Eastward Ho! A Not at all in Depth Look at the Unique Wooden Boats of East Anglia

Unlike motorways and the letter “t”, the one thing that you are never far away from in East Anglia is water. Despite being the driest part of the country in terms of average rainfall, the counties of Essex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk boast some of the country’s most pristine waterways, beautiful wetlands and unspoilt coasts. As regional identities go, ours is perhaps the most intrinsically linked with the water, both as a source of leisure, transport and food – from Colchester and Mersea’s world renowned oyster beds to the sands of Cromer beach and the sprawling Fens, East Anglia is defined by water.


Jutting out like a last promontory of warmth and comfort before the vast expanse of the North Sea, East Anglia squats resolutely on a limb, away from the rest of England as though trying to keep its distance. Its easterlyness means that it has long been the first point of landing for the bravest sailors out of Europe, by turns playing both host to and bulwark against the likes of the Vikings, Saxons and Angles and later to the Dutch and Flemish Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in Europe. All of these peoples bought their own unique methods of boat construction and rich histories of seafaring with them, as well as a great love of the sea and over the years our East Anglian forebears came up with a couple of unique wooden boat designs to deal with the specific problems of England’s most easterly points.


The Cromer Crabber


To the would-be sailor the coastline of East Anglia presents a series of interesting conundrums. Particularly along the northern coastline of Norfolk the lack of any river mouths means that boats must be launched from the beach. Consequently the kind of craft typically used is the Cromer Crab Boat, which has a very shallow draught and no keel. The lack of any kind of keel means that the boat can be operated in very shallow water and easily stored on dry land. A common sight along the North Norfolk coast is tractors dragging these small boats ashore, but before the advent of diesel engines the work needed to be achieved by hand and that meant smaller, lightweight boats which could be brought ashore easily in even the most adverse weather conditions. Cromer crabbers high sides mean that crab pots and nets could be thrown over the side easily without accidently disembarking, even when working in choppy conditions. Back when people were made of sterner stuff the Cromer crabber was double ended and powered by oar, meaning it could go straight in and out, so the deck was completely open to the elements. As  man power gave way to engines and motors and people started to think that maybe this new fangled “comfort” thing might not such a bad idea wheel houses began to appear on crabbers and soon the double ended cromer crabber was no more – Nonetheless, the basic idea of a keel-less, small boat with high gunwales can still be seen all across the Norfolk coast to this day.


The Wherry


Most people will be familiar with the basic shape of the Wherry, which finds its way on to pub signs and tap logos all across our region. The shape is iconic; with its low-slung profile and square sail set well forward it is instantly recognisable. The wherry developed from much larger barge-style trading vessels called keels, which had probably been in continuous use since the early middle ages and this design in turn had evolved from the Knarr, the kind of trading vessel used by the Vikings and not unlike a broader, fatter long ship. Like most traditional boats, wherrys were clinker built and covered in a mixture of black coloured pitch and fish oil to preserve them from the worst of the elements. Narrow and sleek, the wherry’s unique shape made it perfect for the shallow rivers in and around the broads in Norfolk and Suffolk, where water depth disbarred other forms of transport vessel. One of the most unique features of the wherry’s design is the position of the mast, set far forward on the body. With the aid of a large counterweight the mast could be swung down to lie flat over the whole length of the craft, allowing the wherry to easily pass under the low bridges that crisscross the broads. Once out on the other side, the sail could be raised once again and the boat would continue on its journey. As transport by rail and road increasingly undercut the need for moving goods by boat, the wherrymen of East Anglia needed to seek alternative occupations for themselves and their crafts. Fortunately a burgeoning middle class’s thirst for leisure activities meant that the beautiful and unique landscape of the broads became a mecca for pleasure seekers. Once the workhorse of the region, the humble wherry was transformed into a luxury yacht for cruising the waterways.


The Thorogood Difference?


Like the boat builders of old, we appreciate that specific challenges mean specific solutions. Whilst plastics and fiberglass have superseded many of the traditional applications of timber in boat building, discerning craftsmen still know that the right timber can still be the best material for the job. At Thorogoods we stock a variety of timbers suitable for boat building and as always with us, quality is king. Our slown grown douglas fir is perfect for masts and spars, whilst our phenomenally wide, clear iroko is a durable timber without equal. To really see the Thorogood’s difference though, we need to move inside the cabin! For beautiful, timeless interiors, black cherry has always been the first choice, bringing unparalleled warmth to any small space, whilst American black walnut trims can give a feel of luxury and elegance to more modern designs and both of the timbers are available in perfect planking for paneling, either in sawn boards or machined to order as match boarding.


So don’t get lost on the high seas of the timber trade, call today to find out more.

Blog | 4 years AGO