Bill Foster & the otherworldly lure of Breydon

As I was growing up in Devon, the estuaries I knew sat within their landscape. They lay below dipping fields broken up by lush hedgerows, or thick woodland. They were grey or blue, with dashes of yellow or brown, below several shades of green.

Breydon Water, or simply ‘Breydon’, first came calling 50 years ago. I was then in my teens and getting into small boats (often after falling out of them). I knew by then that water sat in lakes, rivers and – something more interesting to me – estuaries. An estuary linked a river to some sea, had different moods and could change rapidly (and radically) with the tide. So, on an estuary, you needed to know about tides. As much as the weather. And the tide, as much as the weather, could alter the impression.

As I was growing up in Devon, the estuaries I knew sat within their landscape. They lay below dipping fields broken up by lush hedgerows, or thick woodland. They were grey or blue, with dashes of yellow or brown, below several shades of green.

Then, in 1971, I came across an image of a distant estuary that stopped me in my tracks. It sat below an enormous expanse – a void it seemed – of sky. The estuary was, with the sky, the entirety of the landscape. This first encounter with Breydon Water was just a basic line drawing. But it suggested that an estuary might be very different, mostly based around one shade of blue, grey, or brown and the sky above potentially the same colour, or a tint of the same.

I came across an image of a distant estuary that stopped me in my tracks.

I initially typed the phrase ‘a different kettle of fish altogether’. With me a double meaning is always tempting. But it disrupts an argument. However, I have finally decided to revive the kettle idea after initially rejecting it. This is because, after sleeping on it for couple of uncomfortable nights, I think the kettle thing is part of the essence of Breydon, a container which some unknown creator’s hand fills and empties around changing fish and other living stuff. Anyway, in my book, that hand belongs to someone pretty clever.

But kettles aside, what is the essence of Breydon? Well, someone else had had a go in 1933-4 and I feel he did it pretty well, given the impression left on me, and also pretty minimally, given his style (and deadline pressures).

I had seen Breydon for the first time while reading ‘Coot Club’ by Arthur Ransome, the first of five adventures with significant East of England settings. Given 12 Ransome books in total, two in Scotland and China, Ransome ‘only’ did 5 Lakeland books. So, it’s actually 5-all. A score Delia might settle for. OK, so two of the East Coast books head out to sea, part of the time, from East Anglia. But you can’t head off into any new worlds from the Lakes and I think that feature is a further component of the singular charm of Breydon. This water body can take you anywhere. And this also means that anything from anywhere can end up there. Of course, this goes for any estuary, but Breydon does, to me, feel like the edge of the world. And its strong sense of horizon, given minimal clutter competing with the senses, suggested in 1971 – and still suggests to me – that it is a starting place of adventures.

If you know Breydon, you may be wondering if it is, actually, an estuary. Two Broadland rivers arrive to the South and one from the North (one kettle, three taps at times). Then there’s a kink (spout) through Great Yarmouth before it reaches the sea and what’s left of the herrings (a herring gull or two). Seeking to avoid any embarrassing forum comment box corrections, and more particularly the potential need to correct and embarrass the correctors, I look up the term ‘estuary’ and feel I am safe, based on the 1967 Wikipedia footnote [1], which seems academic enough, albeit American. The chap had at least studied estuaries for 15 years.

Further web wanderings, reminding me of the extensive range of Breydon’s protective nature and wildlife designations, are linked to a key further reason why Breydon has become etched on my psyche. A Baltic winter journey, 18 months ago, by RSPB boat, took us to the almost overwhelming spectacle of tens of thousands of wintering wildfowl, which pepper mudflats and water and issue striking calls, whether close or distant. So, in a sparse, at times, spartan landscape, there is sound. And the sound fills the senses and becomes part of the impression more strongly I think than it would in a conventionally ‘pretty’ West Country or Lakeland scene. 

But in a visual sketch of the essence of Breydon would one add in lots of little dots to represent wigeon (maybe 25,000), golden plover (maybe 30,000) & co. Well for me probably not, as you have to venture into this landscape to find them and they are an example of surprising watery adventures and encounters lurking beyond the initial scene.

The enlightened management of Breydon and the linked wider pattern of reserves which encourages such riches is for me unthinkable without earlier pioneering Norfolk naturalists, particularly one of my heroes, also a keen angler in the broadest sense and owner of a (very basic) houseboat where I would have loved to have one, albeit with a more contemporary cooking and sleeping arrangement.

By 1930, Great Yarmouth’s Arthur Henry Patterson, aka John Knowlittle (‘Melinda Twaddles Notions’ was a further longstanding pen name) reported, in Through Broadland by Sail and Motor, Blakes Ltd edition, nearly 160 species of fish in Norfolk. This included Capros aper, the ‘pinky coloured’ Boar fish. Patterson’s encounter with a freshly netted specimen in 1881, aged 24, had set him off on his lifelong study of the fishes of Norfolk, much of it via this remarkable estuary. 

Marine species he had recorded at Breydon to 1930 include Angler-fish, Greater Weaver, Tope, Scad, Conger and Hake (all ‘Accidental’ on Breydon) and Turbot, Brill, Piked Dog-fish and both Red and Grey Gurnard (all ‘Rare’). To some the above are just names, to others part of a passion, to others surprising or worrying barometers of a changing planet. But whatever fish (or birds, or the seal waiting for the Berney Arms to reopen) mean to anyone on or around Breydon, non-human living things – and their fortunes – are an essential part of its charm.

Attempting now to summarise the pull of Breydon, I remind myself that not everyone would ‘get’ Breydon or want to get it. A younger fellow walker, who, like myself, loves extreme features of our planet (mountains and lonely places generally) clearly enjoyed our sunny summer trek from Great Yarmouth to Reedham along the north-west shore of the estuary in 2019, especially the swallows hurtling in and out of the slenderest gaps in pumping machinery to their nests. But winter might have been a better time to show off my Breydon.

As a small boat lover, this place is one of those calling me on my small (maybe big) adventures to do list. Not the part between the channel marker posts, but the bit beyond. But would I find myself marooned, like the unfortunate Coot Club Hullabaloos, awaiting rescue by children or their mud-splattered dog, or worse still a first-time Broads boater, marginally more sensible than myself. I guess that unpredictability and the prospect of something extreme is the point of adventure – and Breydon. Now, many years later, I resolve Breydon as a body of water which appeals to the senses in a simpler, pared back, but more full-on, way. It may be the most memorable estuary I can ever imagine.

Writing & illustrations Bill Foster, Late Summer, Norfolk 2021