In the hot summer months, we used to spend time on their friend’s boat on Salhouse Broad. The adventure always began by parking at the public car-park, dark and shaded. It was surrounded by seemingly ancient trees and however hot it was outside of this dim vacuum, it was always cooler as you strolled down to the broad itself. A ten-minute walk followed, meandering along stretches of muddy pathways and boardwalk. Periodically, along the route, stood gnarled trees with huge chunks of them missing. Although devoid of life, I would breathe it back into them by running and dancing around their cocoons-like trunks. Woodland became nettle-bed, which then became reed-bed and occasionally sunlight would filter through, vitalising the murk with glittering cascades of green and gold.
Towards the end of the path, soil turned to sand and the vegetation began to open out, offering options. Here you had to make a choice – boardwalk or broad-walk? The pull of the open water usually outweighed any other option here – broad walk. I would run, free, up the hill that borders the south edge of the broad. Onward and through the prickly thicket, a rabbit-run made my years of gambolling children. Upon reaching the apex point, I was the captain of the broad, looking down across the surface – day boats speckling the water and families frolicking at the water’s edge. It was a picture-postcard scene, it was Norfolk in a nutshell.
They used to moor up at the waters edge on the south side of the broad and it was from here that we would board the great ship. The water always seemed crystalline and clean, unaffected by the algal growth that’s present today. The boat was the setting for the first steps in my avian tutelage, where my water-based lessons in recognising the commonest wildfowl began. We started with simple and easy-to-remember birds: Mute Swans, Coots and Moorhens. All predominantly one colour, although the larger Coot with its white bill, versus the more compact, red and yellow -beaked Moorhen, was the first differential between bird species I learnt.
What was the slender-necked regal-looking bird that kept diving below the broads’ surface? A flash of dazzling white leading up to a ruffled rufous lions’ mane, satin-white face and sharp grey bill. What was this handsome bird, darting and diving around us. He told me what it was –another species I would be able to identify forever – unmistakable and elegant – a Great Crested Grebe. He would tell me about Kingfisher’s and their beguiling, azure beauty. We never saw one, but I dreamt of the day I would see my first. Would it be fishing? Would I be able to watch it properly?