boats, books and birds one

firstly a very pretty book I was given for my birthday, published in 1889 by Jarrolds; a description of a prolonged tour of the Norfolk Broads in a converted wherry.


the author appears to have been too much the gentleman to have his name published, although reprints available on Amazon reveal him to be Henry Montagu Doughty of Theberton Hall in Suffolk. he refers to himself as the skipper, and with him are four nameless daughters, who spend most of their time either sketching – they produced the illustrations – or sitting on a garden seat which is lashed to the foredeck, under a japanese parasol – and one son, “Dick the Wykehamist”1 (educated at Winchester College), indefatigable hunter of pike. the crew consist of one cook/steward, James, and “inside this one blue guernsey, stands our whole crew, whose name is Sam”. Sam is a wherryman, born and bred, as a small boy he slipped on an icy deck while quanting (poling) a wherry and fell into the dyke. he had to swim and run along the bank to catch up with the boat and get back on board.

the wherry herself – the Gipsy – is done up in a very luxurious style of home comfort; striped stuffed settees, curtained windows, and many books and ornaments in the saloon, with a big central dining table, seating eight, a four berth cabin for “the girls” forward, with every feminine accoutrement including a big cheval glass, hammocks slung in the saloon for the skipper and Dick, and mattresses on lockers in the aft, lower-roofed, cabin for steward and crew, with complete “kitchener” and well stuffed pantry. two bathrooms in the companion ways are not described very fully; one imagines a matter of tin baths, although cold water is laid on in the ladies cabin, I find from further reading. as for the heads … nothing is said ….. drinking water is provided by a “big filter”.


wherries were the big flat bottomed (with a moveable keel) inland sailing barges of the Norfolk and Suffolk waterways, transporting agricultural products, coal, reed for thatching, bricks, clay, in fact anything heavy or bulky. they had an ingenious system of lowering the mast by means of a weighted tabernacle, so balanced that a child could handle it, in order to get under the numerous small bridges, and the huge boomless gaff sail, high enough to catch the wind over trees, was easy for one man to manage with its system of blocks and tackles. by this time however they were suffering from competition from the much faster railways, and very sadly this lovely mode of transport, silent, clean, timeless, was on its way out. the first to be turned over to a burgeoning tourist industry was Blanche in 1863, so Gipsy is part of an established practice, only available to the rich. she was built in Aylsham in 1875 by Elijah Wright, and converted by Doughty in about 1885. when tourism on the Broads became a mass market, much smaller boats were needed, and wherries were too expensive to convert.


Gipsy’s voyage through the Broads is an indulgent, leisurely, and entirely benign passage through an almost unspoilt wetland landscape of reed fen, dyke, woodland, small lake and large, choked with weed or open to the elements, full of fish, birds, and characters – eel catchers, reed cutters, working wherrymen, poor tenant farmers (Doughty bemoans the terrible state of farming in the country), and gamekeepers. some broads are closed by chains at their entrance for their owners’ privacy and game preservation – some are kept clear as part of the wherry transport route.


I say almost unspoilt; already the wildfowler and the egg and bird collector had wiped out the bittern and the ruff, as is noted by the author. Gipsy had a flat bottomed punt, Snail as her tender, and a sailing boat too, Whiting, and many a pool and small dyke is explored in either of these craft.


the joys and vicissitudes of navigating and sailing are fully described, and H M Doughty is obviously an experienced sailor, indeed in his youth he served in the royal navy as a midshipman; during the Crimean war in the Baltic. I found his namesake of the next generation, his younger son, in the navy gazette, decorated after the battle of Jutland in 1916, captain of the Agincourt2.

the Gipsy penetrated far further than is possible now; they sailed from Aylsham down the Bure past Oxnead Hall to Coltishall, on the Waveney past Geldeston lock and Ellingham mill to Bungay, through Hickling broad and on past Horsey to Waxham, where the wherry could not get any further, but the Whiting took them up past the canalised Thurne river to its starting point, where Happisburgh lighthouse is visible over sand dunes that are the only protection from the North sea for a flat farmland studded with church towers.


here they are, moored near Irstead, “in a little woodland pool, which seemed the end of all things, the most sequestered spot in all the world.” Dick trolls for pike on the broad, but he has poor luck – “one pike ran out his entire line and then unkindly broke it; he was a monster – a leviathan.”


“the useful Snail pushed and paddled in and out among the reeds, discovering clear dark pools where waterlilies grew. these reeds, their leaves sharp-pointed, and heads feathery like pampas grass, are not in jungles, but grow here in clumps. Giant spears of blue green rushes stand thinly in deep water; and all among the rushes float round platter leaves and pure queenly flowers, white and golden crowns.” the prose is a little dated, of course, but this is a lovely description of a world long past. no cars, no lorries, no artificial fertiliser to destroy the watery environment, no aeroplanes to deafen or draw lines in the sky.

you can buy a paperback re-print on Amazon, and two companion books, “Friesland Meres”, about two trips through the meres, canals and rivers of the Netherlands, and “Our Wherry in Wendish lands: from Friesland through the Mecklenburg lakes to Bohemia” an account of Germany’s waters. both are illustrated by “the girls” but they mostly lack the naive charm of the Broadland illustrations, being more concerned with the complexities of the vernacular architecture of Dutch and German towns and cities.


1 this same “Dick” had an interesting life, though tragically cut short in his forties – he was a professional soldier, serving mostly in the middle east; amongst his achievements that of protecting Armenians threatened with massacre during the modernisation of  Turkey, but he also appears as the lover of Gertrude Bell, the great Victorian/Edwardian woman traveller in Arabia.

an excerpt from “A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the making of modern Iraq” by Liora Lukitz. – The love of her life was to be “Dick” Doughty-Wylie, whom she described as “Gallant and fearless, duty-bound, courageous and loyal” – but later as “incoherent, vacillating …. sending double messages”. He wrote to her, “You shall walk in my garden – even ghost-wise and imperfect in this life …”.

Doughty-Wylie had a wealthy wife (Lillian Wylie, he had taken her name) whom he felt unable to leave. Besides, Lukitz hints that Bell was reluctant to sleep with him and that he was getting tired of her inhibitions. “And if you die,” she wrote, “wait for me. I am not afraid of that other crossing ….” He would reply in similar vein. It was as if they preferred an erotic relationship based on words alone. When he was killed at Gallipoli heroically leading a landing of troops and taking hill 141, she responded with a line she had translated from Hafiz: “And the wind of Death has swept hopes away”. he was awarded the VC posthumously; the details are on a memorial in Theberton churchyard.

2 oddly enough the Agincourt, a massive Dreadnought built on the Tyne by Armstrong for the Argentinian navy and then gifted to Turkey, was seized by the British on her sea trials, and this was probably a large factor in bringing Turkey into the war against the British.

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