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The Norfolk village which brought the Sea back into Cley

Cley windmill stands next to the newly dug Cley harbour where boats are now moored
Reed beds were cleared and sunken boats removed as part of the effort to give Cley back its harbour

A band of volunteers has put the Sea back into Cley for the first time in 200 years.

They have restored the village harbour which made Cley-next-the-Sea one of Britain’s most important ports during the Middle Ages.

And the Cley Harbour Association and its team of volunteers have dredged the waterway, removed the old quay heading, put in new pilings and already welcomed a whelk boat measuring 40 feet overall to the newly created harbour.

The tiny narrow channel covered in reeds weaved out of Cley but it was so overgrown it prevented sailors visiting the village. Now, after spending £36,000 so far on delivering a new lease of life, visiting boats are back at this free harbour which is sheltering 18 vessels in 13 feet of water at low tide. But more work is planned to extend the moorings on a project which has developed its own head of steam over the last six years.

It has been a real community effort with 35 volunteers turning up at the first work party ready to clear the reed beds and remove sunken boats which choked the channel. Others joined in fundraising efforts such as an annual Cley Harbour Day or Carols on the Quay. Yet more provided financial pledges to underpin the long-term success of the reclamation as grants were applied for and the red tape to successfully achieve permits and planning permissions were sought.

The days of the thriving and bustling port are long gone. The nails in the coffin were driven home between the 17th and 19th centuries due to a number of reasons, including an ill-fated dam which led to the River Glaven starting to silt up.

The Customs House on Cley High Street, built in the early 1700s, is one of the few remaining landmarks of the importance of this port. That closed in the 1853 after the harbour silted up making it inaccessible to cargo ships.

Another significant building is Cley’s huge medieval Grade One listed St Margaret’s church dating back to 1320. It is the largest parish church in the Blakeney Haven area which included the ports of Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton. Many Flemish gables on so many of Cley’s buildings are a reminder of the close trading links between Cley and the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium.

Cley’s famous windmill - a five-storey towermill and one of North Norfolk’s most distinctive and most photographed coastal landmarks - remains as a marker of where the harbour was situated.

Wharves near the windmill were previously a hive of bustling activity. Smugglers rubbed shoulders with fighting men, fishermen and merchants as ocean-going vessels moored up to be loaded with locally grown wheat and wool products - the foundation of English wealth during the later Middle Ages.

And Cley, alive with the noise of many languages, was the landing point for European pilgrims on their journey to the Holy site at Walsingham, once the most important centre for pilgrimage in the Western world.

Cley became infamous for its smugglers and in 1405 Cley mariners captured the 12-year-old heir to the throne of Scotland - who later became James l - while he was travelling to France. He was held hostage in England for several years.

But Cley-next-the-Sea has not been truly ‘next the sea’ since the 17th century, due to the marshes being reclaimed and the River Glaven diverted. The marshes are now part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and close to the internationally recognised Cley Nature Reserve. An earlier harbour in Cley next to the village’s church was abandoned even earlier because larger ships were unable to access it.

It is rumoured that stone statues of the 12 Apostles and Jesus Christ were stripped from the church and thrown into Cley harbour during the Reformation. Nothing to corroborate this story has yet been uncovered in the dredging and it is thought that if the story were true the statues were more likely thrown into the old harbour when ships were moored right up to the churchyard in the 1500s.

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