Although in the distant past places like Cley, Thornham and even Cromer had a coastal trade, this was back in the days of sail. At Cromer ships had to be beached to unload their cargoes of coal; on the incoming tide it was possible to float them again, but only in an unladen state. With the coming of steam tramps most of the smaller ports lost their coasting vessels. However Lynn, Wells and Yarmouth retained a regular trade of seagoing steamers, which grew throughout the latter part of the 19th century. This trade lasted into living memory, but today only the port at Kings Lynn remains in use by international shipping. Even Lynn is slowly declining, as the size of the craft becomes ever greater; many of the vessels that now visit Lynn are too large for the Bentinck and Alexandra docks which are protected by a lock gate. More and more shipping has to be moored on the river outside the docks, where it is subject to the tide. In recent years the annual tonnage of cargo handled by Lynn Docks has fallen from three-quarters of million tonnes to half a million.
At Yarmouth the new outer harbour was hailed as representing a new beginning for the port, but has struggled to find customers. This is partly due to the appalling road system that serves this East Coast town. The dual carriageway sections of the A47 and the A12 end many miles short of the dock. It is also partly because the charges are so high, according to the mariners who still use the inner harbour. Only the ships associated with commissioning and decommissioning (mostly the latter) of oil and gas platforms use the harbour on a regular basis. The servicing of the wind farms off the East Coast has been directed not to Yarmouth but to Lowestoft.
On the last Sunday in August 1984 Molly (then my fiancée) and her Mum and Dad were attending the Annual Lifeboat Service on the quayside at Wells-next-the-Sea. I was there too. It was high tide, and before the band could begin we had to wait while two coasters docked at the quay. One was the Momsunen of Scarborough, and the other was a ‘flat iron’ called Blatence. In those days there was still a trade importing soya beans into Wells and the exporting of malting barley from the harbour. There is now a new harbour there, nearer the sea, but there are no longer any trading coasters that use it. There is still a fishing trade, and this new harbour is where the boats tie up, and the vessels which go out to service the growing number of wind farms off the North Norfolk coast moor there too.
I have already chronicled the slow decline and eventual demise of the Port of Norwich. This was established in the early part of the 19th century, when sea-going steamers could go up the river to the East Anglian capital. When sail or the quant (a type of punt pole) was the form of propulsion only keels and wherries made the voyage from Yarmouth, and these vessels only occasionally made short passages out to sea. It is sad that only yachts and motor cruisers now use the river in the city, but I can see no prospect of sea-going ships ever returning. It was a brief period in the history of the river, lasting less than 200 years, only back in the middle ages stone was brought from Caen in France to build. Occasionally a barge will be towed upriver to Cantley to bring equipment to the sugar beet factory, but otherwise commercial traffic no longer uses the river Yare. Smaller sea-going vessels still use the inner harbour at Yarmouth, but the fall in the price of oil has put a severe strain on the energy sector which provides almost all these ships.
The ports at Morston and Blakeney are now almost exclusively used by canoes and sailing dinghies. The fishing trade has largely been replaced by leisure boating; these harbours are left high and dry by the low tide, but the regular alternation of sea and mud hardly matters at all to these dinghies. They are hauled out to spend most of their time ashore anyway. The regular service ferrying tourists out to Blakeney Point to see the seals makes up the boating service by slightly larger vessels.
These harbours, and that at Brancaster too, were mostly used by dinghy sailors even sixty years ago, when I first visited them. The days when they were real fishing ports was well before my time; the days when grain and flour were shipped from Blakeney and Cley to Newcastle, to be replaced for the return voyage by coal from Gateshead on Tyne, was two centuries before that. At Cromer and Sheringham the number of commercial crab boats probably still exceeds the number of pleasure craft pulled up on the beach, because the necessary launching through the surf is far from easy. In most weathers it is a wet procedure, and requires old tractors to assist the beaching of the boats. In the days before tractors were available cast iron winches were used, and a few of these might still be seen in the 1970s, although they were no longer used. Years ago you could find one or two similarly beach-launched fishing boats at places like Winterton, Sea Palling or Mundesley, but now virtually only Weybourne is left with a fishing boat or two.
Look out for my next post on the leisure use of the Norfolk beaches, to be entitled ‘Summers by the Sea’.