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.
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.
Taken from WILLIAM A. DUTT’s book ‘Norfolk’, Edited by George A. B. Dewar and published by J. M. Dent & Co. Aldine House, Bedford Street, London W.C (circa 1906).