A smugglers getaway with Coastal Exploration Company
We asked Ambassador Georgina Wilson-Powell to check out one of the experiences from our Guide.
I’m all for adventure but I’ve never been one who enjoyed leaping into the water.I don’t dive. I don’t jump into pools, but here I was jumping off a boat into a river early on a September morning in north Norfolk.
I had jumped at the chance to spend a day with Henry Chamberlain and his 1950s restored whelk boat, Salford. Henry runs the Coastal Exploration Company
which offers slow travel experiences around the inlets, rivers and coast of Wells-
Next-The-Sea. This part of north Norfolk is pretty remote, it’s often overlooked
for easier spots but this here isn’t just Nelson country, it’s smuggler country.
Smugglers used the deserted marshes and tiny inlets to move cargo for centuries
and Henry’s smuggling experience takes people through the skills they’d need to
evade capture and pick up dead drops in their sailing boats.
I haven’t sailed since I was a kid on the Suffolk rivers, my head filled with
Swallows and Amazons, but this is messing around on boats for grown ups. After
a few quick lessons in knot tying, Henry has me skippering the Salford, away
from the choppy North Seas and in up an unremarkable break in the sand dunes.
He’s an ex-Royal Marine, run missions for the UN and the World Food Bank but
for the last few years spent his days navigating every part of the coastal system
around Wells. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about the tides and landscape
around here. He nudges me into deeper water and we tack slowly up river,
cutting between the endless salt marshes like a child’s drawing of a sailing boat
as the blue of the river curves through the flat landscape.
We moor up and it’s then I realise, wild swimming isn’t optional. It’s then I also
realise I hadn’t packed a proper swimming kit, I have my fiancée’s Lycra cycling
top and I have to borrow some (padded) cycling shorts, from one of my fellow
crew. Charlie Hodson, Executive Chef at Woodford’s (and champion of all things
Norfolk), Simon Hunter Marsh, expert forager and a can-do ex-Marine, Terry are
all board. After a quick change in the dark cupboard full of anchors, I’m ready to
do what I have never done before.
A dry bag wrapped round one shoulder I leap into the water and once I’m
convinced I’m still alive, I love it. The current winds between my legs, there’s
squelchy mud and soft plants brush against my skin. Up above the weather cycles slowly overhead and there is nothing manmade – no buildings, no pylons, no telegraph poles, just us in the river. We kick out for a sand duned island, across a strong current that I only manage just to cross (and not be swept out into the North Sea). Henry’s no-nonsense approach to exploring is infectious – and he has me soon reading compasses and maps (while clutching hot sweet tea and syrup laced flapjacks).
This tiny inlet is my world for the next few hours as we wade looking for cockles
and foraging for sea plants. After losing a leg thigh deep in mud for the third time
in five minutes, I give up caring what I look like (Ursula the Sea Witch most
likely), and relish the mud between my toenails and wallowing about outside.
Simon shows us how to pick sea aster and samphire and how to dig for cockles –
which is like a muddy lucky dip you can eat, and it’s surprising in the river
bottom, uncovered by the sea, how often I stick my hand in blind up the wrist in
mud, I come out with a sand coloured globe of cockley-wonder.
While I’m more of a forager than a smuggler, Henry sets me off on a two mile
round trip inland (in my soggy cycling shorts) to meet a ‘contact’, who can give us
the location of the dead drop we need to find on the way home. Both Henry and
his lovely pint-nursing, pub-sitting contact deserve 10 points for sticking to the
smuggling narrative. I meet ‘Dave’ and manage to extract the coordinates over a
pint before dodging the rain back to the boat and our river world. Slipping,
sliding down another muddy bank, I’m relieved to be back away from the asphalt
roads and harsh feeling metal road-signs. Everything is softer, quieter and slower
in my new river home, (my nickname is Otter, and I could happily see myself
adopting a river life mentality).
With the sun setting it’s time to rustle up some smuggler worthy supper. Charlie
gets to work on a gas ring amongst the marshes, frying sea bass fillets, samphire
and sea aster in beer. There is silence as we eat. It’s the best meal I had in 2017
(and I review restaurants), the fresh flavours amplified by the salt-sprayed
marshes and the huge pink tinged sky. We devour it all standing up, taking it in
turns to pluck the cockles from the pan as they open up shyly.
It’s nearly nightfall by the time we coax the boat out of this little river that I’d
happily made my home for a day. I sit by the tiller, steering the boat round in the
dark trying to find our dead drop. The smuggler treasure was really of no
interest, I’d already discovered my treasure – my total exhilaration of being
totally enveloped in nature, discovering a Norfolk I knew never existed.