Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Up the creek

Norfolk Wildlife Trust's David North explores Norfolk’s last true wilderness in a traditional crabbing vessel. 

Henry and My Girls, David North

Its 6.30am and I’m in Wells to meet Henry, and to board his restored crab boat, My Girls. It’s been blowing a brisk northerly for the last couple of days but fortunately the heavy skies and heavy rains of the last 24 hours have been blown elsewhere and the early morning sun is bright on Wells marshes.  And it’s the marshes I have come to explore.  Not many boats could attempt the narrow saltmarsh creeks that wind their way between Cley and Wells. And not many navigators know these creeks well enough to attempt the journey and find safe passage through this maze of sinuous, shallow and ever-changing channels. The great thing about ‘My Girls’ is her shallow draft. As long as we have a couple of feet of water under us Henry says we should be ok and that traditional crab boats were made for just this landscape.  So on a rising tide we are off, and with the town of Wells slowly disappearing behind us we head east towards Stiffkey and into a landscape as wild as anywhere on this planet.

Leaving Wells behind, David North
I love the North Norfolk coast – its wildlife and its wildness – and I think I know this coast quite well.   I have walked the marshes over many years and once was lucky enough to fly over them in a small plane, giving me a birds-eye-view and revealing intricate patterns invisible when you are on the ground.  But being in a boat brings a new perspective. Exploring the marshes on foot means being out at, or near, low tide.  Here in the boat we are out amongst the marshland on a rapidly rising tide. Everywhere is movement and change: what was solid land moments before becomes water. Water that moves in strange patterns with currents running both up and down a creek at the same time, creating swirls, mini-whirl-pools, upwellings, calm, oily flats and silver sunlit ripplings. 

Big skies across the Marshes, David North
We ground several times, but, on a rising tide, its usually just minutes before, with Henry at the tiller, our outboard swings us back into the current and eastwards towards Morston.  There are ancient wooden posts that jut from the mud that could easily punch a hole in a keel and in one place a low bridge where we must duck as we pass under.  From the boat of course there are those fantastic huge landscape views across samphire and sea-lavendar-decked marshes and those huge North Norfolk skies, horizon to horizon, above.  These will be familiar to all who love these marshes but for the moment, as we navigate creeks barely wider than the boat, it’s mud that holds my attention.   

'Cauliflower and mashed potato' mud, David North
The English language lacks enough words for mud: there is mud here with the texture of cauliflower and mashed potato. There is mud, shiny, smooth and silvered by sun. There is mud that is black, and brown and grey, and even orange in places. There is mud that sprouts miniature cacti forests of samphire and mud patterned with footprints of shelduck and redshank. There is join-the-dots mud, pricked with sowing-machine regularity, by the beaks of now invisible waders. As the tide rises towards its high it becomes harder to see the edges of the channels that our boat, My Girls, most move within. It’s strange to see just the tops of marsh plants waving over a sea of water. There are forests of sea asters, apparently floating, their flowers not quite open yet, but hinting at yellow and purples soon to come.

Oystercatchers, Blakeney Point, David North
Then a change of scene. We are out into open water and catching the full force of swell from those preceding days of northerly winds. It’s exhilarating, and if not quite a roller-coaster, certainly enough to make me hang on tight until we enter calmer waters in the lee of Blakeney Point.  There are black and white oystercatchers at the seaward end of the spit, roosting out the high tide which has covered their feeding grounds. A more careful look reveals dunlin, grey plovers and a single black-tailed godwit amongst them. The lives of these waders is driven more by tide than by day and night. They will feed all night if that’s when the tide is low and muddy feeding grounds are exposed.  There are common seals hauled up on the Point, but the seals that follow us across Blakeney Pit are greys, heads bobbing above the waves, giving us searching, curious Selkie stares before diving, only to bob up again even closer.

Half-way house, David North
We pass inland, or should that be ‘inwater’, of the bright blue National Trust former lifeboat house and then, sail now rigged,  past ‘half-way house’, the watch-house, where once  ‘preventative men’, the early coastguards, pitted their wits against smugglers of brandy, baccy and geneva (gin). I wonder if there are still smugglers today, but sadly, if so, then it’ more likely drugs or human trafficking that’s plied. A sad  reflection on today’s world.   There are gulls and terns that fly over the boat with raucous calls; black-headed, herring and great-black backed gulls and both common and little terns.  Little terns are one of my favourite birds, elegant, graceful with and almost ethereal beauty as they hover before plunge-diving for small fish. I’m not alone in admiring them. It was Simon Barnes who described little terns as ‘what black-headed gulls dream of becoming when they die and go to heaven’.

Coming in to Cley, David North
Our journey ends navigating the newly dredged, but still narrow, river channel through waving reeds to disembark at the quayside next to Cley windmill.  So what will I take away from this voyage though North Norfolk’s wild marshes under the lovely terracotta sails of My Girls.  What I value most is the privilege of time spent in a truly wild place where the only sounds are wind, waves and the calls of curlew and redshank.  Salt-marshes are truly wild: shaped by the forces of nature, scorched by summer sun, swept by winter storm.  Places that are home for waders, seals and some highly specialised and very fascinating plants, but where we humans are never quite at home. Fleeting visitors, like me, that pass through on an adventure, always aware that tide and change makes these challenging places to explore.
Wild places, like these Norfolk saltmarshes, are rare as hen’s teeth in our modern world.  In North Norfolk we have some of the finest, least spoilt and most extensive saltmarshes in Western Europe.  Priceless!  Let’s make sure they, and their wildlife, are protected and valued as one of Norfolk’s most precious assets.

 Exploring  the saltmarsh coast:

Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves at Holme Dunes and Cley and Salthouse Marshes are great places to see some of the wildlife characteristic of North Norfolk’s coastal marshes.

The North Norfolk coast path between Wells and Cley follows the top of the saltmarshes providing great views over the marshes.

Under sail, David North
If you are interested in exploring the creeks by boat then details of how to book a trip with Henry on his restored, traditional crab boat My Girls, and other coastal adventure trips can be found at  

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