One Woman and her Dog | Boating on the Norfolk Broads
I'm sure Little Rea could paw out this blog with great enthusiasm, but I have a feeling it wouldn't be very objective, not when there were so many ducks around to feed her excitement and imagination. She has a thing for ducks – eating them roasted if she could – but mainly watching them from afar while wondering if she can escape her lead to have a good sniff.
Her interpretation of this adventure would also be totally different to mine. She loved it ... every aspect of it, from waking up in the mornings and getting a duck-sniff (or two) in, early morning walks, the breeze on her moustache, the people who stopped to tickle her chin, the new scents to snort, and generally life on the seas. There were only two things she hated - the swans (vicious pretty little things) and her life jacket.
I think I had immediate trepidations over this particular adventure. I hadn't been on a boat since I was in my early twenties and I'd never been on one on my own, with a curious little dog in tow. Concerns kept me awake on many nights, as I pondered all the things that could go wrong ... and many of them did.
Firstly, hiring a boat as a solo traveller is near impossible. Barnes Brinkcraft were the only boatyard on the North Broads to accept us. The smallest boat I could hire was the Moorhen. It was well equipped and fairly easy to moor (at the start of it all). However, it was extremely small and although it is designed for two people, I wouldn't suggest it. The bed was like sleeping in Harry Potter's cupboard, without any magic powers – or Butterbeer. It also had a persistent smell of sewage because, I am assuming, it is just so old and with an over-used sewage tank; whatever the reason, I was glad there was little rain because I could have the windows open all day as we sailed ... the breeze dragging the stench behind us (poor boats following must have wondered what had been eaten on the Moorhen). There she goes, the whiffy one and her dog.
I was given an induction on how to moor, and how to handle the boat. There were a few things I wasn't informed of, such as how to read the speedometer which was in revs-per-minute but the waterways were in miles-per-hour, and also, how to tie proper mooring knots. The latter wasn't overly important but I like to embrace the lifestyle as much as possible – and I am a geek, of course. Fortunately, along the way, I chatted to other water-folk and gleaned lots of useful information.
After casting off, we headed to Salhouse, recommended to us by one of our lovely followers on Facebook, Diana, who spent a great deal of time generously giving us tips of all the best places to moor up, especially for dog walks and dog friendly pubs. Salhouse was our first big challenge as we had to moor stern on (reverse the back-end in). After two attempts and a huge swing around, I managed it – with great thanks to the neighbouring crew.
Our night at Salhouse was perfect. The sun set on the water, and we sat together to watch our first night fade on the horizon. As we did, party boats drifted by with Elvis Presley singing in the distance, and the sound of laughter. It wasn't quite what I had expected: Elvis Presley resounding in the tranquillity of trees bustling and geese splashing their landings on the peaceful waters, but I liked it. Our late night walk took us through small groups on the river banks, sharing BBQs, beers and fun. Despite all this, it somehow still felt quite peaceful, and it was good to hear Elvis making a comeback ...who'd have thought.
We were captains of our own little boat and curled up that night, with our fairy lights on, and happiness in our hearts. A new adventure together had begun, and we, as best friends, shared the pillows and the duvet, in complete contentment.
Before casting off and heading to our next stop, Stalham, we enjoyed a long walk in the wooded area of Salhouse and Rea took in some good off-lead exercise. For anyone travelling this way on the Broads, it is a lovely spot, and there is a pub about a mile and a half through the wooded walk that is exceptionally dog friendly (so rumour has it amongst the seafaring folk), called the Fur & Feather Inn. We didn't' get that far as it was a bit too dark for us to be walking on our own back from it and although Rea thinks she is sometimes a Rottweiler, she really isn't ... I just can't tell her this as it would dash her self-esteem.
As we sailed away, we discovered Boardman's Windmill at How Hill, where we moored up and went for a lovely walk. It was our first time mooring port-side on and thankfully, a lovely chap came to our rescue and grabbed our strategically placed ropes before I had chance to even think about what I was doing.
This is a fabulous place to stop off for a spot of lunch, a walk, an ice-cream and some swan watching. It's fairly pond like water and there are quite a few mooring places.
Our first full day and everything was going beautifully: the Broads were everything I remembered them to be ... busy, yet peaceful and calm. Rea was adapting to her new routine wonderfully. She had her life-jacket (bone of contention between us), was on a lead long enough for her to move around but not to jump over the edge, and we had discovered that if she sat on a pile of cushions, she could see everything without having to constantly be standing up and leaning out. She spent many hours sitting like this, with her nose twitching and the breeze in her curls. Happy little dog.
There were, however, moments when she wasn't as impressed ...
Which caused some heated discussions between us and resulted in a mutiny by day three!
Our next stop, Stalham, was an unusual mooring as we had to reverse in as well as moor at an angle so I was grateful for the help we received yet again.
Everything was still going so well for us but then that morning, my toothbrush snapped, and I knew I couldn't go a week with just using the head of it. There are some things a girl can't live without and what a couple with a dog might take for granted, or a person without a dog wouldn't understand, is how do you buy a new one? Something as simple as buying a toothbrush can suddenly require a masterplan of logistical 'Mission Impossible' forethought, with visualisations of Tom Cruise sliding down ropes – a torch strapped to his chest and droplets of sweat on his eyelashes. This is suddenly who I had to become, Tam Cruise from Mission Impooable.
Arriving on a Sunday meant the local shops were closed by the time we had moored and the only place I could find was Tesco. We all know that most supermarkets don't let in dogs just because they are cute or well behaved, but I had no choice and propped Little Rea reluctantly in the trolley. In my head, the music was playing, we were dressed in black sweaters and had gadget belts around our waists. We went in, dashing past security and hoping not to be seen. Of course, we were, within seconds, and were almost chased down the aisle as a lady yelled behind us to stop. We had nowhere to hide, and pulled over, shamed ... So I didn't make an effective Tam Cruise, and Little Rea wasn't really able to shoot a crossbow to the toothbrush aisle.
But my girl and I are always a team, and as I chatted to the supervisor, she gave some of those cute nose nudges that are more irresistible than chocolate puddings from M&S, with melting centres that ooze onto the plate. Explaining that all I needed was a toothbrush otherwise not even the dog would talk to me all week, the supervisor gave us seven minutes (random amount of time but enough for one woman and her Poo in a trolley to buy some essentials).
Our lesson here was that whatever our emergency when we travel, people want to help, and even if it is a toothbrush to avoid being stinky, they seem to understand. So thank you to Tesco's at Stalham, you saved me a massive bill from the dentist (and much embarrassment).
With that emergency over, and a little bit of drama that made us smile for the evening, we snuggled down to a home-cooked meal on the Moorhen, and sat out on the back of the boat to watch the dusk slipping us into a second night of being snuggled close to each other in our Harry Potter cupboard.
The next morning, after a quick walk, we headed to Womack Staithe. We'd been told that this was a beautiful part of the Broads and were looking forward to mooring up for most of the day, with a long walk, some book reading, and just breathing in the peace. We weren't disappointed and were so lucky to get a mooring spot because there aren't that many – it was already full at lunchtime, except for our little space. Mooring at Womack was difficult because the current was starting to pick up and it took three attempts to steer us stern in. As if my frustrations had been heard, two wonderful gentlemen appeared and grabbed our ropes to straighten us out and pull us in. At this point, I hadn't needed to worry about mooring entirely by myself because the amazing people of the Broads had helped me every step of the way. The minute they realised that Little Rea was my only crew member was the minute I was embraced for my courage, and helped beyond my expectations.
We loved Womack Staithe. It is one of our favourite places on the Broads because it is everything we wanted. The Big Shop, with Jo, is one of the dog-friendliest shops we have ever been in. Jo and Rea had a love affair, and I was made the perfect frothy decaffeinated cappuccino while we chatted and spent some time sitting outside ... the world passing us gently by. Jo is so lovely that she even helped by casting us off the next morning.
The best part of Womack Staithe has to be the sun setting on the water in the peacefulness of ducks, geese and swans dancing their webbed feet on the orange reflections. This was what it was all about.
Our next stop was Hickling, but the sail to it was where things started to feel like I had taken a challenge too far. Firstly, to get there, mooring is required at Potter Heigham Bridge so a pilot can drive the boat under. It's a busy and commercially active part of the Broads because it has a large local shop full of things a person can buy but really doesn't need, as well as much needed food supplies. There are coffee places, chips shops, sausage huts, and best of all, a good long walk to the windmill, which after a certain point Rea was allowed to go off lead for.
Potter Heigham is where our little adventures started to transform into a series of mini nightmares, however. Mooring up, which hadn't felt too difficult before, suddenly became impossible – mission impossible. The current had picked up so strongly, and the wind was blowing us in circles as I tried to bring the Moorhen in, side on. After five attempts, with the boat spinning in circles, like boys doing handbrake doughnuts on a Saturday night in their new Ford Escorts, I started to feel slightly stranded. Common sense told me to take us to the Herbert Woods boatyard because I assumed the current and wind would be less there. On entry, there is a sign that says 'visiting boats to the right' so I did just that. I don't usually follow the rules, but I knew it wasn't a time to be belligerent.
Following those rules did me no favours because I ended up in a cul-de-sac of moored boats with a current so strong that I couldn't turn the Moorhen around. We were surrounded behind enemy lines and all boats were aimed at us. When this happens, in hostile territory, and everything is coming at you, with boats knocking against your port and starboard sides, and a current that makes it sound like you are experiencing a Titanic moment without Kate or Leonardo to offer some profound and comforting platitude, you know you are going to die ... and no one will know where you are, or where you have been.
Until of course, you find yourself an Alan to call out to. Who needs Tom Cruise or Leonardo, when you find your Alan.
Alan, our hero, saw that I had decided to play dead. What else could I do ... I had nowhere to go and could go nowhere, so I had turned off the engine and flopped my distressed head onto the wheel, amidst the fairy lights – what better place is there to die?
Only we weren't dying ... Alan jumped onto the boat, his Herbert Woods cape flowing behind him in the force of the storm and he battled the lashings of the current, and took us to dry land.
We were saved. We were also stupid, but I am so glad we were because when Alan left, telling us not to move for the night, we snuck out with the help of the Bridge Pilot, and went under the bridge, to escape the commercialness of Potter Heigham.
This escape took us to Hickling, but we had to sail rough seas and tackle strong currents to get there. We conquered these obstacles like possessed women because firstly, we were actually scared of the chopping waters under the hull, but also because we needed to find our sense of peace and beauty again. Hickling had become our idea of Broad Heaven, and we were going to get there against all the odds.
We didn't just find a beautiful place to moor, where very few other boats had ventured due to the oncoming storm, but we also found the delight of the Pleasure Boat pub: dog friendly, and with gentle live music playing in back room. The challenges of our journey were all worth it.
The Pleasure Boat Inn was a gorgeous little place to stay, and the mooring at Hickling was perfect. I don't know what it would be like at peak season, or in better weather, but we were so lucky to find a spot, and enjoy the beauty of the location. Waking up there was the best morning we'd had because the sun rose as the ducks came out to play, and we sat for hours watching them. Little Rea got so excited that she couldn't stop shaking (video on her Facebook page).
But Hickling was our last part of the adventure because being secluded, I hadn't realised just how bad the weather had turned back at Potter Heigham, and as we sailed back down around lunchtime, the currents were too strong for the Moorhen, and she fought her way back to the Bridge Pilot base. The little boat almost burst her engines getting us back across the Broad and down the River Thurne. When we reached the Pilot, even he recommended mooring up for the night, and he was a real Jack Sparrow. I decided our safety at this stage was more important than breaking the rules, so agreed, and he moored the little boat before running off to save other novice sailors.
That night, I packed up most of our belongings after reading the weather warnings and realising that the remainder of our week would be much the same. There are times when a girl has to admit defeat. Boating on such an old boat, with a little dog who is more than just a precious part of my life, at a time when the weather was against us, meant I had to realise our capabilities as solo travellers. It bothered me that we were being defeated by the elements, but I'll come to how we handled that...
Feeling sad and frustrated, we took ourselves off for our last Boating holiday walk, drank hot chocolate on the back of the Moorhen, watched the ducks, almost fought with the swan who tried to eat my phone and hunkered down as the wind decided to bounce the boat on the waves underneath.
The next morning, Barnes Brinkcraft came to get us – damsels in distress. They came to get two other couples too, who had decided the current was too strong for them to handle; this made me feel much better, and that we hadn't been failures after all.
Betty, our faithful chariot, was a sight of joy when we first saw her, and to be quite frank, I was thoroughly pleased to be on solid ground again.
Why? Well, the Moorhen really did stink. I know melodrama and creative embellishment is part of who we are, but living with the smell of sewage, especially when it isn't your own, really is unpleasant. It permeates your nostrils, your clothes, and even sometimes the food. It took me a few days to stop smelling that little boat.
Primarily though, this really was an adventure too far for us – for me. Little Rea loved it, and as I mentioned when I started this, her account would have been ducks, swans, ducks, sniffs, swans and more ducks. She was in heaven ... but I wasn't. I like the challenge of travelling solo, and the independence it brings, but being on a boat is very different from any other adventure we have had. Once you set off, you can't just pull over if you have forgotten something. If I didn't tether Rea at the right length of her lead, she could have easily have jumped, so I had to get that right before casting off. If I forgot my drink, or my snacks, my glasses, my maps, or anything else I wanted near me, I couldn't just pull over to get it. If I forgot to turn the radio on, then the three-hour drive would be in silence: that sounds lovely, but I find peace in music, especially when I travel, so it was almost like a check-list as I learnt what I did and didn't need before moving to the next mooring. On this note, there is no chance for a coffee, a biscuit, or a loo break. If Rea's stomach had been upset, it would have been a difficult thing to manoeuvre on my own.
Added to this, the mooring ... as much as I was helped nearly every step of the way by the wonderful people of the Broads, be they locals or visitors, there were times when no one was around, and mooring against the winds and currents was too much for just me. The current can take the back or front end of the boat away from the mooring and then it is a struggle and panic to pull it all back under control.
There is no question that Rea and I had an amazing few days. We made some memories together that I will never forget. I took my little girl on an adventure, and she loved every minute of it (despite the lifejacket and outfits ... and mutiny). Adventures with her teach me I can do anything, including admitting that there are some things I can do but don't enjoy doing. This adventure was one of those moments ... we did it, we can do it, but I don't want to do it ever again.
That's not to say I wouldn't take us back to the Broads because I would; I love it there, but next time, I think we will hire a little waterside cottage and a day boat ... we can handle that no problem. For couples and their dogs, it is a fantastic holiday, but for the solo traveller with just a little fluffy Poo as their crew, all the elements need to be in your favour, and they weren't for us. One of the things I always want to achieve, is to show all those sole travellers out there that they can do anything they want, and that challenges can be overcome. We overcame most of them on this adventure, but there is no point in continuing if you feel unsafe, or aren't enjoying it. My enjoyment stopped when I knew that the weather was turning and things would become more difficult than I wanted to experience.
I'm glad we did it together. I'm glad that I shared a few days with strangers helping us out and I'm glad we overcame some of the concerns that kept me awake at night before we went. There isn't a nicer bunch of merry sailors than there are on the Broads and there is nothing more heart-melting than sitting on the back of the boat with a warm mug in your hands, and a little fluffy dog curled next to your legs, as you watch the sun set, or the sun rise, with ducks sploshing, and geese landing. I'm not going to mention the swans again as Little Rea and my iPhone are still having nightmares.
So what did we do next? Well we didn't give up on finishing our adventures, and thanks to our designated wing-woman, KT, we found a perfect hotel in Cambridge, and finished our adventure at the Hotel du Vin, with a little bit of punting (Cambridge blog to follow)
Thank you for reading and sharing with us. You make it fun.
Little Rea & London Julie