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The Broadland


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"A country of green meadows and slow lowland streams, where a man may lie beside a tuft of willows and dream marvellously." These words of the author of " Scholar- Gipsies " were written to describe a district not far from the banks of the Tweed, but they may fitly be applied to the Norfolk Broadland. For the Broadland is a "country of green meadows "; its rivers are the laziest of lowland streams; and one of its chief charms is that it is a place where a man may "dream marvellously."

To do anything like justice to the beauty of Broadland is no easy task, even though, as in my own case, one has been familiar with the district's rivers, broads, and marshes from his earliest days. At best, I can only hope to convey vague impressions, for much of the charm and loveliness of Broadland scenery is indefinable and indescribable. Yet by relating some of my own impressions of the district I may be able to give some idea of its character and inhabitants.

As I have said, from my earliest years I have spent the greater part of my days in Broadland. From the window of the house in which I was born I could watch the herons and lapwings on the water-meadows, the marshmen at their dyke-drawing and eel-fishing, and the glorious sunsets which the river reflected ere white mists rose and covered water and meadow with a drifting fleecy pall. As a schoolboy I spent my holidays in rowing a crazy old boat on the Waveney, seeking the nests of the river warblers in the reed beds, or skating over wide stretches of flooded and frozen marsh. Since then I have devoted many days and nights to exploring the quiet nooks and corners, reed-girt lagoons, and winding rivers; accompanying the water-bailiff on his nightly rounds, the eel-catcher to his setts and babbing, and the marshmen to the haunts of the redshanks and moor-hens. With field-glass rather than gun I have sought and followed the birds of the marshes, the sedge warblers of the riversides, the reed warblers of the broads, the grasshopper warblers of the lush meadow- lands. Night has come upon me as I sat in the small cabin of some fisherman's house-boat, watching the bream- bubbles rise from the bed of a creek, and listening to the harsh crowing of cock pheasants in the grass, the rustling of the rats in the hovers, the calling of the curlews, and the twittering and trilling of the reed birds. Dawn has found me among the ooze flats of the tidal waters, where the waders come to feed at the fall of the tide. In summer I have gathered wild orchids, bog-beans, and sundews in marshes where they were rooted in golden bog-mosses, and half hidden by luxuriant swamp grasses, while all around me brilliant-hued dragon-flies have been darting, and " five spotted burnets " hovering in the sunlight. From dawn till dusk of summer days, birds, butterflies, and flowers have been my only companions, and from dusk till dawn the only voices I have heard have been the wild-life voices of the lowland meadows and streams. And in winter, when clouds of starlings darken the already lowering, snow- laden sky, when flocks of plovers settle on the marshes, and many strange bird-voices are heard among the familiar ones of river and fen, the fascination of the Broadland has been so great that not all the biting winds and threatened storms have been enough to keep me from the shores of the broads and rivers.

There are people who will not admit that marshland scenery has either charm or beauty. They cannot understand how Borrow was able to " draw more poetry from a widespreading marsh with its straggling rushes than from the most beautiful scenery, and would stand and look at it with rapture"; nor can they appreciate the feelings of Charles Kingsley when he wrote of the fens: " They have a beauty as of the sea, of boundless expanse and freedom," and who also said: " Overhead the arch of heaven spread more ample than elsewhere, as over the sea; and that vastness gave, and still gives, such cloudlands, such sunrises, such sunsets, as can be seen nowhere else within these isles." But it is a mistake to look upon the Broadland as simply a vast level expanse with

"Low belts of rushes, ragged with the blast,
Lagoons of marish reddening with the west";
or as a land consisting wholly
"Of water-reeds with plumy heads.
Straight roads with dykes on either hand,
And miles on miles of pasture land."

There is plenty of this kind of scenery, and close acquaintance with it reveals much that makes it far from monotonous and lonesome; but there are also wood-girt broads in which trees are mirrored; quaint old-world villages with thatch-roofed churches and cottages straggling along the banks of the streams; upper reaches where the rivers wind around the borders of gorsey heathlands and below bosky hangers, and flow beneath the bridges and by the gardens of sleepy red-roofed towns; and meres, the waters of which remain almost undisturbed while little more than a ridge of sandhills divides them from the roaring surf-white sea. On the borders of the marshes, too, and often with their roots washed by the Broadland streams, are woods and copses where squirrels gambol, wood doves croon, sparrow-hawks nest, jays screech, woodpeckers yike, and the willow warblers come as soon as they arrive on our shores. Here, in the clearings, the woodmen work in their brushwood huts, making hurdles for the farmer and hoops for the cooper, plying their " hooks " upon the ash and hazel wands to the music of the woodland birds.

All day long, while cruising in Broadland, you glide through a succession of reposeful scenes, more than delightful to you if you have just left thronged city streets or abandoned the strenuous pleasure-seeking of some fashionable resort; and when night approaches, and your yacht is anchored on some placid broad or moored by some reedy creek, you are seldom anxious to retire to your cabin and leave the rivers to the leaping fish, the marshes to the night-hawking churn-owl, the riverside to the bream- catching otter, and the dykesides to the rustling voles and fluttering moths. You are more likely to cast loose your dingy and row up some quiet creek, where the reeds whisper stories which in the daytime were left untold; or to step ashore and stroll along the " wall," or across the marshes, in the moonlight Then you feel a sense of kinship with the sedge warblers chuckling in the reeds, the pheasants crowing in the grass, the hares leaping from their forms in the dry ronds, and the restless water-fowl of the riverside. The fluctuations of the money market are forgotten while you interest yourself in the fortunes of some eel-catcher babbing with a bunch of worsted- threaded worms; the cries of some bird whose nest has been raided by a prowling stoat, has more immediate appeal to you than the death-throes of an expiring nation; and you feel no inclination to seek your cabin even when the "dream draperies" of mist spread a white coverlet over land and water. The Broadland nights are more beautiful than the Broadland days.

I have referred to the bird-life of this bird-haunted district of the most " ornithologically favoured " county in England. It will not be out of place if I draw attention to the Broadland wild flowers.

Many of the Norfolk marshes, and especially those known as "rush marshes" - a name which indicates that they are not wholly reclaimed from their original swampiness - are veritable wild flower gardens. In them grow not only marsh, spotted, and green-winged orchises, but lovely marsh helleborines, the beautiful pink-belled bog- bean, the delicate bog pimpernel, the downy-leaved marsh St John's-wort, and the scarce marsh pea. Tall willow- herbs, cat valerians, and purple loosestrifes deck the riversides and dykesides; moneywort trails around the borders of the alder carrs; and marsh cinquefoil and red rattle grow amid the fragrant marsh hay. In the dykes which intersect the water-meadows many flowers are to be found which have scarcely any other habitat in England, now that the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire have been transformed into dry pastures and fruitful cornfields. Many kinds of water crowfoot deck the surface of the dykes with snow-white blossoms, frogbits display their three-petalled flowers and kidney-shaped leaves, water violets send up their whorled flower-spikes, and the greater spearwort blooms amid the reeds and sedges. The curious water-soldier (Stratiotes aloides) almost chokes up some of the dykes in summer, when its aloe-like leaf-clusters rise from the oozy dyke-beds; bladderworts display their yellow snapdragon-shaped blossoms, borne up on buoyant insect-catching vesicles; aromatic sweet sedge in places overpowers the fragrance of the meadow-sweet; and here and there, in localities not to be indicated, but which the botanist may discover in his rambles, grows that rare old fenland plant the marsh sowthistle (Sonchus palustris). These are only a few of the hundreds of wild flowers which delight your eye in Broadland - a district richer in native floral life than any other in England.

During the days and nights I have spent among the marshes, homesteads, and waterways of the Broadland, I have made many friends - such friends as no lover or student of wild-life could fail to appreciate. For they are men who have spent their lives on the rivers and marshes, gaining a livelihood by the use of net, eel-spear, and gun. Everyone of them is a naturalist - a naturalist who has learnt what he knows from nature instead of books. Unfortunately, they belong to a vanishing race. Acts for the preservation of fish and protection of wild birds - necessary acts, as even the men themselves admit - have compelled them to resort to other means of gaining a living than were once sufficient for them. Still, they have not yet wholly disappeared, and here and there you may meet with one of them. To realise the kind of life they led in the 44 pre-protection" days, you cannot do better than turn to the pages of a book published in 1848 by the Rev. Richard Lubbock, and entitled " Observations on the Fauna of Norfolk." Here is found a graphic description of one of the old-time broadsmen. It is somewhat lengthy, but worth reproducing. Mr Lubbock writes: -

"When I first visited the broads I found here and there an occupant squatted, down, as the Americans would call it, on the verge of a pool, who relied almost entirely on shooting and fishing for the support of his wife and family, and lived in a truly primitive manner. I particularly remember one hero of this description. 'Our broad,' as he always called the extensive pool by which his cottage stood, was his microcosm - his world; the islands in it were his Gardens of the Hesperides - its opposite extremity his Ultima Thule. Wherever his thoughts wandered, they could not get beyond the circle of his beloved lake; indeed, I never knew them aberrant but once, when he informed me, with a doubting air, that he had sent his wife and his two eldest children to a fair at a country village two miles off, that their ideas might expand by travel: as he sagely observed, they had never been away from 4 our broad.' I went into his house at the dinner hour, and found the whole party going to fall to most thankfully upon a roasted herring gull, killed, of course, on 4 our broad.' His life presented no vicissitudes but an alternation of marsh employment. In winter, after his day's reed - cutting, he might be regularly found posted at nightfall, waiting for the flight of fowl, or paddling after them on the open water. With the first warm days of February he launched his fleet of trimmers, pike finding a ready sale at his own door to those who bought them to sell again in the Norwich market. As soon as the pike had spawned and were out of season, the eels began to occupy his attention, and lapwings' eggs to be diligently sought for. In the end of April, the island in his watery domain was frequently visited for the sake of shooting the ruffs which resorted thither on their first arrival. As the days grew longer and hotter, he might be found searching, in some smaller pools near his house, for the shoals of tench as they commenced spawning. Yet a little longer and he began marsh-mowing, his gun always laid ready upon his coat, in case flappers should be met with. By the middle of August teal came to a wet corner near his cottage, snipes began to arrive, and he was often called upon to exercise his vocal powers on the curlews that passed to and fro. By the end of September good snipe shooting was generally to be met with in his neighbourhood; and his accurate knowledge of the marshes, his unassuming good humour, and zeal in providing sport for those who employed him, made him very much sought after as a sporting guide by snipe shots and fishermen; and his knowledge of the habits of different birds enabled him to give useful information to those who collected them."

One of the few men to whom the above description might very well apply is Fuller, the old broadsman who spends the greater part of the year in his little house-boat on Rockland Broad. He it is of whom Mr Christopher Davies has written in his Norfolk Broads and Rivers. He still leads the life of an old-time water-gipsy, and the man is not living who possesses a sufficiently persuasive tongue to cause him to abandon it. The men whom you come most in contact with, however, are the wherrymen, who are far more numerous than gunners or eel-catchers. They are no summer-season voyagers, much in evidence when the sun shines, but lost sight of as soon as stormy weather sets in. All through the year their large-sailed wherries, painted in barbaric brilliant hues, cruise up and down the rivers, between the ports and the inland towns. Up streams which seem scarcely navigable to a four-ton yacht they make their way, either gliding steadily before the breeze or pushed forward by the men on board with their long quants; and at times their sails brush the feathery reed tops and their hulls are dusted with the pollen of the riverside wild flowers. To the yachtsman who encounters the wherryman on a sunny summer day, when the ronds are full of coots and moor-hens and the warblers sing incessantly in the reed beds, it may seem that his life is an enviable one; but the yachtsman does not see him in winter, when the warblers are gone, the reed plumes toss wildly in the wind, and a dun sky lowers upon the lowlands. Then icy blasts, against which even the strong-winged herons fight in vain, sweep across the marshes, numbing the wherryman to the bones and freezing his breath upon his beard. But so long as the rivers are "open" he keeps on quanting and sailing; and it is only when keen night-frosts have fettered the inland waters, and he can no longer break his way up or down the rivers or across the broads, that he gets a holiday. Then, leaving his wherry ice-bound at some staithe or marshside mooring, he idles for a while, or dons his " pattens " and skates upon the frozen meres.

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