Cally Callomon sails the Norfolk Broads on a pleasantly outdated craft
“There’s someone you really must meet,” said my chum Don “over dinner tomorrow night, you’ll get on so well”.
Sure enough I did meet the fellow and he was wearing the exact same Old Town suit as I was. Old Town was, back then, like a secret calling card.
Anyone who travelled to Elm Hill in Norwich to get measured up by Miss Wiley entered a secret coven of the few. I had just bought their navy blue Norfolk sailor’s pull-on smock, unaware of the later service it would be pressed into.
My mother taught me to ride a bicycle, running up and down behind me on my 20”-wheeled James with the training wheels off. Once afloat, without her steady hand on the saddle, I was off. As soon as I realised her hand was no longer keeping me up, my disbelief in anti-gravity kicked in and I toppled over. I never forgot how to ride a bicycle, no matter how long I left it in the shed — once on board, with all faculties of science turned off, with a healthy disregard for common-sense that comes with youth, I rode time and time again. It’s only with age do we use our imagination and say “I could never ride a bike now”.
“I could never sail now” I said, some four years ago. For me, the last time afloat was with the Boy Scouts as an 11-year-old, a half century past.
“Rubbish” came the encouraging words from skipper Joe, “once learned, never forgot” and off into the inky green causeway we drifted. It took minutes for it all to come back. All that gybing and lee-ho-ing and ready-abouts, the wind filled the sails and forward momentum came about, even when turned head-to-wind.
Had this been on board a gleaming white fiberglass hull, with stainless Marlin fishing bannister at the back, I may not have dived in so readily. Instead we were on board a 1930s four berth mahogany gaff rigged tub with the promise of no more than five knots in the hull, no matter how much sail was let out.
These craft, the property of Hunter’s Yard near Neatishead (pronounced Neets-hed) on the Norfolk Broads, have been gently plying their trade for nigh-on 80 years. The details are shiny brass, the crockery willow-patterned, the lighting oil. The only compensation for modernity came on board with us: a cafetiere, decent coffee and several tin cans of Adnam’s Ghost Ship.
Ghost Ship; we were on board that very craft. It glided through depths and shallows, the first rotting tang of Autumn in the air, a fickle wind that came and left like a jilted lover, the turquoise scum that floated on the surface (‘Blue-Green algae they call it’) prevented a decent swim all weekend. It’s there because the season has been busy, warm dishwashing suds are emptied into the water, food for these dog-killing verdigris slicks.
The only near-collision we had was with an almost exact same craft as ours: their skipper daydreaming, afloat on the wonders of Shags, Guillemots, Marsh Harriers, Herons, and the absolute prince of them all, the Kingfisher.
Overhead reign harriers of a different kind as Tornados roar past, training for conflict in some far-off land which felt far more far-off by the hour.
So far yet so close.
And here lies the very point of it all. Just a few miles from the market bustle of Norwich lie passages of escape, gently patrolled by the Broads Authority, a network of rivers that burst into flooded ancient peat quarries, and all life sits side-by-side regardless of intent or purpose.
British Rail carriage posters depicted life on Broad as a carefree wave from one boat to another. In so many ways very little has changed and Hunter’s fleet of boats, all still in fine fettle, ensure this tradition will continue for as long as those jets don’t turn on us all.
Life on board need not be in motion — one could hire the berths and tiny gas-powered kitchen for a weekend, and listen to the gentle dapple of waves against the hull; feed the inquisitive visiting swans; listen to the clanking halliards; write that novel.
Hunter’s can be contacted here.
Cally Callomon on Caught by the River