo-Dutch Sugar Company.
When my dad went to work at the factory, one of the foremen was a Dutchman from the original Anglo-Dutch company. His nickname was ‘the farmer’s boy’, because he dressed like a farmer… I met him too, because when I started my apprenticeship as a trainee fitter, he was just retiring. They had a carpenter’s shop with three carpenters.
They had their own brick company and bricklayers and a painting gang, in fact, every trade you can think of.
My brother worked for the Eastern Electricity Company and when he went and did his National Service, they guaranteed him six months’ work when he came back. After he’d worked the six months though, they made him redundant but, fortunately, my dad got him a job at the factory.
I always remember when I first went along to Cantley, I went into the office in front of Frank West, who was the manager at the time, and I sat down there and I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to him, just to get my apprenticeship… He just said to me ‘you’re Bert’s boy aren’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘alright, well you can start on Monday’ and that was it…
I did a five year apprenticeship and I got day release, one day a week, to Norwich College. I had a motorbike then and I used to drive up to Norwich on it and go to the college. In the morning I’d be in the machine shop learning how to operate the machines, including turners and grinders, and then in the afternoon in the school rooms learning Maths, English, Science and so on. In the evening we’d be doing Technical Drawing.
One of the teachers was a chap from Lawrence & Scott’s and I got on very well with him. He taught me how to do Technical Drawing and I really enjoyed it. You’d do engineering drawing; you’d be drawing machinery notes and I had five years’ day release at Norwich College. I learned a lot and it certainly prepared me for my job at the factory.
I was a maintenance engineer. There were three shifts: A, B, C. rotating 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and 10pm – 6am. I was on A shift. There were three fitters, two electricians, a welder and a plumber and basically our job was to maintain the machinery. I was maintaining mechanical machinery. If a diesel pump went wrong, I fixed it. If an elevator went wrong, for example, I would see to the mechanical parts and an electrician would handle the electrical parts. You also had an instrument mechanic.
There were also people looking after the coal-driven boilers in the boiler house, which supplied the steam running the turbines, which produced the electricity to run the plant. The coal was delivered into the rail yard. The sugar beet came in by rail truck too, or lorry; originally even on horse and carts, also wherries.
The last year I was there they had what they called ‘a two hat’ system. [An electrician had a black hat, and an engineer a red one. ‘Two-hat’ meant multi-skilled.] The Engineering Department and the Electrical Department amalgamated and I had to become a mechanical/electrical engineer and the electricians had to become electrical/mechanical engineers, so we could all work across both areas. As my brother was an electrician, I have quite a good knowledge of this work, because I used to help him with some of his jobs. I learned how to wire up motors and lights, although I wasn’t allowed to work on high voltage cables.
I also did a course on boilers, so I could operate a coal boiler… I wasn’t terribly good at it, but that was okay, because you had more experienced workers overseeing you. There must have been at least 200 on a shift, but everybody knew each other, many of them also related, and worked together. It was like a family firm and everybody pulled together and that was good. Slowly though, unfortunately, as technology came in, employee numbers dropped.
During the sugar beet campaign, which was when they used to grow and cut the sugar beet, they would bring in a lot of casuals and double the crew and you worked round them. When the campaign was over, you’d strip out and overhaul all the machinery ready for the next year.
I worked at Cantley until I was 62, when I was offered voluntary redundancy, which I took. They did say to me though that I could go back in the campaigns and do oiling and greasing. So I used to go back for the duration of the campaigns, going round oiling and greasing the machines and so on, which I was quite happy to do. So working at Cantley was very good, they looked after me and gave me my pension.
A few miles west of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, rests a flat, windswept area of farmland that the B-road snakes across. One can easily miss the short stretch of narrow road that cuts across the older, crumbling concrete of class-A taxiways that once carried B-17 Flying Fortresses to the main northwest-southeast runway. If you stop and trudge out across the muddy public footpath which heads due west, you will come across patches of concrete, often covered in hay bales for the local livestock. It is an eerie scene, for one cannot help but picture the heavy bombers coming back from a mission deep over Germany, and in the strong winds that blow across those flat fields, one can almost hear the engines of the bombers. These flat fields with their small patches of runway and tarmac are all that remain of Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton, a Class A airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Eighth Air Force from 1942 through the end of the Second World War.
To this airfield came the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), with its famous “triangle-K” markings on the vertical stabilizers of the B-17s, which would operate from RAF Kimbolton until the end of the war. Four squadrons: the 524th, 525th, 526th and 527th Bombardment Squadrons comprised the 379th which flew its first combat mission on 19 May 1943. Focused on the war-making capabilities of Germany, the 379th flew raids on heavy industry, refineries, warehouses, submarine pens, airfields, marshalling yards and command and control centers across occupied Europe. They flew bombing missions against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Leipzig, against synthetic oil plants at Merseburg and Gelsenkirchen, against the chemical plants at Ludwigshaven and airfields from Occupied France to Berlin.
It was from Kimbolton that a certain B-17F Bomber – nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub” – took off on December 20, 1943 to target an FW-190 factory at Bremen, Germany. It was a cold, overcast winter day when 2nd Lt. Charles L. Brown took the controls; it was his first combat mission as an aircraft commander with the 379th Bomb Group.
The bombers began their 10-minute bomb run at 27,300ft with a temperature of minus 60 degrees. Flak was heavy and accurate as “Ye Olde Pub” was to find out. Even before they had dropped their payload under the instructions of “bombs away” Brown’s B-17 took hits that shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine, damaged number four, which frequently had to be throttled back to prevent over speeding and avoid damage to the controls. These initial hits forced Brown to drop out of formation with his fellow bombers and become a straggler. Almost immediately, the solitary, struggling B-17 came under a series of attacks from 12 to 15 German Bf-109s and FW-190s that lasted for more than 10 minutes.
In that time the number three engine was hit and oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems were damaged and the plane’s controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s 11 defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward-firing nose gun. The tail gunner was killed and all but one of the crew in the rear incapacitated by wounds or exposure to the frigid air. Charlie Brown took a bullet fragment in his right shoulder.
Charlie Brown figured out that the only chance of surviving this pitiful, unequal fight was to go on the offensive; each time a wave of attackers approached, he turned into them, trying to disrupt their aim with his remaining firepower. The last thing oxygen-starved Brown remembers was reversing a steep turn, becoming inverted and looking up at the ground! When he regained fill consciousness, the B-17 was miraculously level at less than 1,000 feet. Still partially dazed, Lieutenant Brown began a slow climb with only one engine at full power. With three seriously wounded on board, he rejected bailing out or a crash landing. The alternative was a thin chance of reaching the British mainland.
Whilst nursing the battered bomber towards England, Brown looked out of his right window and saw a German Bf-109 flying on his wing, so close that the pilot was looking him directly into the eyes and making big gestures with his hands that only scared Brown more. The German pilot was motioning Brown to land in Germany which the B-17 commander refused to do. His bombing mission targeting a German munitions factory had been a success, his B-17F bomber had been attacked by no fewer than 15 planes and so far had survived; now, Charlie Brown’s attempts to get home safely seemed doomed to failure. The Bf-109 and its pilot was between him, the remnants of his crew and his almost crippled plane and safety. It was at that moment when the German pilot decided not to shoot at his ‘enemy’ because he ‘fought by the rules of humanity’
Second Lt. Charles L. Brown (left). Oberleutnant Franz Stigler (right).
The pilot of the Bf-109 was Franz Stigler and he had remembered the words of his commanding officer, Lt Gustav Roedel. “Honour is everything here,” he had told a young Stigler before his first mission, adding: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.” Stigler’s moral compass was more powerful than his need for glory. “For me, Shooting down that B-17 would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn’t do it,” Stigler was to say later.
The New York Post detailed Brown’s ensuing 40-year struggle to come to terms with why that German pilot decided to go against orders and spare the Americans – allowing him to fly and land his battered plane safely and go on to live a happy and full life after the war. The pilot in question was, as we now know, Franz Stigler, a 26-year-old ace who had 22 victories to his name. Earlier that day, he had downed two 4-engine bombers and needed only one more to be awarded the Knight’s Cross. But on that day, as his Bf-109 closed in on the US plane he had to consider the consequences for not finishing off an enemy plane – a court martial and certain execution. But, he sensed something was wrong – the enemy plane was not engaging with him; in fact, unbeknown even to Brown, the plane had lost it’s tail-gun compartment and one wing was badly damaged. As Stigler drew closer he saw the gunner covered in blood, and how part of the plane’s outside had been ripped off. And he saw the wounded, terrified US airmen inside, trying to help one another tend to their injuries. However, he was still fearful that with other German guns likely to come into view at any time and he needed to make a quick decision. Stigler ended up, not shoot the B-17 down but escorting it for several miles out over the North Sea, still fearing that if he was seen flying so close to the enemy without engaging, he would be accused – and doubtless found guilty – of treason. But, as he flew in formation with the B-17 “….the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying……I thought, I cannot kill these half-dead people. It would be like shooting at a parachute”. Meanwhile, the B-17 crew had begun to train their guns on Stigler’s Bf-109.
Without further ado, the German pilot saluted his counterpart, motioned for him to fly away from German territory and pulled away. The moment had been fleeting and it would take many years before answers to so many questions would be answered. The only thing that was known that day was that following the disappearance of the Bf-109 into the clouds, the B-17 did make it acrross the 250 miles of storm-tossed North Sea and landed at Seething near the coast of Norfolk, the home of the USAAF 448th Bomb Broup which had not yet flown its first mission.
The crew was debriefed on their mission, including the strange encounter with the Bf-109. For unknown reasons, the debriefing was classified as “Secret” and was to remain so for many years, Lieutenant Brown went on to complete a combat tour, finish college, accept a regular commission, serve in the Office of the Special Investigations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Air Force and State Departments until his retirement. Throughout all that time and into retirement, the image of his strange encounter with that German Bf-109 remained firmly embedded in Charlie Brown’s mind and in 1986, more than 40 years after the incident, Brown – who was still traumatised by the events of that fateful day – began searching for the man who saved his life even though he had no idea whether his saviour was alive, let alone where the man in question was living.
In 1990 Brown bought an ad in a newsletter aimed at former German fighter pilots, saying only that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ The former Oberleutnant Franz Stigler saw the ad. in his new hometown of Vancouver, Canada – where he had moved after the war, unable ever to feel at home in Germany. By comparing time, place and aircraft markings, it was established that Stigler was the chivalrous pilot who had allowed Brown and his crew to live. Charlie and Franz got in touch. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” Brown said at the pair’s first meeting. Stigler revealed how he had been trying to escort the B-17 to safety and had pulled away when he feared he had come under fire. He told Brown that his hand gestures were an attempt to tell him to fly to Sweden.
Franz Stigler’s act of chivalry was justly, though belatedly, honoured by several military organisations in the US of A and elsewhere. On the other hand,Charles Brown was not decorated for his heroism that fateful day over Germany, for no other reason than the fact that the 448th Bomb Group at Seething, Norfolk never reported the incident – such was the secrecy perhaps! However, in 2007, Charlie submitted a request to the American Air Force for the ‘Silver Star Medal’ to be awarded to his nine former crew members of “Ye Olde Pub” for their part in the mission over Bremen, Germany on December 20, 1943. The citations were awarded in early 2008 and Charlie received the ‘Air Force Cross’ for his part as commander of that B-17. No other former WW2 aircrew has this distinction.
Their story, told in the book A Higher Call, ended in 2008 when the two men died within six months of one another, Franz Stigler in March, aged 92 and Charlie Brown in November, aged 87. In their obituaries, each was mentioned as the other’s ‘special brother’.
All that remains of the former runway from which Charlie Brown took off.