Coastal ExplorationFrom The Field
A sailboat journey through the creeks and marshes of the Norfolk coastline with the Coastal Exploration Company
Words and Photography by Ian Finch
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patchwork of unmarked channels and dangerous creeks, whilst the incessant ebb and flow of the North Sea renders charts out of date by the close of each day.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.
Our two-day sail required detailed reconnaissance, planning, and a wealth of local knowledge. Each generation of Norfolk fishermen refined the size and shape of their boats, engineering them into highly efficient vessels tuned to the needs and conditions of these waters. Each boat had its purpose, its unique design, its own temperament. This journey would connect us to those generations of seafaring souls – tap into their spirit of exploration along this untamed coastal landscape.
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. A roll of the sculling oar eased the boat 180° to face into the mouth of Norton Creek. Zoe sat to one side coiling lines as Colin sat in the central rear of the boat, stabilising the rolling list using the oar. The Mussel Flat’s discreet design uses the tide to do the hard work, moving with it, able to float in inches of water. The sail and scull allow extra power and steerage in narrow channels like Norton Creek. 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.
One and a half hours later the Mussel Flat emerged from the mouth of Norton Creek, its distinctive white hull standing out bright against the overcast sky. Colin’s tall and powerful frame sculled the vessel with the tide towards our awaiting Salford. Their bounty became visible, resting in a netted bag on Zoe’s lap. During their short passage they had landed on a secluded stretch of marsh, and foraged wild cockles and mussels from the tidal banks. The sea’s rich offerings would go alongside wild venison stew, locally made vegetable soup, and freshly roasted and ground coffee.
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. The Salford heaved into action. Colin and Zoe remained in the Mussel Flat. We watched as Dom expertly sailed the Salford out of the bay, over the cresting swell of the entrance sandbar some 400m away. Henry and I had moved into the smaller My Girls, and shadowed the Mussel Flat towards the tipping roll of white water out at the entrance to the bay. Colin returned to sculling, propelling the Mussel Flat using one long wooden oar. This highly technical skill, still relevant today, is a traditional technique passed on from skipper to skipper, keeping an ancient skill alive.
Henry looked back to watch the slowing rhythmic scull of Colin and Zoe on the smaller Mussel Flat. They were in a tricky situation. Whitecaps swept at angles under the boat, the sail engaging the wind then disengaging, halting progress. The boat was inching forwards but under vigorous disdain from the swell. We moved into action. Henry skilfully shifted My Girls into a strategic position alongside the slowing Mussel Flat, safety lines were thrown and exchanged, and the brute elegance of the sail-borne My Girls inched the Mussel Flat beyond the dangerous swell. Towing the smaller wooden craft, we eased into the soft and rolling northerly swell of the sea. It wasn’t long before the coastal contours of Scolt Head Island slipped into the distance as we turned east.
I watched as the green marram grass atop each dune bled into the pine woodlands miles beyond. We brought the Mussel Flat to our stern, tied her alongside with wet and worn lines, and helped Colin and Zoe aboard – tired and wet from the bursts of sea spray yet full of life. Fingertips shivered and shook. They had been tested. The Norfolk swell we’d seen many times before had shown its teeth but not drawn blood. The red and green flicker of directional buoys in the distance came and passed as we made our way along the coastline in the early evening, gently guiding us.
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. Headlights swung left to right and off into the distant hills. Masts from smaller commercial and personal boats passed in front of flashing neon fish shop signs. 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. Each boat, in sequence, reversed to its place using the tide that had filled this harbour and swept under every vessel afloat. Life in this coastal landscape has a recharging and soothing effect. 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. My friends the geese flew overhead again as if to commemorate our safe arrival. Squadrons of Arctic terns dived and swung in low-level displays. There is a magic to this time of day, a vastness where everything gradually sweeps to life with the rising of the sun.
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.
Colin and Zoe slipped off in the Mussel Flat first. The triangular tip of the sail disappeared and reappeared in an unknown creek 200m away. Through the rough heather and marshland, the slow passage of the sail could be traced, its snaking route indistinguishable to us yet visible to the thousands of migratory visitors above. Henry, Dom and I prepared My Girls to trace the route of the Mussel Flat through the channels towards Stiffkey. As Dom, perched in the rear, tensioned the sail, I could hear the sea pummel the outer sand banks in the distance. Golden light began to illuminate the sleepy coastal outhouses that peppered the landscape. I imagined sheep being shepherded from one field to the next, and owls finishing their dawn raids.
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. Land became distantly spaced, and narrow channels became magnetised towards the ocean. We moved, as always, with minimal impact on the marsh, choosing to work alongside elemental forces that have shaped this landscape for thousands of years.
After leaving in the blue haze of a Norfolk dawn some seven hours before, we arrived in a secluded bay. The landscape appeared vaster and more expansive than before. The channel that headed out to the north and into the sea showed remnants of submerged wooden posts, crab pots, and other structures. To our east, the tide had since departed, leaving exposed beaches and dune-crested islands. The popular seal breeding location of Blakeney Point was barely visible on the horizon. We moored up 20m from the sandbar and rode the Mussel Flat in. It was eerily quiet and comforting, not a soul visible other than our migratory friends constantly watching over us. Hoisting our kit onto tired shoulders we paralleled the landscape on foot around the coast until we reached a disused pipeline that ran out into the shallows of the outgoing tide. We followed the pipeline inland, wading through pools and saltwater streams. Zoe knelt in the shallow waters left by the retracted tide, raking her fingers through the sand, and lifted a handful of wild cockles. After washing them in saltwater she gently rolled them into her smock pocket with a beautiful smile.
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.