The Broads is a network of rivers and lakes criss-crossing the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk in East Anglia, England. The landscape is dotted with churches and windmills, and contains a breathtaking diversity of wildlife and rare species. Boats of many shapes and sizes make their way around the Broads as visitors enjoy the peace and natural beauty of the area. Most are well aware of the fragility of environments such as this, and the need to maintain the delicate balance between business and nature. Author and filmmaker Joe Jackson grew up in Potter Heigham on the River Thurne, which today is a major hub for boat hire. As a child he explored the local landscape and learned about the history and wildlife of the area. Today he offers expert guidance to visitors. When Speak Up met with Jackson, we began by asking him about the natural highlights of the Broads. 

Joe Jackson (English accent): There’s a couple of places that I think are really special that not many people know about. There’s a little place called Alderfen Broad, which is a nature reserve. And there’s a little boardwalk just nearby as well. And you can either moor up at Irstead Staithe or park up. And it’s about a twenty-twenty-five minute walk. But you can’t get there by boat, you can only get there on foot. And there’s a viewpoint that overlooks Barton Broad. And most of the time, me and my mum used to sit there for hours, and there’s no one coming. It’s just literally the whole place to ourselves.

boats or boots

There are hundreds of footpaths around the Broads and many kilometres of waterways to explore by boat. We asked Jackson what the best way was to enjoy the park.

Joe Jackson: I would hire a boat, find out some nice places that I’d want to visit, and then moor up and then head out and walk from there. So I would spend minimal time cruising around on the boat, more time with the walking boots on and exploring out from there. You get the best of both worlds: you get the waterways, you get the wildlife along that side, and then you get the marshland and the reedbed. And you get all of the benefits of being out in nature in that side as well.

listen carefully

This is not just a boating habitat, however. Reeds from the reedbeds are used for thatching. And there is a greater variety of wildlife here than in any other national park in Britain. Rare species such as otters, European cranes, bitterns, hawker dragonflies and swallowtail butterflies share their environment with the human visitors. Jackson is an expert on wildlife in the area. To spot it, he advises, you have to have to use your ears as much as your eyes.

Joe Jackson: You get your more common species like kingfishers, which a lot of people would never have seen, but they are relatively common around the Broads. But you get to more specialist species like marsh harriers. And you can be cruising down the River Bure or the River Ant, or something like that, and have marsh harriers fly over and people might assume it’s just a buzzard, but actually they’re a very, very rare species of raptor. I think there’s probably only  five hundred breeding pairs. Things like bitterns, when they’re booming in spring, they sound like someone is blowing on the top of a bottle. And for people who don’t know what it sounds like, they might just assume it’s just some kind of background noise they’re hearing, but actually they’re an incredibly rare species of bird as well. And another favorite of mine are the bearded reedlings, which are a little tiny bird. They’re bright orange and they ping, they’re call is like a little ping. And if you hear them, they’re just amazing birds. They just live in the reedbeds. So mammals, plenty of otters. They’ll keep away from the main rivers, so the best chance of seeing them is either following a footpath alongside a narrow channel or going around one of the nature reserves where the boats are not allowed.

flood defences

The Broads lies just a few kilometres inland from a fast-eroding coast. The region was created by rising sea levels and made habitable by pumping water and building sea defences. In recent decades, flood defences have been strengthened, but at some point in the future, climate change is sure to have an impact, as Jackson explains.

Joe Jackson: Eventually, if sea levels do rise, it is going to flood at some point. Historically it used to be a massive estuary anyway. Thousands of years ago the whole Broads was a big estuary from Great Yarmouth. Eventually it’s going to turn back into that because you can’t hold back the sea if it keeps rising and rising and rising.