Is this one of the best jobs in Norfolk and Suffolk?
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
Gliding along the Waveney, sun glinting on the water, the view is a pastoral pastel palette of river and sky, edged by the green of reeds and trees, and an occasional flash of turquoise kingfisher or splashes of white swan surrounded by a flurry of cygnets.
This is work for 20-year-old Alice Bushell, and it’s idyllic.
Many would not find it quite so idyllic tackling invasive vegetation or wrangling fencing into place with rain lashing across the marshes, or scouring goose droppings from staithes. But Alice loves both the sunny pleasantries of patrolling the Broads in summer and the physical challenge of working with heavy-duty cutters or a chainsaw.
She is assistant ranger for the Waveney, a job she arrived at almost by chance and can still barely believe her luck. One of her tasks is patrolling her patch of the Waveney, from Geldeston Lock to St Olaves - a slow-flowing ribbon of rural loveliness meandering past Beccles, Burgh St Peter, Somerleyton and Haddiscoe.
“It’s pretty amazing that I get to be out here every day,” she said. As she talks she is also looking out for overhanging branches, submerged hazards, boats in an unsafe place or state. We are on a Broads Authority rigid inflatable craft while the wooden launch Alice usually uses is serviced. There’s a flashing blue light to use in emergencies and Alice carries a radar speed gun, as well as ropes and tools to deal with anything from reed cutting and repairing mooring posts to removing tree trunks from the water.
She started out as a Broads Authority apprentice. She knew she wanted an outdoor job and helping at her dad’s welding business meant she had practical skills too. When her training contract finished there was no immediate job but after a spell as a volunteer ranger and a job cutting verges in Norwich, she returned to the Broads. “Who wouldn’t want to have this job?” she said.
Her job, as one of 12 full time rangers, five summer rangers, two winter rangers and an apprentice, is to help people enjoy the Broads safely. Rangers patrol countryside sites and footpaths as well as the water. Some arrive as wildlife or conservation experts. For Alice, everything was new.
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“I heard a bittern on my first day and saw one on my second,” she said. She learned to use the boats, to cut reeds and remove scrub with a brushcutter (like a giant strimmer), help with dredging the river and felling trees - and would love to have a go at higher (literally) level tree surgery one day. She also files reports on problems ranging from speeding to pollution, checks boat licences and tolls, and supports the emergency services dealing with the aftermath of accidents or incidents.
She loves the contrast between seasons, with a packed summer of talking to people on boats and in boatyards and out on the Broads, followed by winter conservation tasks in a virtually empty landscape. There’s so much to the job,” said Alice. “Everyone sees this part, out on patrol, but not when we are out on the marshes miles from anywhere, caked in mud and soaked through.”
There is a lot of responsibility for someone barely out of her teens and Alice has seen the aftermath of a river tragedy as well as the joy that people get from a visit to the Broads. However tranquil the scene, calm can turn to crisis very quickly. “When things go wrong on water, they go wrong,” she said.
Her ranger colleagues have saved people who have fallen into the water or grounded boats on mud flats, stopped hire boats from being swept away on racing tides, helped deal with oil spills, freed cows from dykes and birds from fishing equipment - and a group of men on inflatables wedged between hire cruisers from the consequences of some poor decisions. Rangers also check that the legal requirements for boats to have licenses and pay tolls are being met and enforce byelaws on speed and navigating with care and consideration.
As Alice moves along the river she is scanning for potential hazards in the water and on the banks, checking boats, checking trees, checking mooring areas for everything from grab chains to the length of staithe grass, as mowing is another of her duties. On other days she might lead small groups of volunteers in conservation tasks, visit marinas, moorings and boatyards, or be available to give advice and assistance in tricky weather or tides.
What is the most frequently asked question? “Probably ‘Can I fit under the bridge?’” said Alice. The answer lies not only in the height of the boat but in the tides and the tide-level tables in front of each bridge. “People don’t realise how tidal it is here,” she said.
She carries a speed gun but said it is usually obvious when a boat is speeding from the wash which can damage the river bank and be a danger to other boats. “Sometimes people say ‘It’s only one mile an hour over, but when the speed limit is four miles an hour, that’s like doing 50mph in a 40 zone.” She prefers to give advice before issuing a written warning or reporting a crew for prosecution but she has the power to investigate breaches, carry out interviews under caution, take witness statements and gather evidence across a watery territory ranging from tiny creeks, barely wide enough for a water-vole, to the urban quay close to Norwich’s railway station and from placid reed-fringed rural rivers to the fierce currents and tides of Breydon Water.
Even her days off have become Broads-based as she has bought her own inflatable kayak to go exploring.
As we pass other boats, nosing up to Geldeston or back to Beccles we exchange cheery waves. At least our waves are cheery. I imagine the other boaters are quickly checking their speed.
The 125 miles of rivers and broads which make up the Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and has the status of a national park. Seven million people visit in a normal year. To contact a Broads ranger call 01603 756056 or email.