A tranquil boat-trip on the Norfolk Broads is a real tonic. Just don’t break the speed limit. Ben West reports

Boasting wonderfully scenic waterways inhabited by rare wildlife, the Norfolk Broads are a jewel in eastern England’s crown. A national park stretching into Suffolk, they are the UK’s largest protected wetland and third largest inland waterway.

Norfolk Broads boat mooring

Yachts moored near Horsey Mill © Alamy

Chartering a boat here initially seemed daunting. I’d previously tried canal boating and found the endless locks and manoeuvring more than a little trying. Luckily, Herbert Woods, which has been in the boating business on the Broads since the 1920s, offers boating holidays along mile after mile of lock-free, navigable inland rivers and shallow lakes – perfect for those with little or no experience. Their fleet of more than 130 modern cruisers are available from just £378 a week sleeping three, with short breaks also available.

At 10.6m long (that’s about 35ft feet in old money), our vessel looked, to me, pretty mighty to commandeer. Inside, the mod cons included hot and cold water, a bathroom, heating, a fridge, TV, DVD/CD players, radio, cooker and microwave.

Once I’d explored the boat, and studied the enticing selection of suggested itineraries, I looked out at the blanket of stars and, believing that controlling this massive vessel would be impossible, wondered how I could get out of sailing the boat the following day. A glimpse at the 80-page skipper’s manual and the mystifying controls deepened my fears.

Next morning, however, handover man Steve Thrower provided a comprehensive run-through and trial run of the boat. The process takes an hour or two – however long it takes you to feel confident to take the boat out alone. He showed me how to fill up with diesel and water, how to use the mud weight for anchoring, and all the other larger and smaller things I needed to know to feel happy taking the helm.

Oh-so simple

Meander on Norfolk Broads

Meander on Norfolk Broads © Alamy

Manoeuvring the boat, despite its size, was surprisingly easy, and I felt relaxed controlling it after just a few minutes. Most of the time you’re simply steering while moving the gear lever forward to go forward and backwards to reverse. My Norfolk Broads boat featured a bow thruster, giving further control and helping in trickier mooring situations.

Steve didn’t accompany me for long, but he was a great companion: very knowledgeable about the area and its wildlife and a conscientious guardian of the boat. When he felt confident that I’d learnt enough, I was let loose on the 125 miles of navigable waterways.

Boating on the Norfolk Broads is so laid-back, but go any faster than 6mph and you could be fined. This is because faster speeds can exacerbate erosion of the banks and disrupt wildlife. The Broads Authority boats governing the waters passed by on a few occasions, checking to see that all boats observed the speed limit.

Pick your route

Historic yachts on Norfolk Broads

Historic yachts on Norfolk Broads © Alamy

The six rivers of the Broads are dotted with a plentiful selection of attractive market towns and villages, appealing country pubs, pretty rural walks, and an ever-changing landscape that includes fen, carr (swampy) woodland and grazing marshes. The waterways are man-made, created by peat digging, and written evidence of this dates back to the 12th century.

There’s an alluring choice of routes. A popular one is from Herbert Woods’ headquarters at Potter Heigham to Norwich and back. However, do this in a weekend and you’ll be travelling much of the time as it takes around eight hours each way.

I took a shorter, more sedate route, from Potter Heigham towards Wroxham, along the River Thurne and River Bure, an ever-twisting trail with plenty of broads, dykes and inlets shooting off in all directions to explore.

I passed numerous compact timber holiday cottages, with people relaxing, reading, fishing, or simply watching the world slowly go by in their neat, petite gardens. On the open waterways, tall reeds grewon either side, with hardly a building in sight.

Meeting the locals

Swans on Norfolk Broads

Swans on Norfolk Broads © iStock

Renowned for their biodiversity, the Broads are home to more than a quarter of the rarest wildlife in the UK. The many birds I saw included Canada and greylag geese, ducks, swans, coots and moorhens. Teal, wigeon, reed and sedge warblers, kingfishers, marsh harriers and bitterns are also a regular sight. Additionally, there are around 225 invertebrates, including dragonfly and Britain’s largest butterfly, the swallowtail. Otters, harvest mice and water shrews also populate the area.

A turn down Womack Water, past traditional wooden yachts moored at Hunter’s Yard, revealed the pleasant waterside village of Ludham, which has a pub and tea-rooms. There’s a great choice of stops like these on the Broads: always a pub, shop or cafe nearby to visit.

The route passed extensive marshland and several nature reserves and was punctuated by many pretty sights: two old windmills at Thurne Dyke, the ruins of ninth-century Benedictine monastery St Benet’s Abbey, and St Benedict church at Horning.

Horning is a good stopover, having many attractive waterside properties, cafes and tea-rooms, and boat-trips, including a distinctive Mississippi-style cruise boat, the Southern Comfort. Indeed, Horning is a perfect spot for a drink in the sunshine at one of its three pubs, to reflect on what bliss it is to drift effortlessly along the Broads for a few days without a care in the world.

*For holidays on the Broads, contact Herbert Woods (0800 144 4472; herbertwoods.co.uk). For more info, visit enjoythebroads.com, or contact the Broads Authority (01603 610 734; www.broads–authority.gov.uk).

Great for food lovers
The Recruiting Sergeant (01603 737 077; recruitingsergeant.co.uk) is a homely gastropub at Horstead that offers a great choice of real ales and an excellent wine list.

Great for independent explorers
You can explore the broads with an experienced skipper, learn to sail, or even hire an historic 1930s wooden sailing yacht at Hunter’s Yard (01692 678 263; huntersyard.co.uk). Being engine-free, tranquillity is guaranteed.

Great for fun-loving families
Bewilderwood (bewilderwood.co.uk) is a huge forest theme park with treehouses, zip wires, jungle bridges and more, plus Broadland Cycle Hire, the starting point for lots of good cycle routes through rural areas to villages and broads.

If you love boats, you might also enjoy a river cruise.