With an ambition to explore all of East Anglia’s rivers by kayak, Jonathan Schofield went in search of the River Waveney

Paddling past the mill buildings at Hoxne

Paddling past the mill buildings at Hoxne

Spiders are spinning webs from the rim of my hat and dancing across my shoulders. Small, delicate snails are leaving slimy paths across my arms. I look down and see a collection of bugs and beetles in my lap. I’m in the grip of a bed of reeds that have choked my kayak to a halt. I look up. Through the gap in the towering reeds, huge, black storm clouds are sweeping across the sky. I feel the first few splashes of rain on my face and arms as the reeds bend in the sudden rushing wind. I can’t remember ever feeling so immersed in nature – I’m crawling with it. I lay the paddle onto my kayak and haul myself along with my hands until, finally, the reeds clear and a herd of cows peer down at me from the river bank.

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Upper sections shrouded in trees and growth

From ditch to sea

Even the mightiest rivers begin with a trickle. For the Waveney the source is a ditch close to South Lopham. But it’s what happens after this unremarkable beginning that makes the Waveney such a fantastic river to explore. Forming the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk for most of its route, it meanders through delightful East Anglian scenery, numerous towns and villages, through winding sections where overhanging trees black-out the sun to the big sky country of the wide open Broads.
Just after 6am, with the roar of the A143 nearby, I slipped my kayak between a gap in the nettles and into the Waveney at Scole. The hassle of the previous two hours – finding a place to leave the pick up car, looking for a place to launch – dissipates as soon as I’m afloat. From here, there’s the overwhelming sense of entering a different domain, where time slows, where the countryside takes on a new perspective, and from where, within minutes, the sound is dominated by birdsong and the splash of paddle. My plan was to kayak to Great Yarmouth, but wind, tides and time would decide that.

Clouds and inquisitive cows

Clouds and inquisitive cows

For the first day I paddled along sections no wider than the length of my kayak; struggled through stretches choked with reeds; ducked under tree limbs on parts of the river that looked more like tributaries to the Amazon. With the brilliant blue flash of Kingfishers darting in front of me, the sudden splash of fish breaking the water’s surface, countless herons lifting into the air, the hours passed with a dreamlike quality.
At the end of the first day I stopped at the Black Swan in Homersfield. Set up my tent in the pub’s campsite and ordered food from a menu that included Crocodile and Springbok steaks and a great selection of regional ales.

The next day, slightly worse for wear, I set off for Bungay. There’s a wonderful, diverse complexity to paddling an East Anglian river. Something you rarely get travelling along rivers in America or Australia where I’ve kayaked regularly in the past. You never know what’s around the next bend.

Storm clouds gathering near Bungay

Storm clouds gathering near Bungay

It could be an ancient mill, the tumbling remains of a castle, the spire of a village church or a magnificent riverside house. On the Waveney, at Flixton, there’s even the unexpected riverside view of a Lockheed jet airplane, one of the exhibits at the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum.

Around the loop

If you only have time for a short trip on the Waveney, head for the Bungay Loop. A quick glance at a map explains the origin of its name. Quite simply the river takes a sharp left turn as you enter Bungay before taking a four mile loop around the town. Passing underneath wooden bridges linking delightful riverside homes to their gardens, the river is barely two-feet deep here and when I paddled through was swarming with fish. It soon deepens with towering trees on the Norfolk bank, the open pasture of Outney Common and glimpses of the town’s church on the Suffolk side. Look out for the large white cottage, the Bath House, once owned by the author Lilias Rider Haggard who penned a trilogy of books about the region during WW2, including a Country Notebook.

Portage points are good but some stretches clogged with reeds

Portage points are good but some stretches clogged with reeds

Onto the Broads

The transition to the Broads is subtle at first. At the beginning of the Waveney’s navigable section of at Geldeston there is a slight change in the clarity of the water, the banks are wider but then suddenly, as I edge closer to Beccles, after having the river to myself for the past two days, I came across a motor boat. By the time I paddled through Beccles there were dozens of white plastic boats rumbling past me. Usually there is a man driving the boat with a beer in hand. Strewn across the rest of the boat, on the roof, across the bowes, are up to a dozen people who are clearly asleep or recovering from a lunchtime gin and tonic – either way it is clearly a relaxing, if somewhat disconnected, way to explore the Waveney.

The beautiful Bungay loop

The beautiful Bungay loop

No Pleasure Beach tonight

Fueled with coffee and delicious cakes on the quayside at Beccles I ploughed on as the tide turned against me and a brisk wind whipped into my face. Even the slightest pause in paddling and my kayak ground to a halt. The sun was dropping over the reed beds and it was clear I would not make Great Yarmouth in daylight. With no portage points in site I nestled my kayak into the reeds, checked the map and settled on finishing at the Waveney River Centre just south of St Olaves. The Pleasure Beach would have to wait for another day.

The former home of the author Lilias Haggard

The former home of the author Lilias Haggard

River Waveney at a glance:
–    In 1670 and Act of Parliament improved the river for navigation, including the construction of locks at Geldeston, Ellingham and Wainford
–    Access from the Waveney to the sea at Lowestoft was completed in 1829
–    The decline in commercial trade saw the last wherries ply their trade up to Bungay in 1934
–    Evidence of mills on the Waveney date back a thousand years
–    In 1869 the UK’s first concrete bridge was built over the river at Homersfield
–    From source to sea the Waveney is 58.75 miles long.

Arriving at Beccles

Arriving at Beccles

For more information on exploring the river visit River Waveney Trust website at www.groupspaces.com/riverwaveneytrust

Places to rent canoes and kayaks:
–    The Waveney River Centre: see www.waveneyrivercentre.co.uk
–    Outney Meadow Caravan Park: www.canoethebroads.co.uk

About Jonathan Schofield

After 20 years working for newspaper, magazine and publishing companies Jonathan Schofield quit the commute, converted his shed into an office and went freelance. He now writes about travel, train networks, plant phenomics and fraud. When not in his shed he's usually in a canoe or on a bike.