Thursday, 22 September 2011

Sand and Sea–Caister


Rain threatened the day we went to Caister on Sea, near Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast.

I vaguely recalled it as place of sand dunes and wind.  I had remembered it accurately and, with the clouds scudding across the sky, it is as wild as I remembered with a stark beauty which borders on desolation.  Why would anyone settle here?


Photo by A.R.Yeo

But settle they did and a small part of the evidence can still be seen in the middle of a modern housing estate. This Roman Fort dates back to the 1st century AD and there was, later, a Saxon Fort.

The attraction, as it was all the way down the East Coast of Scotland and England, was fishing. Herring was the major catch and, where the fishermen landed, smokehouses, warehouses, and net chambers were built and people settled. By the late 18th Century Caister was thriving.

The sea off Caister is a  treacherous place with shifting sand banks offshore and, when a wind from the North coincides with a high tide, ships can be driven onto the sands and wrecked.

So another industry grew up alongside fishing  – The Beachmen – who watched for any vessel in danger and set out to sea to salvage the ship and, hopefully, save the crew.

In 1794, The Caister Beachmen formed a Beach Company and built a 60ft watch tower to keep a 24 hour watch for shipwrecks.

By the early 19th century, dedicated lifeboats were being established and Caister had its first one in in 1845, manned by the Beachmen.  The RNLI took over in 1857 and provided a second boat.  It was certainly needed.  Records show that on 28th May, 1860, no less that 8 ships were lost on the sands off Caister and a couple of miles down the coast, off Yarmouth, 14 fishing vessels with their crews of 156 men and boys were lost.

Perhaps I should point out that these ‘lifeboats’ were powered by oars and sails and the crews were by now volunteers – as they are today.

In 1901, nine crew were lost while attempting a rescue during heavy seas. At the time it was said, "If they had to keep at it 'til now, they would have sailed about until daylight to help her. Going back is against the rules when we see distress signals like that".

This response was translated by journalists to become the famous phrase "Caister men never turn back".

visitor centre

By the time we had taken a few photos of the threatening sky, the rain was falling so we retreated to the Lifeboat Visitor Centre and were very glad we did. For £2, we were taken round by the two gentlemen shown in the picture above – ex-lifeboat men themselves and treated to a cup of coffee and a sit down while they enthralled us with their tales of the sea.

We came away with a Souvenir Guide at no extra cost, having spent two hours in one of the best Visitor Centres we have ever visited.


We walked to the building housing the current lifeboat and found a volunteer just closing down but she let us in and we got a quick look at the modern boats and this tracked beast of a machine which hauls the lifeboat to the sea.

The most heartening thing she told us was that they have 6 young men training to be lifeboat men and carry on the work.  That puts the tales of lazy youth that we hear so often into perspective.


I’ve written about the treacherous sands but now they are being put to use.  On Scroby Sands, just off shore, now stand 30 wind turbines.  They are 60 metres  (200 ft) high and each blade is 40 metres (130ft) long.  It gives you an idea of the size if I tell you that they are over 1.5 miles (2.5 Km) out to sea.

We left Caister in the rain, pondering the attraction the sea has for so many people, including us.  This quote from John F Kennedy sums it up for me.

“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came.”

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