Wells: Reasons to visit the country's best beach
PUBLISHED: 10:00 13 September 2016 | UPDATED: 14:23 13 September 2016
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2016
As Wells beach is named best in the country, editor Angi Kennedy celebrates the seaside town with the wow factor
Golden sands that stretch away to the horizon. Shimmering sea, and sweet shop coloured beach huts with delightfully quirky names. Wells is certainly a worthy winner of the Beach of the Year title that it was awarded this summer.
Hard to rival in the warm sunshine, when it buzzes with families enjoying games and picnics on the beach, children splashing and swimming in the water and chasing around the dunes, this super stretch of north Norfolk coast is just as enticing with the change of season. Climb the wooden steps over the dunes and through the pine trees and the view takes your breath away even before the North Sea wind on a crisp autumn or winter’s day.
It was just that view which convinced Keith Leesmith to move to Wells 14 years ago. “I fell in love with Wells in the early 1970s,” says the former town clerk. “My parents-in-law retired here and when we went to visit them we took a walk over the dunes to look at the sea, and I just thought wow, this is wonderful! Nowadays I work a couple of shifts a week for Coastwatch at the Lookout Station, and time and again we hear people react just like that as they take in the view.”
But it isn’t just the beach that marks out Wells as one of north Norfolk’s loveliest spots. Take the long waterside walk back from the beach towards the quayside and the town unfolds before you with its harbour busy with fishing, sailing and day boats, the quay bustling with children crabbing, seagulls swooping, visitors jostling for a seat on the wall where they can eat fish and chips from one of the seafront takeaways.
Step away from the quay and its towering granary building which has been converted into luxury flats, and you’ll soon find yourself dipping into the various independent shops that line Staithe Street, such as Arthur Howell’s butchers and bakery, Simply Norfolk’s clothing and interiors, and Mermaid’s Purse gift shop and coffee shop. This is often the extent that visitors to the town explore, but wander further into Wells to enjoy the Buttlands green, lined with Georgian and Victorian houses as well as The Crown Hotel - a former coaching inn and part of The Flying Kiwi Inns group - and The Globe Inn.
Walk through the back streets to get a sense of the community that developed and thrived with close connection to the sea since the Middle Ages. Once an important port - exporting the harvest of corn and malted barley and importing salt, coal and wood - Wells was also a shipbuilding town, with the associated businesses of ship’s chandlery and sailmaking.
Today it is the tourism and leisure industry that has become the focus of Wells, with many of the 2,500 population involved in some way with the business of sharing their beautiful town with visitors from across Norfolk and the UK.
A man of vision
Alderman Sam Peel helped to shape the community of Wells, and indeed Norfolk, through his work as a social reformer. Sam, a Quaker and printer who grew up in Wymondham (where the college has a hall named for him), moved to Wells for his health in 1909. Appalled at the poverty in the town, he began preaching on the quayside against the effects of excessive alcohol. Throughout his life, Sam Peel campaigned for better lives and opportunities for ordinary people through housing, health and education. He entered local politics in 1913 and went on to serve on Norfolk County Council for 44 years. Alderman Peel High School in Wells is named in his honour.
A place in history
John Fryer, born in Wells in 1753, was sailing master on the Bounty under Captain William Bligh when the crew set sail for Tahiti to collect breadfruit to take to the West Indies. When Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian led the mutinuous crew to seize the ship on April 28, 1789, Fryer - a critic of Bligh but also not a supporter Christian’s actions - was ordered into the ship’s launch with the captain and other loyal members of the crew. They were put to sea and completed an extraordinary 4,000 mile journey to eventual safety, while Christian and the mutineers settled in Tahiti and the Pitcairn Islands (where some of their descendants still live today).
Fryer served in the Royal Navy until 1812 and returned to spend his final years in Wells, where he died in 1817 and is buried in the town’s churchyard.
Sixty years ago, Wells regained its next . . .
The town has been called Wells-next-the-Sea for many generations, despite being about a mile inland, but when the railway came that name was deemed too long for the timetables and signage, explains Wells’ history expert Keith Leesmith. “So it was signed by the railway as Wells-on-Sea,” says Keith. “The town never officially changed its name, but when the railway cuts happened the town council decided in 1956 that it would officially take back its proper title and Wells-next-the-Sea it was.”