I took a sailing vacation – on one of Norfolk’s historic wherries | Norfolk Holidays
There is a reason to sail a Norfolk wherry that leaves you feeling at one with the world. As a sustainable form of transportation, a wooden boat propelled across water by the wind is about as low in carbon as it gets.
I must admit, however, that I had never heard of a wherry before setting out on an overnight trip from Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads. No wonder, as there are only eight of these traditional boats still sailing a fleet of hundreds that once made a living delivering goods on British waterways. Later some of these merchant ships were converted into elegant cruisers like the Ardea (Latin for heron), where I have to stay overnight.
I descend the narrow staircase and am transported to the elegance of the 1920s. The teak-lined cabins are a statement of style and true class. For a moment I went back to a time when the Norfolk Broads were a destination for the rich and famous, a time when adventure and glamor were something to be sought amidst the beauty of your own country, not in jumping on a plane for somewhere else.
A small piano occupies a corner and comfortable armchairs are scattered throughout the living room. I want a period costume to stroll around sipping champagne from crystal glasses while listening to a pianist in a tuxedo. Ardea is a piece of living history and I want to live it fully.
Instead, I join the rest of my party on deck and drink Norfolk gin and tonic as the speedboats pass, their temporary captains struggling with the steering as they try to avoid the bigger pleasure cruisers. coming in the opposite direction.
We head to the Fur and Feather for dinner in the nearby town of Woodbastwick, where I enjoy a good steak and English whiskey. It is dark when we come back. The Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak. I stretch out under a dark sky, watching the shooting stars burn trails through the night. I sing Billy Bragg’s A New England, wishing on “space gear” as a flotilla of swans pass by and bats fly over the water.
The next morning, as I doze off in my comfortable cabin below the waterline, the swans are locked in a battle above. I hear their feet paddling as the water laps against the boat’s hull. I think of the people who may have dozed off here before me. It is said that 1950s movie star and ukulele player George Formby, who owned a riverside mansion nearby, came aboard to party. Later, the boat belonged to a Parisian lady who used it as a place of rest and recuperation for the women who worked in her brothel. I imagine one of these girls lying with her feet shod against the cabin wall while taking a break from a long shift.
After breakfast, we transfer to another wherry, the 10-meter White Moth, built in 1915. Like all wherries, it has an eventful past, going from luxury yachts to charter to barges before being sunk in a dike.
White Moth is one of five (of the remaining eight) ships rescued by the Wherry Yacht Charter charitable foundation, which restored the boats with assistance from the National Lottery Heritage Funding and now uses them for education and day trips. ‘a day as well as for events and weekends. . A team of enthusiastic volunteers help maintain and pilot the vessels.
Our skipper for the day on White Moth is Dean Howard, who started out as one of the many apprentices the trust recruited, recognizing the need to excite and train young people in boat navigation if they were to survive. .
We follow the Bure river. Although some boats are equipped with electric motors, Confidence prefers to travel by sail whenever possible. That makes a lot of differences. As we leave the day trippers behind, there is nothing but the creak of ropes and the clang of brass cleats that are heard as we glide along the bushy banks of hemp-agrimony cotton candy blossoms. Dragonflies follow the rhythm and a heron takes off from a dead tree.
We sail through Wroxham Broad at full sail, sending children in dinghies dizzying around us like whirling beetles. Tourists on paddle steamers take pictures of us. We salute royally. We know we are beautiful.
The boat tilts into the wind and we sway across the deck to the rhythm of its decisions. It is as if the boat and the elements communicate, and we humans are mere passengers. The butterfly wing of the sail, white as an oyster shell, bends to catch the wind. Dean leans against the bar, ropes passing through both hands. I have the impression that he is in conversation with the boat, a constant dialogue of questions and answers.
“Does each boat have its own personality? ” I ask.
“They are all different to navigate,” he says. “Would you like to try?”
I would like. I go down into the skipper’s well and try to guide the bar, while Dean operates the sails. He made it look like light work, but it isn’t. Weight is needed to move the drawbar, which is best operated with the hip or back, leaving the hands free for the ropes. At 5ft 2in, I can barely see over the deck and pay attention to Dean’s instructions.
I look up at the rigging: the single mast is over 15 meters high. The sun is shining on the ash pole poles and our red banner flies in the wind.
We stop for lunch in a secluded bay, a place of dark water and fallen trees. All is quiet while we eat, locked in the peace of this place, then a cry rises: “Otter!
I rush out onto the deck, binoculars in hand, in time to see the curve of a back and a line of bubbles as the otter disappears. We trace its progress below the surface, a fish leaping out of the water in fear, a swan arching its wings and guiding its swan away. I wait, wishing, having never seen an otter. Under black water, the otter escapes me again.
Later, as we pass Wroxham Island and return to Bure, Dean opens a small door in the well and produces a brass horn. He whistles to let the boats know in the main channel that we are coming.
As the super cruisers give way, I feel a wave of pride to be on board. This boat has its place here, is built from this landscape by men who knew it intimately. It’s part of the forest and the water in a way that boiling ships howling clouds of diesel will never be able to do. It is a privilege, at least for a short time, to spend time in his company.
Travel was provided by Natural Britain, which works in partnership with the Wherry Yacht Charter charitable foundation and offers two ways to experience the wherries of Norfolk: Scheduled day crossings are available most weekends (and some weekdays) between May and September for £ 49 per person. Private charters with skipper, costs £ 420 per day or £ 950 for a weekend. The wherries vary in size and have a variety of single cabins, lounges, toilets and showers. Most have a small piano. For more details, visit natural-britain.com/sail-on-a-wherry-norfolk-broads
More ways to explore on the water
Tall ship, Scotland and Cornwall
Bessie Ellen, built in 1904, is one of the UK’s last remaining wooden ketches (two-masted sailboats) still under sail. It is now used for sailing holidays in Scotland (10-day trips to search for orcas around Skye and the Outer Hebrides) and Cornwall (three-day stays in Helford, Fowey and Falmouth).
From £ 495 for three nights, bessie-ellen.com
Coracle Safari, Gloucestershire
Coracles – light, round, wooden boats for one person (pictured below) – were once commonplace on British rivers. Today, WWT Slimbridge offers short coracle safaris. Boats are notoriously unstable, but once mastered paddlers can expect to see water voles, warblers and waterfowl.
£ 10 per boat, wwt.org.uk
Electric barges, Monmouthshire
Castle Narrowboats has two eco-friendly electric boats for exploring the 33 miles of Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Boats can go 18 miles on a single charge, so you don’t need a boost every day.
From £ 1,145 for seven nights, for four people, castlenarrowboats.co.uk