To an unusual extent the form and character of the village is a consequence of its quite amazing history. Now largely dependent on tourism for its survival, it was once one of the most flourishing and prosperous ports in the country.
A very old photograph of Cley Quay, Norfolk.
13th to 18th Century History
From the 13th to the 18th century the then wide and tidal River Glaven enabled large ships from all over the world to discharge their cargoes here. However, natural accretion, combined with the erection of embankments by landowners, resulted in the gradual silting up of the Glaven estuary until any significant entry by ships was impossible.
Cley Church and Cross Roads
The Church which now seems remote was in fact once at the centre of the village, or town as it could then be more properly described. At this point roads from Holt, the largest inland settlement, and from Wiveton and Blakeney, which were also ports, converge and from here the view to the west opens up.
Grazing land, and the Estuary
At present a peaceful stretch of grazing land with a narrow meandering stream, was dominated by wharves and warehouses with large ships discharging their cargoes.
The estuary silted up, so the centre of activity moved north towards the sea and in the latter part of Cley’s life as a port, trade was conducted from the quay adjoining the windmill in the present village centre.
Occasional flooding had long been a part of life for the inhabitants of Cley but there had rarely been anything as bad as the major tidal surge that swept down our coast on the night of 31 January 1953. It caused major damage and loss of life on both sides of the North Sea. While some damage was done here in Cley, fortunately no one died. The surge tide was so ferocious that it burst through the 1824-built bank and flooded the whole valley as far as Glandford Mill over a mile upstream. While the tide was up the Glaven Valley resembled its medieval self when sea-going ships reputedly berthed near the church.
As a result of this devastation a concrete wall was built around the main part of the village and this successfully repelled a number of very high tides, the last of which occurred in 1996 just as the finishing touches were being put to the new earth bank with its tide gate that you see now.
This is designed to protect the heart of the village from a ‘once in 200 years’ event – even worse than 1953. The 1996 flood was due to a breach in the shingle bank which allowed flood waters to cover the marshes and the coast road, and to lap at the doors of the lowest-lying cottages. No houses were damaged though damage was done to the bird reserve.
Since 1996 the shingle bank has been allowed to find its own level and profile the idea being that, though it might be overtopped more often, it would not be subject to catastrophic breaches. New and much enlarged sluices would drain off any water that came over the top. The Environment Agency has drawn up a map of what it considers to be flood risk areas; essentially they drew a line along the 7 metre contour and proclaimed anything below it to be at risk, regardless of actual existing flood protection measures.
This has resulted in about half of the village being designated as a flood-risk area. In reality most properties are safe from everything bar a tsunami, while the handful of houses under Hilltop are at minor risk only. The massive surge tide of December 2013, the worst for 60 years, which again flooded the Reserve and all the other marsh areas also flooded a few houses on the Coast Road – those not adequately sandbagged – but no structural damage was done to them. The risk of fluvial flooding from the River Glaven can be discounted.