The Wherry Journey
Giles travels through the beating agricultural heart of Britain by traditional Norfolk wherry. Today the Broads are a haven for wildlife and tourists, but this was once a working landscape filled with working boats. Food, freight and passengers were transported through this flooded manmade waterworld on sailing wherries. Giles takes a trip up the River Yare on the Albion. Built in 1898, she would have carried sugar beet, coal, mustard, grain - anything that could be loaded at the wharves along the river. With no engine and only one imposing black sail, Giles learns first hand that wherrymen had to be skilful to negotiate these often treacherous waters.
The Foods that made Norfolk...
Cromer crab is one of Norfolk’s most famous foods. Technically they’re a species found all across Western Europe but the crabs along this particular stretch of coastline have a reputation all their own. They’re smaller, sweeter and have been part of a very seasonal way of life for centuries.
For a long time Cromer crabs were just part of a Norfolk fisherman’s haul – a springtime feast. But, as cod and herring stocks dwindled, local longshoremen started to specialise. Crabs were caught all along the coast but it was the expansion of Cromer as a Victorian seaside resort that made their name. Tourists came in on the newly built railway and crabs were loaded onto the returning trains. They were a taste of Norfolk. A taste of Cromer.
Marsh samphire abounds in the tidal creeks and salt marshes along the North Norfolk coast. You can find it in other places round Britain’s extensive coastline, in fact there are pockets of it in Kent and Sussex, but in Norfolk it’s part of the culture, a piece of living history. Locals still go out and pick ‘samfer’ for their supper, making the most of the short summer season before the stems get too woody.
Norfolk soil is rich and fertile, and Norfolk farmers have always tried to make the best of it. This is one of the most productive agricultural landscapes in the world and advances here have fundamentally changed the way we farm. Norfolk farmers were amongst the first to embrace and popularise what’s known as four course crop rotation; a rotation that’s still the basis for farming today. Grow the same crops in the same fields year on year and yields will drop. Pests build up and the plants suck all the goodness out of the soil. To avoid this farmers have rotated their crops for centuries and, by the 18th Century, Norfolk farmers were leading the way with a four course rotation. Wheat and barley were alternated with clover and turnips. Clover put nitrogen back into the ailing soil. Turnips fed the farm animals through the winter. It was a simple idea. And one that Norfolk became famous for.
Most people think of mint as a home grown herb or something imported from the exotic heat of somewhere like Morocco, but you can find it farmed closer to home. More mint is grown in Norfolk than anywhere else in the country and one variety has particularly local roots. In the 1970s, hundreds of varieties were tested to find the right species to create the perfect jar of mint sauce. The winner was a plant found tucked away in someone’s back garden in the village of Brundall on the Norfolk broads.
Half of all the sugar in the UK comes from sugar beet. And most of that sugar starts life in Norfolk. Cantley, the first sugar beet factory in the UK, opened in 1912 and, by the 1930s, the British Government was actively encouraging the production of homegrown sugar. Norfolk was at the heart of the industry. It had the farming skills, the soil and the incredible transport network of the Norfolk broads to help put British sugar on British tables. Now it’s an industry worth £800 million a year.
Norfolk Black Turkeys
Norfolk historically leads Britain in poultry production because the birds can feed on grain left over from the rich arable harvest. Geese used to dominate but, in the early 16th Century, Spanish explorers returned from Mexico with some strange, jet black creatures that became known as turkeys. The fertile, flat plains of Norfolk were the perfect place for these birds to thrive and they were soon challenging geese as our favourite winter feast. Hundreds of turkeys were walked to London for the Christmas markets. The journey could take up to 3 months because, though turkeys could walk at about one mile an hour, they needed to roost at night.
Mustard is a seasonal summer crop, grown for its potent seeds since Roman times. The fields and fenland around Norfolk are full of it because it’s here that English mustard really made a name for itself. In the early 19th Century, Jeremiah Colman took the idea of milling mustard and turned it into an industry. A former flour miller, he blended both brown and white mustard seed to create a distinctively strong and distinctively English mustard. By the 1880s more than two thousand people were working at the Norwich factory, with another 4,000 earning their living directly through the company. Mustard is still big business in Norfolk, and this one factory produces every jar of a brand that is known all over the world.
The Albion Wherry
Albion passing Cantley Sugar Factory on her maiden voyage for the Norfolk Wherry Trust, 13th October 1949 © Norfolk Wherry Trust
- Series Producer
- Sarah Gibbs
- Giles Coren
- James Wong
- Lucy Worsley
- Alex Langlands
- Executive Producer
- Lisa Ausden