Hoist the mainsail: How to be a smuggler in north Norfolk

Travelling
Long read

The north Norfolk coast full of drenched sea marshes and salt flats is one of the most under explored parts of the UK. I head out to explore it, as smugglers once would have done, with the Coastal Exploration Company, a beautifully run, slow travel experience helmed by a proper explorer.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 14 March 2018

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I’m standing on the railing of a wooden 1950s whelk boat, a 5’2” midget in the middle of four strapping ex-Marines, in my fiancees’ Lycra top and a pair of borrowed cycling shorts (complete with padded bottoms) from one of the ex-Marines. To be honest it’s not my finest look.

It’s also still only 10am.

So far that morning I’d driven two hours in the dark down Suffolk and Norfolk’s windy lanes through the fields, to be at Wells Next The Sea on the north Norfolk coast for a crack of dawn sailing time. 

Coastal Exploration Company

The Salford is a wooden, traditional whelking boat that's perfect for exploring the shallow coast of Norfolk

I’m spending the day with the Coastal Exploration Company’s Henry Chamberlain and his assembled ex-Marine motley crew (now chefs, fixers and foragers) for a smuggling experience in Salford, a lovingly repaired Swallows and Amazon style sailing boat. After setting out on time, we’d tacked around Wells and a fairly rough patch of sea, and headed north west along the coastline.

Sailing the Norfolk coast

I’d steered Salford up through a narrow channel, tacking our way between the salt marshes that make up this now deserted bit of coastline, zig zagging up the river as it got smaller and smaller until we found a suitable spot to moor up. The further we wriggled up away from the sea, the more it became obvious that wild swimming was not only a compulsory part of the day, but the only way in, was to jump off the boat.

I don’t dive. I avoid jumping in swimming pools, preferring to slip in over the side like a seal, but here I was. Lined up with these jolly giants.

There was a count to four. I got to three and jumped, my clothes in a dry bag looped over one shoulder like a Baywatch life-float. I mentally congratulated myself for not drowning and then it hit me.

The total and utter wonder of floating in a river, the current moving me along – the only sights were muddy banks, acres of marsh plants and the odd bird coming to investigate the splashing. 

The September sun was playing ball, the skies were clear, it was possibly the best moment of 2017. Having been on tenterhooks all morning, I relaxed. Mucking about in nature was immediately restorative.

Henry lazily swam next to me, his long stork legs elegantly kicking, as we crossed a strong current to reach a tiny sand dune covered island. We swam away from our destination so that the current pushed to the other side in the right spot, and vitally not out past it and into the North Sea. At the point I thought I would have to be rescued by the lifeboats halfway to Norway, my feet touched soft mud, I’d made it to the island (with only a few moments of panic evident on my face).

Henry started tours with the Coastal Exploration Company last year after spending five years restoring three traditional wooden boats, once used for whelking. An ex-Royal Marine, he has worked for the UN and the World Food Bank and having had the privilege of sailing with him, I quickly realised there is no one more capable out there.

He runs his days out like his former operations across Sudan or Afghanistan, but puts passion into sharing the beauty and peacefulness of Norfolk. His mission now is slow travel and uncovering the creeks and marshes, the birdlife and easy foraging on more local adventures.

His passion for Norfolk extends to all the food and drink on board, his hardy fisherman’s smock from local tailors, Carrier Company, and he works with homeless charity, the Purfleet Trust, to crew cargo trips where he delivers local food brands by sail to Norwich and Ely.

Henry’s world now is his boats, the big skies and the endless weather and it’s a captivating one.

Windswept, slightly sunburnt, crusty with mud, I felt like I’d experienced enough to have travelled all over the world, but I’d just got up to grips with a smidgen of the UK’s coastline

Playing at being Famous Five

Back on the island, we undertake a spot of orienteering, quickly learning how to read a map and a compass fuelled by hot sweet tea and homemade flapjack (the sort that’s laced with Golden Syrup rather than anything healthy).

It felt like I had stumbled into a Famous Five story complete with my own band of jolly outlaws.

Outlaws litter this part of Norfolk’s history, smuggling here was a smart career move until the 20th century, the wild coastline was hardly monitored – something that Henry brings to life as we work our way through our smuggling skills.

But even smugglers need to eat. It was time to head back to Salford for breakfast. The current had turned so it was time to wade through mud to reach the marshes. Within two minutes I had given up caring what I looked like as yet another leg disappeared thigh deep into the rich, thick, gloopy mud that the sea had left behind.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed getting muddy since I was a small child but this was glorious (and a proper workout as I waded slowly, knee-deep back up the river).

The fry up, a roll stuffed with a fried egg and locally cured bacon and black pudding, devoured perched on the side of the boat amongst the rigging, a steaming enamel mug of coffee to my side, had never tasted so good.

Coastal Exploration Compaby
“It felt like I had stumbled into a Famous Five story complete with my own band of jolly outlaws”

Foraging and feasting

Food plays a big part of Henry’s explorations and he has a casual crew of foragers and chefs who help him make the most of the lush landscape.

We were with Charlie Hodson, Executive Chef at Woodforde’s Brewery (and champion of all things edible in Norfolk) and Simon Hunter Marsh, a renowned local forager who supplies Michelin star chefs. I headed out with Simon, back down the muddy river, one slurpy footprint at a time, the mud really making itself at home under my toenails to rustle up some sea plants and cockles.

As the sky turned a velvety grey and the afternoon light ramped up the colours of the marshes, a million shades of brown and green stood out, nothing in sight but nature.

Simon (who now also cooks Norfolk seafood and steaks on hot rocks in Cromer) is the perfect guide, helping me to find sea aster and samphire as we scramble up muddy banks to stand on the sea-whipped marshes.

Our little sacks full of greens for supper, we headed down to river bed. The water had been sucked out by the sea so it was time to plunge our hands wrist deep into the soft mud. Cockle gathering is more luck than skill but it was surprising how many times I thrust my hand in blindly to the dark mud and came up trumps with a cockle. 

Dinner gathered, it was time to head out on a secret smuggling mission. While the coastline is deserted, you don’t need to head far inland to find a hearty Norfolk pub. I set off to meet a ‘smuggling contact’, a two mile round trip through the fields which soon made me realise just how much of north Norfolk there is to explore. Having found the contact and uttered a code phrase, I had to tease out some essential location information over a pint, so Henry could be directed to the dead drop on our way home.

Big skies, best meal of 2017

While we waited for the tide to come back in and float the boat so we could find the dead drop and sail for home, Charlie rustled up what was my favourite meal of 2017. 

Standing around on the top of the marsh bank, barefoot and covered in mud, I devoured a seabass fillet cooked in Woodfoodes beer with pan-fried samphire and sea aster, followed with our found cockles, again cooked in beer.  His little gas ring sputtered on top of a wooden box, its sharp corners incongruous against the acres of ankle height marsh plants.

Coastal Exploration Company

Cooking up a storm with sea aster and seabass under the Norfolk sky

It was heavenly. The food’s flavours were amplified by the open sky, tinged with pink as the sun started its descent. I was exhausted, exhilarated, in love with just being outside and having pushed myself and come up smiling the other side. And it was still Saturday – Henry’s adventure feels like an entire week’s retreat condensed into one day.

Finally, the tide was high enough for us to work our way home and by the time we hit the North Sea, it was dark. Under Henry’s masterful eye I skippered the boat round in (purposeful) circles, looking for our smuggler’s treasure, the dead drop. Moonlight hit the crest of the waves by the time we found it and exhausted I collapsed amongst the ropes of the rigging taking in the night air. We cruised into Wells, smug with real adventure compared to the glow of TV screens we could see through the windows of the town’s houses.

Windswept, slightly sunburnt, crusty with mud, I felt like I’d experienced enough to have travelled all over the world, but I’d just got up to grips with a smidgen of the UK’s coastline. I’ll take local, intense and low key rather than a long haul flight anytime.

And Henry? You’ll find him on Salford, in his fisherman’s smock, introducing landlubbers to the wonders of slow travel.

The Coastal Exploration Company will be running one day and overnight tours from April 2018. You can also book the Coastal Exploration's experiences through ethical adventure specialists  Gather Outdoors.

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