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The wherry’s last stand

Explore one of Britain’s wildest stretches of wetland at a pace decreed by the wind and tide
Skipper Dawn trims the White Moth’s sail

FOR CENTURIES, PEOPLE HAVE EXERTED THEIR WILL OVER East Anglia’s flatlands. This was a land of pragmatic people – of reed-cutters, ferrymen, farmers, thatchers, eelers and mole-catchers – who drained the levels and carved out 125 miles of navigable waterways. Nowadays, the collectively named Broads – which spread across Norfolk and Suffolk – feel resolutely wild: a region of fens, reed beds and waterlogged woodland, where otters swim nonchalantly down tidal rivers, cormorants dry their wings on skeletal wind pumps and distant sails slice through the marsh.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the wherry reigned supreme. Slung low with bricks, sugar beet, coal and timber, these elegant cargo boats ploughed the waterways, until the railways brought their rule to an end. A handful survived, saved by enterprising owners who brushed out their holds to take Edwardian guests for a turn about the Broads. A few more were built in the old style, but for leisure this time.

The White Moth was the last of these wherry yachts, built in 1915. Restored by the charitable trust Wherry Yacht Charter, the 59-foot craft now carries passengers on day trips and overnight jaunts. Over four days, she would bear me on a slow expedition down the rivers Bure and Ant, from the lively Broads town of Wroxham to Stalham. The journey might take just 16 minutes by car, but with a host of sailing skills to master, and a landscape that deserves steady appreciation, there’s no need to rush.

THE TRUST RESTORES THEIR WHERRIES in a boathouse in Wroxham. In his annexed workshop, boat builder Dean Howard glances up shyly between hammer strokes. Having steamed strips of ash into hoops, he’s now beating in copper the giant curtain rings that attach a wherry’s ‘I went to college to train as a shipwright, and I was the last student to take the course,’ he says. ‘It gets a bit lonely, but that’s why I have Rufus.’ He nods at a mop-topped cockapoo worrying a broom head by the door.

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