A sailboat journey through the creeks and marshes of the Norfolk coastline with the Coastal Exploration Company. Words and photography by Ian Finch
• Winter sailing is just as good as the summer months in Norfolk
• Sustainable travel through the saltmarsh – sail, using wind power
• Focus on sustainable slow Norfolk food
• Norfolk is an amazing place for real adventure
The wild Norfolk coast is a difficult and demanding place to sail. Inland is a patchwork of unmarked channels and dangerous creeks, whilst the incessant ebb and flow of the North Sea renders charts out of date by the close of each day. Sandbanks move constantly. Many a fisherman’s life has been lost out on the sandbars a mile or so from the safety of the inlet. Northerly winds turn the sandbar into a violent ribbon of towering swell, making the exit from Wells a dangerous proposition, but one some are willing to take – for family, livelihoods, survival, and exploration.
In the hazy dawn light, a V-shaped formation of pink geese surged across the grey, their unmistakeable call sweeping across the endless landscape. The ripple of a red canvas sail, not unlike that of an Arabic dhow, halted my imaginative fairy tale of the babbling geese. Skipper Henry Chamberlain sipped from a steaming tin cup of coffee, and feet shuffled on the wooden deck around me. Deck skipper Colin tied off sail lines as experienced co-skipper Dom prepared the chain from the anchor to be eased into the water. Zoe untied the smaller 60-year-old Brancaster Mussel Flat moored alongside the larger My Girls.
All crew are native to Norfolk and know these wild waters. I sat amongst the protective presence of the larger boat, the Salford – the last remaining Kings Lynn-built whelk boat in this region. Our three vessels, hip to hip, rested in the shallow inland waters of Norton Creek, behind the offshore barrier landscape of Scolt Head Island.
Before sail met with the rigours of the North Sea, Colin and Zoe eased carefully from My Girls into the lower Mussel Flat. The smaller craft listed back and forth as Colin hoisted the red sail some 15ft feet above the boat. As the frigid coastal breeze filled the sail, the small imprint of the Mussel Flat swung into life.
The Mussel Flat’s discreet design uses the tide to do the hard work, moving with it, able to float in inches of water. When nature’s bounty is rich this boat would be used to harvest mussels, and also for foraging samphire, sea aster, and sea purslane from the muddy banks of the marsh, or to spear and catch fish from shallow pools.
By now, the tide was emptying the bay behind Scolt Head Island that had once housed our heritage collection of boats. We had to leave, immediately, before being grounded and having to wait eight cold hours for the next tide.
As the afternoon faded and a deep blackness gathered around us, water and swell perception disappeared. Henry and Dom remarked with concern that they had never seen an evening so dark; this would hamper their ability to see and judge the dangerous incoming swell. In the blackness we safely crept towards the outer banks of Wells.
The harbour was quiet, and we were quieter to reduce the impact of our arrival. Crab and lobster pots were piled in makeshift towers on the quay, and fishing boats sat tied and ready for the 4.00am arrival of their skippers and high tide. Wells seemed sleepy and peaceful as we moored our boats to wooden floating platforms.
The natural environment here begs you to slow down and take a closer look. It magnetises and seduces in equal measure, even in the cloak of winter’s darkness. It has the power to give and to take away.
Day 2 – 5.00am
The locals used to say never go out to the marsh at night – the marsh would catch you out.
Some believe that smugglers invented the old legend of Black Shuck, a phantom black hellhound, to keep people away from the marsh. This intricate channel network off the Norfolk coast was ideal for smuggling, with boats sailing from France in the 18th and 19th centuries with tea, lace, champagne, and brandy. Some houses on the coast even had tunnels leading to the marsh. For us it was a backcountry coastal highway of lagoons and creeks, channels and ever-changing tidal systems.
As the darkness of blue dawn gave way, our second morning presented a vibrant tapestry of purple and orange. Looking out over the flat landscape I imagined the smugglers using the creeks for cover, shifting their contraband from one drop-off to another.
The team convened in the Mussel Flat and larger crab boat, My Girls, beside an old footbridge used by wildfowlers to access remote points of the marsh. To reach the wild landscape beyond, the relationship between tide and timing is essential. Too late and the tide would be too high. Too early and the water would not be deep enough. I ducked down as we crept under the bridge with inches and minutes to spare. Moving through the network of creeks beyond would be dangerous and tricky. In this area of the salt marsh are the lesser-navigated and unexplored channels. Local knowledge is essential to make it through.
As the morning miles drifted from one sweeping bend to another, the silence of both boats reflected what winter exploration on the Norfolk coast should be: beautiful spectrums of light, fathoms of wildness, beauty in silence. As we sailed moment to moment, waters ebbed away revealing sandbars alive with nature’s bounty, new unexplored worlds and perspectives. We swept through into the broader channels that eventually reached back into the North Sea.
Squinting into the midday sun I looked back across the wild lands from which we’d passed. This ancient landscape holds so much beauty, history, danger, and vastness. Looking further in I saw an intricate and rare ecosystem, relying on the powerful ebb and flow of the tidal forces that nourished and harvested the landscape. We’d travelled using those ancient forces of wind and sail and explored deeper and further into the landscape than ever before. It was here we had sailed between the water and sky and seen one of the last truly wild places of Britain.
This is an edited feature from The Field. For the full article go here.