Wherry good times in Norfolk (1970s – 2018)

Location : Rockland St Mary

Brenda recounts the evolution of pleasure wherries on the Norfolk Broads and shares her knowledge of the training required for traditional wherry sailing.

I don’t know if I qualify as a Norfolk person to talk about the marshes with any authority because I didn’t come here until I was 35. I’m more of a Kent/Sussex girl with some excursions.

The first excursion into Norfolk

I first came to Norfolk when my husband worked at County Hall and I was expecting our first baby. From 1977 to 1987 we stayed in the village where I live now, which is handy for County Hall.

We tried to get to know Norfolk, but with three young children it limited what we could do. When my second daughter was seven months old we said, ‘Here we are in the Broads just living in the village next to the River Yare. We know nothing about this at all; we need to have a little holiday on the Broads.’ So in early May 1979 we took our two little girls and hired a boat at Chedgrave. We went down the River Waveney to Geldeston Locks. Returning we crossed the cutting at St. Olaves, came in at the staithe at Rockland St. Mary and said it would be nice to take the girls home for a bath. So we did. It wasn’t very warm so we let them sleep in their bunks and return to the boat in the morning. We visited friends in Bramerton further up the River Yare, then came back down to return the boat at the end of the week.

It was a lovely introduction to being on the river. I’ve got some lovely photos of the reeds, which weren’t green at that stage. The girls had their little life jackets on all the time, which absolutely swamped them because they were tiny.

I took two weekend courses through the adult education programme at Wensum Lodge. One course was about the Broads during the last fifty years. A young chap called Brian Moss, who was working at the University, talked about nutrients, phosphorous, and other  things going into the system which needed to be stripped out. About using different washing powder, and so on. He gave us some idea what the Broads were like.

The other course was by Professor Clayton of the University, who did a wonderful tour of places with coastal erosion, like Happisburgh, where houses were going over the cliffs. He explained longshore drift and what happens to Cromer’s beaches in the winter. This is very similar to what I knew in Sussex at Beachy Head, where the cliffs have crumbled into the sea, and Birling Gap was moving back. It was familiar but in a different context.

The second excursion into Norfolk

We returned to the South Coast for 14 years before coming back to Norfolk. My husband had been offered a job with the Broads Authority. He asked how I felt about going back to Norwich.  I wanted to live in Norwich, especially as they’d built the A47 bypass which cuts us [in Rockland] off from Norwich. So he started his job and house hunting while I stayed down in the South Coast. All kinds of things happened: we were gazumped, outbid, and we had to offer more than we wanted. We were pushed further out than we wanted to go. In the end a friend in the village rang up and told us so-and-so’s house down the street was for sale, and we should look at it. So in 2002 we returned to the same village, but across the road and half a mile further down.

My son had just left for university and I could do the things I couldn’t do before. I had an eye on the adult courses at How Hill. It’s mainly field studies for children but they do adult ones in between. There are all kinds of interesting things including the Broads, architecture, and the gardens of East Anglia.

All hands on deck

The Broads Authority hired three of the Wherry Yacht Charter’s wherries – Olive, Norada and Hathor – from May to early September. This was to show people around the Broads, and the history and origins of the wherries.

The owners of the Wherry Yacht Charter didn’t have enough people to sail the wherries all the time, and they aren’t something an amateur can sail by themselves. In the summer season the Broads Authority would let some staff go out and do a duty on the wherry so they would hold training days. Some didn’t want to be trained and were quite happy to sit on the shore, perhaps take bookings or explain things to people. It was time out in the country in the summer which was quite nice.

At the beginning of every training course they say, ‘Anybody can do this.’ There are some quite slight, young women who manage it well. I started doing this after retiring. My shoulders aren’t very strong but the winch work, winding up the sail or letting it down, isn’t so difficult as long as there are two of you doing it at the same speed. You need somebody about the same height and same work rate; otherwise you’d get hauled because things are going too fast to keep up. My legs are quite short so my reach is not as long as someone who is taller. It can be dodgy, but I managed the retraining this year.

What I haven’t done for years is attempt anything with a quant pole. The quant pole is the equivalent of a punt pole used to manoeuvre the wherry. It’s about 15 foot long, has a little fin and weighs a ton. I can balance it level, though.

The wherrymen were skilful with their quants. You can’t make a wherry progress against a strong wind or tide with a quant pole even with two people, one on either side. However, there’s such a weight to the boat that once underway it can go quickly. I’m really impressed when I see people do quanting properly, at how much speed it can get. It’s not a skill many people have nowadays.

Before wherries had motors, traditionally two people would each use a quant pole. To use it you have to be able to lift it vertically over the side of your boat and let it run through your fingers without dropping it, so it goes down to the bottom before the current pulls it away. If you’re not confident enough to let go or can’t lift it high enough to have a good plunge into the water, it gets gently dragged away from you and you can’t do anything about it.

The training involved rope skills, the sail and the gaff line. This is a long rope which goes up to the top of the sail where the end is connected to the end of a very heavy spar bar [this is the gaff] which holds the sail at the top. As you lower the sail the end of that piece of wood is going to crash down onto the carriage roof. You have to pull in the rope and get hold of the end of the gaff before it hits the roof. As it goes up you pay it out and fasten it when the sail is fully up.

With someone on the other side, I can probably still handle the huge sail 16 years later. It takes two people on the winch to winch up the sail which gets heavier when you start lifting the gaff at the top. There’s a gearing system, like gears on a bike, which goes quicker, but with not much pull. If the sail is heavy with rain or there’s a really strong wind then it may have to be taken down completely. In fact, in really strong winds the mast is still pushing along.

Some things sound quite simple but aren’t, like coiling a rope. You’d think it’s easy to coil a rope into even loops but it twists itself in an alarming way. I often had things which looked more like a figure of eight than an ‘o’, which didn’t sit properly on deck. Another is throwing a quite heavy rope when coming to land. You need to throw it so it doesn’t plop into the water, and requires someone on shore to catch it. You need to know how to moor so it doesn’t float away when you’re not looking; how to put out the fenders (those inflatable sausage shaped things) in the right place over the side if you’re mooring;  be able to do a round turn and half hitch. You don’t need many complicated knots, but I have papers of the basic knots I’m supposed to know. I revise those every year with the retraining.

Wherries aren’t something an amateur can sail by themselves, so there has to be at least a skipper and a mate. However, Peter Bower [founder of the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust] went single-handed round all the navigable staithes in the Broads. He worked with the tides – so a very skilful person can do it alone.

Sailing on Barton Broad (Broads Authority)

The evolution of wherry use on the Broads

The roads in the 1700s and the 1800s were bad so heavy goods were carried by river in barges or wherries in Norfolk. These were the heydays of wherries. The mid-1800s saw the railways taking these heavy loads because they could travel more regularly and reliably. Wherries were dependent on the wind and tide, and gradually wherrymen found it increasingly difficult for trade.

The mid-1800s also saw the Victorians discover the nice day out on the Broads: if the cargo wherries replaced the nasty black, tarry sail and used something clean and white, installed a few chairs and a little home comfort. By doing this the wherrymen could make more money in the summer taking tourists out on day trips than they could by taking cargo. So they converted more wherries as the cargo trade was falling away.

The railways allowed more people to travel than previously, so it wasn’t just people who had their own carriages who took holidays. It wasn’t for the very poor, but third class train travel was affordable. The railways brought the holidaymakers and the wherry changed from being a working boat to a pleasure boat. The appearance and facilities adapted to accommodate the people. The boat builders realised they could make a good living by making the facilities nicer, and hiring the boats out with a skipper and steward. The steward was sort of a mate to the skipper when sailing, and waited on the people when not. Some wherries had no galley or kitchen facilities. We reckon they used riverside pubs, brought hampers or something like that.

The height of wherry boating was soon after the turn of the twentieth century. Hathor is a pleasure wherry, with the skipper’s well right in the stern. On her, nowhere is safe for passengers on deck, when the sail was being raised or lowered.

Olive and Norada are wherry yachts, with the raised counter-stern behind the skipper’s well, where passengers can have a good view over the carriage roof, while being completely out to the way of sail, ropes, etc.

Wherry sails are made of a heavy canvas. You can tell what kind of wherry it is by the sail; white sails carry people rather than cargo. For example, the Albion – which has its own Trust – has a black sail. Traditional cargo wherry sails were black because they were treated with tar and herring oil to extend their life. But Hathor always had a white sail because it was never a working boat.

The story of Hathor

During the Heritage Open Days I’ve related the story of Hathor to visitors. Hathor has moored at Pull’s Ferry for several years and at How Hill last year, I believe. School children come with their schools to see it from May onwards.

There’s a connection between Hathor and How Hill because of the Boardman family.

Jeremiah J. Colman, who’d moved the mustard works to Carrow Road, had several children: Russell, who became Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, Ethel, Helen, Laura, Florence and Alan. In the late 1800s, Alan became ill with TB and they sent him to Egypt, with a couple of his sisters, to see if it would help with his lungs. He got bored and wasn’t feeling much better in the hotel, so they took the opportunity to take a Nile cruise on a dahabeah whose name was Hathor. This is the name of the goddess of love and joy, of the sky, and of the west. They got down as far as Luxor where Alan died at the age of 30.

Florence married Edward T. Boardman [a Norwich architect, like his father, Edward Boardman] and they all liked messing around with boats and getting out of Norwich sometimes. The spinster sisters, Ethel and Helen, commissioned a boat in memory of Alan. Edward got a friend to research Egyptian motifs in the British Museum to send him detailed drawings and explain what they meant.

Hathor’s hull was built by Hall’s in Reedham, who built a lot of working wherries. The sisters specified the hull be made of British oak with no knots or faults of any sort. She has this wonderful Egyptian-themed interior which was carried out by craftsmen in teak and sycamore. The sycamore is the light coloured wood which has been stained for use in the yellow, green and pink lotus design in the saloon. Hathor cost over £2,000 with the interior costing about three times as much as the hull; it was a terrific sum at the time for this boat.

The Colman and Boardman families enjoyed Hathor for almost 50 years. It sailed most summers, except during the Second World War, and they reckon some years it did a thousand miles. They also lent or hired it out to friends. There’s a very interesting visitors’ book with signatures from people like Gustav Holst. They knew the best people these families!

For Hathor’s centenary in 2005, Peter Bower had it restored again. There’s a wry note in Peter Bower’s restoration notes [from the 1980s] saying it’s obvious Edward Boardman was an architect and not a sailor, because sycamore is very bad wood to put near water as it warps and moulders; whereas teak and oak are tried and tested woods for boats.

Hathor (Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust – C.Tate)

The How Hill connection

Edward T. Boardman was the architect who had built How Hill as a sort of country retreat. A basic house with the front door in the middle, no carriageway up to the front of the house, because it would spoil the view of the Broads and the River Ant. It was an Arts and Crafts house of the period. I think it was modest compared with the ‘butterfly’ ones at Holt and Happisburgh.

The Boardman family went on to be quite professional sailors and outgrew the old family wherry thing. Christopher Boardman was in a yachting team in the 1936 Olympics – the Hitler Olympics – and won a gold medal. Gold medallists were presented with an oak sapling by Hitler. Until recent years the oak was behind the house at How Hill. It got a disease a few years ago and had to be cut down. The stump is still there in front of the study centre. There’s a little plaque which apparently says ‘Olympic oak’, because someone objected to Hitler being credited so the inscription was altered. It does explain how it was won by Christopher Boardman and there’s a sailing boat carved at the top too.

The previous director of How Hill, David Holmes, said somebody from Kew Gardens visited and was jealous because the oak they had had already died.

There’s also the story of when Margaret Thatcher visited How Hill. She was taken to meet Eric Edwards who was a real character. He had to demonstrate things to her and she wanted to have a go. He actually laid hands on her to guide her because she was doing things incorrectly, and got away with it. He was just that sort of person who was lovely.

Eric Edwards (Copyright Maurice Gray)

Eric was the last traditional marshman working for the Broads Authority. When they held an open day somewhere he would give demonstrations. At an architecture course about thatching, he demonstrated the difference between sedge and reed, and how they were used for thatching. He showed how they used sedge for the ridge of the roof, and also how Norfolk reeds are better than the cheaper, imported reeds from Poland. After he retired from the Broads Authority he was helping in the gardens.  He was so affable and always had his red neckerchief; it was always so photogenic. He died quite recently and there was a very big service for him in Ludham church with many people who’d known him over the years in attendance.

And after all this time

I’ve enjoyed all these things and getting to know and talk about wherries, talking to people who came on the wherries as children who remember sugar beet being uploaded at Woods End at Bramerton. Occasionally I meet people who catch you out! Someone this year came from a village near where I live and I started by asking if they knew much about wherries. They said to assume they didn’t, so I gave my usual explanation of Hathor. At the end, they said, ‘We have here a member of the Boardman family.’ So I asked if it was all right and she said, ‘Yes, you got it about right.’ I was relieved.!

Hathor is pronounced ‘heart-or’. We had one chap who said we were totally wrong and it was definitely ‘ha-ther’. I’m sure Peter Bower checked his sources there perfectly well!

One of my daughters lives in Hastings on the South Coast near where I lived previously. I was driving down there with my son last year through the Weald of Kent which I always loved. I suddenly felt quite claustrophobic with the trees coming over. I thought that I had always liked these kinds of places and wondered why I don’t like it now. I realised I had become a sufficiently Norfolk person to really miss having open sky above me.

Brenda 2018

Brenda Packman (b. 1942)  talking to WISEArchive on 5th November 2018 at Rockland St Mary.

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