With an ex-Marine at the helm, a new sail­ing ad­ven­ture in the east of Eng­land of­fers the chance to en­ter a wa­tery wilder­ness and get up close to seals and birdlife, says Pa­trick Barkham

Friday - - Contents -

Ex­plore Nor­folk’s wa­tery wilder­ness on a beaten boat for the real sense of time­less­ness.

We’re sail­ing across a sandy-coloured sea. Seals pop up around our lit­tle crab boat and then van­ish, like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Fur­ther ahead, a group lie mo­tion­less on the wa­ter, as if lev­i­tat­ing. It takes me a mo­ment to re­alise that the sea is so shal­low they are rest­ing on a sub­merged sand bank.

The boat’s depth gauge reads 4ft. One false move and we’ll shud­der on to the sand. We draw closer to a flat ex­panse of salt marsh coloured dun and olive. The cap­tain edges us closer and then, as if by magic, marsh opens up. Be­fore us is a se­cret creek, a por­tal into an­other world – limpid wa­ter, glis­ten­ing mud banks, and no sound but the lonely pip­ing of oys­ter­catch­ers.

There is only one real wilder­ness left in 21st-cen­tury Britain: salt marsh. The maze of treach­er­ous tidal creeks in­tim­i­dates mod­ern hu­mans. This lim­i­nal land­scape of scratchy sea-blite, scoured by wind in win­ter and scorched by sun in summer, can­not be eas­ily nav­i­gated on foot or by boat. We can­not grow crops here, or build on it either. Chan­nels abruptly change with the tide; storms trans­form the marshes.

The wider world has awo­ken to the space and peace of the north Nor­folk coast in re­cent decades. This great sky arena, from the gen­er­ous sands of Holkham to the bird­watch­ing nir­vana of Titch­well, is very much on the map. But this is a vast, mys­te­ri­ous coast, and there are still huge ar­eas of terra nul­lius for most vis­i­tors – and lo­cals too.

I grew up in these parts and still visit reg­u­larly. When I hear that Henry Cham­ber­lain, a Nor­folk boy who has re­turned to his roots, has re­stored two fish­ing boats and is of­fer­ing sail­ing ad­ven­tures ex­plor­ing hid­den creeks and chan­nels, I jump at the chance to join his maiden voy­age.

We meet Henry on the east quay at Wells-Next-the-Sea. Even this is a dis­creet spot, away from the bus­tle of the har­bour. We’re sail­ing in two wooden boats, which Henry has painstak­ingly re­stored. Sal­ford is the last tra­di­tional whelk boat ever built in nearby King’s Lynn, dat­ing from the 1950s, with ter­ra­cotta sails that glow in the sun­shine. She’s tow­ing My Girls, a 20ft crab boat from 1965. We need this smaller boat to nav­i­gate some of the creeks.

The fact that both are lo­cally made is im­por­tant too: They have been built to cope with these de­cep­tively dan­ger­ous wa­ters – both can stay afloat in shal­low wa­ter and are un­likely to top­ple over if we do run aground.

Henry is an ex-Marine who spent re­cent years de­liv­er­ing UN food aid to cri­sis-hit coun­tries. He’s com­pletely un-ma­cho but just the sort of hugely com­pe­tent per­son you’d want if you were stuck up a creek with­out a pad­dle. And the haz­ards here are very real. Like a cab­bie learn­ing the Knowl­edge, Henry must mem­o­rise ev­ery de­tail of these con­stantly chang­ing wa­ter­ways. ‘Ev­ery year these chan­nels are so dif­fer­ent,’ he says. ‘You have to walk and kayak them at low tide.’

We must sail to Cley next the Sea by high wa­ter, which means leav­ing Wells with our mo­tor strug­gling against the in­com­ing tide. A cor­morant tries to sub­due a large eel writhing

in its beak and we dodge the in­com­ing fish­ing boats, which shoot past us on the tide.

Sail­ing Sal­ford is a bit like driv­ing a clas­sic car. People walk­ing past the pretty wooden beach huts of Wells stop and stare, and take pho­tos of the boat. We soon leave them be­hind, and once we’re free of tidal cur­rents, Henry cuts the en­gine and wind power takes charge. All we can hear is the sloosh of wa­ter and the flap of sail and rope on pol­ished wood.

It’s a busy summer’s day but here there’s no boat traf­fic and the land looks green and peace­ful. We sail around the sand-spit of Blak­eney Point, famed for its seals and the thou­sands of scream­ing terns that nest here. Lit­tle terns dive by our boat, ex­pertly ex­tract­ing tiny sil­ver fish from the wa­ter.

We slip into the shal­low bay known as Blak­eney Pit and be­gin our creek ad­ven­tures. The chan­nel up to Cley’s moor­ings by its fa­mous wind­mill has only re­cently been opened up again. I’ve only ex­pe­ri­enced these marshes as a walker, fol­low­ing paths along the high sea banks. On a boat, we’re in­ti­mately ab­sorbed into the marshes. A bearded tit, a spec­tac­u­lar lit­tle bird, clings to the reeds be­side us.

We re­treat down the creek and moor for the night in the marshes by a tiny sandy beach. We’re tucked be­low the creek banks, shel­tered from any wind and out of sight of any bird­watch­ing main­lan­ders. The only trace of us is a whis­per of smoke from the portable wood­burner that Henry spir­its from one magic box (a portable com­post­ing toi­let comes from an­other).

Char­lie Hod­son, a Nor­folk chef and cham­pion of lo­cal pro­duce, pre­pares our sup­per (de­li­cious tan­doori mack­erel caught off Cromer that morn­ing, with smoked salmon, crab and as­para­gus) and, as the sun sets, I jump into the creek for a swim in the sur­pris­ingly warm wa­ter. Af­ter eat­ing cakes pro­vided by Henry’s sis­ter, Jo Get­ley, we join crew-mate Marie Isaac for yoga on the marsh.

Bare feet on a car­pet of sea purslane in this grand arena, larks singing over­head, makes for a glo­ri­ously med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

As the sky dark­ens, we feel the wind from the wingbeats of seabirds flying up the creek. At 9.30pm, un­der a blood-red sky, Henry turns on two Til­ley lamps whose cit­ronella should keep any flies away. He of­fers to pull a tar­pau­lin over the boom to make a tent but it’s such a fine evening we choose to sleep on the open boat, un­der the stars.

Dawn comes be­fore 5am. Henry spots a barn owl hunt­ing as he sorts out the boat. This ad­ven­ture is glo­ri­ously tran­quil for us but Henry is on dead­line: Tides must be obeyed.

We sweep round a bend and the his­toric ware­houses of Wells har­bour draw nearer. We’ve not passed a boat all morn­ing We take the smaller My Girls for our trip back to Wells, not on the open sea but through the salt marsh via a maze of ob­scure chan­nels. Few sailors dare fol­low this route. Af­ter cross­ing the shal­low wa­ters of Blak­eney Point, we twist and turn into the salt marsh, pass­ing the de­cay­ing ribs of an an­cient boat stranded on the marsh. ‘There’s the last boat that didn’t make it,’ says Henry with a glim­mer of a smile.

At its nar­row­est, the creek is barely 10ft wide and stud­ded with sub­merged posts from derelict foot­bridges, which could eas­ily stick a hole in a boat. Just be­fore 7am, we reach an old metal foot­bridge that hasn’t been washed away. We can’t get un­der it. ‘It’s either kayak or Swal­lows and Ama­zons – we’ll have to lower the mast,’ says Henry. Slowly, the creek starts to widen again and wa­ter flows in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. We sweep round a bend and the his­toric ware­houses of Wells har­bour draw nearer. We’ve not passed a sin­gle boat all morn­ing.

As the sky dark­ens, we feel the wind from the WINGBEATS of seabirds flying up the CREEK. Un­der a blood-red sky, Henry turns on lamps. It’s such a fine evening we sleep on the open boat UN­DER THE STARS

Day-trips on My Girls Dh380pp for up to six adults with one meal; overnight ad­ven­tures on Sal­ford are Dh950pp for up to eight adults. coastal­ex­plo­rationcom­

This seaside wilder­ness on the UK’s east coast has seals, quaint towns such as Wells-Next-TheSea (left and above) and big open skies

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