Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey

A week on the Norfolk Broads Part 1

(Part 2 - Part 3)

For those of us who have shared in Arthur Ransome's idyllic writings on the Norfolk Broads, this rather special area of the English countryside requires little by way of introduction. For any who have not (and I urge you to rectify matters!) the Broads are tucked away on the East coast in an area known as East Anglia, a name which traces it's route to the Dark Ages of British History when Germanic races colonised our fertile isle. It is a curiously impermanent landscape, being interchangably river delta and dry land before the hands of man and the sea currents formed the current system of rivers and broads running between fertile marsh lands.

The following has been adapted from the log I recorded during my week. My partners on this trip were my two good friends James, a student at Cambridge University, and his partner Laura, also a student, but at Durham University.

Saturday 26th of June

We arrived at Martham's boatyard at 14:40 having experienced a somewhat tricky end to our journey, having smoothly crossed the greater part of England's girth. We had discussed stopping in Norwich, but on seeing how busy it was, abandoned the idea rather late, after we had missed the opportunity to bypass the city. The hirer's (Martham's) main sheds were situated a quarter of a mile from the river, perhaps in avoidance of flooding, which one assumes from riverside dwellings to be reasonably frequent. The waterfront of Martham's yard was very pleasant, although somewhat typically "dilapidated boatyard" in aspect.

On first acquaintance our boat, the 1950's bermudan-rigged Wood's-built yacht Javelin 2, was both bigger and smaller than expected: "bigger externally, smaller internally and quite primitive." reads the log. The main cabin had two somewhat cramped bunks one of which folded out to form a "double" bed. The toilet, much to my surprise, pumped straight overboard, as did all of the plumbing. To my understanding, this is not a legal state of affairs in English ports, it greatly surprised me that this was legal on an inland waterway. Thankfully it was not all bad news, and the gas cooking range was rather good, storage was excellent although Laura has apended a note to the log to the effect that it was initially difficult to find, being in many small lockers dotted wherever there was spare space to be found: under benches; in bulkheads; under the cooker.

Javelin 2 lying at Horsey Staithe after the awnings have been taken down, but before the cabin was lowered. The red boat in the background is Jasmine of Horning.

click picture to enlarge

A strong positive point, to my nose at least, was the strong smell of varnish under the canvas awning. The log records: "Original boat must have been quite something, still very good boat, but niggling short cuts taken: use of plywood, poor rigging care, some framing in poor condition". This referred to plywood slowly creeping into the gorgeous Mahogany interior, lashings used in place of swivels and shackles on the mainsheet blocks and seemingly endless sistered frames in the bow. Many of the sistered frames had cracked in sympathy with their predecessors, and on my last day in the boat, on raising the sole, I saw that many timbers had rotted completely away where they crossed the keel, and rather than being repaired, they had simply been painted over. In their heyday, eight of these yachts were raced frequently, and it seems very sad that she should be awarded such scant attention today.

However, today was not to be a day of mourning for what once was! Today was a day for action, for sampling the broads I had dreamed of since the first time I opened the pages of Ransome's Coot Club, for enjoying the largest boat I had ever sailed, for enjoying the company of friends engaged on a mutual adventure. By 16:00 we had the boat packed, and the anchor up. We left Martham's with all sail hoisted and the engine on to help us out of the moorings. The engine was 1.5Hp two-stroke unit, with all the glorious simplicity of an engine from yesteryear. Rotary choke, two position throttle, one cylinder and the most wonderfully physical clutch-and-gear lever. One can understand Roger Walker's obsession with the things (see Ransome's other works). However, by 16:10 the "little donkey" had been silenced and we were enjoying slow progress with the tide as the wind arrived in zephyrs. It was difficult to work out the precise wind direction (which was shifting anyway) because of the high reeds through candle dyke. The log records "Blocks desperately in need of oiling I think as the sheet is not running freely". These blocks were to become something of a recurring nuisance throughout the voyage.

The small area of the Broads that we visited. Our first day's sailing is in blue, the second in yellow. The green line is our approximate route to the coast, passing the pub of course!

click picture to enlarge

By 16:30 we were passing through Heigham Sound, a channel marked by posts passing through a wide but shallow lake with a healthy covering of reeds. Before long we had turned right and were passing through meadow dyke, gybing time and again along it's narrow and twisting course. This flowed into Horsey Mere, a wide and by the standards of many of the broads, deep lake. We sailed for a little while before starting the engine and dropping sail before motoring into Horsey Staithe at 17:20. This is a well looked-after staithe, owned in common with the Mere and much of the surrounding land by the National Trust.

We secured all the warps, and the dinghy we had hired with the yacht and raised both of the awnings, although we did not perfect either for some time. We walked across some bleak marsh to the Nelson's Head pub where we enjoyed excellent food in abundance at a very reasonable price. We were also fortunate in being able to secure some matches, which we had forgotten to procure prior to our departure. Any reader of Swallows and Amazons may sympathise with our mistake, having no Mother to remember them! We walked back from the pub and had another go at the front awning, which this time was raised with somewhat more success. At 21:40 we were all in bed and the log records "Rather pleasent to hear rain falling on stretched canvas", although 22:30's note is less positive: "Rain dripping down mast". This was of particular importance to me as my "cabin" was in the forepeak, through the forehatch. The mast ran down 3 inches from my head, and I spent an hour and a half tracking down leaks around the mast and the forehatch coaming, and moving my clothes around until as few as possible were in danger of a wetting. I was grateful for the provision of electric lights on board (charged by the engine) as again when a loud bang on deck shot me through the forehatch at 23:30. I could only guess that the life ring which had been standing up had fallen over. By this time I had to accept that the forehatch could not remain closed as, although it stopped all but the mast leak, the claustrophobia it induced in the quite remarkably confined space was unbearable. I turned my back on the splashes and finally dropped into the arms of sleep.

The Captain's Cabin. This became known as the "coffin"
and was barely roomier. Amazingly, I only cracked my
head on a deck beam once! Note the large lead weight
at the base of the mast to aid raising and lowering
the mast to pass through bridges. Even with this, it
was still a tricky business.

(click picture to enlarge)

Sunday 27th June

The morning began barely more auspiciously than the previous day had ended. A lover of my sleep (well, one must conform to thse stereotypes of 19 year olds!) I woke at 5:15, and was not happy about the fact! At 6:30 my travel clock sounded it's alarm which I had failed to disable which disturbed the rest of the crew. At 7:45 we all gave up on sleep, partook of our morning toilet (making use of the adjacent public conveniences as none of us fancied the boat's provision on grounds as diverse as environmental conscience, privacy and leg-room) and at 8:30 settled down on the rond [bank] with the sun trying to break through the overcast, supping on Tomato soup (a rather alarming neon orange) and bread.

After washing up, at 9:00 I took the dinghy out into Horsey Mere and a strong westerly wind. On return I wrote in my most Ransomeish manner in the log: "Tried sailing dinghy - diabolical! Difficult to row [the oars had mismatched buttons] and unable to raise sail as blew straight off the wind. Could not reach a lee shore under oars therefore retired to yacht." Part of the problem had been the arrangement of the boom jaws which seemed indecipherable to me. At 9:55, in disgust with all things nautical, I took to my heels in strong sunlight and spied out the lie of the land. On my return, the log remarked on stunted marsh oak trees growing in the peat, and profusion of flies of which, on the water, we were to be mercifully free. "The landscape is quite immoderately flat. Landscape features include a large windfarm S.E., various church towers and the ubiquitous wind pumps, some wrecked. There are some farms in evidence and one curious orange building." What I think I liked most were two very small thatched cottages perched on the banks (if such a strong word may be used) of the Mere, raised above the marsh on stilts. If one has read "Witches Abroad" by Terry Pratchett and imagines Mrs Googol's house, one would be rather close to their appearance.

Horsey windpump, now disused, was used to pump water from the low lying marshes UP to the level of the River. It also saw service last century after the coastal sand dunes were breached at Horsey Gap which lead to the whole area becoming once again a sea bed. Adjacent and to the right is the modern electric pump.

Click picture to enlarge

As the wind was strong and in the wrong direction for making a passage through Meadow Dyke, we elected to go to the beach, little more than a mile away beyond the line of sand dunes which at this point, are all that stands between land and sea. Without them, we would have been sailing in salt water. This was a thoroughly enjoyable trip, we saw orchids, butterflies, a seal, a lizard and what are described in the log only as "curious moths". It had been far too many years since I had seen the sea, let alone been close enough to it to get damp, so I forgot my age and went paddling, to be joined later by James. Laura stayed aloof and superior, and miraculously stayed dry and relatively sand free. Still, there's no accounting for tastes! While we were there, the wind changed to an ideal direction for meadow dyke. We returned to the boat and paused only long enough to walk up Horsey Windpump where a rather fine view over the fens could be had for the princely sum of two pounds sterling. We turned the boat using warps, an operation which was wholly successful and left one feeling rather pleased with oneself. We left Horsey under engine and tried raising sail. After three attempts I gave up as the mainsail was catching in the rigging. I wanted to take the boat back to Marthams and get the rigging sorted as it was a mess aloft, however James convinced me to drop a mudweight and between us we managed to shift the worst of the tangles. Due to the design of the rigging and the sail, the mainsail would catch on the topping lifts when being raised with really only the very slightest provocation. When we had the mainsail up, the boat started sailing around her moorings as the mainsheet blocks would not let the sheet run out freely, so in effect the boat was constantly close hauled. This was a great nuisance, and rather dangerous. Still, we got the jib up, raised the anchor and set off.

The view from the top of Horsey Windpump showing how flat the land is, an unusual sight for us Northern Lads! The two thatched cottages can just be picked out on the banks of Horsey Mere, as can Javelin.
(click the picture to enlarge)

Once the sails were up and we were underway, we had a really very pleasent run through Meadow dyke. The blocks were still causing trouble as now we were running before the wind, even when standing and pushing on the boom we could not encourage it far from the side of the boat. In the end we gave up and suffered the loss of power this entailed. We were overtaken very neatly by the beautifully turned-out Jasmine of Horning, a gaff rigged cutter with an apparently permanent "topsail" making her almost Bermudan-rigged. We passed through the busy Heigham sound without incident, although rather hard on the wind. At Candle dyke we were headed by the wind in a tight channel and in a flurry induced by a sudden calm, the tide running against us, and a motorboat which managed always to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I came close to ramming the bank. We got the engine started and motored safely out of the dyke and into the River Thurne proper and sailed beautifully past Martham's and on to Potter Heigham. The wind died to nothing half a mile from Potter and we motored against the tide and moored to the South bank above the bridges at about 17:30 having passed a great number of yachts quanting with the stream and making little progress.

We tied up with Laura sleeping below and James went off into Potter in search of meat for the evening meal. I tidied around on deck and muttered under my breath as two gin palaces went past far above the speed limits, causing a frantic wash to hurl itself and Javelin against the piling. On James' return, we raised the awnings hurriedly as an ominously black cloud was flying down on us like the wrath of a vengeful god (we can only hope in vengeance against inconsiderate stinkpotters...). Two thunderstorms passed in close proximity with each other and us, making us nervous for the mast, we couldn't see much else standing 35 feet into the air! With the air cleared and the awning peeled back (which had leaked badly in any case) James and I volunteered laura to cook a rather good pasta bolognese. After washing up I took advantage of the light airs to have another look at the rigging of the dinghy and managed to solve the problem of the boom. It was fastened to the mast (apparently) by a length of chain with a shackle at either end, which in turn fastened to a length of wire nailed to the boom. By adjusting the shackles and chain I managed to achieve a sufferable arrangement, and was left wanting only wind. Before too long we had battened down the hatches for the night, hoping for a little more rest than at Horsey!

Next installment: Difficult winds, Ducks and the delectable Deena.

Take Care

Alistair Wasey