There’s a duck on the roof. Such is my anxiety about monitoring deck passengers to ensure they don’t go overboard, for a split second I worry it’s not wearing a regulation lifejacket. The combination of one very large motorised boat, two over-excited kids and four parents with no previous experience of piloting anything other than a pedalo, adds up to what might judiciously be termed a mild sense of peril. But half-an-hour later, travelling within the 5mph speed limit along the Norfolk Broads, ‘peril’ is downgraded to “just a little perturbed”. And that’s mainly because we can’t find anywhere to moor at the pub.
Such is the ease of steering the eight-berth Fair Countess, it quickly becomes something we do one-handed. With the roof rolled back, sun in the sky, the free hand is either nonchalantly propped over the side and/or holding a cup of tea. It turns out this boating thing is a lark. And we’re employing such 1930s terms since I’ve packed (and am therefore forcing the girls to listen to me read) the fifth book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazon’s series: Coot Club. Set right here on the Broads it may be, but it’s not firing imaginations — the children clearly think the narrative moves slower than our boat.
But there’s no lack of enthusiasm for its nautical jargon — Ahoy! Up the mud-anchor! Ready about! This adds to the seemingly inexhaustible fun of saluting passing boats, landlubbing pedestrians… and swans. Waving and saluting is a key pastime when you’ve got nought else to do but motor around at a duckling’s pace seeking out interesting places to moor.
Bank holiday weekend out on the busy Broads from the hub village of Wroxham, this doesn’t often include a spot anywhere near a pub, but still. Who cares when the boat essentially doubles as a floating bar/kitchen/dining room, having filled its galley with supplies from Roys of Wroxham. The ‘World’s largest village store’ is an empire that includes a women’s clothing shop somewhat creepily titled ‘Royzone’.
We stick to the food section. Fridge heaving, our boat chugs away from Wroxham’s rather unholy mishmash of cutesy thatched architectural tropes, some more Mississippi than middle England; and some displaying the bright pastel hues of Teletubbyland.
Our overnight mooring is up river, or rather, up Broad, since these waterways are neither canals nor rivers but the man-made scars of 12th-century peat extraction, which were later flooded by rising sea levels, creating a 124-mile waterway for the transport of textiles and agriculture. Vestiges of this era — skeletal windmills that you can clamber up for forever views across the flat Norfolk landscape, and the distinctive Norfolk wherries (Edwardian trading barges) with their single black sail — can still be seen from the water.
Our first mooring, at Salhouse Island, is home to nothing more than a pretty crop of trees. We’ve no sooner dropped anchor when a little girl called Kessie skips up from the one neighbouring boat and makes instant friends with our two, the trio heading off across the little island to brave the nettles and spot ducklings.
With the Broads fast vanishing under cover of darkness, it’s an early dinner and bed, the ploop and lap of the water against the hull as good as any nightcap. Distant laughter and chatter drifts in and out on the wind, suggesting not all sailors are so soberly retired.
But there’s nothing better than bacon sarnies at dawn on the Broads, and thus we set off the following morning, well rested, the rising sun lending the leafy banks a weirdly Amazonian grandeur. I half expect to hear the call of howler monkeys but instead we make do with our own. The two girls are now adept at climbing around the deck, leaping on and off the banks at mooring, sure-footed enough for us parents to relax. The Broads’ plentiful RSPB centres and nature reserves, however, means the wildlife isn’t confined to semi-feral children.
Further north we find our favourite stretch of water: the River Ant and its wild grassy banks and water lily-patchworked inlets where villages such as Neatishead would make a perfect study for a Monet watercolour. In these quiet northern reaches of the Broads, we find the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey, the only monastery in Britain not to have been dissolved by Henry VIII.
The kids, however, are more interested in nearby Toad Hall Cottage, a tiny museum in a traditional marshman’s house on the edge of How Hill National Nature Reserve. Here, we manage a couple of hours’ walk through marshland and landscaped water gardens, largely thanks to How Hill’s wildlife trail creating a just-about-manageable air of competition between the girls, who race to spot everything from minibeasts to different species of marsh grasses. And, the crowds of Wroxham well behind us, we even find mooring for the pub.
Best for: Life jackets are provided, so it’s suitable for most ages although toddlers would need extra vigilant supervision.
Highs: Lily: “The best bit was sitting on the front of the boat saying ‘Ahoy’ to the passing boats.”
Lows: Ella: “Having to come home. I really want to live on a boat.”
How to do it: The Fair Countess, a modern central steering cruiser that sleeps eight, costs from £860 per week (short breaks from £615). hoseasons.co.uk
More information: visitnorfolk.co.uk broads-authority.gov.uk enjoythebroads.com
Alternative: A narrowboating trip on the West Country’s Kennet and Avon Canal. foxhangers.co.uk
Need to know: Boat hire comes with 20 minutes of instruction, covering steering, anchoring, etc — which is ample.
Must try: The Rent-a-Warden RSPB scheme for a private wildlife safari, from £55pp (under- 16s free with two adults). rspb.org.uk
Sarah Barrell and Tony Federici travelled with Ella, 8, and Fiona Sturges, Mark Wilson and Lily, 7.
Published in the Spring 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family