EXTRACTS FROM TOWN GUIDE

HISTORICAL BLACK & WHITE PICTURES OF WELLS

Introduction......

Wells-next-the-Sea nestles on the north Norfolk coast, approximately midway between the larger coastal towns of Cromer and Hunstanton, and lies 32 miles from the fine City of Norwich.

It was first recorded as "GUELLA" in the Domesday Book (1086). The Anglo-Saxons gave it the name of 'WYLLA'' but by 1326 the town was officially  listed as "WELLES", and now of course as 'WELLS-NEXT-THE-SEA".

The town has much historic interest, which you will observe during your  leisurely walks, exploring all its 'nooks and crannies'. There are, or certainly  were, hundreds of wells in the houses and gardens of the town, which used to trap the  springs of fresh water held by the underlying chalk. At low tide, fresh water springs can even be seen in the harbour. It's hard to imagine that centuries ago, a channel  from the sea used to curl around the town and reach as far as the Parish Church, now  the sea is over a mile from the town and the quay.

Wells offers the pleasure of discovery to visitors, both in winter and summer, walking for miles over its beautiful sandy beaches as far as Burnham Overy Staithe, exploring the salt marshes to the east, the land, the old and the new, which blend together to present a most interesting and fascinating seaside town.

The number of permanent residents in Wells is about 3,000. During the height of the summer holiday season, they are joined by over 10,000 holidaymakers This remarkable transformation, benefits us all. Residents and visitors can find all they need within a compact area, along the Quay, and up into Staithe Street, the  main 'shopping centre' of Wells - a pleasant narrow street still very much as it was a hundred years ago, particularly as it is closed to traffic for most of the day. The shops, whether in Staithe Street, or further afield, offer a variety of merchandise and are still small enough to be friendly and helpful - even at the height of the holiday season. For all Wells people are aware of the importance of the holiday trade for the continuing prosperity of the town. Many of the shops remain open on Sundays, during both the winter and summer months. Wells may be unique in the fact that many of the present day residents, continue to ply the trades of  their ancestors, and many family names are still to be found here.

Wells continues to be a very 'genuine' seaside town, and is still unaffected by any 'takeover' from outside influences. We hope you will enjoy your time here, and will find that special aura of peace and tranquility which makes life in Wells so appealing.

A Little About The Past......

Past and present rub shoulders in Wells, with much of the town being a Conservation Area, and everywhere are hints of how life used to be.

In 1801, Wells was twice the size of Fakenham, the opposite now being the case with the resident population of Wells being 3,000, Fakenham 6,434. The population of Wells fluctuated dramatically during the 19th century. There were 2316 inhabitants in 1801, rising to its peak of 3463 in the boom of the late 1850's, but by 1881 the number had fallen to 2745. The population is currently on the increase again.

Between 1850 and 1881 there were some 40 Public Houses and Inns in the town, as well as Beer Houses and shops where wines and spirits were sold.
(Click HERE for list of Public Houses in 1888)
One must remember that one of the main industries of the town at that time was MALTING. There were 3 Brewers and 4 Malsters here in 1845. It is said that the workers at The Maltings were on occasion paid 'in beer' rather than in money - but the choice maybe was not necessarily theirs. The town was self supporting in other respects too. In 1881, when in fact the town was already in decline, there were 11 Grocers, 9 Butchers, 9 Bakers, 9 Drapers, 8 Bootmakers, 4 Tailors and 7 Milliners and 5 Watchmakers. The majority of these shops were then situated in the High Street and Staithe Street , with a few on the Quay and Freeman Street. Apart from the shopkeepers and general tradesmen, there were a lot of trades connected with SHIPBUILDING, another major industry at that time. There were 3 Shipyards in Wells in the 19th century, all probably at the East End, where Brigs, Schooners and Sloops were built. Records show that between 1801 and 1860 over 60 ships were built here, there were also the trades serving the shipyards Ropemakers, Sailmakers, Blockmakers, Shipsmiths as well as Ship Chandlers.

In 1845 there were 9 Pilots, this reflected the amount of shipping, as  vessels of up to 200 tons could enter the harbour at that time, and also reflects the torturous passage they needed to navigate before they safely reached the harbour. Records show that in 1845 there were 32 fishing boats here, in 1864, 152 vessels were registered, and in 1869, of the 70 vessels registered, 20 were fishing boats, a few more than there are today.

Wells has many interesting and ancient buildings, often tucked away in 'yards', down alleyways, behind high walls or other more recent buildings. The  inquisitive stroller will find much to reward him/her. Most of the the oldest remaining houses date from the early 17th century, constructed mainly of flint with red brick dressings, although part of at least one earlier timber framed house survives. The steep pitched roofs of these houses indicates that they were once thatched, before being re-roofed with the now 'traditional' red or black clay pantiles. A few houses were built entirely of brick from the late 1700's onwards, but these were the exception rather than the rule until the advent of the railway in 1857.

The area of Wells immediately south of the quay developed as a series of  narrow lanes or 'yards' leading up from the quay between the large 'sheds' used as maltings. Several of these buildings still survive though many have been demolished since the trade died.

At the top of Staithe Street you will find the elegant green of the Buttlands, lined with lime trees and surrounded by a mixture of handsome late Georgian houses, earlier cottages and Victorian houses. The Buttlands was given to the town by the Earl of Leicester in 1937. Its name may mean either that it was  'buttland', an old piece of land at the edge of a cultivated area, or that it was the site of the town's butts. These were provided in Henry VIII th's reign so that as required by law, every able-bodied man could practise regularly with the longbow.

The Parish Church of St. Nicholas dates from about 1460. It was burnt down in 1879 after being struck by lightning and was largely destroyed in the subsequent fire. Where rebuilding was necessary, it was skillfully achieved with a careful copy of the original and it is now virtually impossible to tell the old from the new. The interior is clearly Victorian, but an original chest, dated 1635 and charred by the fire, is still in the Nave. The brass Lecturn is probably Medieval, note the missing talons and the unlikely looking lions at the base. Legend tells how the Lectern was thrown into Church Marsh either by, or to protect it from, despoilers and was found again years later by a workman wielding a pickaxe. This supposedly accounts for the puncture about halfway up the front of the supporting pillar.

Grateful thanks must be made to the Wells branch of the R.N.L.I. who own the copyright of -Aspects of Life in Wells-next-the-Sea", written and published by Nita Nicholson in 1981, which is available for further and more detailed reading.

Sea.....

As a seaside town, Wells is unsurpassed. For those seeking the traditional family holiday, there is the beach, a boating lake, a miniature railway, and small family-run amusement arcades. The more energetic will find that Wells is a splendid place for sailing, water-skiing, wind-surfing and just messing about in boats. And no-one can fail to enjoy an hour or so on the quay, watching local fishing boats going about their business as they have for centuries, oblivious of the excitement and the fascination they arouse in bystanders.

THE BEACH

The beautiful sandy beach stretches for miles westwards to Holkham and Burnham Overy Staithe- and at low tide appears to stretch nearly as far towards the horizon. There are notices to indicate the areas in which it is not safe to bathe. Young volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach every Sunday from the beginning of May to the end of  September, and every day during the school summer holidays; at these times, flags mark the area they are covering. They patrol on foot and by boat and canoe, and have their head-quarters in a hut on the beach, where they also help with First Aid and lost children.

The coastguard look-out hut is manned in rough weather; at other times there is a mobile patrol with a radio link to the headquarters at Great Yarmouth.

A line of small beach-huts faces across the beach; some are available for private hire (keep an eye on notice boards or just ask around) or a vacant site can be rented on which to erect a new hut. (contact North Norfolk District Council for further details Tel. (0263 513811).

The beach is backed by sand-dunes and tall pine trees, ideal for walks at any season. In return, they should be treated with respect, for they form part of the defences against the sea which are so important to Wells and the rest of the coast. There are several sets of wooden steps giving access.from the pine trees, across the dunes, to the beach, to prevent the damage caused by climbing and sliding in the dunes.

Tucked behind the dunes, near the Pinewoods caravan site, is Abraharn's Bosom, originally a safe haven for ships seeking shelter, but now cut off from the sea and transformed into a boating lake.

Eastwards from the beach, on the far side of the channel, are the East Hills another stretch of beach, dunes and pines, which can be reached at high tide only by boat or at low tide across the sands and marshes. They are therefore pleasantly secluded, but care should be taken to avoid being cut off by the incoming tide here or on the exposed sandbanks off the beach. The tide in the channel flows strongly at a rate of four or five knots.

THE SEA-WALLS

The relationship between land and sea is nowhere closer than at Wells.

The bank which runs from the beach to the quay, lapped by one channel on one  side and hugged by Beach Road and the miniature railway on the other, was built by the Earl of Leicester in 1859, enabling the land now occupied by the caravan site, the pitch-and-putt course, the playing-field and the agricultural land towards Holkham, to be drained and reclaimed from the marsh.

In the great floods of 1953 and 1978, this wall was breached as the sea found its old routes. The rebuilding in 1978-9 strengthened the bank, and in 1982 this line  of defence was completed by the building of flood-gates across the west end of the quay for protection should the quay again be flooded. The total cost of the flood protection work at Wells between 1978 and 1982 was £1.75 million.

Other embankments have come and gone. Some early attempts at land reclamation had to be abandoned because they caused the harbour to silt up, but the east bank dates back to the eighteenth century and remains as another crucial bulwark against the sea. When this bank was breached in 1953, the flood-water swept round the east of the town, flooding the station and again laying claim to the old Church Marsh all the way from the Polka Road to Two Furlong Hill.

THE LIFEBOAT

The lifeboat house on the beach is often open to visitors and contains a collection of items illustrating the history of the lifeboat. It is a timely reminder of how close a part the sea plays in the life of the town.

There has been a lifeboat at Wells for over a hundred years. The original lifeboat house, now a maritime museum, was until 1895, at the west end of the quay, which meant that the boat had to be rowed for over a mile, often against tide and wind, before reaching the sea. The first Royal National Lifeboat Institution boat arrived in 1869 and was lost, with eleven of her crew, during a rescue mission in 1880.

The present lifeboat was donated to the Wells branch of the R.N.L.I. by Miss. Doris M.Mann of Ampthill and so named by H.R.H. The Duchess of Kent on the 17th July 1990 at the naming ceremony on the quay. The lifeboat has a crew of 6 with an additional seat for a doctor. Since 1964, there has also been an inshore rescue boat. The launching signal is given by maroons or rockets - one for an inshore rescue boat, two for the lifeboat and three for the auxiliary coast guard. A launch is always well worth seeing.

Every year, usually in August, a lifeboat service is conducted from the lifeboat moored in the quay. It is a very popular and moving occasion, ending with the. lifeboat returning down the channel to its house, to the strains of 'Abide with me'.

THE COASTGUARD

H.M. COASTGUARD

Sector Station, 16 Bases Lane, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk NR23 1BT

Tel. 0328 710219

Sector Officer:

DISTRICT AND REGIONAL HEADQUARTERS

Havenbridge House, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Tel. 0493 851338 (24 hour telephone)

MARINE MONITORING ON EMERGENCY CHANNEL 16 KNOWN AS MRCC (MARINE  RESCUE COORDINATING CENTRE)

Similar to other coastal areas, Wells has a Sector Office plus nine Auxiliaries (part time) coastguards who are local people, who can respond to call cuts for their services at any time, day or night. These could be to assist the local lifeboat helicopter (RAF Wattisham Search and Rescue) with communications, to assist local Police with missing persons or doctors and ambulance service in areas where a landrover is needed to uplift casualties.

At one time coastguards were seen to be sitting in lookouts, watching stretches of coastline. Our role has been brought up to date by the use of Nissan 4X4 and in the case of Wells, a rigid vessel powered by a 40HP engine to patrol areas where people could, if unaware, fine themselves in difficulties, such as being cut off by the incoming tide.

Advice to anyone visiting Wells is to check on the tide times and take notice of advice given, especially if taking to the water.

Wells offers very good facilities with the R.N.L.I., coastguard and an active lifeguard service. If anyone is spotted in difficulties use the 999 service and ask for the coastguard.

We are proud of our stretches of sand, marshes and scenic coastline and hope you enjoy them as much as we do, but the old saying still stands,

TIME AND TIDE WAITS FOR NO MAN

WELLS COASTGUARDS

...... And Land

These defences against the sea are, most of the time, a pleasant link between land and water. From the west bank, land-lubbers have a grandstand view of waterskiing, wind- surfing, sailing races and the coming and going of local fishing-boats as they follow the tortuous deep-water channel. Once a year, in July or August, a Carnival raft race is held from the lifeboat house to the quay, with keen competition to be the best-decorated as well as the fastest raft.

A less well-known walk from the quay is towards the East End, past the Sailing Club, to the former whelk sheds, where the road peters out into the path along the east bank. This winds towards Stiffkey, with tranquil eye-stretching views over the marshes on the one side and fields on the other.

But it is one of the pleasures of Wells that it looks inland as well as seaward. Turning away from the quay, delightfully unexpected corners of the town wait to be discovered. Leaving the town behind, there are many footpaths through the surrounding fields and countryside. For longer walks, or for those who take the opportunity to hire a bicycle, tandem or horse in the town, this area of Norfolk must be unrivalled for its network of quiet leafy roads linking numerous attractive villages, many with an historic church and an unspoilt 'pub'.

Just a couple of miles along the coast road lies Holkham Hall, the seat of the Earls of Leicester; Royal Sandringham is twenty six miles away: the historic city of Norwich is less than an hour's car ride away; and there are many other fascinating places to visit. The ancient pilgrimage town of Little Walsingham, less than five miles away, is now linked to Wells by a miniature railway similar to that which links the beach and the quay. It runs to a frequent, regular time-table in summer, using the route of the old Wells-Dereham railway which was closed in 1964.

Work......

Inevitably, it is the quay which fascinates both residents and visitors. Here, right in the heart of a holiday town, ships of up to 400 tons moored by the quay and unloaded their cargoes under the gaze of holiday-makers and shoppers. (Cargo boats no longer use Wells)

It is also on the quay where old and new are most intermingled. Here, for example, modern amusement arcades are topped by a roof-line hardly changed for a hundred years, and they lie cheek-by-jowl with buildings such as the Golden Fleece Inn, part of which dates back to Tudor times. The Harbour Masters office & Maritime Museum, originally a lifeboat house, then used to house the fire engine for some years before being converted into a cafe to commemorate the coronation of George V, changed to its current use in 1990.

Wells has been a port for at least seven hundred years and was at its peak in the middle of last century, when the present stone quay was built. Then, many boats were registered at Wells; there was a shipyard at the East End (and three ropewalks in the town to provide ropes) and in the first half of the ninteenth century an average of one boat each year was built at Wells. Then, the chief trade was the import of coal, timber, salt, rape and linseed, and the export of corn, barley and malt, the latter for the Guinness breweries. Recently, the ships brought mostly fertilisers and animal feed-stuffs, but this trade has now ceased.

Some of the numerous granaries and maltings still stand as relics of this once considerable industry, but now they await demolition or conversion to housing or recreational use including the granary on the quay. with its distinctive overhanging gantry, which was finished in 1904.

The coming of the railway to Wells in 1857 marked the beginning of the decline in the sea-going trade of Wells, but in the late 1970's and early 1980's the port had been enjoying a remarkable revival. Admittedly, ships had to arrive and leave on suitable tides but the turn-round could be extremely quick, and there were no delays caused by labour disputes that could hit larger docks.

With the change from smaller to larger ships in recent years there had been a drastic drop in the number of ships bringing cargo into Wells-next-the-Sea. Recently, visitors & residents alike had enjoyed seeing a beautiful Dutch sailing barge  (The ALBATROSS) visiting the port with cargo and fare-paying crew! More and more private yachts are discovering Wells is an enjoyable and convenient port to visit.

The port is administered by the Wells Harbour Commissioners, whose powers originated under an Act of 1675. They employ a Harbour Master, an Assistant Harbour Master and a pilot, responsible for guiding ships along the channel.

Fishing, too, was for centuries a mainstay of Wells. Although fish stocks have declined we still have 8 registered fishing boats which go crabbing, shrimping and whelking. Some of the boats steam in excess of 30 miles to reach their pots. Watching the boats come in with the tide and unload at the quay is still a great attraction. All fish and shell fish are loaded onto lorries and taken to Cromer.

In addition to the traditional industries of the sea and agriculture, Wells now has many flourishing small businesses. Old has adapted to new: Pauls Maltings on the quay is now a clothes shop recognised by its original arch windows; part of the maltings forms the community hall; and the former railway station houses a pottery. Nearby there is a small industrial estate, with units occupied by a number of small firms .

...... And Play

Wells has over fifty organisations - sporting, recreational, social and charitable. Some details are given in the General Information section of this guide, and a complete list is available in the library. The activities described here are merely those which spring to mind as most characteristic of Wells.

SAILING

Wells boasts the largest fleet of 12 sq. metre Sharpies in the country. This beautiful old, -former olympic class dinghy, is raced at weekends throughout the season from March to October. In 1991 Wells Sailing Club hosted the British Sharpie Championships over the spring bank holiday. Later in the year the Wells sailors were to the fore of the British contingent taking on the Dutch, Germans and Portuguese at the European Championships held at Brancaster eight miles along the coast.

Wells Sailing Club also organises handicap racing and the Wells Regatta, held over the August bank holiday weekend, attracts visiting crews from all over he country. The club also has a policy of encouraging young people to take up the sport of sailing and holds races for junior crews.

The club is based on the East Quay and has its own boat park, slipway, clubhouse and bar. A friendly welcome is accorded to visiting sailors to whom temporary membership is available. Further details can be obtained from the Sailing Secretary (0328 711126).

PAINTING

Wells and the villages along the coast are favoured haunts for artists, attracted by the scenery, the clear light and no doubt the ease of finding a quiet spot. The town has several artists of considerable local renown.

BIRD-WATCHING

The north Norfolk coast is famous for its marshes, its wild-life and particularly its birds. The coast at Wells is part of Holkham "National Nature Reserve- and of the more recently designated -Heritage Coast". Nearby are the well-known bird sanctuaries of Titchwell, Scolt Head Island and Blakeney Point where colonies of seals can also be seen. In late summer and autumn the pines behind the beach may give temporary shelter to migrating birds, including some rarities , and in winter hundreds of Brent geese arrive in the harbour from the Arctic.

SUMMER EVENTS

Throughout the summer, there is scarcely a week without some sort of fete or entertainment in the town. While larger resorts have pier-shows and bright lights, Wells takes visitors closer to its heart and offers more friendly fun.

The oldest and most traditional event is the Carnival. Nowadays this includes various events over a one week period, including gillying (the eternal favourite children's pastime of fishing for shore crabs from the quay); water sports; art exhibition; raft race; tug o'war; and open air disco-barbecue. The culmination is Carnival Day itself, when there is also a traditional fun-fair on the quay. The Carnival procession starts and finishes at the Buttlands winding its way around the town. The Carnival is always well supported with much work and effort put in by the townsfolk.

The community hall in Staithe Street has many functions during the season and as many in the winter. Look for the forthcoming events on the noticeboard on the wall outside the main door. There are some wide ranging entertaining events from wrestling to antique fairs, and 60's night to indoor bowling.

Every other year Holkham Park hosts a country fair. It is a very large event attracting many exhibitors with a grand ring for all sorts of entertainment.

WILDLIFE OF WELLS

If you're interested in Natural History, Wells takes some beating. It gets far more than its fair share of rare birds for example, and in the birding magazines there are probably more advertisements for accommodation in Wells than any other single place can boast. It has other delights, however: a wide, flat beach, ideal for finding up to 30 species of shells; saltmarshes, with their unique communities of plants; extensive pinewoods on the dunes, equally suited for bird-watching and botanising - and these all in the parish of Wells! Travel a bit further, and you can add Blakeney Point, Scolt Head and Warham Camp within ten miles, and Hunstanton cliffs and West Runton within twenty. (Maps for Walkers and Nature Lovers is included on this Web Site)

Let's take the beach first. It has its wide variety of shells because it's flat; on steep beaches, the shells get ground up and washed back by the waves. Some shellbearing creatures such as the abundant cockles and razor-shells, actually live buried under the sand, but many other shells whose owners live out to sea get washed up on Wells beach when they die. Look especially for the variegated scallop and the weird blunt gaper. Wide beaches are also good for large flocks of wading birds, especially outside the breeding season, and two of them, oyster catchers and ringed plovers, stay to nest on the beach, along with some common and little terns.

You are bound to notice that part of the beach is very muddy, with a scattering of plants growing on it. This is the first stage in the formation of a saltmarsh, and, if you want to see what the final stage is like, you have only to walk a short way east (= to the right) from Wells Quay to find it. Although it may look very much like normal dry land, this is certainly not the case. Around a hundred times a year it is submerged by high tide, which comes in and leaves through the numerous creeks. The flowering plants which grow here are all special ones which are not killed by salt water. The best known of these plants is probably the marsh samphire or glasswort, because you can eat it, but others, such as the violet- coloured sea lavender, are better looking.

The pinewoods, which can be approached from Wells beach car park or Lady Ann's Road at Holkham, make a complete contrast to the saltmarsh. The mature pines (mainly corsican with some maritime, scots and monterey) were planted over a hundred years ago, along with a number of evergreen holm oaks, and since then other trees such as silver birch, willow and sycamore have established themselves. Many interesting wild flowers can be found, especially in the more open glades and around the edges of the woods, and colourful toadstools appear in autumn. It is in the pinewoods, and the rough shrubland nearby,that rare birds are most likely to turn up, but there are many others that can be seen (or, more likely, heard!) at any time, from woodpeckers to goldcrests. Grey squirrels are common, having replaced the native red squirrels in the early 80's.

For natural history excursion from Wells, try : Blakeney Point accessible by boat from Morston, six miles east of Wells, for summer birds and flowers;Warham Iron Age Camp, three miles to the south east, for the special chalk-grassland flowers growing on the ramparts of this prehistoric fortified village site; Hunstanton beach, sixteen miles west of Wells, for its spectacular cliffs (with nesting Fulmar Petrels) and good shell-collecting; and West Runton beach, about the same distance to the east, for fascinating rock-pool life.

P.R.BANHAM

Updated 11Apr04