The M&GN railway line across Breydon water connected Yarmouth Beach Station with Lowestoft. From Gorleston Station it shared the line with the Great Eastern line from Yarmouth South Town. The railway bridge, the Breydon viaduct, was opened in 1903 and demolished 60 years later in 1962. It had not been used for several years by then and the swinging section of the bridge remained open to river traffic. A road bridge carrying the A12 across Breydon Water was built in 1985. At that time the Port of Norwich was still operational, and the new bridge included a lifting span. A certain amount of commercial traffic still uses the river. Breydon Water connects the southern Broadland rivers (the Yare and Waveney) with those of the north (the Bure, Ant and Thurne). It is tidal so it has acres of mudflats at low tide, ideal for wading birds. It is a large stretch of water, four miles long and a mile across at its widest point and can have strong currents. On November 24 1774 a wherry on course for Bungay was sunk on Breydon water in a North Easterly gale with hail and snow. The crew of two were both drowned. It can still be a treacherous waterway.
A thousand years ago the estuary, of which Breydon is the last stretch of water, was much bigger. The sand bank on which Yarmouth was later built only rose above the sea at low tide. The low-lying marshes were then a huge expanse of water. The appearance of a natural landscape here is misleading; this is an entirely artificial landscape. The land would return to the sea and the A 47 would be awash were it not for the electric pumps working tirelessly night and day filling the many dykes which criss-cross the marshes. Without this constant drainage the whole area would rapidly return to a watery wasteland.
A hundred years ago it was popular place with ornithologists; it still is but ornithology itself has changed a bit in the intervening century. In those days the enthusiasts combined bird watching in the spring with wildfowling in the autumn, shooting wild duck and geese from their gun punts. There is still a certain amount of wildfowling allowed on Breydon, but it is closely managed as the area has been a nature reserve since 1968. In the past a bird watcher would shoot any rare specimen for his collection and would raid their nests for eggs to add to his display.
Naturalists like John Knowlittle (real name Arthur Patterson, 1857 – 1935) would camp out on their houseboats on Breydon. Knowlittle’s most famous book on Breydon Water and its characters was called Wildfowlers and Poachers (1929). The men who scraped a living from the mudflats included eel babbers and smelt fishermen. In 1960 there were still a few houseboats on Breydon although many had been sunk during the 1953 floods. One of these remaining boats was the Lapwing; by 1969 it had become a shack on stilts on the mudflats. Lapwing belonged to one Robin Harrison who wrote a short book on Breydon. This was published by Jarrold and Sons Ltd. He was a link between the old ornithologists and their modern counterparts and was the warden of Breydon Water for the Norfolk Naturalists Trust (now known as the Norfolk Wildlife Trust). There are now wildlife trusts for virtually every county in England, but when it was formed in 1926 Norfolk’s was the first.
In the middle years of the 20th century there were still people living on these marshes in farms miles from the nearest road and with no mains services. They scarcely saw another soul for weeks on end. Even the postman called once a week and left the letters nearly a mile from the house. They were widely separated and there were perhaps four such dwellings in miles of marshland. A woman of over eight years old and her husband lived there tending the cattle on 1500 acres, and she hadn’t seen a doctor since she was eleven. Fifty years before that in 1900 it would have been a less lonely place, for there were a dozen or more windpumps on the Breydon marshes, each one employing a man to keep the sails turning and the drainage working.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW A PICTURE of Breydon by John Sell Cotman.