Page published 29 October 2020
As the date approached 12 September, Diana got to thinking about her birthday and our fifth wedding anniversary. A cruise on a day boat seemed a good idea to her, so after I offered to pay for it it was booked.
The boatyard chosen was Maycraft. It's not one of the most popular as there's no car park nearby. Indeed there's not even a road. You have to be prepared to walk almost half mile westwards along the northern river bank from Potter Heigham bridge to reach it.
I used to believe that the yard specialised in serving those who booked one of the chalets set along the river bank for their week's holiday and as foreign holidays became more popular so its fortunes went into decline. There was a period when the yard appeared to be in a state of near dereliction. Things look better now, but it's never going to be a big yard as there's so little space for boat storage.
In fact the boat was booked for the Sunday, the day after our anniversary, but that was no disadvantage as the weather turned out to be as good as it was for our wedding and as good as you can expect at that time of year. Diana put much planning into the event. It included making a trip the week before to buy a very cheap camp stove to take with us so we could have a brew of tea while aboard. The overall result was that, after taking advantage of the car park opposite Latham's the main store in Potter Heigham, we were well laden as we set out for our half mail walk to the yard.
I am given "the stare" as I stop to take a photograph while walking to the boatyard.
All the chalets front the river and have high fences as their rear so the river is hidden from view as you approach to the boatyard. Rather than a dedicated footpath you walk along the narrow concrete base of the flood defences which are only a foot or so above ground level. I had never walked further down the river bank than Herbert Woods marina so was anxious to take a photograph. I stepped up onto the embankment only to receive an icy stare from Diana who was concerned that we'd be late for out 10:00 booking.
I had always wanted to see the back view of the chalet that was once part of a helter-skelter.
I was also trying to look ahead for the famous landmark chalet that many must mistake for a old windmill. John Timpson, who used to be a reporter on the Eastern Daily Press and was presenter of the BBC's "Today" programme of Radio 4 for 16 years from 1970 tells that originally it was the top storey of a helter-skelter found on the Britannia Pier at Great Yarmouth. After the first world war, when such things became less popular, it was bought by a bookmaker, erected at Potter Heigham and converted into a chalet.
We managed to overtake the couple who had passed us while I had taken my photographs only to discover that they, too, were heading for the yard. I'm not sure that gave us any advantage. We loaded the boat to which we had been assigned and then received the necessary safety briefing. It was during this that my plan for the day was wrecked. Water levels were high, we were told, and there was a lot of weed in the channels so we were barred from going upstream beyond Potter Heigham bridge.
I had planned that we would cruise to West Somerton. It's an area I had only rarely visited when I had Just 17. To reach West Somerton you need to cross Martham Broad which I remember as the only area on the Broads where there was crystal clear water and you could see down to the bed of the river. I had in mind that we would visit the church yard, where Robert Hales, the 7'6" "Norfolk Giant" is buried and have our picnic in what is always a very quiet area, as most people turn onto Candle Dyke and head for Hickling Broad.
After the last of the chalets on the northern bank the begin to thin out on the southern bank.
With the planned scuppered we advised that we would have sufficient time to cruise all the way to Horning. Even if we didn't go that far we had no choice but to head downstream towards Thurne Mouth and the River Bure. Almost as soon as we set off I found a problem with the boat. Well, perhaps you could say the problem was my height. The seating was all fixed and the helm's seat was set well forward. It meant that when sitting comfortably the top of the windscreen was just where my head needed to be.
Further down the Thurne and in the distance you might just make out the white Thurne Mill.
We were now in open water with little traffic about and plenty of space so I persuaded Diana to take the helm for a while. It meant I would have more time to play with the camera and did give me the chance to take a photo of Thurne Mill when we reached it about 40 minutes after we had finally set off from the yard.
Not the best light in which to take a photo of Thurne Mill, but I was hopeful to get a better shot on our return.
Almost opposite Thurne Mill is another, the Bent's Level Mill that I remember taking a photograph of when I passed it on my way to Barton Broad to attend the Tideway Dinghy Meet in 2010 where Bryn Weightman, an old Thames Sailing Barge skipper had offered me a try of his Tideway Dinghy. The short version of that story is that I found it even smaller than a Mirror Dinghy and decided I wouldn't ever be persuaded to buy one, although I could see the charm for others.
After passing the two mills and reaching Thurne Mouth we made a right turn to go up the Bure. Plan "B" had formed in my mind. We had already passed the turn to Womack Water, which I had suggested to Diana we could go down on the way back if there was time. We would press on to St Benet's Abbey where I thought we'd both enjoy a tour of the site and then go down Fleet Dyke and have our picnic on South Walsham Broad.
As we reach the ruins of the iconic abbey the anglers appear. They seem to inhabit this stretch of bank every Sunday.
As we began to travel up the Bure it was clear there were many more boats out on the water that might be expected a couple of week ends after the schools had started the autumn term. By the time we approach Fleet Dyke the river ahead has boats three abreast ahead of us with another coming downstream and yet another emerging from Fleet Dyke.
There's still a few hundred yards to go before we reach the moorings. Before we get there we see a cruiser emerging from Fleet Dyke.
A large tree on the right hides the beginning of the St Benet's Abbey moorings just beyond. When we reach that point we are lucky to find a space small enough for us just by the moorings noticeboard, informing anglers they should give way to mooring boats and giving advice to skippers who need to breast up on the moorings.
I don't make the most elegant approach to our chosen spot as it emerges that our day boat has the most incredible reverse thrust. It stops us dead in the water which takes me totally by surprise and we drift, on the current, very gently into the boat downstream. After a bit more reverse I re-approach the mooring and make a successful job of getting ashore and mooring. We do a little minor hiding of some of our gear - difficult in an open boat - and go ashore.
We leave the boat on the St. Benet's moorings. We've become used to the noise of the engine, which sits in what appears to be an non-soundproofed housing in the cockpit.
Almost immediately, on leaving the river bank, we encounter an interpretation board which explains a little of the building we see ahead. It's what's left of the abbey gatehouse that had a now derelict mill built within it ruins.
The interpretation board and inset showing the detail of the text.
A well-used path leads away from the moorings to the abbey buildings. I stop to take another photograph to Diana's mild annoyance...
As we follow the path away from the river and towards the remains of the abbey Diana has to wait for me to take another photograph.
... only to find yet another interpretation board to photograph. This one gives an indication of the extent of the site and you begin to realise how big the place is when you see how far down river the it stretches.
The second interpretation board and inset showing the detail of the text.
We cross the dyke to reach the gate house and immediately go inside where you find the old gatehouse wall running through the middle of it.
Once inside you realise that the mill wraps around the walls of the old abbey gatehouse.
There's a constant stream of boats on the river. I'm quite surprised how much you feel you're looking down on the river.
Coming out of the mill, or is it the gatehouse, I remain amazed by the number of boats on the river. Swinging the camera round a large cross comes into view. We decide make a closer inspection. There are a handful of others walking around the site but compared to the river it seems quiet and it's easy to avoid including people in my pictures.
You get a sense of scale of the site from the cross, sited where the main abbey altar would have been.
We walk towards the cross and learn from the plaque on its base that it stands on the site of the main abbey altar and is constructed from oak from the Sandringham estate donated by the Queen. This is, of course the site where the annual services are held by the Bishop of Norwich.
When we reach it I try to take a picture of the cross only to discover that the battery is now dead. My spare is back in the boat so I have to use my phone instead. I'm not as familiar with how to operate it as I should be and, as I try to take a rather wide-angle shot that includes Diana and the whole height of the cross, it does something weird with the perspective. Somehow Diana looks like a midget with huge feet and the cross looks as if it is leaning at a weird angle - but at least it proves we were there!
A rather distorted view of the cross taken with my phone.
From the cross we return to the gatehouse, still managing to keep the few people around out of the photographs I take. Not being on top of the gatehouse when I take my picture helps not to reproduce the distorted effect I got in the earlier picture I took with my phone.
Returning from the cross I get a more classic view of St. Benet's Abbey.
While passing by the gatehouse I pop inside briefly as I regretted not taking a photograph of a sign I had found the mill that I thought would be worth capturing.
Inside the mill I find another notice with useful information on it.
It's now around midday and back at our boat we find the crew of an Eastwood Whelpton hire fleet has just arrived and the crew are securing her before going ashore. Others from another boat further up the moorings also appear to be making their way to walk round the grounds of the abbey.
By the time we return to our mooring a yacht from the Eastwood Whelpton hire fleet has taken the space ahead of us.
Although a little late for a mid-morning coffe, we decide that it's time to test the camp stove. I load the gas cylinder and set it up on the engine housing. The inevitable happens a swan appears looking as its expecting to be fed!
Half way through sipping our brew a swan appears.
We cast off from the mooring at St Benet's Abbey and made our way down Fleet Dyke entering South Walsham Broad at around 12:45 to find something I did not expect to see! In front of us was an ice cream boat complete with COVID-masked crew. We hung back as it started cruising around the boats moored on the broad, clearly waiting to be hailed by a potential customer.
Not what I expected to see - an Ice Cream Boat plying its trade, complete with COVID-masked crew.
We cruised straight through the broad, hugging the northern tree-lined bank and proceeded straight through to the inner broad. I remember this broad with particular affection. I often used to come here when sailing solo in Just 17. It was also the broad that featured in my first Broads Holiday in 1965.
The Inner Broad, is always quiet as it's private property and a sign at the entrance advises that anchoring, swimming and fishing, speed boats and water ski-ing are prohibited.
Leaving the ice cream boat to continue its work we look back at the Outer Broad.
Once through a relatively arrow gap you emerge into the Inner Broad. It's tree lined almost all the way round. On the southern shore you can see the landing stage for the trip boat that works out of the Fairhaven Water Gardens. The 130 acres of gardens began to be created by Major Henry Broughton after he bought the South Walsham estate in 1946. He later inherited the title Lord Fairhaven and two years after his death the gardens were opened to the public to fulfil his wish that they should be opened to the public.
Once into the Inner Broad you notice a small roped-off area which we go to investigate.
Towards the northern bank we noticed a small pontoon surrounded by a number of stakes some of which appeared to be roped together. We had to get close to see what it was and when we did I thought I recalled seeing a story about it on local TV. It appeared to be a bird feeding and nesting site. It was an ideal moment to get a close-up of a cormorant that was perched on one of the posts.
As we got closer I was able to get a picture of one cormorant.
By the time we had completed our gentle tour all the way round the broad it was around 13:20 and we returned to the Outer Broad where we planned to have our lunch. We manoeuvred the boat into a shallow bay amongst the trees, dropped the mud weight over the bows and waited for the wind to turn the boat so we would be facing out into the main area of the Broad.
That was when Diana produced the bottle of Prosecco and I was required to uncork it. Also amongst the prodigious stores we had brought aboard were a selection of baps with assorted filling, which we proceeded to scoff along with the crisps and other goodies.
This looks like the shot that will become the icon for the trip!.
With the main part of the meal eaten, it was time to relax in the sunshine, reminisce about the last five years and watch the world go by. Inevitably there was constant activity on the water. Each gentle gust of wind seemed to come from a different direction so although there were not that many boats under way, there was plenty of boat movement as they swung on their mud weights. Sometimes they'd show you their bows, while half a minute later you'd see them broadside then see their stern. Gaps would open up between boats and you'd see another which you hadn't noticed earlier beyond.
One yacht seemed to spend forever hoisting its sails. In the background one of several thatched boat houses that you find around this broad.
Beyond a couple of private cruisers that were breasted up together, but without any obvious activity on board, a yacht was hoisting its sails. It was a hire yacht which I later looked up I looked up it to discover it was named "Jade", not a surprising name as virtually all the boats from the Martham Boat Building and Development yard have names beginning with "J".
It reminded me of the Sunday morning following the first night my brother and I had spent aboard Buzzard in 1966 on the first holiday we had away from our parents. We were concerned that the wind was rising a little so decided to reef before lifting the mud weight. That first time took forever!
The stove was used a second time to produce mugs of tea after our meal, served in "Muddy Broad Blues Band" mugs, the band to which I belonged and which played at our reception.
It was thirsty work watching other people hoisting sails so, as we'd specially bought the stove, it was time to bring it out again for more tea. I'd brought a small Bluetooth speaker with us so tea was drunk to the accompaniment of some of the tunes that were played as people assembled for our Wedding. Who could forget "Please Set A date" by Elmore James or "Heavenly" by Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, Bo Diddley's "Pretty Thing" or even The Carter Family's "Give Me Your Love And I'll Give You Mine"?
On leaving, having toured the broad we head for Fleet Dyke to head back to the Bure.
At around 14:45 we decided it was time to leave the broad. We lifted the mud weight and took a tour around the boats "at anchor" on the broad. By this time I had decided that the only comfortable way to control the bat was to do it from the standing position, It seemed that the steering was relatively "stiff", by which I mean if I set the wheel it would stay where it was put. So once I had determined that to go straight ahead the wheel needed to be set at closer to 11 o'clock than 12:00 all became easy. I rarely had to move the wheel when on the broad, or even the wider rivers, so I could happily take the photographs I wanted.
On leaving the Broad you pass what used to be Bondon's yard that used to run a hire fleet through the Blakes agency.
As we leave the broad you pass the old Bondon's yard. It's where, on a couple of occasions Diana and I used watched the Three Rivers Race aboard Robin and Sue Hines cruiser. Sue and Craig Slawson used to run a Three Rivers Race web site, but following Craig's unexpected death earlier in the year I'm not sure of its future.
Just beyond that is now a small marina that appears to be dedicated to yachts. I'm not sure when that was created, but suspect that it was after 2004 as I don't remember encountering it when seeking a mooring when I purchased Just 17, then called Imagination. Of course it's possible it was open much earlier than that, was full and had no reason to advertise.
As we proceeded up Fleet Dyke Diana took to reading, while I was on the helm and taking photographs.
Approaching the junction of Fleet Dyke and the River Bure it seemed it was still busier than before - quite amazing for the time of year!
As we reached the junction of Fleet Dyke with the Bure it was clear that the river was as busy as it had been when we left it! We turned to the right to return to the Thurne. One of two boats overtook us, almost certainly breaking the speed limit. I suppose I can understand why. As everywhere was so busy there would be a rush to get the best moorings for the night.
This yacht seemed familiar. It's unusual to see a clicker hull on the Broads.
Looking at a map the river between Fleet Dyke and Thurne Mouth appears to meander in sweeping curves that form the letter W. Coming around the central turn we overtook a familiar yacht - at least it was familiar to me. I remember throwing my mud weight over the bows of Just 17 just ahead of this yacht on Barton Broad and then watching it swing to and fro behind me. I had to look it up when I got home and find it was in My Report of participating in the Three Rivers Race back in 2009.
The signs ahead and St Edmunds Church indicate we're approaching Thurne Mouth.
As we turned onto the Thurne it was clear the sun was at just the right angle for good photographs of the Mill. It was all going to be a matter of when to take that perfect shot. As it turned out the moored cruisers got in the way of my first photograph. It's seen here as the "poster" for the movie. That's the image you see when the page is first loaded before you first start the movie. I tried the movie as I thought it would prove that the mill was in operation as we passed. But then I thought I might get a better still of the mill so I switched back to shoot a still image. Nothing was quite the perfect shot, but good enough to prove that we saw the mill in operation.
A short clip, set to repeat, of Thurne Mill as we pass by.
I read that 2020 is the two hundredth anniversary of the building of the mill. The Mill's Web Site says the planned events have been postponed until 2021 because of COVID‑19, but having the wherry Maud there suggests that there was more than the usual opening happening because by the time of these afternoon shots there was also a small tent had also been erected on the site. A wherry is the traditional sailing barge specialised for the waters of The Broads. I believe there's only two currently left in sailing condition and a couple of others under restoration.
After the movie I took this image. It's a nearly perfect shot, but I feel it's a pity that the green tent partially obscures the detail of the wherry's sail.
A little over 10 minutes after passing Thurne Mill, at around 15:45, we made the turn to Womack Water. After a quarter of a mile you pass Hunter's Yard. Just after I started hiring yachts on the Broads, the Hunters, who had built the yard as base for the family yacht hire business in the 1930s sold the business to the County Council who used it as their sailing base. School children and youth groups from all over the country booked its craft for days or even week long trips. The yard was famous for being the last operating sailing yachts with no engines and cabin lighting by oil lamp.
The Famous Hunter's Yard, built in the 1930s and still operating yachts with no engines and oil lamps for lighting.
Next door to Hunter's Yard is the home of the Norfolk Wherry Trust and that's where we spotted Albion the only other wherry that I know to be in sailing condition currently.
Albion, seen in her boat house.
Beyond that is the Swallowtail Yard. It's another that specialises in traditional broads yachting, operating a hire fleet, and accepting commissions to build their range of yachts, the Bure, Womack and Barton Classics. Unlike Hunter's Yard Colin Buttifant and his family do make some concessions to modern materials. The hulls of their boats are GRP, they have diesel engines and electric lighting, but their cabins, inside and out and their rigs are indistinguishable from boats built a century ago.
After that you pass no more boatyards and on your right are just houses, though most are hidden by the trees until the channel opens out at Womack Water itself a little over half a mile from the main river. One of these days I mean to take the more meandering channel that you see on Google Maps a little to the south of the main channel.
The Ludham Parish council owns some of the moorings at Womack Water. Others are in the hands of the waterfront businesses.
We don't stay long at Womack. We cruise in a circle around the head of navigation and make our way back to the River Thurne.
Once back on the Thurne we turn upstream to make our way back to Potter. It's not long before we encounter a yacht. It turns out it's Slantendicular, but I didn't know that at the time. I just felt embarrassed as I misread our relative speeds and where she was going to tack and opted to go one side of her only to discover that they needed me on the other. Clearly, I've been too long off the water!
Slantendicular is an interesting boat. She's a "River Cruiser" which, in essence, means she meets the criteria to be considered a traditional Broads yacht. However, she was only completed in 2004 after a four year home build by her designer and original owner. I understand that she is unique, being constructed of sheets of marine ply on mahogany frames, rather than the usual carvel construction. She was sold a few years ago, through the local yacht brokers Topsail, and it was their site which reminded me of the little I knew about her.
At around 16:05 we meet the unique River Cruiser Slantendicular tacking towards us.
Fifteen minutes after the encounter with Slantendicular and we're well into the "urban" environment of Potter Heigham, with rows of bungalows on both sides of the river, many with docks for small craft where, on a more conventional street, there would be a driveway. It's easy to think how pleasant they are and forget that there are no roads behind these buildings. It's a long walk with heavy bags when you do your shopping if you don't have a boat as well!
In some lights you can mistake the river for tarmac on the approach to Potter Heigham.
Finally, just before 16:30 and half an hour before we were due to return the boat, we are back at Maycraft's yard and unloading all our gear and preparing for the half mile walk back to the car. While there had been some cloud in the morning, the weather couldn't really have been better and reminded us both of that on our wedding day!
I persuade Diana that we need a concluding image for the trip. Unpacking our gear from the boat at Maycraft was going to be it.