As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Broads, Jackie King and Nic Forsyth pick out the options for a greener holiday among this magical waterland in the East of England.
Photos: Diana Jarvis/Green Traveller
The Broads is an atmospheric wilderness of 125 miles of lock-free rivers and lakes, of huge skies and far-off horizons. Unsurprisingly, it is regarded as Britain’s magical waterland. Three main rivers – the Yare, Waveney and Bure – flow into large expanses created by Middle Ages’ peat-digging. It’s the resultant lakes and rivers that inspire visitors and locals to hop on all kinds of vessels and explore the easily navigable waterways. Canoes and classic, engine-less Broads’ sailing boats are arguably the best way to explore the area, but we reckon that walkers and cyclists get a lot of bang for their buck, too, from trails, woodlands and river paths.
The omnipresent watery stretches give off an ever-changing quality of light – as vivid as the brightest filter one moment, soft and silvery the next. And, always, the sound of birdsong, the spectacle of swooping harriers and the ethereal flutter of butterflies; at Hickling Broad from late May you may catch the Swallowtail, one of Britain’s largest butterflies.
The Broads sits next to the Norfolk coastal AONB and runs into the neighbouring county of Suffolk, too. It’s an area that covers less than 1% of the country’s land area, yet is home to more than a quarter of species of rare wildlife, such as cuckoos and voles.
Where to stay in the Broads
We’ve picked an eclectic mix of the region’s accommodation, from self-catering in a windmill to the luxury of boutique hotels. Each makes a positive environmental difference, whether it’s painstaking sourcing of local produce by their chefs or composting, recycling or installing self-sustaining sources of power to reduce their carbon footprint. Wherever you stay from our selection you can be sure you will be in the company of those who care and who want to ensure that this beautiful place is here for you to enjoy for years to come.
Our pick of the many self-catering cottages in the Broads is Cranmer Country Cottages whose award-winning self-catering converted barns are a great base from which to explore the Broads as well as the stunning north Norfolk coastline. Our reviewer Richard Hammond says: “I can't think of another five-star self-catering accommodation in the UK that is as green as Cranmer. There's under floor heating throughout the cottages, and hot water and space heating are supplemented by solar, wind power and a ground heat source pump. Cranmer is well worth the visit - particularly for families/groups who want modern facilities, and anyone that likes a decent-sized swimming pool."
If you're looking for a luxury hotel, Strattons in the market town of Swaffham sets the gold eco standard for luxury hotels. It has been way ahead of the curve; Vanessa the owner has been paring back her ecological footprint for many years now at her Grade-II listed Queen Anne villa. Stylish, artistic and pleasingly wild here and there, Strattons has 14 rooms, canopied four-posters, open fires, free-standing baths and serves outstanding food.
The Norfolk Mead Hotel also hits the boutique hotel notes, yet is warm and personal, too, run as it is by owners James and Anna and a close-knit team. There is an acre of landscaped gardens and a lake to explore, plus a spa service offering massages. Children and dogs are welcome.
For B&B with great locally sourced farm produce for breakfast, head to Dairy Barns on the outskirts of Hickling village, within touching distance of the coast at Sea Palling. There are 6 lovely B&B rooms and 3 suites, plus two self-catering cottages on what remains a working farm. Dairy Barns form part of Lound Farm, a working family farm covering 360 acres of environmentally managed grazing marshes and arable land owned and run by Hannah and Ian Deane who have created a very relaxed atmosphere, a gentle smattering of luxury and plenty of flexibility. Farmhouse suppers available on request as are picnics.
Super-fresh and stylish sums up Mill Farm Eco Barns – the Eco Barn sleeps 8 while the Hay Barn is just for 2 people. Owners Neil and Emma have a deep love for the area; Neil helps protect the Broads National Park and Emma is a committed environmentalist and local food champ. They have a burgeoning kitchen garden and their welcoming cakes are legendary apparently! The Eco Barn has a living space, twin room and wet room all on one floor with wide doorways so is suitable for wheelchair users, as is Hay Barn.
If you're looking for a budget stay, then Deepdale Backpackers & Camping is a backpackers' hostel and campsite on the Norfolk Coast where you can choose from a range of self-catering accommodation: private ensuite rooms; tipis; yurts; shepherds huts; camping for tents and campervans; group hostel with dorm beds. It's open all year round, even during Christmas and New Year. The hostel and campsite are a great place just to chill out or be as active as you like. All the facilities you need are on the doorstep, including a cafe, information centre, supermarket, shops, walking and hiking, cycling, watersports and kiting. You can hire bikes from Deepdale Bike Hire or bring your own; enjoy watersports and kiting along the coast or pull on a pair of walking boots and go for a yomp. The Coasthopper frequent bus service runs to and from the front door so you can abandon your car and embrace the public transport confident that it will be reliable.
For the full-on Broads experience, opt for a floating home from Boats at Richardsons. Established for over 60 years, and still a family-owned and -run firm, based in the small town of Stalham, Richardson’s has the largest fleet of motor cruisers on the Broads - for first timers as well as experienced boaties. It’s long been one of the more traditional boatyards, but is beginning to reinvent itself by investing in new craft with low-wash hulls and solar panels, and is a silver member of the Green Business Tourism Scheme. They have a vast array of boats, available at a mind-boggling range of prices, and are a great choice if you want to start your journey among some of the lesser-explored reaches of the Northern Broads. Watch the sun come up over the water with a cuppa and see it disappear with a beer.
For a more traditional option, Boats at Hunter's Yard - a charity dedicated to preserving and celebrating the classic wooden Broads yachts and half-decker sailing boats - rents them by the day, week or more for you to stay afloat, or take a skippered sail to give you a taster.
Where to eat in the Broads
East Anglia is in the throes of a mini food revolution, and Norfolk is at the heart of it, with increasing numbers of places celebrating the best of the rich store of local produce the area has to offer, from locally caught fish and meat reared organically to the full breadth of the arable produce that defines the county’s landscape.
The Broads has taken a little while to raise its reputation for great food and there have been some riverside pubs failing to live up to the magic of their settings. Things have changed, though, and there are fabulous places run by people not just with a passion for food and drink, but with a mission to bring the best of the local area to visitors.
Who doesn’t love an excellent farm shop? Aisles filled with the best of Norfolk produce and the freshest fish will see you filling up your basket at Farm to Fork & Fish. Snaffle delicious items for your picnic hamper – how about freshly made scotch eggs, serrano ham, artisan bread and zingy chutneys for starters? Binham Blue, Norfolk Dapple and White Lady may catch your eye, too, if you’re planning a cheese board.
Wroxham Barns is a mecca for all the family – the sort of place you’re delighted to find, especially if the weather is unkind… a bit of retail therapy for the adults, a junior farm, fun park, artists’ studios and a fresh airy restaurant serving meals throughout the day, including afternoon tea and Sunday roast. Or maybe the Farmyard Café works better if you’ve little ones in tow. They can create their own lunchbox from a range of dishes and eat al fresco.
Another place that packs a big punch is The Galley in Horning, which is a delicatessen, café and gift shop rolled in to one in this charming village. Vegans are catered for with dishes such as beetroot falafel and smashed avocado or homemade coconut date and banana bars, or you can choose local cheeses and hams for a lunchtime sandwich. Bikes to borrow for outings, too.
When it comes to fish restaurants there’s something reassuring about a chalkboard menu – it smacks of daily changing menus driven by the day’s catch. Perfect! At The Bure River Cottage Restaurant that’s just what you get. Find specials like Brancaster or Morston mussels, local crab and lobster and gently smoked salmon. Great service too, from staff who seem to genuinely like working here.
Where to visit in the Broads
Salhouse, Trinity (visit by boat only), Wheaften, Barton, Ranworth and Upton are just a few of the 63 Broads. Just 13 broads are fully open to navigation, with others having navigable channels. All Broads offer different experiences and it’s worth a little research ahead of time to see which fits your mood and, arguably, the weather!
The largest and perhaps the prettiest is Hickling Broad in the upper reaches of the Thurne river. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust runs it and offers a good range of facilities to help you get the most of your day out.
Children are well catered for at Bewilderwood, where a homespun fantasy world brings to life a series of books by a local author. And they will love the Bure Valley Railway, which runs steam and diesel engines. Fairhaven Water Gardens is the Broads writ-small: a pristine piece of wet woodland edging its very own stretch of water at South Walsham Broad. From here you can take a boat trip around the Broad or to St Benet’s Abbey.
Woodforde Brewery is the place to go to experience the alchemy of mixing a few key ingredients to create something memorable… visit the tap room, the brewery, the café and their own pub, The Fur & Feather.
Things to do in the Broads
The Broads is the perfect environment for activities of all kinds and you can explore on the water, on foot or by bicycle. Even if you’re not permanently afloat you can get out on the water in numerous ways: hire a day boat or canoe, take a guided canoe tour of the region’s wildlife, or take a skippered wooden dinghy for a spot of sailing.
We’ve listed lots of the best – and greenest – alternatives, but the Broads Authority also has lots of information on where to hire bikes, canoes and boats, and indeed where best to take them.
Bushcraft, bankside tepees, snorkelling and guided canoe trails conjure up the Swallows & Amazons vibe offered by The CanoeMan. There are wildlife activities and trips offered throughout the year. A larger-scale guided experience is aboard the Broads Tours trips, where your glide through the waters is accompanied by refreshments and tannoy commentary.
Getting to the Broads by public transport
It’s easy to reach the Broads without a car: Norwich is on the main line from London Liverpool Street, which takes in Colchester and Ipswich, and also reachable direct from Peterborough, from where there are numerous connections to both the Midlands (Birmingham, Leicester) and the north west (Liverpool, Manchester).
From Norwich there are two branch lines: the Wherry Line, which runs due east, through both the Northern and Southern Broads, from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, taking in Acle, Brundall, Reedham and Berney Arms, and the Bittern Line, which heads up to Sheringham on Norfolk’s north coast, taking in Salhouse, Wroxham & Hoveton, North Walsham and Cromer.
The most obvious place to head for is Wroxham & Hoveton, just fifteen minutes out of Norwich, which has the best onward transport options and many boatyards and facilities; it’s also a short bus or cycle ride from Horning and Ludham. Acle and Brundall are also good spots, or you could start your exploration of the Broads further south, in Lowestoft and Oulton Broad, or in nearby Beccles, reachable from Ipswich or Lowestoft, and gradually head north.
Getting around the Broads
By boat: really, this is the only way to see the Broads, if only because it is genuinely the only way to get to some of the best places. You’re in the perfect place for a spot of novice boating: you don’t need any experience, at least for a motor cruiser or canoe, and although the major centres are crowded in peak season, with a bit of planning and a sense of adventure it’s not usually hard to escape the crowds. There are boatyards all over, but the main centres are Wroxham, Horning, Ludham and Potter Heigham in the northern Broads, and Brundall, Reedham, Beccles and Lowestoft in the southern Broads.
By bus: It’s possible, if not particularly recommended, to get around by bus once you’re here but, other than major services between Norwich and Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and from Norwich to Wroxham and up to North Walsham, frequencies are not good. Indeed, with the rivers providing the most direct routes anyway, buses are only really recommended for onward connections to the major centres, rather than as a way of touring.
By bike: the Broads is a great place to see by bike - it is flat and cycling can be easily combined with a spot of boating. There could – and should – be more designated off-road cycle paths, however, the roads are often quiet enough for it not to matter too much. Among many bike hire outlets are Cippesby Hall, Broadland Bike hire at Bewilderwood, and the CanoeMan in Wroxham, well placed for heart of the northern Broads; Sea Palling Bike Hire over on the coast at Waxham Barn is another option and in the southern Broads you can hire bikes at the Waveney River Centre in Burgh St Peter.
For more ideas of places to stay, local food and drink, visitor attractions and activities, see Green Traveller’s Guide to the Broads