Monday, 28 December 2009

A Broad and a Mill


For the first time in six years, Berney Arms Mill, one of the tallest of its kind, is easily accessible to the public. We sent award-winnning travel writer and broadcaster, Mike Souter, on to the Southern Belle on the inaugural trip from Great Yarmouth:

I have lived in Norfolk for 28 years but Berney Arms has not, until now, reached the top of my places to go list. Apart from anything, its’ isolated position at the southern end of Breydon Water at the entrance to the River Yare, means it has been almost impossible to reach except by boat or on foot.

In any case, over the past six years, it has been closed completely, but now, after a refurbishment costing some £150,000, English Heritage has re-opened it. Even so, the only chance you will get to see inside this wonderful part of East Anglian heritage is on Mondays until the end of August by taking a trip on the splendidly restored passenger vessel, the Southern Belle.

Peter Jay at the Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus told me during my researches for my six-week series on the Broads which you will be able to read each Saturday from 1 August that, ‘I must include a trip on the Southern Belle’.

I am delighted to have had the recommendation, because the former Cornish river vessel on which skipper Steve ‘Tug’ Wilson has lavished much love (as well as £150,000 of his savings) should be regarded as one of Great Yarmouth’s maritime jewels.

Any other port or area which had this lovely vessel as part of its’ tourism package would be giving it a great deal of support. The fact its’ potential appears to be being almost completely ignored by the authorities saddens and frustrates me greatly.

The craft has plenty of upper-desk space for its’ maximum load of 100 passengers, with a large awning to protect passengers from the elements. Down below decks, there is more seating in the attractive main saloon. Varnished wood is the theme here, as throughout the boat, where can be found the excellent ‘Earls teashop’. On the inaugural trip last week, Kairin Shawcroft from Lowestoft was dispensing perfectly-brewed cups of tea and coffee, yummy home made cake and a wide variety of freshly made sandwiches.

I was impressed with how easy it is to board the Southern Belle. Helpful crewmembers were on hand to ensure safe passage on board. It’s just a pity that a town with the maritime heritage of Great Yarmouth cannot offer a more attractive embarkation point than that offered at Havenbridge House. Especially as the Port Authorities charge £1 per passenger for the privilege!

Southern Belle offers a wide variety of different trips, including Breydon Water and to see the Waveney Valley andd Oulton Broad. The Berney Windmill Tour leaves the quayside at 11.30am and 2.15pm each Monday until August 31st. The round trip takes around two and half hours as it sails out along Breydon Water.

This is undoubtedly potentially the most tricky part of the Broads Network on which to navigate, with, as an example, a yacht hired from the Hunter Yard at Ludham, recently having a pretty nasty argument with Vauxhall Bridge when she failed to cope with a strong tide.

But ‘Tug’ Wilson, the skipper, has years of experience and, as this is his third season on Breydon, has a great deal off knowledge of as well as respect for the strength of the tides.

The route passes close by Burgh Castle Roman Fort on the opposite bank to the Berney Arms Mill. This third century Roman fort, which I had visited only the day before, is remarkable in its size and well worth a detour if you have transport. The Fort is another local attraction in the care of English Heritage. Most passengers just watched the world going by, just marvelling at the beautiful and tranquil surroundings, as we made our graceful passage. But the journey also gives any keen bird watchers the opportunity to see Avocets and Marsh Harriers to name just a few of the birds seen out on the RSPB marshland area that surrounds the mill.

Berney Arms was built in the mid 19th century and was originally used to grind clinker, a constituent of cement for the adjacent cement works that used to sit on the same river bank. The mill also took clinker from the brick works that used to sit on the opposite bank at Burgh Castle. Bizarrely, the same night as the cruise, I was unexpectedly taken to see the remnants of that!

Berney Arms is a Tower Mill and stands proudly at just over 70ft (or 21m) on the river bank with seven floors, all of which are accessible to visitors on these specially scheduled trips. However access to the upper floors is by steep ladder style stairs and for this reason English Heritage is not allowing access to under-fives.

Simon Tansley, who is visitor operations supervisor for English Heritage properties in the Great Yarmouth area, was also on board the inaugural trip. He told me that he’s delighted to be able to offer access to Berney Mill after its six year long closure: “The conservation work on the mill has taken longer than we would have ideally wanted but the mill is now looking great with its sails back in place.” A sentiment with which I entirely concur.

English Heritage has spent over £150,000.00 on the conservation work at the mill over the last few years. The work has seen the replacement of the four sails, plus the fantail. There has also been extensive repair work to the mill cap, as well as re-tarring of the exterior walls and a complete overhaul of the mill mechanism.

Although the sails won’t be turning for the foreseeable future, the mill is in complete working order. After the closure of the cement works at Berney Arms the mill was converted to a drainage mill, pumping water from the marshland back into the river by use of the large scoop wheel which can still be seen alongside the mill today.

At the top of the mill, the view of the surrounding area is quite stunning and the circuitous nature of some of the rivers and channels are clearly evident.

I was thrilled to have had the opportunity both of travelling on the Southern Belle and being able to see inside the mill itself.

On the way back to Yarmouth, I shared salty sea tales with ‘Tug’ Wilson. Even the Breydon Bridge seemed to be impressed, almost seeming to be raising itself in salute as we headed back alongside.

The Southern Belle is a delightful way to see the Broads and Rivers of Norfolk and North Suffolk and I thoroughly recommend a trip.

ENDS 1209 words

All photographs: Mike Souter,


The boat trips are currently the only way to see inside the mill and these can be booked by calling Tug Wilson, the skipper of the Southern Belle on 07906 020225 or by contacting the Tourist Information Office on Great Yarmouth sea front. Further information is also available on the English Heritage website;

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