Friday, 29 July 2016

Taken for a ride at Wells-next-the-Sea

Wells-next-the-Sea is a town and small port on the north coast of Norfolk. The only port of any size at all for many miles east or west along this windswept and dangerous coastline. And yet, at low tide, its name is misleading - it isn't 'next' to the sea at all, but a whole mile inland from the present shoreline, as this section of the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map makes clear:

But at high tide - especially spring tides - most of the sandy bits, and nearly all of the salt flats in the north-east part of the map above get covered by the incoming water, making it appear that Wells does indeed have the North Sea right there on its doorstep. The transformation at high tide can be rather surreal.

It's an attractive place. My best shots were in fact taken on two sunny evenings in 2008, so I'll mostly use those, assisted by some of the shots taken just three weeks ago.

Away from the quay, Wells has a mellow, leafy atmosphere:

But its main appeal is the distinctive waterfront: the quay, and especially the tall old warehouse with its upper-storey projection.

Looking out to sea, there is a long straight sea wall on the left hand side, protecting low-lying land. To the right, those salt flats. On the horizon, sand dunes with trees which never get covered by the sea, and an iconic lifeboat station:

Beyond the dunes, a view of vast sands opens up. At low tide these beckon, and people wander far out onto them.

It's easy to reach stretches of sand that will become islands, and then underwater shoals, as the tide stealthily creeps in. Unwary holidaymakers can get trapped. In 2008, M--- and I witnessed a Coastguard rescue:

It was very competently handled. They sent out an inflatable, and the group just discernible on the far shore were loaded up and brought back. We pushed off before the show was over. The rescued family - which included young children - must have splashed across, thinking they could easily splash back. It was difficult not to regard them as idiotic, but it would all have seemed perfectly safe a couple of hours before. 

That was 2008. Eight years later, seemingly a lifetime of change later, and it's 2016. And I'm returning on a bright but cloudy afternoon, fresh from my 'pilgrimage' to Little Walsingham. Wells was seething with people. I was incredibly lucky to get this quayside parking space:

The tide was in - and pretty high!

My first priority was an ice-cream. Then to see the distant sea. A two-mile walk there and back, along the sea wall. Hmm. But there was an alternative to walking there - a miniature railway. The single fare was £1.50. Perfect.

It ran in a straight line parallel to the sea wall, on the landward side of it, by the public road to the beach. So you got a 'view' only of the farmland and nature reserve off to the west. But that wasn't unattractive. The single line was only one kilometre long, less than a mile, and stopped short of the beach. At each end was a small turntable, so that the smart little diesel locomotive could be unhitched, swivelled round, and run along a short section of loop track to the other end of the train, ready for its next journey:

Here's the train arriving at the 'town' end, and then the driver pushing the locomotive around on the little turntable. It looked as if the locomotive was no lightweight!

Some man said 'Huh, it's not steam.' Oh come on, I thought, get a grip. You don't buy steam for only £1.50.

Once the locomotive was hitched up, we were off. We trundled along at no more than running pace really, but it seemed faster. The couple in front of me were quite chatty, and she was inclined to wave cheerfully to walkers on the sea wall above. I joined in. Well, why not?

Happy days and simple pleasures!

Just over half-way. And look, proper level crossing signs!

Arriving at the 'beach' terminus. Clearly the HQ of this short but useful little railway. I lingered to watch the locomotive being uncoupled, turned around, and run to the new 'front' of the train.

Now for the beach! But I soon encountered an unexpected snag. Swarms of sand flies. They didn't bite, but they were a damned nuisance. And something was suddenly making my eyes water badly. The weather had become very humid. Maybe some critical combination of water vapour in the air, heat and pollen had brought forth not only the flies but had triggered hay-fever symptoms.

So actually I spent only five minutes at the beach end, and then began to walk back. Gradually the flies thinned out. But my eyes continued to water, and were becoming quite sore. I had intended to explore the town, but didn't feel like it now. I sank into Fiona, and drove back to Sandringham.

Fortunately I'd brought along hay-fever tablets, eye-drops and nasal spray just in case! The tablets and eye drops soon alleviated my discomfort. I wasn't put off, and I will revisit Wells next year - but on a cooler, fresher day.  

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