River Wissey Lovell Fuller


June 2001

A true story from the North Norfolk coast

"November can be a stormy month on this part of the coast," observed the landlord of the Ship and Bottle as he deftly served up Michael's pint of bitter. "So I notice", said Michael dryly as he paid the barman. "I was intending to drive through to Yarmouth. But I've heard that there's flooding ahead and the weather is really closing in over there. Now I have to find somewhere to spend the night."

"Going to Yarmouth on business?" asked the landlord, polishing a glass. "I was hoping to look at a boat - a Brixham trawler, which is up for sale there," said Michael, "But the fates seem to be against me."

"Ah, a sailing man," said the landlord with evident interest. "Why don't you stay here? We've got a room free, with en suite and we can do you dinner. Save you going out again in this." He inclined his head towards the window, which was being lashed by rain blown on the wind. Michael looked round the bar for the first time and noted the polished glow of the woodwork and brass and the crackling log fire in the wide grate. There was one couple at the table to the side of the fireplace otherwise the bar was empty.

"Would you like to see the room?" enquired the landlord. Michael nodded his assent. -"Rose," called the landlord towards the back of the bar, "Rose, can you come through and show this gentleman the room?"

A large pleasant looking woman appeared, wiping her hands on her apron. "This way sir," she said. Michael left his drink on the bar and followed her to a large dark oak door. "I'll need your name for the register -- Mr ?" she enquired. "Yes of course, my name is Haylett, Michael Haylett."

She paused on the stairs, "That's a local name. Your family from round here then?" "Not that I know of --- I think some grandparents came from East Anglia," he replied vaguely. She continued up the stairs reaching a paneled corridor and turned left. He followed her and, as they approached the first of the doors on the right, he suddenly felt the force of the storm as if it was raging in the narrow corridor. He could actually hear the roar of the sea and almost lost his footing struggling against the full force the gale.

"Is there a window open?" he called, gripping the door jam to steady himself. Rose stopped and looked back at him with concern, her eyes wide. "What's wrong Mr.Haylett, Sir? Are you alright?"

He struggled past the door fighting for breath and had a sensation of rolling over and over. He was chilled to the bone and he felt as if he was drowning. She ran towards him and, looking up at her, realised that, although he was crouching, she had apparently felt nothing of the storm.

"The wind - did you not feel it?" he asked . "It must have knocked me over." He was still shaken and breathless by the suddenness of it all. "Its that room, I've told him about it, told him its not right." Rose muttered as she helped him up. "You all right sir?" she asked anxiously. "Yes, yes I'm fine. What's this about a room? You mentioned a room." She looked a little apprehensive and said, "Its the old lookout tower sir, we don't use the room any more and Geoff keeps it locked. I've never been in there so I can't tell you any more." This was said with a quiet finality. Subject closed I suppose, thought Michael, making a mental note to enquire further of the landlord later.

Rose showed him his room and the other staircase, which led to the doors of the inn. It was a pleasant room and he used the back stairs to get his stuff from the car. Outside, he saw that the storm was still raging and he could hear the sea crashing onto the nearby sea front. It was a wild night and the clouds racing across the stricken moon made him shiver with foreboding. Its going to be a rough night at sea, he thought. Probably force eight at the moment and rising.

He quickly closed the car boot, took his bag to his room where he showered and changed his shirt. Back in the bar, Rose handed him a menu with the words, "Just tell Geoff when you're ready to order. The restaurant's through there" she said, pointing at the door at the far end of the bar. Geoff asked if he wanted to finish his, now dead, pint but Michael shook his head. Instead, he ordered a large gin and tonic. Michael chose the fish pie from the menu and reached for his drink.

The bar was still quiet and the landlord leaning on the bar, said casually, "The wife tells me that you're a Haylett?" "Yes," said Michael, " I believe its a local name but I've never been to Wintersea before today." "Well, your name has," replied Geoff, edging forward confidentially, his voice dropping as he glanced around the now empty bar. " And there's one or two round here who remember it well, though it were a long time ago."

"What was a long time ago?" asked Michael, "Is it anything to do with the lookout room?" indicating the stairs with a nod of his head. The landlord looked at him for a moment and began slowly as if remembering a long time ago. "It was a night like this, wild and stormy, and the sailing ship, BETSY was blown onto the Haisborough Sand. By next morning, she'd lost her rudder from the continual beating on the sandbank and she'd sprung a leak. With no help sighted, the captain, Thomas Ridley, and his whole crew abandoned the ship to the mercy of the sea and took to the longboat. My namesake, Geoff George, was on duty in the lookout tower and seeing the BETSY in distress, called out the Wintersea Beach Company who launched their yawl, with twelve men aboard, and headed for the wreck."

Michael interrupted," Beach Company?, what was that?" "Salvage," replied Geoff," Lots of ships got blown onto this coast and needed assistance or, like the BETSY offered salvage. Hundreds lived off the unfortunate or careless sailors in those days, they were called Beach Companies." Michael nodded and motioned Geoff to continue.

"It was a race to get there first because the Happisburgh and the Caister Beach Companies had also spotted the wreck. Michael Haylett was at the helm of the Wintersea yawl and, in an attempt to outwit the others in the race, he brought the yawl in under the listing starboard beam, a dangerous and, as it turned out, foolhardy maneuver. The BETSY, still taking water rolled over onto the yawl," he paused, adding slowly, "One man survived from that crew of twelve. Geoff George." He pointed to an old plaque on the wall behind him and Michael read it out aloud.

In Memoriam. To the gallant memory of the crew of the yawl MORNING STAR who perished on November Seventeenth 1802."

This was followed by a list of those who died including his own name. A shiver ran down his spine as he recalled the sensation of drowning he had experienced outside the lookout room and realised that today was the Seventeenth of November!

"Your meal is ready Mr Haylett," called Rose's voice.

(The names have been changed to avoid embarassment.)

Brendan Clarke

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