Surlingham Broad is the name given to a series of shallow waterways, both large and small, hidden a little way off the River Yare in Norfolk. While those who have hired boats in the area may be familiar with a large open stretch of water known as the Bargate, most visitors to the broad leave with no idea of its true scale. Most see just the remainder of a hand-crafted artificial lake, the true nature of which has almost been lost in the mists of time.
The Norfolk Broads date back to times when warmth was a valued commodity, and flammable material was essential for survival. By the 11th Century, inhabitants had stripped many of Norfolk's woods bare, leaving people desperate to find fuel. At some stage these people discovered they could dig peat out of the ground and burn it. For the next couple of hundred years, peat digging became an essential industry, with locals carving out many shallow quarries.
Later, the water level rose and the pits started to fill with water from nearby rivers. The Broads became waterways and trading ships utilised the more convenient parts to supply the surrounding rural villages. The most famous of these were the Norfolk wherries, one of which can be seen wrecked on the shore of Surlingham Broad. The Norfolk Broads are now a popular tourist destination, although the entire network of waterways is currently threatened by rising sea levels. A rise of one metre would submerge much of the wetlands between Yarmouth and Brundall in brackish water, killing much of the diverse wildlife living in the area.
Surlingham Broad sits south of a bend in the River Yare near Brundall, about five miles east of Norwich. The navigable part of the Yare begins in Norwich, with the river being joined by the River Waveney at Breydon Water and the River Bure at Great Yarmouth. This places the broad in the southern part of the Norfolk Broads area, as a large number of the broads sit next to the Bure and its tributaries to the north. The Yare is a tidal freshwater river, with the water level varying by up to a metre during each tide cycle. The river usually runs upstream in the Surlingham Broad area while the tide is coming in. While the north bank is occupied by riverside houses and busy fishermen, the other side of the river is shrouded by trees and other wild plants which hide the broad from the world.
The broad is named after Surlingham, a small village which lies further south from the river, with about a mile of waterways and carr woodland1 separating Brundall and Surlingham. Before the advent of fast transportation a ferry would operate across the Yare, a short way east of the broad, making it a three mile journey between the two villages. The ferry no longer operates, though the Ferry Inn still remains, so the shortest journey between the two villages is now nine miles via the A47 and A146. Another ferry used to exist about two miles downstream, between Claxton and Buckenham, but the only remaining ferry across the Yare now lies six miles to the southeast, at Reedham.
The Bargate stands as the only well-frequented part of the broad, a large open lake around 300 metres wide and two metres deep, depending on the tide. Day boats and small broads cruisers can access the Bargate through two channels, each 250 metres long and at least ten metres wide at the narrowest point. The first of these leaves the river just after it turns northwards to run past the Brundall riverside estate, and can be seen as a small signposted turning just upstream of the Coldham Hall Inn. The other entrance lies upstream of Brundall on a less spoilt part of the river, sitting opposite the turning to a series of private moorings. The two entrances provide the only turnings off from the south bank of the river, although they are separated by a long hairpin bend in the river. It is not uncommon to see several boats at anchor in the Bargate, as the broad is a very scenic, if slightly windy, spot. The wrecked Norfolk wherry lies near the downstream entrance to the broad, chained off from the rest of the broad.
The best parts of Surlingham Broad are in fact those that tourist boats can't get to, even with the knowledge that they are there. The first of these - referred to as Surlingham Inner by those who know it exists - lies between the Bargate and the River Yare just north of the downstream entrance. Surlingham Inner is connected to the Bargate by a very narrow stream that runs from behind the wrecked wherry, and can only be navigated using a canoe or other small boat. The mouth of the stream lies in the reeds behind and to the left of the wherry wreckage, with the first part running through the reeds, while the latter sections are also partially obstructed by trees.
During changes in the tide, a torrent of water runs through this channel as the inner broad empties into the Bargate. Surlingham Inner itself is less than a metre deep at high tide and nearly empties at each low tide. The broad also has several deeper sections which fill with silt and are difficult to spot without falling into them. Another way out from the inner broad can be found east of the stream entrance, and consists of a muddy track that leads through nettles to overlook the downstream entrance to the Bargate, with a small drop leading down into the channel.
Needless to say, Inner Surlingham is visited only by canoeists willing to get scratched by tree branches, wade through duck poo and get stung by nettles in the process of getting to the hidden broad.
The other hidden part of Surlingham Broad consists of a long series of very shallow waterways that lie to the west of the Bargate. You can easily see the entrance to this part of the broad splitting off from the western/upstream entrance to the Bargate and although it is clearly marked as shallow water, the first ten metres of silt and water lilies have jammed many propellers in the past.
Beyond this point lie several miles of narrow twisting shallows, making it a part of the world safe from the technological advances of modern life. Those wishing to navigate the area by canoe should preferably bring a detailed map with them, as it is easy to get lost. The most distant part of the shallows lies at least a mile from the Bargate, separated from the Yare by 100 metres of thick carr woodland.
The Swamp Carr
Although the broad has many waterways, the majority of the land surrounding it consists of swamp carr woodland. Unlike ordinary woodland, a swamp carr consists of a layer of mud and peat which covers an often deep section of thick, muddy water. The carr woodland surrounding the broad formed through vegetation trying to grow on the silted-up banks of the broad, leading to a boggy area leached of nutrients by rainwater. The trees and shrubs growing on top of this mat of moss survive using the minerals not washed away by the rain. However, the swamp carr has never matured into a proper oak forest and still has a layer of water underneath, with the thin layer of peat often giving way to hidden mud pits. These pits make it a dangerous place to be unless you're dragging a canoe behind you.
The swamp carr around Surlingham Broad consists of both closed carr, which consists almost entirely of trees, and open carr, where the trees let enough light reach the ground to support the smaller flowering plants. Along with the open water, this diverse woodland makes the broad perfect for a wide variety of plants, birds and insects.
Surlingham Broad is classed as a nature reserve, while the Norfolk Broads as a whole form the largest protected wetland area in Britain.
While common birds, like mute swans, coots and mallards, occupy the Bargate of Surlingham Broad for much of the year, the area provides a home for many different species of wildlife. Rarer sights include marsh harriers and teals, while widgeons can sometimes be spotted over the open water and reed, sedge and even Cetti's warblers hide in the reedbeds. The reedbeds are also home to beautiful insects such as the swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk hawker dragonflies. Through careful conservation and improvements to water quality, the broads have also seen the return of bitterns.
While wandering through the swamp carr, it is possible to encounter various birds. These include greater and lesser spotted woodpeckers, long-tailed tits, willow tits and this Researcher's favourite, the treecreeper. It is best to stand still while trying to watch birds in the carr woodland, as those who run about while staring up at the trees will usually end up tripping over a root or being sucked down into the mud.
The woodland of the broads also provides a home to hundreds of species of plants, including such rare finds as the fen orchid.
Surlingham Broad is managed by the Broads Authority, an organisation responsible for conservation work on the broads as well as the registration of boats and the enforcement of navigation by-laws. Some of these bye-laws attempt to prevent the erosion of banks by the wakes of speeding boats and protect the area from various other forms of abuse, but the broads are subject to natural changes as well as those afflicted upon them by humans.
In order to maintain the variety of wildlife found on the broads, the Broads Authority cuts back some reedbeds and allows them to regrow, removes submerged weeds and dredges areas to prevent them from silting up and becoming swamp. In the past, high nutrient levels in the water have led to crops of algae which kill off other plant life. So, local sewer treatment works now carefully remove phosphates from processed water before it enters the broads. This leads to a lower nutrient level in the water, allowing plants that protect the integrity of the broads to flourish.