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Walking the River Yare Near Earlham

June 5, 2012

Norwich – the University of East Anglia Broad

Walking The River Yare Near Earlham

It had been almost exactly twenty years since I last walked the stretch of the River Yare between Earlham and the University of East Anglia Broad. It had scarcely changed, a delightful walk, quiet and peaceful, hard to believe that such tranquillity could still exist near to the busy road traffic lanes surrounding Norwich.

The River Yare at Earlham

One sadness is that Earlham Hall itself seemed to be closed-off and being renovated. It was the UEA School of Law in my day, a lovely building with its links to Joseph Gurney, Elizabeth Fry and George Borrow. I hope a good use is found for it soon, so that people may once again be able to see inside.Twenty years ago, I often seemed to be the only rambler exploring this peaceful, green stretch of the river. Now there seem to be more people walking. I am pleased and hope they get the delight from it that I always did. Even the shock of the UEA accommodation ziggurats doesn’t diminish the joy of this walk. The university’s own Broad was once a gravel pit. Now it is a stunning stretch of water full of birdlife, showing what can be done with a fairly modest development. Others should learn the lesson.

Below is a piece on the same spot that I wrote a while ago, reflecting on the time when I walked this way in the steps of the Nineteenth-Century writer George Borrow:

Perhaps the most relaxed time for an undergraduate are the days after the finals examinations, but before the day of judgement when the degree results are posted. In this happy month there is no work to be done and the student might enjoy a glorious holiday, free of care. Looking back I think of mornings spent walking the banks of the River Yare in the footsteps of George Borrow, a desire to be alone to reflect on the happy three years that were now the past and trepidation as to what insecurities might be to come.

I would walk out to the bridge by way of Earlham Hall, then the university’s school of law but, in Borrow’s time, the home of the Quaker and social reformer Joseph Gurney, the brother of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. It was in a river pool below the hall that the young Borrow would swim and fish, delighting in the atmosphere of that restful place:

Pleasant is that valley, truly a goodly spot, but most lovely where yonder bridge crosses the little stream. Beneath its arch the waters rush garrulously into a blue pool, and are there stilled for a time, for the pool is deep, and they appear to have sunk to sleep. Farther on, however, you hear their voice again, where they ripple gaily over yon gravelly shallow. On the left, the hill slopes down to the margin of the stream. On the right is a green level, a smiling meadow, grass of the richest decks the side of the slope; mighty trees also adorn it, giant elms, the nearest of which, when the sun is nigh its meridian, fling a broad shadow upon the face of the pool; through yon vista you catch a glimpse of the ancient brick of an old English hall.

I sat in the same spot one morning, reading that account of that scene from Lavengro. Little had changed, though there were fewer elms after the devastation of Dutch Elm Disease. The view of Earlham Hall seems much clearer than in Borrow’s time, though the smiling meadow can be walked and enjoyed to this day.

In an amusing scene from Lavengro, Joseph Gurney walks down to remonstrate with the young Borrow for leaving fish to gasp to their deaths on the bank. Not a word about the fact that Borrow is actually poaching and trespassing, such was the libertarian nature of that particular landowner. Indeed, Gurney must have seen something unusual in the character of the interloper, for he invited Borrow to the hall to use the library. The young Borrow was too shy to do so then, though in his respectable middle age he did visit Joseph Gurney at Earlham Hall. As I lay back and dozed in the sunshine of that early summer morning a century and a half later, I felt that I could almost hear the conversation between the pair; the gentle Gurney and the strange youth.

I wandered down the Yare along a stretch of riverbank that seemed quite wild and unspoiled for countryside so close to the burgeoning city of Norwich. Whatever other undergraduates were doing that day, they were certainly not walking in the footsteps of George Borrow, for no one was in sight as I paused to watch the ducks head out from the rushes to the midst of the gently flowing water.

I imagined Borrow heading the same way on a circuitous route back to his home. He was tall, well over six foot, with the sturdy build of a boxer. There was a caste in one of his dark eyes, and his hair, though dark, had turned grey by the time of early adulthood. Even as a young man he was marked out by the people of Norwich as something of an eccentric. He mixed with the wrong people for many tastes, fought practice rounds with John Thurtell, a local prize fighting promoter who was hanged for murder in 1824, and probably imbibed a lot of liquor with the Norwich scholar and renowned atheist William Taylor. Just the sort of company that made the respectable Captain Thomas Borrow, his father, shudder.

 The wild countryside that Borrow would have known is intruded upon by the strange ziggurats and other buildings of the University of East Anglia, which overlook the river as it winds down to Cringleford. The concrete blocks of the university are not pretty and I suspect no one would ever say that they were, but they grow on you and have a kind of charm if you live among them for long enough.

The real joy of the place is The Broad, a great stretch of water situated between the Yare and the campus. Not that Borrow would have known it, for it only came into existence in the 1960s, when the university allowed gravel to be extracted from its lands, in what must have been a noisy nightmare for UEA’s earliest students. But the pain of having a quarry there was soon eclipsed by the creation of a lovely stretch of water. Walking round I halted every few yards, as more and more wildfowl caught my eye, for The Broad is now the university’s very own nature reserve. I liked best the Great Crested Grebes, swimming along with their young on their backs. Sometimes man can interfere with nature and get things right. After all, the Norfolk Broads are largely man-made and have a beauty beyond belief.

Just a reminder: If you are interested in George Borrow, there is still time to enter the essay competition being organised by the George Borrow Trust. The prize is £500 and publication, so do please look at the Trust’s website.




One Comment leave one →
  1. July 20, 2014 10:21 pm

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful article. Thank you for supplying
    this information.

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