Cruising Norfolk: Essential guide to Britain’s best kept secret coast

Azimut owner and professional photographer Simon Finlay shares the joys of cruising the Norfolk Broads and other East Coast pleasures

Can you remember the first time at sea in your own boat? For us it was a seminal moment. Behind us lay a tranquil cruise through the Norfolk Broads, two bridge lifts and a steady run past the historic quays and industrial relics of the past. Ahead loomed the dark foreboding piers of Great Yarmouth and those strong protective buttresses that lead to the open sea.

This was our coastal debut, our initiation ceremony, our first taste of sea air and salt spray on board our own boat. OUR OWN BOAT. We were actually going to sea in our own boat!

As we left the sanctuary of the river and into a slight sea swell I pushed forward on the throttles of our Sealine S34 Venus. The high-pitched whine of the superchargers on our Volvo KAD32 engines kicked in, the bow raised as she climbed over her own bow wave and then, as the turbochargers took over, she started to surge ahead with real purpose and determination.


The Norfolk Yacht Agency Cruising Club directs the charge out to sea

The canopies were off, a gentle breeze cascaded over the screen and I cheered out loud at the sheer joy of it all. We were at sea, at speed, in the company of our fellow Norfolk Yacht Agency cruising club members on our first big adventure!

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Broadly speaking

It was a few years ago now but the memory remains as sharp as ever. We have always been based in Brundall, Norfolk but started our boating life when I returned from an overseas assignment to hear my wife say the immortal words: “Darling, I have seen a boat I really like.”

A few weeks later and we were cruising the Broads in our own Sealine S240, a great starter boat for us to cut our teeth on. A couple of years of Broads cruising later, a change up to the S34 and we were ready for our open sea debut. Having now got the taste for coastal cruising and wanting a boat that would allow us to stay on board longer and explore further we upgraded to our current boat, an Azimut 42 called Astralis.

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I know that many South Coast and Mediterranean boaters like to dismiss the Norfolk Broads and East Coast as all brown water, muddy marshes and rental boats, but those of us who live here know better.

The Norfolk Broads can be divided into two areas: the southern side with its big skies, open vistas and fabulous wildlife, and the northern side with its sheltered broads and air-draft restricted channels, which is where most of the holiday hire boats flock. We keep to the southern side, partly due to our air draft but also because of the choice of moorings and pubs.

From Norwich to Great Yarmouth the river Yare meanders through a gentle, shallow-sided tree-lined valley, instantly dismissing the notion that Norfolk is totally flat! Next comes Bramerton, a favourite stop of ours with moorings on the common sheltered by ancient woodlands and with views across the valley.


A Sealine S43 meanders its way along the River Yare at Brundall

Kingfishers and otters are part of the attraction as is the Water’s Edge pub, which has hosted us on many boating parties – mooring alongside dressed as Dracula for a Halloween party springs to mind!

From there we head downstream, often stopping at The Surlingham Ferry for great value food and good beer before passing our base at Brundall. Here the valley opens out, gradually revealing the low lying marshes with their lush summer grazing and iconic Broads wind pumps cutting into the sky. The river starts to widen as it cuts a meandering path past further pubs, inlets for private moorings and the Cantley sugar beet factory.

Just past this the Reedham Ferry pub is another great place to stop for lunch on the quay, with a good local ale while you watch cars, bikes and pedestrians being dragged across the river on the chain ferry that has been there since the 1770s.


Passing the historic Reedham chain ferry

It’s a favourite meeting point for cruises in company before heading out to sea, where anticipation rises, drinks are downed and last year the biggest thunderstorm I have ever witnessed kept us up far longer than we should have been, but the pub stayed open!

After this comes Reedham village, another great stopping point but now there is more to consider for the skipper. The river is tidal and can run fast towards the next hurdle of the railway swing bridge, but a call on the radio will often give you the next opening time or if you’re very lucky: “I’ll open it for you now.”

The downside is that it’s an old structure that during the summer often gets stuck due to the heat, much to the annoyance of river users – strangely, it never gets stuck open so the trains can’t use it! That’s one of the reasons why in summer we travel early or late, enjoying the sight of the dawn mist rising off the low marshes.


Early morning mist rises over the Broads

And then a choice, the river splits, do we turn to port and go to sea via Yarmouth or stay on the Broads and head for Lowestoft, where we can access the sea via Oulton Broad or turn down the Waveney Valley to Beccles?

Historic Yarmouth

Opt for straight ahead and it’s a very pretty cruise up river leading to the lovely market town of Beccles. The road bridge limits access for taller craft but there are moorings before it and a pleasant walk into town for provisions, food, entertainment and the pretty quay area.

Back downstream is Oulton Broad with its choice of pubs, restaurants and the lock, which gives you access to Lowestoft and the sea beyond. We like to moor up at the yacht station and, with glass in hand, watch the powerboat racing on a summer’s evening as the sun sets over the horizon and another blissful Broads day comes to an end.


Turn to port instead and a different adventure awaits. Past the moorings at The Burney Mill, the river suddenly opens up into a vast expanse of mudflats as far as the eye can see. The clearly marked channel picks its way east through mud beds where thousands of wading birds feed at low tide.

This is where we can start letting our hair down because unlike the rest of the Broads, there is no speed limit on Breydon Water and, with the lifting road bridge at Yarmouth tantalisingly in sight, the urge is to push forward those throttles, while still being considerate, purely to make sure all systems are working correctly, of course!

Yarmouth arrives quickly and having booked ahead with the port authority a quick radio call has us through the first bridge. Another short wait for the second bridge and we are heading past the historic quay with its restored fishing vessels and period merchants houses that once served the herring industry but now relies on gas exploration and wind farm development.


One of the two lifting road bridges at Great Yarmouth

With sea air filling our nostrils and urging us on, this is where our ‘other’ cruising starts. Port, starboard or straight on? Straight on lie Holland and Belgium but we are sticking to UK waters so we turn to port and head for the gem of the North Norfolk coast, Wells-next-the-Sea.

Like most of our coastal cruising grounds, it’s vitally important to time your arrival for high tide. The channel is well marked and the beach patrol should guide you in, but don’t make the mistake of following them when they run out of fuel and drift towards the beach without telling you why.

Wells is stunning with visitors’ moorings offering views for miles in one direction and a backdrop of brick and flint buildings on the other. Great pubs, shops for every need, stunning beach walks and award-winning fish and chips on the quay, looking down on your own boat as the sun sets and birds come in to roost for the night. Then it’s up early to watch the first light of day paint pinks and purples in the vast Norfolk skies, the channel filling with the tide as yachts gently swing on their moorings.


Picturesque Wells harbour is a short hop up the coast from Yarmouth

Here you can relax on your boat all day and marvel at how many crabs are being caught by eager children and competitive dads while pondering if it’s the same 100 crabs being caught or are there thousands down there?

Back to Yarmouth and this time we turn starboard, our first port of call is Lowestoft, the historic fishing town. It has seen better days but does have the sanctuary of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club with sheltered visitors moorings, food, a bar and all the usual facilities.

From Lowestoft we head for another East Coast gem, Southwold. Again, it’s very tide dependent, needing good planning a careful approach but it’s well worth the effort. Synonymous with wealthy weekenders, the quay is south of the town on the River Blyth about 30 mins walk away.


Even the fish and chip shop has a certain period charm at posh Southwold

Along its banks ancient black tarred fishing huts huddle together strewn with old nets, buoys and boats that seem to have taken root in their retirement, but between them, in another shack-like building, is an amazing fish restaurant serving that day’s catch brought in by the few local boats still plying their trade. From our mooring, we enjoy strolling along river bank to the pretty of village Walberswick.

From Southwold we head for the River Deben, past huge shingle banks, which seals and dolphins like to play between, and the imposing Napoleonic Martello towers guarding the entrance to the river leading to Bawdsey Manor, the WW2 radar station and at the end of its navigation, Woodbridge. The entrance to the Deben is particularly narrow and needs care but on summer evenings as you head into the light, it’s a beautiful cruise along a well marked channel past swinging moorings.

Tidemill Harbour is the destination, set in the ancient mill pond which fills and empties on the tide, so care is needed to clear the sill on entry. Once tied up, Woodbridge is a delightful town to enjoy with good amenities, great pubs and the station just a few yards away.


Dinghies and motoryachts mix happily at Woodbridge

South of the Deben is the Orwell with the entrance dominated by the huge container port at Felixstowe.  The Orwell is another fine river that gets prettier upstream, with stopping points at Levington, Woolverstone and once through the lock, Ipswich Marina. Revived in recent years the marina area of Ipswich is now a thoroughly pleasant place to stay.

Head further south and the mighty Thames awaits with the run up to London and St Katherine’s Dock marina set in the shadow of Tower Bridge itself.

Best of both

So there you have it, our little secret, the East Coast and the Norfolk Broads. Here, we can enjoy the best of both inland and coastal cruising.


The NYACC holds fun-filled cruises in company

Yes, we have brown water; yes, you need to keep a very close eye on sand banks; yes, we more often than not have holiday hire boats to negotiate. But we can also enjoy fantastic diversity, amazing views, big skies, fantastic pubs and wildlife aplenty, not to mention all the same great boating facilities as the South Coast but without the high fees and the overcrowding.

And finally our biggest secret, The Norfolk Yacht Agency Cruising Club. If ever there was one person who has encouraged us, and so many more like us, to head out to sea it is James Fraser and his fabulous team at NYA.

They organise, plan, arrange moorings, provide mechanical back up, support boats and lead from the front, allowing all of us to build the confidence and experience to head out on our own and navigate this beautiful area ourselves. And what do the NYA charge for all this expertise? Not a single penny!

First published in the August 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.