Big Interview: Cley Harbour

Windwill at Cley next the Sea

In which I speak to Simon Read about Cley Harbour and its importance to life on the North Norfolk coast.

First up, are you local to Cley-next-the-Sea?

I’m Norfolk born and bred, but moved into the village four years ago. My whole family has been in Norfolk for generations, but I was more south Norfolk. Boat building brought me up north and we lived at Holt for 15 years, but decided we really wanted a smaller village. And it’s great here; you can walk out of the door here and walk the dog on the marshes and you haven’t got to get in the car.

Cley-next-the-Sea has got a huge sense of community. I’ve never lived in a village like it in that respect. People want to get to know each other and people help others out. It’s very different from a lot of places that I’ve lived in.

How did you get involved with the Cley Harbour project?

Narrow Glaven River Channel at Cley
Glaven River Channel at Cley

It all started around three years ago. I moved to Cley-next-the-Sea about four years ago and started going to parish council meetings, when they were planning to dredge Cley Harbour.

The councillors there, Mark Randall and Dan Clarke, were the prime movers to get the dredging underway, so to speak. They had almost got to the stage where they’d got the planning permission and were casting about for grants, but they weren’t getting anywhere [with funding]. People were saying that they would probably never do it – and getting grant aid is always very difficult anyway.

They’d applied two or three times to the Offshore Fund for Windfarms and I think North Norfolk as well, so I said, well let’s just show we can do something; I’ll organise some working parties. Really it kicked off from there.

What did that involve?

Clearing banks at Cley Harbour
Clearing the river banks at Cley

We had about 30 people turn up and we basically cleared the banks of the reed growth that was inundating access to the harbour. Cley Harbour was very small. Just 15ft across. That was all that was left of what was once a large harbour.

From there we started thinking about how we were going to raise funds ourselves and decided to look within the village itself and raise a pledge fund. In other words, if we get enough people to agree to give money, we’ll go back to the people that pledged it and say that we need your pennies.

That worked and raised enough to do the initial dredge along the harbour-front, down by the car park area, by Cley Mill. It also got the quay headings back into operation, stuff like that. That first dredge was done in February three years ago.

After that, we had the piles put in the for harbour wall. We used volunteer labour again to put all back-boarding in for the harbour wall. So it became a community project, basically.

What sort of fundraising initiatives have you held?

We now do a Carols on the Quay event, which is a few days before Christmas. We clear the quay of cars and we put up stalls. We have food, bars and entertainment and people come down and sing carols. If the weather’s right, Father Christmas arrives by boat! Cley had never really done Christmas before, so that is lovely.

Cley Harbour Day
Cley Harbour Day

We also have the Harbour Day, which is on 11th August this year. That runs through the afternoon and into the evening. We have inter-village racing, there’s food and a bar and that kind of thing. There are also awards to Best-Dressed Boat, Best-Dressed Small Pirate and that kind of thing. It’s a fun day and we get about 400-500 people turn up.

And of course it’s really important because it gives us funds towards the maintenance side of things. It makes us self-sufficient in that respect.

Have you run any similar fundraising projects?

I’m a boat builder, so I didn’t have anything to do with fundraising! I had a small boat-building business, mainly building reproductions of old boats in the Thames area. I’ve always been interested in waterways. People have said it’s like a magnet to me and that I can’t keep away.

Have you been surprised by anything as a result of Cley Harbour Project?

Boats mooring at Cley Harbour
Boats mooring at Cley Harbour

I thought we’d have people from the village mooring their boats – and they do – but what I didn’t expect was the number of people that come up on the high tide from Stiffkey, Blakeney and Morston.

Now they know they can get up and get off their boats on a proper quay heading, instead of clambering up the mud. And they know they’re not going to get stuck because they can turn a 30ft boat around in the harbour now, which you haven’t been able to do for the past 70 years. They come up on the high tide and moor up and use the various shops, have coffees or go to Artemis for breakfast – the shops are noticing a difference actually.

It’s probably the biggest thing Cley has tackled, apart from building its village hall and it’s really worked.

It’s probably the biggest thing Cley has tackled, apart from building its village hall and it’s really worked

What’s next for Cley Harbour Project?

Boat moored in Cley next the Sea
Boat moored in Cley next the Sea

We’re now looking at doing some more dredging, because further down the river is still quite narrow. Basically what we’ve done is create a turning circle with quay headings.

The next dredge will be much bigger and will involve about half-a-mile of river and the Environment Agency seem pretty on board with it. The banks down stream are caving in, and they’re aware that it’s not in a good state. It’s navigable, but not for bigger boats. And that’s my aim – to get bigger boats coming up.

Do you know Charlie Ward? He used to run a boat building business and he lives in Morston. He has lots to do with Blakeney Harbour Association, and if you go down to Blakeney you’ll see a tiny Thames barge called Juno down there. It’s a well-known sight in the harbour. He’s determined that if we get the river wide enough he’ll bring it to Cley-next-the-Sea.

You always need to aim for something, don’t you? It’ll take us five years to get the river wide enough to do it, but it will be the first trading barge, or the first sailing barge, to come to Cley for 120 years. It’s something we’re pressing towards.

We also work with people like Henry Chamberlain of Coastal Explorer. He brings his boats up and does trips to Cley on a regular basis. He’s hopefully going to bring his whelker up. Again it’s all stuff that gets the harbour known.

We’re now in the perfect situation that we can apply for more planning permission to dredge further down stream. And because we haven’t really applied for grants before, we can go off to these grants people and say: “This is what we’ve done as a community”. Most of them are beginning to say we should apply because we’ve got a really good chance of funding because we’ve shown what we can do as a community.

Has it had a positive impact on the wildlife in Cley Harbour?

Definitely. After the second dredge, two years ago, my wife went down to the harbour. The dredgers had  moved off on the Thursday and she went down on the Friday morning and, looking across from the harbour-side, she could see two otters playing on the newly dredged bank. We would not have expected wildlife to reappear within hours of the dredger leaving the place.

She could see two otters playing on the newly dredged bank

We get get kingfishers up there; we get sea trout who breed in the fresh water; we see lots more ducks; cormorants come and fish in the harbour itself; otter tracks are there all the time. You can see them through the mud on the morning tide.

If we dredge further down, we’ll expose mud banks and as soon as you do that, you get the wading birds coming in and using the river more.

At the moment we’ve got banks that are upright and caving in. The natural shape for them round here is saucer-shaped, but what with silt and things like that, the regrowth has helped to hold the banks up. However, they get undermined because there isn’t enough room for the water coming in and out and then they collapse. We’ve got to get it back to a saucer-shape, which exposes mud flats and lots of opportunities.

Whatever we do, we have to look at everything. Natural England are really strict up here.

What’s the history of Cley Harbour?

Basically, Cley-next-the-Sea wouldn’t be here without it. Originally the harbour was up by the church, which is now half-a-mile in-land. Until about the 1500s the town was mainly centred around there. Slowly the channel that came down from there, which is a separate channel from the Glaven River itself, silted up so the harbour slowly moved down to where the main centre of Cley is now, because it had deeper water and you could get bigger boats there, stuff like that.

It was a very important harbour. If you look into the history of it, back in the 1100s it was a haunt of the lawless and pirates.

There was also lots of fish coming into the harbour; a lot of it went to the Royal Family – it was salted, cured and sent to London. And coal came in here. Basically wheat went out and coal came back in. At one time it was exporting more wheat than Norwich, which was the major port. All sorts of other cargoes came through here. There was even a bone factory in Cley.

Cley-next-the-Sea is more leisure-based now. You see people wandering down to catch the high tide with a canoe on a trailer and stuff like that. It’s families doing it as well. Everybody says the same thing; it’s very Swallows and Amazons, going up these tiny creeks.

It’s very Swallows and Amazons, going up these tiny creeks

And it’s a destination – we’ve got shops and we’ve got pubs and you can get lunch by boat. The Harbour Day is always at high tide and you get lots of boats coming up river to enjoy the day and go back on the evening tide. It’s good fun.

How can people support Cley Harbour Project?

We have a mailing list and we’re on Twitter and, once we’ve sorted our logo, we’ll have our own website. That will link in with Instagram and other things.

Cley Harbour Working Party
Cley Harbour Working Party

We keep people informed because we still have working parties. In fact, we’ve just had one to tidy up the quay. There’s always something going and people are welcome to come down and join us.

We’ve had people come down from Hunstanton and all over the place. Holiday-home owners are brilliant. They have been really supportive, which is great because it involves them in the community. They’ll come for the weekend and spend the whole time working on the harbour. There’s always a bit of a barrier between holiday home owners and residents but this is helping to break those down. It gets everyone talking.

We’re also considering holding a garden open day for Cley. That brings in other people who aren’t necessarily interested in boats, but come to Norfolk to look at gardens.



Hi, I'm Lucy. I've lived in Norfolk since 2001 and in that time I've grown to love this fine county. From the city of Norwich, to the countryside villages and sweeping coastline, there's so much to explore and hope to share my experiences with you here.

  1. What a fascinating article. We are coming to stay in Cley next Saturday 21 July 2018 for a week and I wondered if there is any way a small group could get on the water to see the extent of the work on the harbour access? Would Simon be prepared to take out a small group, for example? We are boating people so would be no trouble!!

    Many thanks,

    Stuart Carpenter
    01502 711602 (Beccles)

    1. Hi Stuart,
      Thanks for leaving a comment – I will pass on your details to Cley Harbour and they’ll be in touch.
      Best wishes,

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