We arrived at our yurt and said hello to our next-door neighbour, who was stretched out on a deckchair. He replied with a grin and one word: “Freedom!”
It was Saturday 4 July, the first day that campsites were allowed to open in England after lockdown. My partner and I had left our homes for the first time in nearly four months and driven to the Waveney River Centre in Norfolk, a campsite and marina, to find out what “the new normal” means for campers.
We were greeted by a battalion of beaming staff, all happy to get the summer season going at last. The first of many hand-sanitiser points was outside reception, which had a one-in, one-out policy and social-distancing markers. Other than that, check-in proceeded as normal. We were staying in one of seven yurts, all fully booked for the weekend, as were the 14 caravan pitches and six camping pods. Only the 45 tent pitches had deliberately not all been filled, to keep numbers at a manageable level. (There are also 35 self-catering lodges on the site.)
As is the case at many campsites, most of the facilities were open, but with some alterations. In the toilet block, alternating cubicles and sinks were taped up so people couldn’t get too close. Staff were stationed at the showers all day, ready to clean them after each use. The main shop was closed, but basic items had been moved to the ice-cream kiosk. The play area was open, but the indoor pool was sadly shut, as per (baffling) government guidance.
Liam Holmes, Waveney’s general manager, said early feedback from guests had been positive, with people feeling particularly reassured by the visible extra cleaning.
The campsite borders the River Waveney, and we were the first passengers on the newly reopened foot ferry. The service, which dates from the 19th century and was revived in 2012, originally carried south Norfolk villagers to Lowestoft fish market. These days, it takes visitors to Carlton Marshes nature reserve, just across the Suffolk border. We wandered around the marshes, meadows and pools, and spotted birds including a little egret and a marsh harrier. The wide-open space was a balm after so many weeks spent in my tiny London garden.
Back at the campsite, we exercised another regained right and went to the pub. The Waveney Inn had a one-way system with separate entrance and exit, and we had to give our details for contact-tracing purposes. It was table-service only, with contactless payment for our Southwold bitter, fish and chips and ploughman’s salad. No one seem deterred by the new measures: the pub was full of families enjoying themselves.
A cold wind had whipped up by bedtime, which gave us a good excuse to light the woodburner in our yurt. The yurt smelled freshly sanitised (the particular antiviral spray used is specified on the website) and was comfortable, with double bed, sofa and electric lamps; guests bring their own bedding.
The next day, we hired a day cruiser from the on-site marina to explored this section of the Broads. Several campers were doing the same – there was a queue for the boats. Again, social-distancing measures were in place, with customers fitting their own lifejackets and staff issuing instructions from the bank, rather than boarding boats.
We went as far as Reedham, a riverside village about two-and-a-half hours away, for a pint at the Ship Inn, then stopped halfway back at the Bell Inn at St Olave’s for lunch (a generous seafood platter). Staff at both pubs were cheerful and welcoming, and the manager of the Bell – “Broadland’s oldest recorded inn” – thanked us for supporting them. After months of nothing more exciting than a daily walk, a day’s boating on the Broads seemed like a real adventure.
Back at the marina, we handed the cruiser keys back and walked a few minutes up the lane to St Mary’s church, which has a thatched roof and a ziggurat-style tower. More substantial walks include one to Oulton Broad, via the foot ferry, and on to the sandy beach at Lowestoft. More beaches are a short drive away at Great Yarmouth and Southwold.
We ended the day with a barbecue on the deck outside our yurt. By the time we were ready for bed, a low moon was hanging over the river and the sky was full of stars. Our neighbour was right – this was a taste of freedom, and it felt fantastic.
• Accommodation at Waveney River Centre was provided by Campsites.co.uk, camping from £11 a night, yurts from £48 a night