Eyes along the East Norfolk coast

January 2017

The coast is not far from Martham and our neighbours are very much coastal communities. Little wonder that this topic attracted over seventy people to our January meeting. Added to this was the reputation of speaker Peter Lawrence, who had addressed us at an earlier AGM and had led the highly successful coach trip to Constable Country a year or two ago. The Methodist Church was full to the brim.

Fundamentally, we were learning about the relationship between people who lived along the coast and those who plied their trade upon the sea. About how landsmen could make a living out of the misfortunes of the seafarers but, increasingly as we moved through history, offer them support and protection.

It doesn’t look like it, but the Norfolk coast has always been a very dangerous place for shipping. None of high cliffs and rocky reefs of Poldark fame, but insidious sand banks which, unlike reefs and cliffs, keep moving about with the waves and tides. What was a safe route last week can see a vessel run aground this week, be capsized by the wind and waves and the entire crew drowned within a rope’s length of the beach.

Before the railways there were hundreds of vessels passing our stretch of coast every day so some of the disasters were huge. During the 1700’s 140 vessels were sunk in one storm just off Winterton. 

In other parts of the country this offered rich pickings for wreckers, but along the east coast things were done differently – and this is where the beachmen came in. We learned how beachmen organised themselves into companies which shared the income derived from salvaging ships and their cargoes. They established beach communities (top picture) built watch towers and adapted fishing vessels into what were really the first lifeboats. It has been suggested that saving lives became at least as important as salvage.

With an abundance of slides Peter took us through the process by which this evolved into the RNLI and the Coastguard service. And then through the changes that have altered these services in recent times. We learnt a little of the technicalities of unsinkable boats and of all the things that there are to see at the Caister Lifeboat Station (lower picture) – the busiest in the UK. And finally we reached National Coastwatch, which was very necessarily established, as a voluntary service, when the government closed down visual Coastguard stations in the 1990s. Peter was clearly very proud of his wife’s leading, national role. We were left with the thought that all these issues could be the subject of a future visit!

Noel Mitchell

Watch tower

(Above: early watchtower on the East Coast)
(Below: Caister Lifeboat Station)

Caister Lifeboat Station
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