Former Ports on the East Coast

Fleet means river and we have the most memorable use of the second part of the place-name in Fleet Street in London; that river was driven underground long ago. Wainfleet comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for a tidal stream that can be crossed by a wagon. That is one theory at least, but if it really was the Roman station Vainona then the “wain” part of the place-name does not mean wagon, but is an older Latin word. The town of Wainfleet in Lincolnshire was a thriving port in the middle-ages but as the coast of the Wash receded the retreating sea caused it to be increasingly remote from the shipping trade it relied on. Not to be outdone, the town moved east. Its former site is now no more than a few mounds in the fields around the church of St Mary. The mounds near the main road to Boston (the old coastal road) were created by salt pans. You can also see the ancient streets as crop marks from the air.

The church of All Saints Wainfleet was built in 1821, although it replaced an older one. I must tell you what first got me interested in Wainfleet; it was none other than St Edmund of East Anglia. The Memorials of St Edmunds Abbey were three volumes in the Rolls Series, published in Latin at the end of the 19th century. The relevant manuscript that this part relates to dates from the late 14th century. It was there that I read of the many miracles that were associated with St Edmund, or so they thought. The number of miracles in Wainfleet.was seventeen in the space of one or two years.  These were all the fisherman whose lives were saved from various disasters at sea through prayers to the saint. There was then a chapel to the saint at Wainfleet but nothing remains in the Lincolnshire town except the name of a modern road near the salt pans; St Edmund’s Close. Wainfleet continued to be a seaport, although the ships had to moor at an ever increasing distance from the town.

There is still  a Georgian building opposite the Market Place which used to be the Customs House in the 18th century. The sea however continued its disappearing act. Apart from a pub called the Jolly Sailors little reminds you that the sea once lapped the coast here, and even that has closed some years ago. Bacon’s Guide to Lincolnshire, published in the early years of the 20th century says there was still a little maritime trade at Wainfleet, but by then it was of minor importance to the town.  The last trading vessels finally deserted the port of Wainfleet in the 1920s; they moored by the mouth of the river Steeping at Gibraltar Point, more than a mile from the town as the crow flies and considerably  further  by the twisty watercourse.  What was once open water is now rich farmland between the town and the sea.  The twisty A52 still follows the line of the ancient coastline, from the days when it was a true coast road. Unlike the medieval town, this time Wainfleet stayed put.

The only vessels to use the river these days are those of the Skegness Yacht Club, whose moorings are near the present day mouth of the river Steeping. Yachtsmen from this part of Lincolnshire are frequent visitors to North Norfolk which is much closer by sea than by road. Norfolk is visible across the Wash from Roman Bank in Licolshire if you peer past the forest of wind turbines. For the sailors from Skegness, Brancaster and Wells-next-the-Sea are two of the nearest resorts with moorings suitable for yachts. Wainfleet is a former port that has lost contact with the sea and as such it recalls Cley in Norfolk, where another Georgian Customs House similarly reminds you that this was once a place of foreign cargoes. Judging by the size and grandeur of the 14th century church at Cley it was an even more prosperous port than that at Wainfleet. There the church of St Mary which now stands outside the town and once served the medieval port cannot quite compare with St Margaret’s at Cley. The North Norfolk river Glaven has silted up like the Steeping in Lincolnshire and retreated from the village and now flows out to se at Blakeney Point. However a few small  boats may still be seen on the mud where the quay used to be in the Norfolk village, whereas the river at the Haven in Wainfleet seems now to be a stranger to any form of navigation. Only one sunken boat remans beneath the tranquil water. Wainfleet has morphed from seaside port into an inland market town, whereas Cley has declined to a North Norfolk village.

The brewery of Batemans in Wainfleet reminds me not of Cley but of a seaside town further round the East Anglian coast at Southwold where the brewery of Adnams similarly occupies a prominent place among the local trades. The history of Southwold as a port is however rather different. There the river Blyth used to flow out to the sea several miles south at Dunwich; that was the prosperous medieval port. Southwold only came to the fore when the river Blyth broke through the sand spit atvSouthwold in 1362. The Dunwich river is now just a creek along the salt marshes at Walberswick. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the fine church of St Edmund in Southwold was built after the sea broke through. With Southwold now a port the necessary riches came its way. Poor Dunwich on the other hand lost not only its port and river, but nearly all the once fine town and eight churches. The ever changing sea brings such changes in fortune to places all along this sandy coast from the Humber to the Thames.

The library on the ground floor of the Magdalen College Museum is under threat.

The library on the ground floor of the Magdalen College Museum is under threat.

One of the glories of Wainfleet is the Magdalen College School. The school was founded by the man who also founded Magdalen College in Oxford. His intention was that this school was to educated Wainfleet boys who would later go on to the University. This man, called William Pattin (also called William Waynefleet from the town of his birth), was the son of a wealthy squire; he became bishop of Winchester and also Lord Chancellor of England. The school dates from 1484, two years before the bishop died at the grand old age of 91. Magdalen College School is built of red brick with two towers the west end which give it rather ecclesiastical feel, and before the Reformation is had a chapel on the first floor in which the boys were taught. The lower floor provided the master’s lodgings. William Waynefleet had founded the College in Oxford nearly 30 years before in 1458. Among other things he was first Provost (i.e. headmaster) of Eton; truly a busy and eventful life. As a Grammar School Magdalen College School in Wainfleet was closed in 1933 and its pupils transferred to the new Skegness Grammar School about four miles away. The building in Wainfleet was however reopened after the Second World War as a school once more, and did not finally come to an end as a place of learning until 1966.

Lincolnshire is one of the few counties that still has its Grammar Schools, and boarders too; the girls stay at Wainfleet Hall. The railway station survives in Wainfleet, no thanks to Dr Beeching who intended to close it and the line through Boston to Skegness. Strenuous efforts by the town council got the decision reversed. The line from Boston to Louth was retained almost a far as Firsby where it branched off to Wainfleet and terminated at Skegness.

Our son Peter stayed for a few days in Wainfleet with us where we spent a weeks holiday in May. When it was time for him to return to his job he was able to get on the train within walking distance of our cottage there and, with just two changes at Grantham and Kings Cross/St Pancras he ended his journey in Brussels, again within walking distance of his home! He had lunch with us in Lincolnshire and by the evening he was with hi girlfriend in Belgium;  what with the checking-in a travel to and from the airport it would have taken longer  to fly. This is all thanks to Mrs Thatcher and the Channel Tunnel. Rail transport is a wonderful thing, provided you are near a station.





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