How smugglers’ tales inspire a sailing adventure on the North Norfolk coast
PUBLISHED: 07:16 30 September 2017 | UPDATED: 08:34 30 September 2017
Andrew Stone enjoys a day of adventure on the Norfolk coast inspired by the smugglers’ tales of old.
I carefully scanned the interior of the dimly-lit pub looking for our contact.
There were just two people who fitted the description given to us of “a white male, about 40 years old sitting by himself”.
One was seated outside while the other had entered shortly after my “wife” Georgina and I arrived, had ordered a pint and then took a seat near the door.
I decided to approach him first.
“Afternoon,” I said. “Are you a twitcher?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I saw a spoonbill earlier.”
Bingo, I knew we had our man.
Half an hour later we walked out the pub with coordinates for where we were required to drop off the contraband that night.
Captain Henry would be pleased.
From the outside, the secretive pub rendezvous appears to have little to do with a sailing trip along the North Norfolk coast. But anyone signing up for Henry Chamberlain’s smugglers sail should expect the unexpected.
If you like your adventure served on a bone china plate by a waiter in white gloves, then this is probably not the trip for you.
Instead, the smugglers’ sail comes dished in an enamel bowl by a former marine with calloused hands.
It’s an advanced sail that provides a training and preparation phase on traditional smuggling techniques before you join Henry’s crew and run an actual operation using old wooden sailing boats.
Participants learn about map reading, knot tying, the concepts of covert operations and seamanship skills before putting this all into practice ‘somewhere’ along the North Norfolk coast.
I recently joined Henry and his crew early one Saturday morning in Wells for just such a trip.
In a conspiratorial tone, he laid out our plan for the day: we would leave at 7am in the Salford, a 30ft traditional wooden sailing vessel, travel up the coast for a distance while evading authorities and moor up in a creek for the day.
From there we’d rendezvous with our contact, collect and then deliver the contraband and, if all went according to plan, be back by 9pm.
Before going further, I should perhaps point out now that Henry was quite clear in saying he does not condone smuggling in any way.
We left the harbour under diesel power but it wasn’t long before a call came to raise the sails. I assisted regular crew member and local chef Charlie Hodson get them up.
Once we had cleared the mainland, we made our way in a westerly direction towards an inlet further up the coast.
Not long after dropping anchor, we stripped down to our bathing trunks, jumped overboard and swam a kilometre back to the mouth in order to learn about cold to dry - and warm - techniques.
This was followed by a short introduction to map reading while sitting on a dune offering some panoramic views of the surrounding coastline.
We later gathered cockles and foraged for edible plants growing in the surrounding marsh to add to our dinner that night. Charlie had already prepared a scrumptious egg, bacon, mushroom and black pudding brunch and I was equally excited about his plans to cook up some fresh sea bass.
But first we had a mission to complete. Using our map reading techniques, fellow journalist Georgina Wilson-Powell and I were to find the local pub, make sure we weren’t followed, check out entry and exit points and make contact with “Steve”.
Once Steve was happy that we were who we said we were, he would hand over coordinates giving the location of where we were to drop off our contraband under the cover of darkness later.
Everything went to plan and it wasn’t long before we had returned to the Salford in time for dinner. Charlie had set up a gas cooker on the marsh and we ate the sea bass off enamel plates while watching the sun set - it really could not have got any better.
But even the best-laid plans go awry. A rope that caught around the propeller delayed our planned 7.30pm departure by about 20 minutes and we then battled in the dark to find the contraband which had been attached to a buoy and dropped at sea.
Fortunately the people picking it up later were quite thoughtful. They texted Henry on our homeward voyage to say we should just head straight back to Wells and leave the goods on the boat as it was getting quite late.
Of course there never was any contraband to collect as it had been a game all along. Maybe.
Smuggling along the North Norfolk coast was a regular occurrence during the latter part of the 18th century, said Coastal Exploration Company owner Henry Chamberlain.
“The coastline was quite lawless at that time and the smugglers would head to France where they would pick up merchandise like brandy, wines and cloth and smuggle it into the UK to avoid paying duties,” he said.
“The North Norfolk coast was particularly good for smugglers as there are a lot of inlets and sand bars where smaller boats could evade authorities.”
Mr Chamberlain said smugglers tended to use boats called luggers, a small sailing vessel with lug sails set on two or more masts and perhaps lug topsails.
“They were a bit bigger and more streamlined than the boats I use as they had to get to France.”
He said smuggling became such a problem that the army and navy were sent to try and stop it during the 1780s and 90s.
Getting on board
Run by a small, local team of professional adventurers, Coastal Exploration Company offers sailing trips ranging from four hours to three days, through creeks, marshes and open sea.
Participants can get involved with the sailing and cooking, or sit back and connect with nature.
“We only use locally sourced high-quality food and drink on our sails, ensuring a full Norfolk experience,” said owner Henry Chamberlain.
“Our philosophy is to run a sustainable business by investing in slow food, community engagement projects and the movement of cargo under sail.”
He said they could cater for groups of up to eight people.
“We’re very flexible and its all dependent on what is wanted.”
This is the first full season the company has operated and trips will continue until the end of October.
For more information visit www.coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk