River works returning medieval port to former glory

Cley Harbour volunteers Simon Read, Mike Mirams, Gerald Beploe, John Pryor, Mel Kemp, Andy Gonzalez, Shelagh Gonzalez

Cley Harbour volunteers Simon Read, Mike Mirams, Gerald Beploe, John Pryor, Mel Kemp, Andy Gonzalez, Shelagh Gonzalez after the completion of a project to de-silt and re-profile a stretch of the River Glaven. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

It was once a major sea port, its waters wide and deep enough to welcome the biggest ships on the seas.

But a gradual process of siltation left Cley Harbour, which is connected to the sea by the River Glaven, only accessible by the smallest of craft.

Before and after the de-silting of the River Glaven at Cley Harbour. 

Before and after the de-silting of the River Glaven at Cley Harbour. - Credit: Matthew Roe

But now, following years of planning and fundraising, a 500-metre stretch of the waterway has been de-silted and re-profiled, bringing it a step closer to its former glory days as a bustling hub with maritime connections spanning the globe.

Simon Read, chairman of Cley Harbour, said the three-week project had cost £30,000 and there would be an ongoing need to maintain the channel. But he said it was money well spent. 

Mr Read said: “The river now flows in cleanly on a high tide, instead of it coming in like a mud soup. 

“It’s now wider at high tide which allows bigger boats to go up more easily.

The River Glaven at Cley Harbour, and the village's iconic windmill. 

The River Glaven at Cley Harbour, and the village's iconic windmill. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

"Access to Cley by boat is now so much easier and, with the added mooring space, coming by boat is now a great way for people to visit the village. 

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“We are delighted that we have been able to carry out this vital work for all those who use the river and for the community of Cley”.

Simon Read, chairman of Cley Harbour.  

Simon Read, chairman of Cley Harbour. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

The works follow a previous project in 2015 in which the inland harbour, which sits next to the village’s iconic windmill, was renovated and brought back to life. 

And although an extra 50m of mooring space was created in 2020, in recent years the stretch of the river linking the harbour with Blakeney Point - its access to the sea - had silted up further.

Its banks were collapsing into the river, which was getting narrower, making navigation by boat more difficult and increasing the flood risk. 

A photo showing a boat at Cley Harbour, around the 1950s. 

A photo showing a boat at Cley Harbour, around the 1950s. - Credit: Cley Harbour

Knowing they had to take action, the harbour team applied for permission from different authorities to carry out the de-silting - a process which can take years.

While they were waiting, they started a fundraising campaign to pay for it, and donations started to flood in through events including an annual advent calendar, in which the village’s shop windows were gradually lit up.  

The Blakeney Harbour Association, North Norfolk District Council and Defra also provided grants towards the total. 

Mr Read said the project had brought the community together and had helped forge new friendships. 

A scene from the de-silting works on the River Glaven at Cley Harbour. 

A scene from the de-silting works on the River Glaven at Cley Harbour. - Credit: Matthew Roe

He said: “Working parties are also frequently held; an always-enjoyable bit of mudlarking.

“This project has only been possible with the support of our friends and neighbours in and around Cley.

“It’s amazing how much people have put their hands in their pockets to support us.” 

Mr Read said the re-profiling would have a positive environmental impact, making it easier for otters and water birds such as geese to access the river. 

The River Glaven at Cley Harbour.  

The River Glaven at Cley Harbour. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

And the fact that now more people are now able to visit Cley by boat is also expected to give the village an economic boost, bringing more visitors into the area’s pubs and coffee houses.

Mr Read added: “On behalf of the Cley Harbour committee, I would like to thank the people of Cley and the wider community who have so generously supported our events such as Cley Advent Windows, Carols on the Quay or Cley Harbour Day and those who have made personal donations through our JustGiving page, search for Cley Harbour.” 

A 1933 postcard from Cley, showing the windmill and harbour on the River Glaven. 

A 1933 postcard from Cley, showing the windmill and harbour on the River Glaven. - Credit: Cley Harbour

An illustration of how the Glaven estuary would have looked around the year 1200. 

An illustration of how the Glaven estuary would have looked around the year 1200. - Credit: Cley Harbour

The port of Cley: A chequered history

Cley was once one of the busiest ports in England.

Its merchants prospered from the trade of grain, malt, fish, spices, coal, cloth, barley and oats to harbours near and far. 

Even today, the Flemish gables seen on some buildings around the village hark back to its connection with the Low Countries. 

The Glaven was much wider in the Middle Ages, with Cley on its eastern bank and the nearby village of Wiveton, which also had a port, to its west.

But Cley’s early seafaring days were not exactly peaceful - in 1317, the harbour was reported to have been "in the grip of organised gangs of pirates".

A tipping point came in the 17th century when a landowner, Sir Henry Calthorpe, launched a reclamation scheme - without consulting anyone.  

He had a dam put across the river, enclosed the marshes in an attempt to turn the land over to agricultural use.

Two petitions were put to the king and Sir Henry’s bank was eventually demolished, but the damage had already been done as the river had begun to silt up. 

But as international trade declined, the transport of grain and produce around Britain’s coast kept Cley’s quay a bustling hub until the late 1800s - when the construction of a new coast road and the coming of the railway to Holt in 1884 spelled the end of Cley as a trading port. 

Throughout the 20th and 21 centuries the most common vessels to have visited the village have been pleasure boats, canoes and yachts.