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The Dunkirk veteran ship helping to save North Norfolk’s maritime heritage

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

The 1940s Lifeboat Lucy Lavers on the sea heading to the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk Little Ships
The restored 1940s lifeboat Lucy Lavers on her way to the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk Little Ships

Former lifeboat and Dunkirk veteran ship, the Lucy Lavers, is making day trips, cruises, tours and private charters out of Wells-next-the-Sea harbour where she served as one of the town’s relief lifeboats. The boat is working for its living and for charity.

Lucy Lavers lifeboat in 1940
Lucy Lavers as she was in 1940

The 40ft Lucy Lavers was launched in 1940 and her first lifeboat ‘shout’ - or mission -was taking part in Operation Dynamo to rescue British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France.

Now she is a tourist attraction after a refit costing £150,000 of Lottery funding, public donations and commercial financial support.

But Rescue Wooden Boats, the Stiffkey-based charity which saved her, now needs £50,000 and more volunteers to rescue another Dunkirk little ship, Bessie, a 26ft 1935 Wells whelker. Once restored, she too can be returned to the water to begin earning her keep and ensure her survival.

Bessie a whelker boat is moored in Wells-next-the-Sea  in the 1930s
Bessie seen here in Wells-next-the-Sea in the 1930s where she spent the next 30 years whelking out of Wells

Lucy Lavers spent 20 years as a lifeboat in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and in Wells and Sheringham. before working as a pilot boat then fishing boat in the Channel Islands. She was stripped for parts before being ‘rescued’ by four North Norfolk wooden boat enthusiasts in 2011.

When she arrived in Stiffkey, her hull was in fairly good condition but she was a shadow of her former self with rotten planks, her curved mahogany canopy missing together with her engine, spars, sails and most of her bronze fittings gone.

The bare hull of Lucy Lavers at the Stiffkey boatyard
Lucy Lavers arrived in Stiffkey just a bare hull

In restoring Lucy Lavers to her former glory, Rescue Wooden Boats filmed the process and progress to capture the story of the 'Little Ship's' re-birth and to demonstrate the crafts involved - crafts which are seldom used today.

Lucy Lavers was rebuilt in time to retrace her wartime journey and join other 'Little Ships' heading back to Dunkirk on the 75th anniversary of the British Royal Navy's most daring and dangerous mission of the Second World War - the evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4 in 1940.

The Lifeboat Lucy Lavers painted in her original blue and red colours
Lucy Lavers undergoing her restoration

But without the charity Rescue Wooden Boats - Lucy Lavers could have passed into obscurity. And it is in order to inform and inspire that Rescue Wooden Boats also

runs The Maritime Heritage Centre based in the former officers’ mess at the ex-military camp at Stiffkey. The museum, run by a small team of volunteers and enthusiasts, is adjacent to the Hewitt Brother's boatyard where the Rescue Wooden Boats are restored.

It is a museum of a bygone world of crab fishing, whelking and fishing communities. It shows how the skills and traditions of boatbuilding are still being kept alive. The museum houses some 200 films of fishermen from Blakeney, Sheringham. Cromer, Wells, Brancaster and Kings Lynn reminiscing of bygone days of fishing and boatbuilding.

But the charity needs more people and donations to keep the centre – and their boat restoration - work going. Rescue Wooden Boats has another two double-end, broad-beamed whelkers and two beach-launched crab boats waiting to be restored.

The four founding trustees for the charity Rescue Wooden Boats were boatbuilders David and George Hewitt from Stiffkey, and wooden boat enthusiasts Wendy Pritchard and Graeme Peart. Graeme has given one of his boats, a whelker named Harvester, to the charity. These founder trustees, along with other trustees and volunteers, have a lifelong passion to rescue and maintain these North Norfolk maritime links and seagoing traditions.

Wooden working boats are a crucial part of what makes North Norfolk distinctive with vessels built to withstand the shingle banks of the coastline. The boats represent every element of Norfolk’s coastal life and tradition from a time when almost every family in coastal villages depended on the sea for a living.

The plan is to preserve the best examples of each type of boat made in Norfolk including whelkers, crabbers, mussel flats and lifeboats, from a time when lifeboats were manned by fishermen not an RNLI crew to patrol and protect all at sea.

At the same time the charity wants to conserve and document the stories, skills and images which form this maritime heritage. Rescue Wooden Boats has a website which is a virtual museum for those unable to visit Stiffkey.

Boatbuilding is a key part of Norfolk’s heritage. Over centuries boatbuilders have created vessels to trade from nearby Blakeney, Cley, and Wiveton - some of Britain’s largest ports in Medieval times - as well as from Wells and Kings Lynn. Fishing boats have harvested the famous Cromer crabs, lobsters, whelks, cockles and mussels from around the coast. Only six whelkers remain and the charity has two of them. Other boats have been donated by local fishermen.

Lucy Lavers caught the public’s imagination and attracted Lottery funds because she was restored in time to complete the 75th anniversary re-union of the Dunkirk 'Little Ships' in May 2015.

She is now operated by Curlew Coastal Charters and raises funds for the charity on every trip.

Whelker Bessie also had a key part to play in Dunkirk’s Operation Dynamo. She was given a special secret assignment to collect a British diplomat escaping the Nazi invasion of Belgium. In fact, the diplomat and his party never showed up so Bessie returned to England without her precious cargo. She spent 30 years whelking out of Wells before being used as a pleasure craft and by angling parties until acquired by Rescue Wooden Boats.

The shopping list required to save Bessie includes:

  • 2 oak trees

  • 1 larch tree

  • 3,000 copper fastenings

  • New sail, spars & rigging

  • Engine, engine fittings & controls

  • Gallons of paint

  • 2,000 highly skilled working hours over a few years

  • Educational filming of the work

  • It will cost about £50,000 and many volunteers helping to raise funds.

Every boat has a story to tell. Rescue Wooden Boats is trying to keep these stories, the skills and traditions of these heritage boats alive. Everything comes down to raising funds to restore the boats. It also needs more volunteers including a project manager to coordinate all the work on Bessie.

The charity is supported by the following companies and many volunteers:

Heritage Lottery Fund

Paul Basham Trust

FLAG (Fisheries Local Action Group)

Jarrold Trust

Norfolk Coastal Partnership

Lady Hinde Trust

The Lennox and Wyfold Foundation

Sandringham Flower Show

Geoffrey Watling Trust

Marine Industrial

Witham Paints and Oils

Tesco Sheringham Community Fund

Cranmer Norfolk Luxury Cottages

Lightwaves Limited

SCIRA Offshore Energy Dulverton Trust

Interconnector and many other generous donors.

To find out how you can help, become a Friend of Rescue Wooden Boats or donate to support the work - go to Rescue Wooden Boats

For a trip on the Lucy Lavers, book online at Curlew Coastal Charters

The Rescue Wooden Boats Maritime Heritage Centre is next to High Sands Creek Campsite, Greenway, Stiffkey NR23 1QF

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