Broadland’s best-kept secret: The Museum of the Broads (1960s-2019)

Location : Stalham

Robert is a founder of the Museum of the Broads in Stalham, Norfolk. The museum is perhaps one of the Broads’ best kept secrets, but a lot of effort is going into marketing to extend the reach of this resource. Robert’s family ran businesses at Ludham Bridge, with chandlery, swap shop and a boatyard, doing specialist boat repairs and were part of the community serving the Broads holiday industry.

I was born in Norwich, and my family go back as far as we can trace as being members of the Norwich city community. They were, on both sides of the family, a family of entrepreneurs and had their own businesses, butchers shops, removal firms, you name it. My father was a restaurateur and at one point had two restaurants, one in Exchange Street opposite Jarrolds department store and one on Prince of Wales Road. I particularly remember the Prince of Wales one because it was a Wimpy Bar. My father was the first person in East Anglia to get a Wimpy Bar franchise. When I was at school I was allowed a special allowance to have my lunch there, everybody was very envious.

My mother took part in her family business, on the Fitt side, which at that time was in removals and storage.

We grew up on Newmarket Road and I attended King Edward VI Grammar School next to Norwich Cathedral.

My brother and I loved being outside and in those days Newmarket Road was very different from what it is today. Opposite our house was just countryside and there were lots of places to explore. There were marshes and a mill down in Cringleford. Somehow the fascination of water I feel was already there in those very early years.

My great grandfather Richard James Paul – Broads photography

On my great grandfather Richard James Paul’s death certificate under the question ‘profession’ it simply says ‘gentleman’. But he really was interested in Broads photography and we still have a huge collection of old glass negatives all featuring parts of the Broads and are really fascinating photographs. Unlike some of the other more famous photographers he spent a long time in setting the picture up so he would get the boat in the right position, he would get the people in the right position. And he would devote an awful lot of time to getting it right in his viewfinder. We still have the camera he used.

He also took many photographs of the herring drifters coming in at Great Yarmouth and activity in Yarmouth harbour. It is fascinating to see just how much business went on in that harbour.

We still have this collection and it is an amazing history of the Broads around about the 1890 to 1910 time, really interesting.

My introduction to boats and then power boat racing on Oulton Broad

In the early 1960s we had been on a day out to the coast and my father said on the way home, ‘Oh let’s just stop off at Barton Turf. I want to see somebody.’ We were all a bit confused and it was all very mysterious and he left the car for about half an hour, came back and said, ‘I want to show you something.’ So we all followed after him and he showed us this yacht that he’d just bought for about a hundred pounds, which in those days was quite a lot. It was called Brit and it was a beautiful clinker sloop sailing cruiser. We were amazed, it looked fantastic and we were very excited. This was really my first introduction to boats.

My father had not done any sailing before, but in the Second World War he had been a marine engineer on an air sea rescue launch and he loved boats. But this was the first one that he had actually bought and owned.

He knew the rudiments of sailing but never as far as I know had never had formal training. We had some exciting trips and some pretty hairy experiences.

We rarely went beyond Barton Broad from Barton Turf which is only about two miles. But I remember this one time we did venture further down to Ludham Bridge. I remember approaching the bridge with a very strong wind behind us, my mother who was a little nervous went into the cabin and daren’t look. My father had to negotiate all the hire cruisers and bring the boat to rest along the bank. It was a hairy experience but really exciting and we loved it.

Most of our trips ended at the Punt Club Island in the middle of Barton Broad. We would wait until no one was around and then moor up and have the most glorious afternoon of fishing; you would only have to drop your line in and you would catch a fish straight away. My brother and I along with our cousin would have competitions to see who could catch the most; they were magical days and a wonderful way for young boys to grow up. It made a big impression on me.

In the very hard winter of 1966 or ’67 when the whole river froze over I remember walking from Ludham Bridge all the way up to Barton Broad quite safely. It was quite incredible and of course it’s never happened again and is probably unlikely to.

My whole childhood period from about the age of ten to fifteen led to this fascination of water growing in me, fascination for boats and everything to do with them. I think that this eventually pushed me forward to get involved.

Oulton Broad power boat racing

Later when we had the boatyard I used to sail quite a lot in little dinghies, but then in the early 1970s I got interested in power boat racing. At this time the Oulton Broad Motor Boat Club was in its heyday and had some very famous members, people like Tom Percival and Bob Spalding. They would have catamarans that did well over 100 miles an hour. If you know Oulton Broad, the ‘straight’ there, coming down the Broad, you can imagine two catamarans competing against each other at hundred miles an hour, that’s quite something.

My father used to race his boat Quicksilver on the Broad and in fact my birth was announced over the loud speakers when he was racing. In my mid twenties I decided that I would like to have a go so I came across a boat the ‘V Jumper’, bought it, got my licence and started racing and really enjoyed it. I had one or two accidents as was often the case.

Robert and racing boat ‘Vee Jumper’ about 1970

At the end of the evening’s racing, they used to have an event called ‘the scramble’. This was on a shortened course and was completely open to everybody. The smallest of boats including me and these great big highly powered catamarans were all racing together round this shortened course. It would never be allowed today, but it was extremely exciting and I actually did win that several times. Mostly because of the great handicap given to the others.

Leaving school and Southampton College

I left school and having failed miserably at my O levels I went to City College and after a year I decided to go to Southampton College of Technology to embark on a course on boatyard management.

Halfway through the course, having retired from the restaurant business, my father bought the premises at Ludham Bridge. A year or two later the boatyard opposite came up for sale for £12,000 and he was delighted to have got it but it meant that it needed to be managed. I’m not sure that it was totally his decision, more mine, but I gave up the course and came back to help run the boatyard.

The boatyard at Ludham Bridge about 1980

Ludham Bridge Services, chandlery and a swap shop

When we took over the business it consisted of a small village store and two petrol pumps on the road. We thought that the lifestyle was fantastic, we used to sit in the deckchairs wearing our sunglasses feeling quite cool, waiting for customers to come to fill up with petrol.

Two lovely ladies ran the shop in the really old style, scales on the counter, everything was weighed out. It was a really lovely atmosphere and visitors came in year after year and loved it because it never really changed.

Whilst the shop never made us rich, it covered itself and we were all very happy living and working there. It was a lovely lifestyle in many ways.

We had many personalities come in in those days. Cliff Richard came on boating holidays and would come and talk to us. Later we had an edition of Eastenders filmed in the shop, which caused great excitement around the village, it was great fun.

After we bought the boatyard we opened a chandlery and converted the rose garden at the back of the house into a boat park. We built a showroom where we put the chandlery; this went very well and we had a lot of business and it grew substantially. We had a lot of public moorings at Ludham Bridge, which helped business.

One thing we did do which I don’t think anybody else did in those days was a ‘swap shop’. People would bring in their second hand boat items for us to sell or they would swap them for something else we had in stock that they needed; it was pretty simple but people loved it and it worked.

In the 1990s we decided to try a café at Ludham Bridge and my mother having some experience of running restaurants used to make lots of homemade cakes, sandwiches, soup ‑ all this kind of thing. It was on quite a small scale but people really appreciated the personal touch, she would always be there and we had lovely staff.

It was aimed mostly at boat owners and it went very well for several years. We did try to keep it open in the winter for walkers but it didn’t take off enough to make it viable. I am pleased to say that there is still a restaurant on that site doing quite well.

Business at Ludham Bridge 2005

Boat hire business and ‘Big Tow’

We started to build up what we did at the boatyard and had three cruisers, one diesel, two petrol, called Bright ‘n Easy, Nice ‘n Easy and Free ‘n Easy. They were good boats, two to four berth cruisers, between 22 and 26 foot long. We had quite a few regular customers and we kept those boats for a number of years. It became evident though that they were uneconomical to maintain and make a profit from. Customers were wanting things like televisions and microwaves on the boats and coupled with the engines needing a lot of maintenance we knew that it was no longer a viable business.

We decided that time had come to either invest a lot of money in new boats or to give them up and concentrate on day launch hire, rowing boats, sailing boats. And that’s what we did, coupled with quite specialised boat repairs. We would offer wooden boat repairs, wooden boatbuilding, this kind of thing and that went very well.

Most yards were members of either Hoseason’s or Blake’s agency and we would get to know each other as we all met fairly regularly for marketing and training and there would always be the annual dinner. We were all very friendly towards each other, it was like one happy family. For example if one of our boats broke down on the southern Broad or a long way away, the nearest boatyard would happily assist in the repair, and likewise if someone broke down near us, we would be only too happy to help.

We had quite a well known tow boat called ‘Big Tow’ which we would offer as a service for about five pounds an hour. A regular occurrence was towing people off the mud at Barton Broad.

The highs and lows of a boatyard

There were so many experiences. When we first started there was what was called recirculating toilets and then pump-out toilets came in and I had a lot of very interesting experiences with those. They involved a lot of vacuum pressure and sometimes that vacuum went the wrong way and I would come out covered in you know what, not very pleasant at all. You also had to be sure that someone was not sitting on the toilet at the time as sometimes the pressure was very strong and if they were sitting on it they might experience something rather unpleasant, but these kind of experiences are quite funny in retrospect.

We had very sad lows as well: unfortunately we had people who lost their lives because of accidents, including carbon monoxide poisoning which in those days was a serious problem.

But as well as the tragedies and the lows we had all the highs too, meeting good friends. I think that the most rewarding thing is people coming back on holiday and saying how much they enjoyed it. I think that as a small yard we were able to give the personal service.

Safety on boats and boat safety certificate

In the 1960s the safety on boats was sadly lacking really. A lot of the boats still had petrol engines and old gas cookers on board. You had this lethal combination of petrol fumes, gas, plus sources of ignition like fridges and starter motors, even the existence of fire extinguishers sometimes wasn’t checked and so unfortunately there were a lot of accidents.

In the early 2000s I became a boat safety examiner, which involved quite a lot of training. A lot of people were critical of this scheme and thought it unnecessary and that it was putting unnecessary regulation on the normal boat owner or user. I agreed that some of the regulations did seem pointless but overall I think that it was a very worthwhile thing to do. It gave people confidence about boat safety. Of course you can never guarantee hundred percent safety as you never know what people are going to do but it did improve safety considerably.

Selling Ludham Bridge

First, we sold the boatyard in 2007 and we concentrated on the chandlery and I continued selling boats and doing engineering work and outboard repairs. We then sold the rest in 2016, by which time we had leased out all the parts ‑ shop, café and the showroom which became an art gallery. I have four children, two of them work with boats but none were interested in keeping the business going. I think that this has happened to a lot of family businesses on the Broads; the children have perhaps seen that it is hard work, long hours for not a huge return. I think that their ambitions may be greater these days.

Museum of the Broads

My early thoughts about the museum came when I owned the boatyard. I had always had this growing feeling of loving boats, particularly historic ones, old traditional boats. I then became chairman of the Broads Society in the early 1990s and it became clear to me that there ought to be a museum of the Broads and I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t one. This area has so much culture, tradition and a fantastic boat building history.

What actually prompted me to do something was the fact that there was a story in the Eastern Daily Press saying that the first racing sailing punt ‘Shrimp’ was to leave Norfolk to go to the Greenwich Maritime Museum. I thought that Norfolk would be losing a little treasure so I wrote a letter to the paper and I said, ‘Don’t let this boat go, let’s keep it here, it’s part of our Broads heritage and it shouldn’t go’.

The Shrimp, which was at Hunter’s Yard, did go to Greenwich Maritime Museum and it’s still there and actually today we’re still trying to get permission to have it returned. But at the moment, and we do understand this, we need to upgrade our environmental conditions in the museum to enable that boat to come back. But I believe it will happen and that will be quite an exciting day.

There had been a museum working group in existence but nothing had got off the ground. As chairman of the Broads Society I felt able to push it, I wrote several articles for their magazine the Harnser and I got a big response and items started coming in.

At that time we had no premises for the museum so a lot of the stuff had to come to my boatyard at Ludham Bridge, much to the annoyance of some family members as it was a working yard and valuable space was being taken up with old boats and memorabilia.

Len Funnell became involved and we were having the working group meetings at the Herbert Woods boatyard. I think I am right in saying that Len showed me an unused shed on the yard and suggested that we start something there. Some people didn’t think that this was a good idea, thinking that we were doing too much too quickly. So I and one or two others broke away from that working group and started a museum in one of the sheds at the Herbert Woods boatyard.

The Potter Heigham Bridge area is very popular and the museum was opposite the very popular store, Latham’s, which attracted huge numbers of visitors. It was free entry to the museum in the early days and we got up to 20,000 visitors a year. We relied on donations which actually worked very well and it has crossed my mind that we should be doing that again.

Len Funnell offered us another shed, these were big sheds maybe 20,000 square metres. He was agreeable to the museum being there permanently but it would involve expenditure of over a million pounds to establish a modern fully-fledged museum. We hired a professional museum designer and embarked on application to the Heritage Lottery Fund. We were unsuccessful, mostly due to the fact that the position of the museum was considered to be in a flood risk area. The Broads Authority was also not happy because they said that the museum would attract too many people, too much boat traffic. Some reasons were very difficult to understand.

So it was an ideal location and it would have had a great future but after the failure of the application we had to think about moving. During this time we were still being offered everything from forty foot boats right down to photographs and small ephemera.

Wherries, keels and reed lighters

The keel is the logo of the museum. The keel was the forerunner to the wherry and there was one remaining keel and we wanted to get that to the museum. Nigel Royall at Wroxham has been very kind and helped us with wherry parts and wherry history. I had a call from Eric Edwards, who I knew quite well, one day and he asked if I’d be interested in a reed lighter. I definitely was and he said that there was one in the marshes at How Hill. So one day we went down, borrowed a digger from the Environment Agency who were clearing the dykes and we dug out this reed lighter which was submersed in the water and the mud. We took it across to the staithe at How Hill, bailed it out and it was in amazingly good condition. In fact I put an outboard on the back and drove it down to Ludham Bridge to crane it out and it only leaked a little bit. I bailed it out and we got there and it now forms part of our collection here at Stalham and will do for many years. It’s a wonderful example of reed lighters that were used everywhere on the Broads for transporting reed.

Robert with a marshman’s reed lighter at the Museum of the Broads, 2019

Moving the museum to Stalham

Stalham was an important centre for the river system mainly because of Burton’s Mill. Quite a few wherries used to come up here to deliver cargo and also collect grain and sugar beet. So Stalham Staithe itself was a major stopping off point for wherries. There are lots of stories about smuggling because of its proximity to the coast, Sea Palling, and other places along here which all adds to the atmosphere here at Stalham.

Pamela Masters, who is now vice president of the museum, had a call from a property developer who owned these buildings and had had planning permission for them turned down. He offered them to us for a small rent and having looked at the buildings and really liked them we decided to go ahead.

The buildings are very old, the oldest is a brick building probably once thatched and was actually originally a customs and excise building for checking wherry cargos. It’s steeped in history, even the roof of the building is held up with old wherry masts.

We had some work to do on the buildings; we needed to provide office space, toilets and were lucky in getting a grant from what was then the Environment Agency.

We had one problem. We had this massive collection at Potter Heigham that needed to be brought here. It’s only a few miles but when you consider the shape and bulkiness of some of the items it was no mean feat to move the items. We had an offer of help from Trend Marine in Catfield, they offered us a lorry and staff free of charge which was very good of them. Of course being in the boat business myself, I found myself transporting some rather amazing loads.

The most difficult I think was a weed cutter, an enormous steel contraption. We put it on a trailer and trundled up the road, it must have been quite a sight to see.

The Broads Authority has always been helpful but it’s disappointed me that it hasn’t been more involved. Whilst there are information points and centres, the Broads doesn’t have an actual visitor centre.

If you come to the Broads on holiday you really need somewhere to discover more about the history of the Broads. Nearly all national parks have this but there is no such thing here on the Broads.

Now I’m not saying we should be a visitor centre but with their help we could have provided something rather special for visitors to the Broads. I think we do anyway. But we could have helped them and they could have helped us.

That hasn’t really happened. We have had help from them but in other ways. Even now I want to try and extend this and join with them in perhaps creating something of mutual benefit.

Income and events at the museum

We rely on visitor income and income from our events, and we manage. We do get grants for special projects but not for the actual day to day running costs. We have been lucky to have a European Union LEADER grant to provide a new electric trip boat which is due to be delivered fairly soon.

We have quite a few annual events here on site such as a jazz evening and a Boat and Fishing Jumble in May is always popular. The site here is about a quarter of an acre, but space is always a problem for us. Like any museum we never have enough space and so storage and space for us to do justice to our wonderful artefacts is always difficult.

Being at Stalham has its benefits but it also has disadvantages being at the head of the navigation. Even now we hear of people who have never discovered the museum or have been unable to find it.

In some ways we think it’s Broadland’s best kept secret but we’re putting a lot of effort into marketing to do all we can to put that right and get our name out there.

We would never rule out the possibility of moving, it would be very expensive and we would need a major grant to do that as well as identifying a suitable location. So whilst a new site might come along, at the moment we are putting all our efforts into improving what we have here at Stalham.

We always have concentrated on social history. We touch on the environmental side, but the How Hill Trust does that admirably and we wouldn’t want to encroach on what they do. Of course there is a crossover and as I say we do have some items that are concerned with the environment. Basically it’s man’s interaction with the Broads and the industries, the origins, the peat digging right from the start. I’d love to do more on that actually. The mills, the marsh industries, the people, the wherries, the keels, all this kind of interaction is what we tend to concentrate on.

But it’s something I really really love. I think the Broads is an amazing place with an incredible history. I think we’ve only just scratched the surface, there’s so much more we can do. And I can only see the museum going from strength to strength.

Robert Paul with the MY Ranworth hull at the Museum 2019

Robert Paul (b. 1954) talking to WISEArchive on 12th July 2019 at Stalham.

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