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The rise and fall of Blakeney’s harbour

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Old cargo sail ships moor up at Blakeney port in the 1800s
Blakeney as a working port in the 1800s. (Photo courtesy Blakeney Area Historical Society)

Blakeney today is a popular holiday destination. Its peace and tranquility its main attraction. However, 100 years ago, Blakeney was a hard-working port with few frills.

Sailing boats moor up at the quayside at Blakeney.
Boats for recreation are a far cry from the vessels that moored up at Blakeney over 100 years ago - see photo below
Black and white photo of Blakeney Quay in 1896 with old working sailing vessels moored up
Blakeney quay in 1896. The hotel was built in 1922 (Photo courtesy Blakeney Area Historical Society)

Blakeney’s harbour is key to the village's success both ancient and modern.

In the Middle Ages, the North Norfolk village of Blakeney was a thriving port and England’s largest harbour.

Ships two storeys high moored bow to stern along the quayside dwarfing the wharves while dockers loaded and unloaded cargo in a bustle of activity and a chorus of voices, many foreign.

It was still trading as a commercial port until the early 20th century when larger steam ships were unable to access the harbour and railways offered swifter transport to market.

Large sailing vessels moor up at Blakeney in the late 1800s
The advent of rail helped towards the demise of Blakeney port (Photo courtesy Blakeney Area Historical Society)

It is hard to imagine the peaceful and picturesque quay of today's Blakeney as a working harbour.

Today the quay is dominated by the Blakeney Hotel which was built in 1922-1923 as the village began to diversify to become a sought-after holiday resort.

The transformation from industrial port, much of this based on local fishing and corn exports, to one of Britain’s most attractive holiday resorts in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has been relatively recent.

Few of the 15th century buildings from its really wealthy period remain. However, the population was just 600 in 1800. Today, it is 800 but the number of people in the parish rises enormously at peak holiday times due to the fact that some 40 per cent of the properties are second homes or used as holiday lets.

Graffitti found in Blakeney church - probably drawn by sailors - are some of the most remarkable and comprehensive illustrations of 15th and 16th century ships to be found in the UK.

Ships carrying fish, wool or cereals, travelled to Europe and Iceland and often returned with pilgrims on their way to Walsingham, one of the world’s most important religious shrines at the time.

Ships visiting the ports of Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton, together forming the Blakeney Haven, ranged from large foreign trading and fishing vessels to east coast and cross-channel traders with the occasional visiting naval vessel.

Blakeney’s twisting channel became impossible for larger ships to navigate by the end of the 18th century. A new direct cut was made but this coincided with landowners carrying out work to drain the salt marshes to use for agriculture. The drainage works led to further silting of the channel.

For a time, larger ships moored in the deeper water of The Pit - sheltered water behind Blakeney Point. Cargoes were decanted into smaller vessels which could reach the quay. Inbound cargo was mainly coal from Newcastle. East Anglia’s grain and other agricultural goods including malting barley, went to London and other ports including Dublin.

Trade from the harbour declined from 1884 when the railway reached Holt. Blakeney’s Customs House closed in 1853.

The Blakeney Harbour Company was wound up in 1914 and commercial trade had virtually ended by 1940 as the harbour became run down.

But Blakeney’s beauty and peace saw it refurbished after the First World War as an emerging holiday business took over.

A black and white photo of small sailing boats on Blakeney creek in 1901
Families enjoying Blakeney regatta in 1901 (Photo courtesy Blakeney Area Historical Society)

The silting of the channel which had signalled the end of Blakeney as a commercial port also created wide salt marshes. These now attract thousands of species of birds and birdwatchers from across the globe.

Blakeney Point is home to the largest colony of Grey and Common seals in the UK. But tourists wanting a boat trip to see the seals now have to catch a boat from neighbouring Morston.

Blakeney’s changes can be charted through the Census records of England’s population which has been held every ten years since 1801. The latest record of changes in population make-up, employment, household numbers and size is being assembled following the latest Census across England and Wales which was held on March 21, 2021.

The Blakeney Area Historical Society (BAHS) is another mine of information about how the area and its communities have changed. It has extensive archives and offices next to the village hall with a searchable website to plumb the depths of history.

The collection includes local areas, towns and villages, local people, shipping, family histories, wills, Census returns, parish and tithe records, sales particulars, postcards, local publications and scrapbooks. It is a wonderfully wide and informal collection of North Norfolk records built over the years.

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