Water is a precious resource, used for drinking and in food production, and it supports rare wetland habitats and species. Water quality is affected by sediment, and by chemicals such as phosphates and nitrates, generated from industry, agriculture and homes.
Water from two-thirds of Norfolk and part of Suffolk, known as the Broads catchment, flows downstream and drains into the water in the ground.
What lies below
Drilling a borehole using a rig (shown left) you will pass through many geological layers. One of these is chalk within which flint, widely used as a building material in Norfolk and Suffolk, can be found.
Towns and rivers
Rivers were once important networks for transporting goods and materials between Europe and our local cities and towns. These international links have influenced place names, architectural styles and the development of drainage systems.
Broads are the remains of peat diggings. In the Middle Ages, about 700-900 years ago, peat was dug to burn as fuel.
The diggings flooded as sea levels rose, creating today’s shallow lakes or broads which gave the area its name. There are around 50 named broads. Hickling, at about 140 hectares, is the largest of these artificial lakes.
The Broads has the most extensive areas of wet woodland in lowland Britain.
These woods of alder, birch and willow species often grow on semi-floating reed swamp called hover. Unusual plants grow in the wet woodland, such as great tussock sedge, which creates a habitat like a block of flats for insects.
Boats are part of the Broads landscape and leisure boating is an important part of the local economy. Some holiday cruisers are large and even have Jacuzzis on board!
Sailing is popular – the narrow rivers test sailing ability. You might even see Albion or Maud sailing. They are surviving examples of trading wherries, boats used for transporting goods and materials.
Fen is a habitat found on peat soils. Its rich plant life provides a valuable food source for insects. Fen is the most important habitat for supporting rare species in the Broads such as the Swallowtail butterfly.
Reed is a common sight here.
Its seasonal change of colour from green to dark purple, then golden brown, and the sound of it rustling in the wind, are very distinctive. Managing reedbeds and harvesting the reeds has benefits for conservation and supplies reed for the thatching industry.
Drainage mills punctuate the skyline of the grazing marshes. They were built to harness wind power to drive the machinery which pumped water from the marshes along dykes into the rivers. Today, small, electric-powered pumping stations, often near drainage mills, serve the same purpose.
Grazing marshes are flat, quiet landscapes with expansive views. The water levels in the extensive dyke networks are artificially controlled which allows the grazing marshes to be kept drier for arable farming and wetter for wildlife conservation.
The Broads is only about 0.1% of the UK’s area, but it has more than a quarter of the UK’s most rare and threatened species. Some of these, such as the swallowtail, Britain’s largest butterfly, only live in the Broads. Swallowtails lay their eggs on milk parsley, a tall plant
The flood banks here were constructed many centuries ago.
They have been raised and widened over time, and they protect the valuable farmland from damaging saltwater flooding.
Staithes and moorings
In the past cargo was loaded and unloaded at public, private or parish staithes (from the Anglo-Saxon word staeth).
They were established when rivers were the only highways. Today, many are used for mooring holiday boats. Other moorings can be found at boat yards, marinas and along the rivers. Moorings often have an edge or quay heading of wood or steel, which is not friendly to wildlife.
Towns and villages
Few of these lie totally within the Broads.They are mostly hidden away on the edges, along the roads that follow the valleys.
But some do cluster around the staithes, at the water’s edge. When the Broads became a popular holiday destination, before the First World War, people started building holiday chalets along the rivers.
Past lives and ways of living
Past lives and ways of living have helped create the landscape of today.
40% of the Broads is grazing marsh.
Traditionally, these marshes are used for cattle, and also provide valuable wildlife habitat. Due to economic pressures, sometimes marshes are ploughed for arable crops which usually need lower water levels and more fertilizer.
One of the best ways to see the Broads landscape is from the numerous footpath routes established over centuries.
Boating will provide a different perspective while journeying by rail across the wide, open marshes is a unique experience.
Breydon - a haven for birds
At low tide its mudflats are good feeding grounds for wading birds. It’s an internationally important place for over 100,000 wild birds which spend the winter here on our shores.
The great estuary
The land which is now grazing marsh used to be part of a huge estuary.
Breydon Water is all that remains of it. The curvy dykes within the marshes are the remains of estuary creeks where the sea ran in. Hear the story.
People enjoying the landscape
Peace and quiet, expansive views and big skies, being close to wildlife, great fishing, marvellous sunsets, taking photos, boating, walking, being away from it all, having fun, memories – these are all reasons people love being in the Broads.
Landscapes are always changing.
Over the centuries people here have adapted to changing climates too. These changes are likely to happen more quickly in the future. How will the Broads adapt?
The soft rocks and soils of the coast are eroded by the sea.
Many Norfolk and Suffolk villages been lost over the centuries due to coastal erosion. With sea levels rising, the rate of erosion is likely to increase.
Journey through the Broads
Discover how the Broads was formed, how people have shaped the landscape and find out what makes the national park unique.
+When you see this icon, click on it to learn about the features.
›Click the arrows on each side of your screen to move the panorama.
At the end of your journey downstream you will be signposted to more information about what you have just seen, or about where you live in the Broads. Begin your Journey