Staycation: the North Norfolk Coast
An overnight escapade on the North Norfolk coast includes learning all about secret agent techniques from military experts
The North Norfolk coast is made for adventures, and they don’t come more swashbuckling than this. I’m with former Royal Marine Henry Chamberlain and his crew, learning traditional smuggling techniques along with other top secret skills that I can’t divulge (I’ll tell you later). This rugged coast was a popular route for smugglers, from tobacco to secret agents during the second world war, and our version starts in Wells-next- the-Sea at 0730 hours (military lingo is irresistible) boarding a 30-foot whelk boat, beautifully restored with a traditional four-cornered red sail, but with no cabin or, er, facilities (I will discover a basic ‘unit’ in the storage area at the prow, ungainly over-the-sideof- the-boat strategies, and a welcome visit to a pub).
As we pass Wells’ colourful beach huts and the conifer-backed Holkham, sails are unfurled and furled, knots are tied, ropes are wound, weather is watched, buoys are marked, and depth is monitored. Henry and his three-man crew have the barefoot balance of pilates grandmasters. I’m no sailor, always in the wrong place, until I’m given steering and look-out duties with giant binoculars.
We drop anchor at Scolt Head Island as the tide’s turning, just in time for an enlivening swim. The crew all jump in and their derring-do must be contagious, as I follow suit. The cold of the sea is exciting as we swim for about 20 minutes and David (crew) gallantly holds on to my dry bag, doubling as a float, ensuring I’m not swept straight out into the North Sea.
We reach a dune for a brisk lesson in navigation; I’m delighted that even the military find it easier to turn the map so that it matches what you can see. I now know you never use your finger to point on a map (too clumsy), you use a pen or a stick, and we even cover what to do if you find yourself chased at night in unfamiliar territory by a handler and their dog, which is probably only valuable info if you’re actually in the military and on active duty, but is so wildly engrossing and entertaining that when Henry offers me tea from a flask, I’ve drunk the whole thing before noticing that there’s no tea bag. We have hearty meals on board: cooked breakfast, freshly baked bread, local cheese, beef stew, and tea and coffee.
The good food means the skipper, crew and I all spend longer eating, which means we talk more. I feel immediately and deeply attached to them. Soon we’re ashore and I’m ready to meet – sorry, RV (military speak: rendezvous) – my contact at the pub in Burnham Overy Staithe. If he trusts me, he’ll tell me where the contraband is stashed, but ‘if the mission is compromised, leave immediately and make your way back to Wells’, Henry says. Yikes! I spot my man, nod at his birdwatching book, and blurt out the code: ‘Have you seen any Temminck’s Stints?’ I’m in! He gives me the coordinates! Henry’s surprised at my speed and says I have ‘good rapport-building skills’.
News to me. We beetle back to the boat, in the dark, in a dinghy no bigger than a bath, and it’s reassuringly obvious that this expert crew knows every inch of these waters. We feast, and I bed down on a long side bench with a comfy mattress pad, looking up at the starry sky as the sea laps the boat’s sides. Heaven. Others take hammocks or any flat surface. Come morning, we’re off to find the buoy on the coordinates I’ve long forgotten from my contact. We approach, crewman Nick leans over the side and daringly scoops up the dry bag containing our loot (another secret, but I’m always happy to spill) as I hold him by his life jacket. Success! We head back to shore. Mission. Not. Compromised!
How to book
£300pp for overnight trip all inclusive, year round, for individuals or groups. Contact coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk or 07983 642 569.