Wells, or Wells next the Sea as the late nineteenth century tourist name would have it, has grown up as one of the few places on the long Norfolk coast where is is possible to bring a vessel into a sheltered harbour. It is a long journey to the east before the next substantial harbour at Great Yarmouth is reached, and likewise a lengthy journey to the west to reach King's Lynn. In past times there have been other north Norfolk havens, but Wells is the only harbour remaining.
The lower sea level and the importance of Norfolk in the medieval period led to the growth of the port. However, it is not until 1580 that we can make some estimation of trade through the harbour, when a list gives 19 vessels of over 16 tons based at Wells. Blakeney and Cley were equally as well-provided, but were to lose their importance for trading vessesl over the following centuries. Coal from the Tyne and Tees came into the harbour, whilst grain, malt and some fish were exported.
The main occupations of the town had become fishing and the export of malt. The North Sea was rich in cod and other fish, and the use of salt at sea meant that catches could be taken directly to London. In a Roman Catholic country, both Tuesdays and Fridays were fish eating days and the demand was alway high. Later, in the eighteenth century, the harbour records clearly indicate how important the export of barley for malt had become. The export of grain is bound up with important local farmers such as Viscount 'Turnip' Townshend and Coke of Holkham taking forward the quality and quantity of agricultural produce.
Much of the development of Wells was based on its place as a port. It also served as the local market town. However, it is not a town that today stands around its medieval church, unlike most other market towns in the county.
Over the centuries there were many problems with keeping the channel for the harbour clear, and there were disputes over land ownership. However, the real reason for the decline of the port in the late 19th century was the change of coal delivery from sea to the newly arrrived railway. There was something of a revival for the harbour between the wars, with significant sugar beet trade with the Humber. After the Second World War the town, as with all the Norfolk coast, was struck by the disastrous flood of 1953, which broke through the sea wall and flooded the drained land and much of the town itself. The flood of 1978 was not so severe, but did produce the unusual site of a substantial trading vessel sitting on the harbour wall!
Today Wells next the Sea is a popular holiday resort, with its fair share of caravan sites, holiday homes and associated leisure acitivities. The lifeboat station remains busy with both an inshore and an offshore lifeboat. The difficulty of entering the channel to Wells harbour requires constant vigilance, but the problems arise more often now from visiting pleasure yachts that commercial traders.
The present lifeboat house and the channel to the sea. The boathouse is well out from the town, as the channel is very shallow at low water
The church at Wells is well back from the harbour, indicating the safer ground on which the town grew in the medieval period
There was a stone quay in place at least as early as the first half of the 17th century. Signs of a busier commercial life in times gone by can be seen when walking along the quayside
The old lifeboat house at Wells stands at the west end of the quayside, together with the memorial to the members of the Wells lifeboat crew who lost their lives in the lifeboat disaster of 1880