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 – a two-hour drive at the most – and its 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 the 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. It is a place that despite accommodating the seasonal influx of holidaymakers, retains an iron-fort isolation created by land and the 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. ‘Normal for Norfolk’ – a dubious moniker associated with the county – suggests that time and local ways are vastly different from the UK norm. However, jocular sayings aside, the mercurial moods of the North Norfolk coast bear the hallmarks of a potential Norfolk Noir. It is a place of unexpected adventure and pockets of untamed terrain for those who like to wander on the periphery.
Private Life interviewed Henry, a former Royal Marine, and director of the Coastal Exploration Co. who is pioneering the way for others to rediscover the haunting beauty of North Norfolk’s coastline on traditional wooden boats.
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
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
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
PL: Admittedly, venturing by boat along the Norfolk
coast has been a popular past-time. 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 CEC?
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 of 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
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
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 possible
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 renown 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!
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
PL: What attracts clients to join a CEC 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 CEC, 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, in 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
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
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
We are hoping to achieve a regular cargo deliver 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?