“Mum! I’m taking the boat out …”
For a fraction of a second I hesitated … it would take more than a few days to shake off my city-dweller nerves about letting my child roam free. But that was exactly why – after the first lockdown – we’d come to Hipperson’s on the Suffolk-Norfolk border: for open space, fresh air and the chance for my 10-year-old to run wild(ish).
The rowing boat was tied to our floating cabin, which was moored at Hipperson’s, a small working boatyard on an inlet of the River Waveney – a safe space for children to practise rowing or paddling without risk of disappearing upriver or colliding with a motor cruiser.
“Breakfast will be here soon!” I shouted as he set off, grappling with the unwieldy oars. As with virtually every other small business around the country, Beccles station cafe has tried to claw back income lost to the pandemic by diversifying, and owner Pauline’s solution is to provide breakfast hampers to local self-catering businesses, including Hipperson’s. I sat on our tiny deck waiting for our delivery, as a swan with a sixth sense that food was on its way pecked at the cabin.
Mary Sparrow, a former headteacher, and her husband, Simon, who worked in IT, bought the boatyard in the small market town of Beccles in 2014, swapping stressful London lives for a life on the river. Little did they know that a few years later they’d face the worst tourism crisis on record. But, despite the pandemic, Mary has no regrets.
“I wouldn’t go back to education,” she told me. “This is almost semi-retirement – we work long hours but look at the setting! During lockdown we’ve had time to sit and enjoy the view. My senses have adapted and I’ve been able to see much more: kingfishers; barn owls. I notice more.”
Preparing to come out of the first lockdown was a mad dash as the couple rushed to adapt to new rules and regulations to ensure the safety of their family, staff and guests. This time round they are more than ready for reopening on 12 April. “We’re looking forward to it. Last year there were still so many unknowns: we couldn’t be sure how long we would be allowed to stay open. We’re much happier about it now. All the systems and processes are in place. We feel more confident.”
This year they’ve added a beautiful curvy, wooden land-based pod to the collection of floating homes. Our cabin, the sky-blue Coot Club, had two rooms and a combined kitchen/diner/living room. From the front we could watch the comings and goings of the boatyard; from the back we had a view of Mary and Simon’s houseboat, Misterton, a Lincoln keel barge that was towed from the Thames to the sea and round the coast to Great Yarmouth, where they met it to sail the last stretch along the rivers Yare and Waveney. In the evenings, I waved at the couple as they sat on their deck enjoying dazzling sunsets – and could see why they didn’t miss their London lives.
As well as big skies, the river felt like a natural de-stresser after four months locked down in London. Most of the time. On our trip downriver in an electric boat the peace was broken by me yelling “stay on the right”, as my son zigzagged merrily from bank to bank ignoring river traffic rules and looking everywhere but straight ahead as he gave a running commentary on the trip.
Our other outings were calmer. Steve from the boatyard led us on a kayaking trip upstream. We were on the lookout for otters along the wooded banks. Sadly, my otter-spotting record of zero sightings was maintained. Another afternoon, Mary’s son taught mine the basics of sailing in a little dinghy, again in the safe environs of the boatyard. This year Hipperson’s is offering a wooden pedal boat, too – another way to explore the river at a slow pace.
The beauty of Beccles is that it’s on the southern edge of the Broads, by far the quieter side of the national park. Most of the big hire boats depart from Wroxham in the north. Given that we’re heading into a second summer of holidaying at home, the problem of overcrowding in the park’s most popular spots is likely to be even worse this year. Accommodation in the Broads is already nearly 90% booked, according to Mary – who is also chair of Visit the Broads.
Mostly, we cooked in the cabin but on Mary’s advice made sure we booked into the Royal Oak, once a so-so sports bar, now an award-winning pizzeria run by fellow London escapers Paul Jackson and Paul Williams, and one of few in the UK to be accredited by Italian pizza association AVPN. It’s not much to look at from the outside but when you bite into the pizza you understand why people come from far and wide to eat here. Paul (Jackson) travelled to Naples to learn the art of the Neapolitan pizza – and it shows: the distinctive chewy dough, with just a thin slick of tomato was as good as those I’ve eaten in Italy. The secret, Paul told me, is in the imported OO flour and the long proving process.
We travelled to Beccles by train and stayed for just a couple of days so had little time to venture further, although Mary gave me a whistle-stop tour to Oulton Broad (gateway to the southern Broads) via Carlton nature reserve (‘the Broads in miniature’) – a route we would have cycled if we’d had more time. Other than excellent pizzas, Beccles has a heated lido, a small museum (sadly, both were closed on our visit) and photogenic rainbow ice-creams served at the cafe in town.
Of course the main draw is the river. While most of our time was spent messing about on the water, we also ventured into it briefly: a family in another cabin invited my son for a sunset leap off their balcony; and I opted for an early-morning swim, ever hopeful I might sneak up on one of those otters. I walked up river to the Beccles sailing club and got into the water from the slipway, swimming over the swaying reeds.
Otter count: zero. Motor cruiser count: zero. Sense of wellbeing: 10/10.
Accommodation was provided by Hipperson’s. Floating cabins from £275 for two nights to £875 for a week. Glamping pods from £370 for two nights to £1,295 for a week. Both sleep four. The boatyard also hires out day boats, kayaks, canoes, paddleboards ad pedal boats