The Broads is an internationally important landscape, not only distinct for its wide range of rare species and habitats but also because of its unique history. Largely lying at or below sea-level, the marshes, fens and rivers of the Broads are the result of thousands of years of sea level rise and retreat as well as more modern human intervention by draining the marshes, rerouting the river courses and digging the lakes known as broads.

The Great Estuary – A Brief History

By the end of the Iron Age, the area between what would become modern Norwich and Great Yarmouth was an entirely different landscape. It would have been awash with the tides covering vast mudflats between the channels that drained the rivers Waveney, Yare, and Bure. By the time the Romans arrived in East Anglia, they used this estuary as a way accessing the fertile hinterland of Norfolk and Suffolk. Gradually, by the time the Romans left Britain the landscape had once again changed, resembling what we now see as the Broads river valleys and marsh lands. Yet we can still imagine what it might have been like when we travel across the tidal mudflats of Breydon water, the last remnant of the Great Estuary.

Drained Marshes

Despite the natural, almost wild, feeling of places like Halvergate Marshes the landscapes of the Broads are almost entirely influenced or created by people. This large extent of marshes between the Rivers Bure, Yare and Waveney have been actively drained for centuries, allowing for fertile grazing on the nutrient rich peat soils. At first small drainage ditches were dug to help move water off of the marshes towards smaller creeks and streams. Later these were enhanced with a deeper network of ditches, supported by dykes and small wind driven scoop wheels to lift water out of the marshes and into the main rivers. Eventually, the majority of the marshlands were drained and put to use for grazing and agriculture, and scattered across the land were a complex system of drainage mills. These mills continued to evolve with the technological innovations of their times, being powered at first by wind, then coal, diesel and eventually electricity.

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The Broads

Dr Joyce Lambert on Rockland Broad
Taken August 1952. c11076

In 1953 Dr. Joyce Lambert Overturned the common consensus that the series of lakes that we call the broads were natural features of the landscape. Her research team proved that these were not normal bodies of water, but were in fact, the remnants of medieval peat cuttings. Over many centuries, local people had excavated large areas harvesting the valuable peat that can extend several meters below the surface. This peat was an important commodity and used in great quantities as fuel for heating and cooking.

Over time, these areas began to fill with water from rain, rising ground water, or near by rivers. As they flooded, baulks of peat were left to help keep the diggings as dry as possible, parts of the baulks can still be seen as various islands in the Broads today. It was always a losing battle to keep the water out, and eventually the peat excavations were left to fill entirely, creating the Broads. Soon people cut channels and canals to connect these new bits of water with the river system to connect local villages and settlements, allowing for an easier way to transport goods.

The Marshes Today

During the 20th century, the Broads were in a serious ecological decline due to intensive agricultural practices. Things have improved dramatically since the 1980s, with new techniques developed to help prevent soil and fertiliser runoff entering into the rivers and Broads. In 2005, the Environmental Stewardship Scheme was launched to help prevent erosion and to support wildlife friendly farming practices.

Water, Mills and Marshes is working with partner organisations to develop innovative new techniques to help to improve the fens and marshes of the Broads. We are working with local farmers and other land owners to make sure that we reach the right balance that supports local people, wildlife and our historic landscape.