The first, and last, time I went on a boating holiday it ended in ignominy, my friends and I having managed to wedge our 60ft narrowboat sideways across the Kennet and Avon canal while attempting an ill-advised three-point-turn. The shame of having to hide “below decks” while a crowd of onlookers gathered on the towpath pointing and laughing still makes my cheeks burn 10 years later.I made a vow that day that all future holidays would be spent on dry land, so nobody is more surprised than I am to find myself standing on a jetty at the Waveney River Centre, in one of the most watery corners of the UK, waiting to climb into a Canadian canoe. The fact that I’m accompanied by a non-swimmer and a small child does nothing to quell my misgivings. But that’s the thing about a holiday by the water. It pulls you in, metaphorically speaking. And sometimes literally, if you’re unlucky, although the canoe-hire man assures us nobody has yet capsized on his watch.
At the southern boundary of the Norfolk Broads, (a misnomer as parts of this protected wetland area spill across the county line into Suffolk), our base for the week is the centre: an aquatic playground that caters for boaters and landlubbers alike. As well as a busy marina, there’s a campsite, with yurts and wooden glamping pods, a selection of luxury lodges with hot tubs, a shop, swimming pool and a riverside pub, the Waveney Inn, with hotel rooms. We’re staying in one of four self-catering apartments overlooking the marina. From our balcony we watch families zipping around happily on day boats, canoes and kayaks, and before you can say: “Remember what happened on the Kennet and Avon Canal,” we’re queuing up to join them.
Sailing by … Herringfleet Windmill on Suffolk marshland. Photograph: Alamy
We push off from the slipway into the tranquil waters of the Waveney. River etiquette demands we stick to the right but that proves tricky, so we opt instead for an erratic crisscross course, the gentle sound of oars dipping into water accompanied only by the shrill cries of my boyfriend and I bickering about which of us keeps steering the canoe into the river bank (him, obviously). Eventually we fall into some kind of rhythm and relax enough to appreciate our surroundings. On either side are whispering waist-high reedbeds from which emanates a symphony of chirrups and warbles. If we keep paddling upstream, we’ll reach the market town of Beccles. If we head downstream we’ll come to Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, where the fresh water of the river is divided from the salt water of the North Sea by Mutford Lock.
The Suffolk Broads provide a quieter alternative to their Norfolk counterparts, which on a busy summer’s day can feel like the riverine equivalent of the M25. On our peaceful stretch of river, only the occasional sailing boat or motor cruiser drifts past. At one point we tie up under a willow tree for a picnic and, almost on cue, a marsh harrier rears up out of the reedbeds with two angry birds in hot pursuit. We watch, transfixed, as a dogfight ensues, the two smaller birds trying to frighten the harrier away from their nest.
A family paddling a Canadian canoe on the River Waveney near Beccles. Photograph: Alamy
The next day, we take the free ferry across the river and walk across Carlton Marshes, an extraordinary landscape of grazing marshes and reedbeds, raised dykes and freshwater ditches filled with lilies and darting neon dragonflies. Following a campaign backed by Sir David Attenborough, and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust is buying up the surrounding farmland to create one of the UK’s largest wetland habitats. On our way back, a group of birdwatchers invites my daughter to have a peak through their binoculars at a sedge warbler and reed bunting swaying in the long grass.
I’ve been holidaying on the Norfolk coast ever since I was a child, but this watery hinterland is uncharted territory for me, a place I’d written off as being just for “boaty types”. We do venture out to the seaside a couple of times – Great Yarmouth and Southwold are both within a 45-minute drive of Waveney River Centre – but our best days are the ones spent inland, messing about on, or in, the water.
At nearby Fritton Lake, on the sprawling Somerleyton Estate, we hire a rowboat and then enjoy lunch at the Fritton Arms, the estate’s gastropub (good children’s menu and brilliant outdoor play area). On another day we head into Beccles for one of the fun “inflatable sessions” at the lovely riverside lido, before heading upstream on the Big Dog Ferry to Geldeston Locks for a drink at the Locks Inn.
On our last day we drive to Burgh Castle, where the imposing ramparts of an old Roman shore fort give some of the most far-reaching views in the Broads. But the highlight of each day is returning to the Waveney River Centre to swim in the pool and take an evening walk around the marina, watching the holiday cruisers mooring up for the night. Next year … maybe.
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