Navigating Norfolk’s hidden creeks and salt marshes – in a 1950s whelk boat | Travel

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.

Holkham map.

There is only one real wilderness left in 21st-century Britain: salt marsh. A 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.

My Girls, ‘unlikely to topple over if we do run aground’. Photograph: Leigh Goodsell

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, however, 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.

I know this coast well but the sea provides a completely fresh perspective. 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.

Skipper Henry loading supplies on to the boat in Norfolk.

Skipper Henry loading supplies. Photograph: Zoe Dunford

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 some 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.

Yoga time near Cley.

Yoga time near Cley. Photograph: Zoe Dunford

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

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.

First, we moor up and breakfast on guinea fowl eggs and local bacon. Then we lower the mast and creep under the bridge. 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.

When we clamber off My Girls, an experienced-looking sailor approaches our captain about taking the back channels to Blakeney. “I’ve been sailing here for 20 years but I’ve never dared do it myself,” he says. “Will you take me?”

The Coastal Exploration Company offers bespoke sailing adventures on the north Norfolk coast. Day-trips on My Girls from £80pp for up to six adults with one meal; overnight adventures on Salford from £120pp for up to eight adults

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