When you visit England, be sure to visit that unique stretch of interlinking lakes and rivers, lying in East Anglia, known as the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. Until fifty years ago, their origins were a mystery and — even now — the answer might surprise you rhubarb candle.
Until the 1950s, it was thought these unusual waterways had been gouged out of the land in the last ice age. Then a botanist made an amazing discovery: not only were the bottoms unnaturally flat, the sides were unnaturally steep. This led to the conclusion that these lakes were not caused by glaciers at all, but flooded peat diggings.
Checking medieval records showed the area was the most heavily populated one in the Middle Ages. Its location, facing the continent of Europe across a narrow stretch of the North Sea made it ideally placed for trading and the low lying marshy ground was perfect for grazing sheep from whence came the most valuable textile of the age: wool.
In medieval times, the winters were far harsher than now. And, because this area juts out into the sea, there was nothing between it and the North Pole. Nor did the harsh northerly winter winds driving down from the Arctic, and the far colder climate than now, allow many trees to grow. And what trees did grow were needed for making the beautiful timber framed buildings that still add charm to the area.
That left the peaty soil as the only local source of fuel against winter chill. But, due to the underlying water table, these pits could only be dug to a certain depth before they filled with water. So, once this happened, the peat working was simply abandoned and a fresh one started along side.
All told, there are 125 miles (200 km) of navigable rivers and abandoned peat workings. But the broads are no derelict industrial landscape. After the medieval period the population hereabouts declined sharply and — cut off by poor roads from the rest of the country — the area has enjoyed a gentle and splendid isolation for many centuries, until the coming of the railways. When this happened, around the end of the 19th Century the more intrepid travellers discovered the delights and possibilities of this unspoilt area for the growing pursuits of boating and bird watching.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, and the unique attractions of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads are constantly being discovered by an ever increasing fan club. But the delicate ecology of water and wildlife are firmly safeguarded, because, the broads are now one of England’s leading national parks, with the leisure activity of boating bringing new prosperity to the region.