The North Norfolk coastline is an area of outstanding natural beauty, popular with nature-lovers and walkers. But why are the former ports of the area set so far back from today’s coastline?The answer comes from both natural and manmade causes, and shows how history can leave a thriving place high and dry.

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Hard to imagine them as anything but quaint and cosy...

There was a time, in the Middle Ages, when the Blakeney Haven area comprising Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton were hives of activity. Blakeney was once in the top 10 of British harbours, the ports made a vital contribution in time of war, while smugglers rubbed shoulders with fighting men, fishermen and merchants. Today these places are busy again but it is tourists, birdwatchers, walkers and secondhomers who are drawn to this coastline. But when the River Glaven was navigable from the sea, ocean-going vessels docked at the harbours of these three places, as well as at other sites along this stretch of coast, such as Stiffkey and Salthouse. Although Wiveton appears to be well inland, grooves on the side of the church indicate that ships once used it to moor.

Who founded the ports?

One legend says the Vikings were the first to use Blakeney harbour more than a thousand years ago. Certainly, by the 14th century, it was an important place. In 1347, the port provided ships for King Edward IIIs siege of Calais at the start of the Hundred Years War and they were present at the English victory at the Battle of Sluys off Flanders. Two hundred years later, when the Spanish Armada threatened invasion, Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton mustered an impressive 36 ships for the Navy. It was Cley mariners who, in 1405, captured the heir to the throne of Scotland while en route to France; he was held in England as a hostage for several years. But it was peaceful trade that built the prosperity of these ports. Blakeney was one of the few ports allowed to trade in silver, gold and horses, while coal from Newcastle came in here. Stone quarried in Northamptonshire was brought up by river and sea to build some of Norfolks great houses and churches. The ports were embarkation points for locallygrown wheat and for wool products, the foundation of English wealth during the later Middle Ages. The harbours would have been lined with wharves, and would have been teeming with activity and the sound of many languages.

Who were they trading with?

Norfolks close links with the Netherlands are reflected throughout the region. As our closest trading partners, influences from the Low Countries prevail the Dutch gables on many of the buildings the most obvious examples. Fishermen from Norfolk went out as far as Iceland from the 16th century onwards.

What about the smugglers?

As early as 1317, Cley harbour was supposedly run by gangs of organised pirates. Smuggling was never eradicated despite the best efforts of the authorities. At Cley, an impressive Customs and Excise building was later put up and it was in use until the second half of the 19th century. Blakeneys Crown and Anchor inn was said to be a hotbed of smuggling and general nefarious activities; it was demolished in 1921 to make way for the Blakeney Hotel. Legends persist of a network of tunnels used by local villains to transport contraband.

And legitimate traders?

Merchants founded an impressive flowering of building. St Nicholas Church at Blakeney, built on the foundations of a 13th century Carmelite friary, is still a landmark on high ground that can be seen for miles across the salt marshes. In the marshes, on the Blakeney to Cley coastal walk, are the remains of another friary. Merchant vessels and fishermen would stop there for a blessing to bring good luck to their voyage. At Wiveton, the builders of St Marys Church put the richest flush work ornamentation on the side of the church that faces Cley to impress the neighbours. Blakeney Guildhall, complete with 15th century undecroft, was probably the house of a well-off fish merchant. Salthouse, by contrast, featured warehouses to store salt from the marshes. All in all, as late as the 17th century this was a busy, working coastline.

What happened?

Nature and man took a hand. The North Norfolk coast is at right angles to the prevailing tide, acting as a natural groyne. Spits and sandbars form easily, silting goes on and saltmarsh forms. This eventually blocked the course of the river, and cut the villages off from the coast so they are a mile or more inland. At Stiffkey, the harbour where materials used to build Sir Nathaniel Bacons great hall there in 1578 became unusable and the process spread along the coastline. Wealthy landowners such as Sir Henry Calthorpe sped up what was happening naturally. Despite warnings and legal protests, he persisted in draining salt marsh for agricultural use. In 1637 he put a dam across the Glaven and enclosed the marshes. Although the bank was later demolished, the river channel had already begun to silt up. Soon ships could not get to the Cley wharves; it was no longer by-the-sea. Trade continued along the coast, but the good times were over. The failure to attract the railway in the 1840s was the final blow. By the 1850s even the smugglers were struggling, the Cley customs house closed in 1853 and the economy became depressed. Unemployment rose there were slum dwellings in Blakeney as living conditions deteriorated.

Not for long...

Increasing wealth and leisure during the second half of the 19th century brought tourists. In 1926, Norfolk Naturalists Trust (now Norfolk Wildlife Trust) bought 400 acres of marshland between Cley and Salthouse, and nature-lovers flocked to the area. Nature and human interference continue to influence this fragile coast; concerns over flooding, climate change, erosion and overdevelopment mean its course remains as shifting as a sandbar.



Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path, Bruce Robinson 1999.


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