Sandbanks retain a deep fascination

FILMS about shipping in the days of sail routinely include a tense scene in which a lead weight on a line is thrown into the sea and hauled back in while master and crew anxiously await a call like, “By the mark, five fathoms!” as they pray that there is enough water depth to prevent running aground.

FILMS about shipping in the days of sail routinely include a tense scene in which a lead weight on a line is thrown into the sea and hauled back in while master and crew anxiously await a call like, “By the mark, five fathoms!” as they pray that there is enough water depth to prevent running aground.

It is a scenario repeated countless times off east Norfolk where treacherous sandbanks lay in wait for seafarers straying off course, and claimed thousands of victims. Today's seafarers have sophisticated technology to help them plot a safe course through those perilous sandbanks but I am sure they are just as wary of the threat they still pose.

To landlubbers, sandbanks prolific off here are known by name either because of the lightships warning mariners of their presence or newspaper reports of maritime emergencies caused by vessels straying off-course. Many coastal dwellers could probably name half a-dozen sandbanks without delving too deeply into memory banks: Scroby, Cross Sands, Haisbro, Smith's Knoll, Dogger, Newcome...

One man was so intrigued by these banks and their names that he diligently researched the subject. A copy of the findings of H Muir Evans, a doctor living in the Beccles area, has been passed to me by “Dilly” Appleton, of Shire Avenue, Bradwell, a retired docker and lifeboatman.

In the 1940s and 1950s Evans was a regular contributor to learned periodicals like The Lancet and the Journal of Laryngology and Otology, and presented papers on medical matters, marine biology and other topics. His wide range included: Sharks - Vicious and Venomous, the History of the Thames Estuary, Anglo-Saxon Invasion and East Suffolk Villages, The Poison of the Spiny Dogfish, and Seasonal Changes in the Pituitary Gland of the Eel…

His sources to discover these sandbank antecedents were history, ancient records, old charts, geological maps and surveys, local folklore and the study of their names and derivations of those names. Sandbank names, declared Evans, were usually taken from physical form (knoll and head, for example); date of appearance (Newcome, Newarp); villages or some physical feature opposite which they arose (Corton, Scroby, St Nicholas); seamen who noted them (Hammond Knoll, Smith's Knoll, Hewett Ridges).

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“Apparent fish names must be treated with caution and suspicion,” warned Evans, listing Haddock, Lemon, Whiting, Sole and Cockle. For example, “Sole Bay off Southwold has nothing to do with soles, the Cockle Sand nothing to do with cockles,” he declared, suggesting that Lemon was a corruption of a word meaning the shafts of a cart - and the Lemon and Owers (north-east of Yarmouth) were parallel banks of sand resembling a pair of shafts.

Whiting? Probably emanating from “white sand”. Hazards named after birds “must be treated with similar suspicion.”

Cockle Sand? The name stems from “its proximity to the old north entrance into the Yare estuary, Grubb's Haven or Cockle Water, which in 1300 was called Cuttle Water. Oddly, he admitted to being perplexed by the origin of the name Cross Sand despite research and conjecture.

Our nearest is Scroby, which has claimed many hapless victims and is now permanently visible by 30 wind turbines generating electricity on the shifting sands. “The name has undergone many changes in spelling,” reported the author. “Originally Scroutebye, the village from which it takes, its name is now called Scratby and consists only of a manor and a farm.”

An enforced charge levied to cover the cost of creating the Yarmouth Haven in 1573 assessed Scroutebye at 7s 11d (40p today), Caister at 10s (50p) and Ormesby at 13s 1d (65p). From those comparative figures, Dr Evans deduced that Scroutebye “must have been then a considerable village” but the sea had subsequently so wasted the coast that “little is left of the place.”

There have been umpteen well-documented visits to Scroby by individuals and groups in the past century, but Dr Evans quoted local historian Henry Swinden's account of events more than four centuries ago when that sand just off our coast became “so elevated above the high-water mark that grass and other vegetables grew...and in the summer many of the inhabitants of Yarmouth usually went hither for their recreation, some feasting, bowling and using other pastimes there according to their several inclinations.”

One August day in 1580 “a very elegant entertainment was prepared by the bailiffs for a select company of gentlemen. Upon this island many valuable goods cast away by shipwreck were frequently taken up by the inhabitants of Yarmouth for the use of the town, especially in the year 1582 when sundry silks, wax and such-like rich commodities were there found and carried to Yarmouth.”

But Sir Edward Clere vigorously protested that the sandy island was a part of his Scratby manor, and erected a timber frame to protect it from visitors...but that very same year, a combination of strong easterly wind and tide swept away the whole of Scroby island “and the place became main sea.”

Overall, he said his paper described “a never-ending panorama of shifting sands unfold throughout the centuries”.

Dr Evans said that by 1568 “the sea had made great alterations in the roads so that where there was dry land (half a century earlier), there was now not less than three fathoms (18ft) at the lowest ebb. Now 1560 was the date of the permanent haven built by Yarmouth citizens on its present site: this no doubt produced great changes in local currents.”

The St Nicholas Gat, once the permanent passage into Yarmouth Roads, shoaled up and was replaced by the Hewett Channel (named after the naval officer who found it had deepened from 4ft to a navigable 60ft in only 14 years) - but in turn it became so shallow that lights had to be sited at Hopton to indicate an alternative passsage.

Dr Evans noted that in the 16th century there were four sandbanks (termed “the Holmes before Yarmouth”) in line and parallel to the shore, stretching from Caister to Lowestoft: Scroby, St Nicholas, Corton Sand and Holm Sand. Cockle, north of Scroby, was closer to the shore. Near the St Nicholas was a small bank that became the New Warp (“warp” meaning land recently reclaimed from the sea) now known as the Newarp.

Interesting, yes, but despite the wind turbines on Scroby, these sandbanks off Yarmouth do not have the charisma of their namesake - Sandbanks, the Dorset peninsula which is the fourth most expensive real estate in the world, its properties owned by millionaires...