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Up the Bure to Acle, Wroxham, and Aylsham

Through the marshes - Eels and Eel-catching - Filby, Rollesby, and Ormesby Broads - Acle - Thurne Mouth - St Benet's Abbey - South Walsham Broad - Ranworth Church and Rood Screen - Horning Ferry - Woodbastwick, Hoveton Great, Hoveton Little, and Salhouse Broads - Wroxham Broad - Aylsham.
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The Yare is deservedly famous for the delightful scenery of its upper waters, but the voyager who confines his cruising to the Yare cannot claim to be acquainted with the Norfolk Broads. For there are only two broads - Rockland and Surlingham - connected with that river, and they are by no means remarkable for size or beauty. Rockland Broad, it is true, is fairly extensive, but is so surrounded and overgrown with reeds that it is often difficult to tell where land ends and water begins. The Bure is the chief Broadland river, for connected with it and its tributaries are the principal Norfolk broads.

The Bure discharges its waters into Breydon a little way above Yarmouth Haven Bridge, so, as you have arrived at Yarmouth by way of the Yare and Breydon, you are in a position to start at once on your cruise. You - or the men whom you have engaged to navigate your craft - will undoubtedly be glad when the mast-lowering and quanting manoeuvres, rendered necessary by a passage under the two fixed bridges which span the mouth of the Bure, are over, and you can with comfort commence your inland voyage. For several miles your progress will be through a flat marshland district, possessing few features of interest undescribed in the foregoing pages. Here and there, however, you will see one or more of the curious little arks or houseboats which the eel-catchers make their headquarters at certain seasons of the year, when the eels are "running," and large enough quantities of them may be caught to repay the men for spreading their setts across the river. So to pass away some of the time which must be spent in sailing through the monotonous marshlands, I will give a brief account of the methods of the Broadland eel-catchers.

In the first place it must be understood that during certain months of the year, more especially in the autumn, the eels come down the rivers in large shoals. Until recently this phenomenon, though familiar to every broadsman and fisherman, was without satisfactory explanation; even now it is a matter of mystery to most of the dwellers among the meres and marshes. Naturalists, however, are now aware, mainly in consequence of the investigations of the indefatigable Dr Grassi, that the reproduction of the common eel (.Anguilla vulgaris) takes place in deep salt water (Mr T. Southwell, in some Further Notes on the Reproduction of the Common Eel, published by the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society, quotes from a paper by Dr Grassi (whose investigations were carried out in Italy) as follows: "To sum up, Anguilla vulgaris, the Common Eel, matures in the depths of the sea, where it acquires larger eyes than are ever observed in individuals which have not yet migrated to deep water.... The abysses of the sea are the spawning places of the Common Eel: its eggs float in the sea water. In developing from the egg it undergoes a metamorphosis, that is to say, it passes through a larval form denominated Leptocephalus brevirostris. What length of time this development requires is very difficult to establish. So far we have only the following data: First, Anguilla vulgaris migrates to the sea from the month of October to the month of January; second, the currents, such as those of Messina, throw up, from the abysses of the sea, specimens which, from the commencement of November to the end of July, are observed to be more advanced in development than at other times, but not yet arrived at total maturity; third, eggs, which according to every probability belong to the Common Eel, are found in the sea from the month of August to that of January inclusive; fourth, the Leptocephalus brevirostris abounds from February to September. As to other months, we are in some uncertainty because during them our only natural fisherman, the Orthagoriscus mola (in the intestine of which his chief supply of larvae was found), appears very rarely; fifth, I am inclined to believe that the elvers (young eels) ascending our rivers are already one year old, and I have observed that in an aquarium, specimens of Leptocephalus brevirostris can transform themselves into young elvers in one month's time."). This explains the annual " running," as it is called, of the eels down the rivers. The eel-catchers, who trouble themselves not at all about the reason for this periodical migration, take advantage of it by spreading across the rivers large nets known as " setts," attached to which are one or more hoop nets into which the eels, whose passage down-stream is barred by the network "barrier, find their way, and from which they cannot escape. These setts are used at night and when the tide is ebbing, for it is then only that the eels " run "; and the men who work them keep watch from the cabins of the little houseboats in order that they may be ready to lower the nets should a wherry or any other craft come by. Several stones of eels are often taken in a night by this means. Mr Christopher Davies mentions an occasion on which the catch amounted to a hundred-and-ten stones in one sett. This, however, was nearly fifty years ago, when, according to the eel-catchers, eels were more plentiful than they are now. More recently a fisherman living near Oulton Broad took seventy-four stones of eels in a net spread across a sluice connecting a small piece of water called Leathes Ham with Lake Lothing. Other methods of eel-catching are spearing ("picking") and "babbing." An eel-pick is usually a five-pronged spear fixed on to a long pole. The prongs or teeth of the spear are barbed and set close together, so that when it is driven into the mud any eel with which it comes in contact is caught between the teeth. Visitors in Broadland sometimes try their hands at eel-picking, and have been known to get a " ducking" through clinging to a spear stuck fast in the mud and letting their boat drift away from them. They also occasionally indulge in a night's "babbing " or " bobbing " for eels - a method practised by many marshmen and others with satisfactory results. To " bob" for eels all that is required is a bunch of worsted-threaded worms on the end of a line fastened to a pole. This bunch is lowered to the bottom of the river or dyke chosen as the scene of operations, and "bobbed" gently up and down. As soon as an eel seizes a worm its teeth become entangled with the worsted, and it can then be drawn up and deposited in a tub or any other receptacle the fisherman has handy. Babbers soon learn to detect the slight tug of an eel caught in the worsted.

Filby, Rollesby, and Ormesby Broads are connected with the Bure by a channel called the Muck Fleett the entrance to which is a little way above Stokesby Ferry, some ten miles from Yarmouth. As the channel is not navigable, yachtsmen who wish to visit the three broads usually moor at Runham Swim, about five miles from the river mouth, and walk to Filby, a distance of about three miles. The three broads are connected with each other and constitute a noted angling resort. The famous Eel's-foot Inn, where boats may be hired and permission to fish easily obtained, is generally patronised by visitors. Some description of the neighbourhood around the broads is contained in the opening pages of the chapter " By the Wild North Sea."

When about eight miles of the Bure are traversed a change becomes evident in the character of the scenery. Instead of the wearisome sameness of the marshes, you get glimpses of woods and hamlets, and at Stokesby of the first ferry on the river. Stokesby village abuts closely upon the Bure, and is a picturesque little place, though possessing no attractions, save its Ferry Inn, likely to tempt you ashore. It is about three miles from Acle Bridge, where most yachting parties who have started from Yarmouth in the morning are glad to moor for the night. I have referred to Acle in the road itinerary from Norwich to Yarmouth.

At Acle Bridge further mast-lowering is unavoidable, after which the course is as open as the narrowness of the river and the encountering of wherries and other craft will admit as far as Wroxham. About three miles above Acle is Thurne Mouth, where the river Thurne, which leads to Potter Heigham and Hickling Broad, flows into the Bure. Later on I shall again refer to this river; at present you may continue your cruise up the Bure. You soon arrive at one of the chief objects of antiquarian interest in the Broad- land. This is the ruins of St Benet's Abbey, seen close to the river on the right bank. To King Canute must be ascribed the honour of having founded the Abbey of St Benet's-at-Holm. This "greatest and most powerful monarch of his time," as the historian Hume calls him, having shed much human blood, found himself firmly seated on the English throne. He is then supposed to have realised the " unsatisfactory nature of human enjoyments" (more especially, I presume, those associated with the slaughtering of his enemies), and to have turned his attention to preparing for a future life. Much to Hume's regret, instead of compensating those whom he had injured, he devoted himself to " those exercises of piety which the monks represented as the most meritorious. He built churches, he enriched ecclesiastics, and he bestowed revenues for the support of chantries." While in this humour he endowed St Benet's Abbey. It stands on the site of an earlier monastery destroyed by the Danes in 870. So richly was it re-endowed and its privileges extended by Edmund the Confessor and other royalties that it was at one time the wealthiest monastic house in East Anglia. All the land which could be seen from its towers was presented to it by its royal patrons, and the abbey itself was one of the stateliest in England. It was very strongly built, and when besieged by William the Conqueror offered such stout resistance that his forces were of a mind to abandon the attack. It fell at last through the treachery of a monk who, on condition of his being made abbot, betrayed it into the hands of the besiegers. William redeemed his promise to the monk, but hanged him on the eve of his installation.

The abbots of St Benet had a comfortable residence in the adjoining hamlet of Ludham, where they could enjoy a change of air after the fogs and monotony of the marshes. Standing so near the river, fish were always plentiful at the Abbey on fast days, and the marshes provided abundant wild-fowl. When the abbots had courtly guests they were entertained with falconry. On the suppression of the monasteries, the abbot of St Benet was one of the twenty-eight monastic dignitaries who had a seat in Parliament, and the bishops of Norwich even now sit in the House of Lords by virtue of the title of Abbots of St Benet's-at-Holm. All that is left of the Abbey is a fine gateway, mixed up with the ruins of a windmill erected nearly two hundred years ago, one of the chapel walls, and a number of fragments.

A dyke not far from the Abbey, on the other side of the river, leads to South Walsham Broad. This is a picturesque little broad, with a staithe where you may land and visit the two South Walsham churches of St Mary and St Lawrence, which stand in the same churchyard. One, however, that of St Lawrence, is in ruins, owing to a destructive fire which occurred in 1827. There is some curious carving over the south porch door of St Mary's, representing the Trinity. Not far from St Benet's Abbey, on the north side of the Bure, is the mouth of the river Ant, a tortuous stream, navigable to fair-sized yachts as far as Ludham Bridge, but which you must explore in a smaller craft if you desire to see Barton and Stalham Broads. At present you may content yourself with sailing on to the dyke which leads into Ranworth Broad. This broad and its surroundings form a delightful and characteristic piece of Broadland scenery. In the background is Ranworth Church, famous among antiquaries for its splendid rood screen. In a report issued by the Society of Antiquaries it is stated that " The magnificent painted rood screen and reredoses to the nave altars form a composition which is unequalled by any now existing in a district famous for its screens. As a whole, it may be said that there is nothing of the sort remaining to equal it in England. East Anglia still contains a number of painted screens, some of much merit, in its churches, but for delicacy and richness of detail that of Ranworth is unsurpassed. The beautiful diapers on the robes of the saints and apostles painted on the panels, and the elaborate flower work which adds to and heightens the effect of the architectural features, make the whole composition suggestive of a great initial page of some splendidly illuminated manuscript. The screen has suffered little, if at all, from the restorer, and this can be said of few remains of painting in our churches." The screen here referred to is not the only object of interest in this fine old church. There are also a fifteenth century lectern, with the plain- song notation of a Latin chant upon it, some curiously carved stalls, a fifteenth century font, and a roller on the chancel wall by which the sanctuary lamp used to be raised and lowered.

Three and a half miles from the mouth of the Ant is Horning Ferry, another resort of boating folk and anglers. The village of Horning stands in the midst of a swampy district, though the church, which contains nothing in any way remarkable, occupies higher ground. The country around Horning is therefore subject to floods, and some parts of it are little better than fens. There are several broads in the neighbourhood, including Woodbastwick Broad, Hoveton Great Broad, Salhouse Broad, and Hoveton Little Broad. The last-named and Hoveton Great Broad are breeding - places of large numbers of black-headed gulls, while the whole district is famous for its bird-life. The scenery around this little cluster of broads is charming. There are innumerable delightful nooks where you may spend the whole of a summer day and not tire of watching the birds in the reeds and thickets, the play of light and shadow on the water, the rising of the fish, or of listening to the rustling of the reeds and the songs of the birds.

The finest of the numerous broads in this neighbourhood is Wroxham Broad, the entrance to which is about five miles from Horning. It is a splendid sheet of water, about a mile long and a hundred acres in extent; its shores are well wooded, its fishing excellent, and it affords a fine course for rowing and sailing matches. A charge of half-a-crown is, it is true, made to anglers; but as its waters, in spite of their being private property, are open to all who care to sail upon them, this has the effect of protecting and preserving the fishing. To visit Wroxham on regatta day, when it is covered with rowing boats, yachts, house-boats, steam and electric launches, is to enjoy a scene of surpassing interest. Writing of this broad, Mr Davies says: " On its western margin there are wooded glades quivering with sunlight and shadow, green park-land and fruitful fields, cattle standing knee-deep in shallow bays under the shade of ancient trees, and all the accompaniments of quiet rural English scenery. On the eastern side there are reed beds, low coppices, rank and tangled vegetation, and spacious marsh and lake and river, with always a warm flush of colour. The freshness of the spring is doubled by the reflection in the still water; the glow of summer is mellowed by the quivering haze from the broad; the glories of autumn gather intensity from their mixture in the palette of the lake; and the pale yellow of the dying reeds is in the brief sunshine of winter brightened into gold. In all its aspects the broad has a charm which is irresistible, but greatest, we think, when the silence of the night enfolds it; when the stars shine below and above, and the noises of the night, of bird and fish, alone break the stillness. It has not the eerie loneliness of the wilder broads, but a soft, restful quiet which is a sure medicine for a restless mind."

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