By David Barnes

MESSING about in boats on the achingly gorgeous Norfolk Broads is enormous fun but beware - it’s anything but plain sailing.

The Norfolk Broads is one of those places you’ve heard about all your life but, in our case at least, the Royal County’s major claim to fame, apart from Sandringham, is somewhere we’d never previously visited.

Now, however, after our major voyage of discovery we’re eager to return to Norfolk and indeed explore neighbouring Suffolk as well.

The Broads, a mix of man-made medieval channels cut through peat and rivers, extends over some 117 square miles. The 120 miles of navigable water covers seven rivers and 62 broads, are really quite densely populated in parts, particularly near the towns and villages where waterside properties each with their own moorings (more of that later) crowd together on the banks with perhaps a postage stamp of lawn before the water.

From simple wooden huts to quite splendid riverside properties suitable of gracing the front cover of Country Life magazine, these can command a king’s ransom to buy. We even passed a curious converted Victorian helter skelter rescued from Great Yarmouth pier.

I have to admit, I’d had it in my mind that it would simply be a case of turning up at the quayside, loading our provisions and luggage, and setting off.

Equipped with chart and handy hints from reception at Herbert Woods’ offices in Potter Heigham, we duly reported to the safety office to take possession of life jackets and then to be shown around our craft.

How many of you are there? "Three,” I answered. “Three - that’s an unlucky number,” he returned. "Gulp!”

Our craft was the Emerald Light 3, which is among the largest and most well equipped in the Herbert Woods fleet.

Whichever way you looked at it, this 20-year-old vessel was large. Able to cater in comfort for eight passengers in three double cabins and a convertible sofa with fully equipped galley, three ensuite wet rooms, a roll back canopy and TVs - this was real luxury afloat.

We were shown the ropes, literally. I, at least, quite quickly I realised we may well have bitten off just a tad too much.

It all looked so easy when the young Herbert Woods lad tied the knot. Could I get it? Could I hell. And me with a Wolf Cub Scout knots badge in the loft at home too!

Mooring correctly is crucial. Coming untied and allowing the craft of some 45ft in length and 12ft wide drift in what are quite busy waterways is not recommended.

Next, was controlling the craft. You know as a rookie when you get in a kayak and the slightest dab of the paddle on either side sends you fiercely either left or right? Well, the controls on this boat were a bit like that - only much worse and with potentially greater consequences.

After a series of perilous zig-zagging manoeuvres, with Ollie the only one of us three in any way ‘getting it’ we moored once more back at base, from where we had started, for the evening.

“It’s probably best for you to stay here this evening," our guide said. “I’ll come back in the morning to give you another lesson.”

And so it was the following day. We remained hopeless. Back at base once more the craft’s steering was checked - nothing was wrong.

Tutor number three, in the shape of ex-HGV and pleasure coach driver with the patience of a saint Steve, took us under his wing.

After two hours of quite intense tuition from Steve, teenage computer games whizz Ollie was handed the captain’s arm band, Jo was named first mate as she seemed almost there and I, to coin a phrase, remained all at sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong, cruising in a motorised craft on the Norfolk Broads is immense fun and very rewarding. The pristine, picture book awesomeness of the countryside though which you sail is absolutely fantastic. Idyllic chocolate box village pubs with restaurants attached serving quite splendid locally-sourced food in cosmically beautiful villages is heaven.

The abundant flora and fauna is simply spectacular; cottages and gardens almost unreal.

Cruising in the balmy evening air, the breeze in your chops, the birdsong, the history, the medieval mills and abbey, the solitude and feeling of accomplishment, getting someone out to sort out an over active bilge pump while you enjoy a pint, is unbeatable.

The boat, the size and shape of a compact mobile holiday home, was comfort afloat personified. Sunny morning breakfasting on board on pancakes with lashings of Clarks’ maple syrup and fruit is a memory I will treasure for years. Stepping straight off the boat and straight into a pub for a frothing pint of Adnams or Abbot and delicious home-made fish and chips, is another.

However, to properly appreciate what the Broads have to offer while on the water, you really must master the basics of how to control your craft - which I have to admit at times had me and Jo feeling like Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen and with us both wavering just a mosquito’s eyelash from mutiny!

However, little by little, with Steve’s excellent tuition in our minds we began to get the hang of it and by the end of our magical week we were beginning to feel really quite confident.

As we came ashore for the last time it was with a hint of sadness but with a definite plan to come back again to discover more of this magical area.

For more details on hiring a boat for a holiday on the Norfolk Broads, visit