Blakeney Point in north Norfolk is a 4 mile spit of shingle, sand dunes, salt marsh and mud flat, sticking out into the sea. It is part of a national nature reserve, much beloved of wildlife watchers of all shapes and sizes, and is an internationally important habitat for species holidaying in Britain from faraway lands, as well as native varieties.
Among other things, Blakeney Point is home to one of the largest colonies of grey and common seals in Britain. My son and I had arranged a weekend in Norfolk for a bit of dad-boy time, and a boat trip to pay the seals a visit was second only to beer on the agenda. It is sensible to book ahead, a task which I managed to delegate with surprising ease.
So, after what seemed like 15-hour drive through the worst Friday evening traffic to the far reaches of eastern England, I joined my young companion (who had journeyed in the opposite direction) in our very pleasant rented cottage. Having gently explained that age entitled me to the best room, we then happily settled down to resolve the problems of the world. However, being a committed landlubber, what I hadn’t foreseen was the necessity of coinciding our expedition with the tides and, consequently, the need for a relatively early start the following day. The expression, “just another small one, then” was still haunting me at oh-my-goodness o’clock in the morning as we pulled-up, freshly showered, but a little confused, in the coastal village of Blakeney.
Blakeney had been an important port in medieval times, and even thrived into the 19th century. Somewhere in its flat hinterland are the buried remains of a Carmelite monastery. The silted river channels are now only suitable for smaller craft, but there’s still a bustle about the place. On a fresh, sunny, October day Blakeney looked splendid; and was, for some reason I still haven’t figured out, where our tickets awaited us.
Then it was a short drive along the coast to the tiny village of Morston and Morston Quay, our embarkation point. This, too, had once been a busy port. Now, it serves as a base for the businesses running seal-viewing trips, plus the odd fisherman. There’s a large, unsurfaced, car park, a small observation hut and information centre, some toilets, lots of boats, a huge horizon and a whiff of estuary.
The seal trip people bring their craft alongside wooden piers that grow out of the mud. Our pier seemed to sway slightly, though that might have been me. Anyway, we clambered aboard our allocated vessel and gazed like first-formers, trustingly and expectantly, up at our Captain. He was reassuringly sailor-like, in late middle-age with a weathered face, iron-grey beard and twinkling eyes beneath a tattered baseball cap. I half-expected him to pop open a can of spinach. By some means – I can’t remember how – he satisfied himself that everybody who should be on board was, and we chugged off into the channel. Several other boats were similarly engaged and we formed a straggly convoy. The boats were all pretty similar – open, like large rowing dingies, with a single outboard motor, and accommodating perhaps 20 – 30 passengers. I wondered, vaguely, if the seals were expecting us – or so many.
As we made our way through the green-brown channels toward the open sea, the Captain ran through the essential safety briefing. He explained where the lifejackets were kept, advised us to scream extremely loudly in the event that the boat capsized in the middle of the North Sea and, most importantly, showed us the nearest emergency exit. Finally, he apologised for the absence of a trolley service.
It did not take long to reach Blakeney Point and there was plenty to look at along the way. I was tickled by the sight of several boats which appeared to have garden sheds built on them – used for fishing or bird watching, I’m guessing – as well as a couple of handsome yachts. We passed the old lifeboat house and, shortly after, began to see dark shapes bobbing in the sea ahead.
I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer number of seals that lay basking in the autumn sunshine. There were scores of them. They rolled, undulated over the sand, played with each other, splashed about, snorted and cast doleful brown eyes in our direction. Some of them were enormous – easily as large as an adult man – and ugly-looking brutes; others were undeniably cute.
Risking a chorus of protests from those that know far more about these things than I do, I venture to suggest that Britain can claim little in the way of really interesting wildlife. We have the odd snake and wildcat, but have carelessly done away with our bears and wolves, and wild hippos and so forth haven’t been seen in Neasden for many a year. But what we do have is jolly nice and, whatever, it is ALWAYS a privilege to see creatures in the wild. I was bowled over looking at these seals; they were, quite simply, beautiful. They seemed completely unperturbed by our presence. The Captain made a couple of passes, and then we turned tail and headed back to port.
It is at times like these that you realise the value of going on a photography course. Alas, I haven’t been on one. In addition, in my defence I offer the excuses of shooting into the sun, an unstable platform and a temporary inability to focus for medical reasons. Notwithstanding all of that, go and see the seals at Blakeney – you’ll love it. I’d be very happy to go again (after the photography course).