Seeking adventure in North Norfolk
Private Life interviewed Henry Chamberlain, a former Royal Marine and Director of the Coastal Exploration Company (CEC), who is pioneering the way for others to rediscover the haunting beauty of North Norfolk’s coastline on traditional wooden boats.
North Norfolk continues to be a leading destination for those who wish to experience the maritime trifecta of the North Sea, beaches (both sand and shingle) and the biodiversity of its salt marshes. With its proximity to London and picturesque brick and flint villages, framed often by windmills and sweeping fields, it is a landscape that recalls souvenirs of summer holidays past. But beneath the façade of halcyon vistas and plethora of ‘proper’ fish and chip shops, there is a vein of rugged aloofness that hints of undiscovered wilderness and historical belligerence – this stretch of coast was renowned for its smuggling activities.
“I can’t help it; it is in my blood. I get fidgety if I am not outside travelling and discovering things. I am naturally curious and enjoy a physical challenge combined with a love of nature.”–Henry Chamberlain – Director of the Coastal Exploration Company (CEC)
It is a place that despite accommodating the seasonal influx of holidaymakers, retains an iron-fort isolation created by land and temperamental North Sea tides. One needs to make a deliberate effort to travel to Norfolk, given there is no direct motorway compared to other coastal destinations that stud the nooks and crannies of the country.
It is a place of unexpected adventure and pockets of untamed terrain for those who like to wander on the periphery.
PL: Where did you develop a love for the sea?
I think from my grandfather, who was in the Royal Navy for 40 years and a forefather who was in the Royal Navy from the 1780’s and at the Battle of Trafalgar. There have been many nautical tales that have been passed down through the generations.
PL: You were in the Royal Marines for six years, a polar guide for the Scott Polar Research Institute and Deputy Director of field security for the United Nations World Food Programme. What drew you to such a life of adventure?
I can’t help it; it is in my blood. I get fidgety if I am not outside travelling and discovering things. I am naturally curious and enjoy a physical challenge combined with a love of nature.
PL: How did your previous work and life experiences inform your approach at CEC?
The Royal Marines provided a professional background to demanding boating operations and how to plan properly, implement and have the confidence to operate in treacherous waters. The United Nations gave me a love for people, different cultures and ways in which to support development, whether that be businesses, concepts or people.
PL: Admittedly, venturing by boat along the Norfolk coast has been a popular pastime. However, you decided to use only clinker-built boats (traditional wooden vessels) that were built specifically to navigate this stretch of the North Norfolk coastline. What was the inspiration, or when did you have your Eureka moment that gave rise to the business?
I had a long week in Mogadishu during the famine of 2011. Al Shabab had attacked us with mortars, an attack on a food distribution point had left 10 dead, a suicide bomber had infiltrated our compound and another one had detonated outside our office. I also met a very dignified Somali woman who had two dying children in her arms and had left another two on the side of the road as she walked halfway across Somalia to reach the capital. It was an emotionally draining time and I just thought that although I loved my work, I had to find another way to live so I could be there for my children, and the idea of the CEC popped into my head.
PL: What do you most admire about these traditional boats?
The traditional wooden boats are the combination of generation after generation of refinement to the design. They are so solid in the water that you couldn’t wish for a more seaworthy boat. They are ‘beamy’, which means they rise above the waves and don’t get caught on the sand banks, and the long flat keep means the waves can pick them up and carry them in shallow waters.
PL: Describe your fleet. What makes each boat special, and would it be fair to say that each vessel has her own personality?
Yes, the 30-foot Whelker is the father, the largest, strongest and most daring, always ready to go to sea and always comfortable. The Crab boat is a very pretty, energetic and flexible little boat, happy with the open sea and the deepest of creeks. The Mussel flat is the smallest and only comfortable in the inner creeks, perhaps not as confident as the others; but, she has her place and can visit locations that the others could never possibly consider visiting.
PL: In one way, the typical holidaymaker associates a vacation in North Norfolk as being relaxing, with its many coastal walking trails, picture-postcard villages, and renowned birdwatching centres. Where is the adventure and is there a true wilderness to explore?
The North Norfolk coast is a very difficult, wild and beautiful place to sail with shifting sand banks, hidden islands and enormous expanses of marsh. There is another world out there that most people are not aware of. These pockets of wilderness offer respite and a real opportunity to recharge on nature.
PL: Is it still a challenge to convince others of the adventures to be had in this part of East Anglia?
Yes, I think so, but a challenge we relish. l am keen to demonstrate that there is another side to Norfolk – its wild side. Our marketing reflects this, that they are not ordinary boat trips, each one is unique and adventurous. You may have to get out, push the boat off a sand bank, or be happy to cross the outer bar in a heavy swell!
Meet the Fleet
A 1950’s gaff rigged Whelk boat
A 1960’s lug rigged Crab boat
“Vera and Boris”
A 1960’s lug rigged Mussel flat
Illustrations courtesy of Coastal Exploration Company
PL: What qualities about the landscape with its inland routes and stretches of salt marsh fascinate you?
It is wild; it can’t be tamed, and it is always changing. I love this. You have to think about every sail.
PL: You have conducted countless trips, is each one really that different?
Yes! First of all, there are many different aspects that we concentrate on, so for example, sailing, wildlife, wild swimming, foraging, relaxing and unique sails along hidden creeks. The weather changes the atmosphere of a trip, and most importantly the varying and fascinating clients bring their own magic to each sail.
PL: Historically, this part of the coast, with its close proximity to the Continent, was an area that had a high concentration of smuggling. How did you build on this fact to conceive of the idea of a smuggling adventure?
I always thought that smuggling must be one of the best jobs: high risk, high gain, exciting, sea-based and plenty of time off after each job! I also thought more carefully about it and realised that smugglers must have been incredible seaman with a whole host of maritime skills. If you break down everything they needed to know about navigating this challenging stretch of coast and the temperament of the North Sea, they were very skilled men and women. For example, they must have had an intimate knowledge of the coast, been good navigators, been daring and know how to meet people discreetly. More importantly, they must have had excellent escape and evasion skills!
PL: What have been some memorable sails?
We conducted a smuggling sail for The Sunday Times and that was really enjoyable as it was the first time that I had put the plan to the test, but most importantly, Chris Haslam, the travel writer for the Times, enjoyed it so much that his enthusiasm was infectious.
PL: What kind of wildlife could one encounter on a trip?
The seals are the biggest draw, but the bird life is also incredibly special: curlews, turns, marsh harriers, spoonbills, red shanks, egrets, and the list goes on.
PL: Who would be your typical client? Do you also conduct corporate team building excursions? What could potential clients expect from such exercises?
What I love is that there are no typical clients. I am proud of the fact that we take the homeless to the well-heeled, and everybody in between. There is never a typical group of clients.
PL: What attracts clients to join a Coastal Exploration Company trip?
Adventure, the original Norfolk boats, our best locally supplied food, a beautiful part of the UK’s coastline, the wildlife, and perhaps even some of the skippers!
PL: How has North Norfolk evolved over the years as a travel destination in your view? What are some other ways the tourist industry could evolve further?
Norfolk is transforming from a traditional backwater to a cutting edge tourist destination, with some incredible facilities. It has excellent locally sourced food, a very high standard of accommodation, and hopefully with businesses such as the ours, a unique and traditional way of discovering the maritime environment.
PL: What are some other interesting partnerships that you have forged as you develop the Company?
We are working with a local brewery in Barsham, on a project to ship their beer under sail without using the diesel engine. We are trying to suggest that there are other environmentally friendly ways of distributing artisan goods, especially as Norfolk is surrounded by the sea. Last May, for instance, CEC also worked with Crush Foods, Nelson’s Gold and Norfolk Gin to successfully deliver their products to Norwich by sea. I am always looking for opportunities to promote sustainable cargo delivery and am happy for traditional sailing enthusiasts to assist in this endeavour.
Norfolk has been associated with the saying, ‘Slow You Down,’ and you can still see such road signs. I like to think that this approach can be taken to an entirely new level when it comes to the sustainable delivery of cargo under sail. It complements the whole ‘slow travel’ movement, which is also in keeping with CEC’s ethos of discovering the quiet channels and hidden charm of the creeks or Scolt Head Island, for that matter.
PL: How did CEC get involved with The Purfleet Trust, a non-profit organisation based in King’s Lynn that assists the homeless?
From my 10-year experience with the United Nations, I have always wanted to have a social element to the business. One of the Trust’s receptionists came out on a trip and it was a very natural introduction and the relationship has blossomed, with over four charters for the Purfleet Trust. These trips have enabled many of their clients to move on in life.
PL: The Coastal Exploration Company is now two years old. Where do you see the CEC and the state of exploration in North Norfolk in the next three years? What are the inherent challenges and opportunities of setting up such a business like CEC?
I believe people visiting Norfolk would increasingly like to have an authentic experience and reconnect to the maritime traditions that have been part of this coast for decades. By expanding our modest fleet of traditional wooden fishing boats, CEC will increasingly employ local people and ensure that the building skills and knowledge involved in wooden working boats survive for the next generation.
We are hoping to achieve a regular cargo delivery route under sail – connecting coastal communities through trade. The first trial run will be in October 2018, delivering beer from a local brewery, Barsham Brewery, from Wells to the beautiful Bank House Hotel in Kings Lynn. All under sail with minimum use of the diesel engine.
We would also like to expand our operations with a local homeless charity, the Purfleet Trust, providing a life altering experience to their clients.
I would love to take the CEC concept and replicate it in other parts of the world. In principle, it is about preserving historic craft, connecting people with the sea, challenging them, feeding them well and wrapping it all up in some nice packaging. Perhaps the Caribbean?
The Coastal Exploration Company is based in Wells-next-the-Sea and conducts operations throughout the year.