This book covers the story of the Ludham based Hunter’s Fleet which has survived against the odds to become a symbol of the golden era of sailing holidays on the Broads at the turn of the 20th Century.
When visiting Hunter’s Yard for the first time you could be forgiven for thinking that the outside world has completely bypassed this tranquil rural backwater, yet below the surface lies an incredible story of enormous risk, determination and good luck that began amid some of the worst economic conditions to be faced by Great Britain during the 20th Century. For many Broadland boatbuilders the job of foreman at a successful boatyard would have marked the high point of their career but for Percy Hunter, who held that post at George Applegate’s Potter Heigham yard, it was merely a stepping stone to establishing his own boatyard to hire out high quality sailing craft. By 1931 Percy’s sons Cyril and Stanley had gained enough experience of boatbuilding to be able to play a useful role within his new venture so Percy began the search for a suitable site along the banks of the northern rivers of the Norfolk Broads.
Having turned down a site at the end of Upton Dyke and failed to acquire one on the edge of Blackhorse Broad, Percy settled for a plot of open marshland at the end of Ludham’s Horsefen Road. On completion of the paperwork the Hunters took possession of the land in February 1932 and began the arduous task of excavating a dyke by hand to link Womack Water to the site of the proposed boatsheds.
The Hunters set themselves some ambitious targets for their first year in business because in addition to developing their Ludham site they had also committed to building their first three yachts Lustre, Lullaby and Woodruff which were marketed in that year’s Blakes brochure. Realising that they could not complete all three boats themselves Percy Hunter negotiated a deal with Alfred Pegg of Wroxham to build the three berth yacht Woodruff. Before the outbreak of the Second World War the Hunters built a further nine yachts and two half deckers to form the backbone of their hire fleet.
The gathering clouds of war over Europe in 1939 presented Hunter’s Fleet with the first serious threat to its existence. During August 1939 rumours began to circulate that soon after the outbreak of war the Government would seize as many boats as possible on the Broads to moor on open stretches of water to prevent German seaplanes landing. Fearing for the future of the fleet he had worked so hard to establish Percy took the bold decision to suspend his business at the height of the hire season and haul out his boats before they could be seized. These actions were to prove extremely wise because following Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 the Government began commandeering many of the Broadland hire craft. By the end of the War many of these boats were in need of extensive refits or reconstruction before they could be used again. When the Government officials visited Hunter’s Yard they allowed the Fleet to remain at Ludham providing a motor launch was sunk at the entrance to the dyke to prevent the rapid re-launching and use of the Fleet in the event of an invasion. Once the threat of a German invasion had passed in 1944 Percy Hunter was given the go-ahead by the Government to resume his business.
During the 1950s and 1960s motor cruisers progressively replaced many sailing craft within hire fleets around the Broads which created the next major threat to the future of Hunter’s Fleet. Following the death of Percy Hunter in January 1964 his sons Cyril and Stanley continued to run the business but it was becoming an increasingly difficult task for them. The combination of the absence of Percy’s leadership, Stanley’s deteriorating health and Cyril’s desire to reduce his workload left the brothers with little choice but to sell the Fleet. The direction of the Broadland hire industry at that time meant that a potential buyer would probably rebuild the Yard and either modernise or replace the boats. Fortunately, the sale of the Fleet coincided with Norfolk County Council’s (NCC) desire to establish a sailing base on the main Broadland network to build upon the experience offered by the facilities at the Filby Sailing Base.
Under the leadership of NCC’s Chief Education Officer Dr (later Sir Lincoln) Ralphs NCC’s Education Authority purchased a number of extra curricular facilities to offer Norfolk school children the chance to gain a rounded education. Dr Ralphs was a strong supporter of sailing within Norfolk’s schools not least because it taught children important “life skills” such as discipline, tolerance and team work. When he was informed that Hunter’s Fleet was for sale Dr Ralphs could see the Fleet’s potential to provide teachers with the chance to take parties of children for prolonged periods afloat and enable them to learn more about the Broadland environment as well as sailing. Having guided his proposal for the Fleet through the various Council committees NCC formally purchased the Fleet on 1 January 1968 and renamed the Yard The Norfolk County Sailing Base. Stanley Hunter retired while Cyril remained as a part time consultant and boatbuilder.
During the Council’s ownership the Fleet was enlarged through the addition of the half deckers Brown Bess and Sundew in 1968 and 1973 respectively. The Fleet faced its next crisis when a working party was formed in 1981 to investigate NCC’s extra curricular facilities. It was clear that at least one site would be closed and the survival of each facility depended entirely on the case presented by its staff. Dismayed at the prospect of losing the Fleet its supporters soon rallied round and the Council’s attention focused on the County Field Studies Centre at How Hill. The issue of selling How Hill proved equally controversial but the Council pressed on regardless with its disposal. Shortly afterwards, the Fleet received a major boost when the BBC approached the Yard to use one of the boats within its television production of Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club and Big Six stories. Lullaby was subsequently selected for the role of “Teasel” while the Yard itself became the fictitious Rodley & Co.
As the number of Norfolk schools using the Fleet fell to an all time low in 1994, some of Norfolk’s County Councillors thought it could be used as a pawn in their game of political brinkmanship with John Major’s Government. In February 1995, NCC’s decision to sell the Fleet as an economy measure became front page news. Unimpressed by such a crude attempt to use an important piece of Broadland history in the scoring of political points, the people of Norfolk reacted strongly against this decision. Their support quickly led to the foundation of the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust (NHFT) to preserve the Fleet. Boosted by a £200,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, NHFT was able to complete the purchase of the Fleet in September 1996.
Since its acquisition by the Trust, the Fleet has undergone further expansion with the addition of the half deckers Rebel Reveller, which was restored at the Yard, and Buff Tip. The Trust’s most ambitious project came to fruition in 2007 when the 29ft Lucent joined the Fleet thereby fulfilling a pledge by NHFT’s founding members to build a new wooden yacht to one of Percy Hunter’s original designs. Initially, it was hoped that it could be undertaken as a millennium project but it remained on the back burner while the Trust dealt with more pressing issues.
The idea resurfaced in response to the interest generated by Rebel Reveller’s restoration. The Yard’s then manager, Lisa Morgan, broached the subject with the Trustees during one of their regular committee meetings in June 1998 suggesting, that in light of customer feedback, there would be most demand for another four berth yacht. Once the project had been authorised in July 1999, a set of plans had to be produced before work could get underway. None of the original Hunter drawings appeared to have survived, so the Yard’s foreman Graham Cooper had to take the lines of Luna during the winter of 2000 / 2001 to create a set of drawings. The basic design for the four berth yachts has stood up very well to the rigours of nearly eight decades of use by hirers of varying abilities and there was little room for improvement.
Having obtained the measurements little further work was done until the Spring of 2001, following the launch of the Fleet for the coming season, when the dimensions were “lofted out” (plotted) full size on to MDF boards to produce the shape of the yacht. Once Graham was happy with the lines he was able to lay the keel. Lucent’s construction had to take second place to the Fleet’s maintenance work, so progress was rather spasmodic over the coming seasons and confined to the summer months.
As the day of her launch finally approached in 2006, the Trustees assembled to resolve five years of mystery by agreeing to call her Lucent thus following Percy Hunter’s original selection criteria for the class of choosing words beginning with the letters LU for Ludham. Her launch on 30 September 2006 provided the highlight to the celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary of the Trust’s purchase of the Fleet. Lady Mary Colman, the wife of local record breaking yachtsman Sir Timothy Colman, was invited to officially name Lucent at a short ceremony held in the presence of 200 members of the Fleet’s Friends organisation. With only a few weeks before another busy winter maintenance period, Lucent was hauled out of the water a few days later to await the remaining internal fitting out work.
A year later, Lucent was re-launched. Within hours of sliding down the slipway the moment had come to stretch her crisp new sails and see if she possessed the renowned sailing characteristics of the Fleet’s other yachts. Without all of the extra weight usually gained through the fitting of an engine and modern domestic equipment, the Hunter yachts have gained a reputation for handling like overgrown dinghies despite their generous proportions. When asked if there was a particular reason why his yachts sailed so well Percy Hunter once explained that they were designed to sail on the water and not through it. In the predominately light airs experienced that afternoon, Lucent exhibited a good turn of speed as she responded swiftly to the occasional stronger gust of wind and showed every prospect of living up to the example set by her predecessors.
Sadly, it seems as though Lucent will be the last yacht to be completed by the Yard. The present facilities are unable to cope with further boats and the construction of another building would radically alter the character of the site thus going against the whole spirit of the Trust. However, it does not mean there will be any let up for the yard’s team of craftsmen in the summer months because a number of the older yachts will be requiring major overhauls in the coming years to keep them up to the “Hunter Standard” expected by hirers and enthusiasts alike.
Title: Hunter’s Fleet
Foreword by: Lady Ralphs
Publisher: Nighthawk Publishing
Format: Soft Back
Publication Date: 2004
Number of Published Pages: 176
Number of Images:
Remarks: In print. Available direct from Hunter’s Yard and all good bookshops (both online and on a high street near you.)
Edition: Signed Limited Edition
Publisher: Nighthawk Publishing
Format: Hard Back
Publication Date: 2004
Number of Published Pages: 176
Number of Images:
Remarks: Out of print since 2005