Wells-Next-The-Sea is a must-see holiday destination for anyone visiting North Norfolk. It is a combination of seaside resort, wildlife wilderness, fishing port and old world town. It provides for those looking for amusement arcades, fish and chip shops, ice cream and rock shops, shore crab fishing, beach sunbathing and swimming – all the things that visitors want – without having lost its picturesque historical character.
Mentioned in Domesday Book its name derives from the many clear spring wells, at one time over 180 of them, in the town. Early on it became both a fishing port, sending its small ships as far as Iceland, and a supplier of grain to London as long ago as the 1400s. It was a major importer of coal in the 1500s supplying the miners of the north east in return with wheat for their bread and malt for their beer.
One reason why it is has preserved its character is that it was until recent times a manufacturing town, once supplying huge quantities of malt to the Dutch and then latterly to London breweries. It was, in the eighteenth century, nationally important as a producer of malt. The iconic maltings and granaries, now turned to new uses make its working quay a fascinating place to visit, either to sit and eat, to watch the arrival of fishing vessels or gaze at the marsh wilderness beyond. An impressive feature of the harbour is the large granary building with its distinctive overhanging gantry. Built in 1903, the granary has now been turned into luxury flats with magnificent views of the harbour. There are nearby bird reserves but the rare terns and wading birds know no boundaries and can often be seen from the quay. You need to bring your binoculars! It is hard to believe that within living memory the marshes were full of sheep.
As a commercial port, Wells’ high point was in the 19th century when large wooden sailing vessels, some over 300 tons were built here, some 170 or so of them. It was then that the stone quay was built. There were three shipyards in Wells, all of them in the East End (where now only house names give away their location). Shipwrights were supplied with locally made ropes, spars, sails and iron work made by local blacksmiths. It was the arrival of the railway in 1857 that marked the beginning of the decline in the sea-going trade of Wells, though those who came to Wells fifty years ago would have seen a huge if short lived revival of commercial shipping. As many as eight cargo vessels, double banked would have been seen at the quayside in the 1970s and 80s having brought fertiliser and animal feed from abroad. Eventually vessels became too large to be accommodated and latterly only the Dutch sailing barge the Albatros continued the trade. One of the oldest sailing ships still afloat, she is now moored at Wells harbour, as a floating restaurant with an unrivalled view.
Wells is still a working port. A dozen fishing vessels bring in whelks, crabs and lobsters. Whelks seem to be appreciated more by South Koreans but the crabs and lobsters can be eaten in local restaurants or bought from a stall on the quay. It is also a base for the support of the Sheringham Shoal wind farm some miles off shore. The outer harbour from which the vessels work can be easily seen by those who walk out to the lifeboat station along the beach bank.
Into the town from the quay, is the charming Staithe Street with its traditional shops, part of a delightful network of narrow streets, old alleys and yards. Some of the buildings in the town are hundreds of years old, including former coaching inns and public houses. Many are now listed buildings. At the top of the town, lies the Buttlands, a wide green space, fringed by lovely lime trees and surrounded by some impressive Georgian and Victorian houses as well as three enticing pubs. In high summer you can sit outside, eat and drink and watch the swifts careering across the sky.
The Parish Church of St. Nicholas at the far end of the town was rebuilt on its present footprint about 1460, though what you see was lovingly rebuilt again after a fire in 1879 following a lightning strike. It is open every day for those who want a little peace whatever they believe.
During the peak summer holiday season, over 10,000 holidaymakers join the 2,000 permanent residents, though visitors now come at most times of the year when the sun shines. Its shops provide for the full range of foodstuffs, including a traditional butcher, baker, fishmonger, delicatessen and greengrocer as well as serving holiday needs for buckets and spades, holiday clothing and gifts to take home. There is no need to order from supermarkets online before you come; you can even get groceries delivered to your door from local shops. Wells prides itself on the quality of its local produce. For those who want to browse, books, paintings, jewellery, designer clothes and giftware of many kinds are on offer.
In summer, the oldest and most traditional event is the Carnival. Various events take place over a one week period, including live music, competitions, BBQ, workshops, and disco. This culminates in a Carnival procession which starts and finishes at the Buttlands, winding its way around the town, and the recently crowned Carnival Queen joins the procession.
Just off the Quay you can catch the miniature train that takes you the mile down to the pinewoods and the beach. The beautiful sandy beach, with its pine trees, sand dunes and colourful beach huts, stretches for miles towards Holkham; it was famously featured in the film Shakespeare in Love. Its wide, flat extent is ideal for collecting a wide variety of shells. Dog walkers are welcome.
If you look carefully you can also spot three varieties of tern, common, sandwich and little, as well as oyster catchers, turnstones, curlew, pewits and many other waders, which, nest on the beaches and which can be seen on the mudflats seeking out invertebrates or flying in great flocks over the marshes. You can enjoy watching the swallows swooping over the water in summer. In winter, huge flocks of geese fill the sky at dawn and dusk as they go from the fields to the marshes and back. They are one of Wells wonders.
The pinewoods at the north end of Beach road were planted over a hundred and fifty years ago, and have been joined by other trees such as silver birch and sycamore. They are home to wild flowers, butterflies and rare migrating birds. Wells attracts a rich variety of bird life throughout the year. The Dell, an area of birch woods behind the Pinewoods, attracts numbers of migrating birds, some of them quite rare, every spring and autumn.
The Lifeboat Station
The lifeboat house on the beach is often open to visitors. There has been a lifeboat at Wells for over a hundred and fifty years; the first RNLI lifeboat was stationed here in 1869. Its greatest test was in 1880, when it was launched to help the several vessels including the Ocean Queen. The conditions were appalling, and 11 of the 13 crew lost their lives after being hit by a huge wave. A memorial can be found by the Harbour Offices. Every summer the Harbour service on the quay centres on the lifeboat and its crew and crowds gather to sing traditional sea-related hymns. The current lifeboat has been on station since 1995 and is due to be replaced in 2018.
Round and About
Wells is the perfect base to explore the many delights in the area. Holkham Hall, one of Britain's most majestic stately homes, is a five minute drive away along the coast road. Royal Sandringham is just over twenty miles away. A drive to Morston just 15 minutes away will enable you to take a boat trip to Blakeney Point, famous for its colony of common and grey seals which can be seen basking on the sandbanks. Cley Marshes Nature Reserve, one of the finest bird-watching sites in Britain, is just ten miles away. Titchwell RSPB reserve is about the same distance in the other direction. Little Walsingham, a place of pilgrimage since medieval times, is only five miles away, linked to Wells by a miniature railway similar to that which links the town and beach. The list goes on and on.
For more information on places to visit, click here.
The Norfolk coast is a walker's paradise. You can walk along the coast itself or take the footpaths through the surrounding fields and countryside, follow quiet leafy roads and explore the numerous pretty villages, complete with historic churches, and stop for lunch at a friendly country pub.
Popular National Trails in this area are the Peddars Way & Norfolk Coast Path. It starts in Suffolk at Knettishall Heath Country Park and follows the route of a Roman road to Holme-next-the-Sea on the coast. At Holme the Peddars Way meets the Norfolk Coast Path as it runs from Hunstanton to Cromer, including Wells. Fantastic scenery and landscape cover the 93 miles of the two trails. The majority of the Norfolk Coast Path run through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
Unfortunately, the Norfolk Coast Path is not open to cyclists. The Norfolk Coast Cycleway that uses a route slightly inland from the coast. The Norfolk Coast is well served by the Coast Hopper bus service making it easy to get to just about any part of the Path.
Wells and the surrounding coastal villages are a favourite with artists, attracted by the beautiful Norfolk scenery, the wildlife, and the peace and tranquillity to be found there.
Whatever your taste, Wells has something for everyone.
A fully illustrated history of the town entitled Wells next the Sea – A small port and a wide world by Roger Arguile (Poppylands 2014) on sale at Standard House Chandlery, Wells Post Office or the Railway Station Bookshop at £14.95