The nearest “Broad” to Norwich is either Whitlingham Broad or the University Broad; both lie on the outskirts of the city. But these recent additions to the expanses of water in Norfolk ought rather to be called lakes; they were dug out to provide sand and gravel for large construction projects (the Southern Bypass and the University). This is not an irrelevant consideration, because the shores of these broads are of shingle, not the reed beds which are so emblematic of the Norfolk Broads. As everyone should know, the Broads are surrounded by peat. Since the discovery by Joyce Lambert, as recently as 1952, the Broads have been accepted as medieval peat diggings. Before that everybody regarded them as natural phenomena.
Leaving aside these new “broads” then, the first real Broad we come to as we go down the river Yare is Brundall Broad. This is not a well-known broad; it is no longer navigable, as since 1845 it has been divided in two by the railway line from Yarmouth to Norwich. The next Broads are in Surlingham to the south of the river, and to the north lies Strumpshaw Broad. These broads are all much smaller than they used to be, the reed beds having encroached on the open water. Some of these broads are now managed as Nature Reserves, and to provide a variety of habitat some reed beds have been cut back. Strumpshaw Broad, for example, is visible as open water once more, having been almost totally obscured by vegetation, until thirty years ago.
The broads at Buckenham and Hassingham are a long way from the river, and are connected to it by narrow dykes which once gave access to river boats, but appear to have been obstructed for centuries. All broads must once have had access to the river system to carry away the peat by boat, and the destination was the hearths of Norwich and Yarmouth.
Going upstream along the river Bure we come to the Broads of Flegg; Ormesby, Rollesby and Filby. These were once navigable along Muck Fleet. The river Ant has Barton Broad, and the Thurne has Hickling Broad, but the largest area of Broadland is on the higher reaches of the Bure. Wroxham Broad, Hoveton Great and Little Broads among many others (some so small they do not have names) all crowd in cheek by jowl. With so many broads Wroxham is naturally the centre of the Broadland holiday industry.
I wish to return to the subject of the digging of the broads; the pits would have flooded very soon after they were excavated. Therefore only a small pit was dug, to provide turf for the coming winter season. The blocks of peat were stacked up on the bank to dry during the summer months, while the pit filled up with water. Keels (the predecessors of wherries) came up the dyke to load the turves and when they were gone the bulwark could be breached to allow the passage of boats through to the next year’s pit. In some places you can still see the channels made through the peat. The industry was effectively ended by the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, which reduced both the demand for winter fuel and the number of workers available to dig it out. Wood had always been a common fuel, and as deep mining grew in popularity in the midlands and in Yorkshire, coal became universally employed. Newcastle was where our coal in Norfolk came from, brought by collier brig to coastal ports for distribution inland.
After the excavation of peat had ceased, some broads (or rather the dykes associated with them) became important watercourses for the growing trade in agricultural goods. Such produce as wheat, turnips and wool were loaded onto vessels at the New Inn quayside on Rockland dyke, to be transported upstream to Norwich or down to Yarmouth. Coal would travel up from Yarmouth. Filby Broad became the unloading point for wherries bearing nightsoil from the privies of Yarmouth. Many of the broads fell into disuse however, except for the occasional shooting expedition by wildfowlers in their gun punts. Since this use disappeared, the smaller and more remote Broads have slipped out of sight and out of mind.