The landscape history of the Norfolk Broads

October 2014

It is never the intention of these articles to pass on word-for-word everything our guest had to say. When Professor Tom Williamson is speaking there would be no point in even beginning to try. It would have filled the whole web site and more. So here are a few snippets. But first, the kind email he sent the following day:

Next time the group meet please tell them I thought they were a lovely bunch. I didn't particularly feel like coming out on a wet Saturday night, to be honest, but you all made me so welcome and asked such interesting questions that I enjoyed myself greatly.

What is landscape history? Thousands of years ago ice sheets dumped piles of stony clay on top of the underlying rock. Rivers cut shallow valleys and laid down sand and silt. Then the sea threw up drifting sand and shingle ridges that blocked the rivers so that salt marshes developed behind the dunes and fens developed further up the valleys. All that is Geography, and that would have been it, if humans hadn’t come along and changed everything. What we have done is made use of that landscape - changed it - and that is Landscape History.

Ancient monuments in the marshes: there was a huge salt marsh inland of what became Great Yarmouth, called Halvergate Marsh. Like most land not much use for farming, the Lord of the Manor generously left it for the ordinary people to use, generally to graze sheep from the surrounding parishes during the summer. But why did places miles away, such as South Walsham, have rights to use parts of Halvergate Marsh? Surely sheep weren’t moved about to that extent. The Domesday Book provided the answer. South Walsham is recorded as having two salt-pans. Where else could they have been but in the salt marsh? Flooded by the sea every winter the water was ponded-up to evaporate in the summer, leaving a layer of gritty but invaluable salt. During the 11th Century the marshes were drained and many of the ditches dug are still there today, largely disregarded, but actually ancient monuments older than our Parish Churches.

Who dug out the Broads? The Broads are in the fens of the upper valleys where great depths of peat developed over thousands of years. We are generally given the impression that great pits were cut into the peat by the nearby monasteries, became flooded, and so created the Broads. But ordinary mediaeval folk needed peat as well and they were allocated strips of fenland just as they were in the open fields of farming areas. Under-water investigation has revealed a pattern of cut strips separated by ridges, ending neatly at parish boundaries. So it isn’t only the monks we have to thank for our unique watery landscape.

From 1702 onwards wind pumps sprang up throughout The Broads, draining the land and expanding agricultural output. Peat cutting continued right into the early Twentieth Century, when this picture was taken, and the fens were still providing hay for the horses in London until the 1920s. But then demand fell and the Norfolk Broads’ own particular Industrial Revolution came to an end.

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