EATING FOR BRITAIN: CROMER, CRABS, DIESEL & VOMIT
The first picture is a quote from Winston Churchill. With admirable self-confidence the people of Cromer, Norfolk, have embedded the great leader’s wise words in stone on the strip overlooking the seafront as if to say that they really didn’t give a toss what he thought.
And, why should they? Cromer is a rather smart town with friendly inhabitants and a handful of decent pubs. As I sat in front of a large plate of fish & chips, a mug of tea and a couple of slices of brown bread, I was actually looking forward to my ridiculously early start the next morning when I was due to join John Davies and his crew of fishermen as they headed out to sea to empty their pots of the famous Cromer Crab.
I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the town and then retired to my B&B for an early night in preparation for what John suggested might be a relatively smooth outing. However, by the time I left the B&B some eight hours later, the gods were angry my friend and even a few hundred yards from the front, where I had been staying, the sea spray was whipping around my face. I began to pray to myself that it would prove too rough even for these experienced fishermen to consider pointing their ship seawards.
No such luck, by 5am, the slipway where the boats were harboured was already busy with the various crabbing boats and John and his two crew, Steve and Charlie were donned up to the elbows in bright yellow waders looking at me as if I was the most lubbing of landlubbers in Lubdom. They were not wrong, a woolly hat, walking boots and a thin jacket from The Gap were hardly likely to be any protection against the sea and as soon as John shook his head and said “’ave you ever actually been on a boat before?” I began to realise that this may not be the pleasure cruise I have been anticipating.
Within two minutes we were being pushed out to sea by a powerful tractor and, once we had cleared the largest waves, John booted up the engine and headed away from the coast. It was rough alright, but at first, my stomach held firm and, oh how I laughed as John told me how chef, Brian Turner, who once came fishing with them, had spent his entire time being seasick. What a sap, what a sucker, what a ne’er do well. I was fine, so far and dosed up to the eyeballs on motion sickness medication. The sea may be a harsh mistress, but she was not going to get me.
We didn’t head out far, Cromer crabs, unlike those caught in the other areas of the UK are caught in shallow waters, in some cases as little as five metres deep. For the next five hours, we would be hugging the coast as John and his crew emptied, baited and replaced nearly two hundred and fifty pots before returning to land by 10.30am.
Then, to use the technical term, it all went pear shaped. First a little lurch of the tum. Nothing too bad, but I could see from John’s face that this was a sign he had seen before. Then a bigger lurch followed by a run to the side of the boat and a huge heave depositing of all the fish & chips from the day before, a pint of beer and the three shortbread biscuits I had wolfed down at the B&B in lieu of brekkie.
And, that was about it folks. I wish I could tell you about how hard John, Steve and Charlie worked to collect the crabs, size them and return the runts to the water, but for the next few hours I really wanted to throw myself overboard after them. At one point, actually after only about twenty minute, I asked John how much his catch would be worth and offered to write him a cheque for exactly that if he took me back right away. He just laughed, a deep, evil laugh of someone who has seen this sort of thing so many times before.
Dosed up as I was, I managed to fall asleep for an all to brief minute of blessed release only to wake up to see John’s face leaning over me smiling and saying “it’s not a nightmare boy, you’re still out here”
By the time the five long hours, which seemed like fifty, had passed I had spent most of my time onboard with my head stuck in a large yellow bucket as I wretched my guts up to the point of dehydration and, as I was helped unsteadily from the boat when we finally beached back on land, I had to be held upright as I shook uncontrollably from the cold, lack of fluids and constant lurching at sea.
John and his friends were just fine however and they gave me a cheery wave from their pick up truck as they went to take the crabs to the shop to be boiled and dressed. I stumbled to the nearest café and ordered a large hot chocolate and a slice of cake to replace the sugar in my system, but was shaking so much I could barely move cup to lips for thirty minutes. After I finally managed to complete my breakfast, I shambled along to John’s shop to collect two of our morning’s catch. John had long been and gone, but the crabs had been prepared and I took them back to my car for the journey home.
That night, I shared one with HP who showed precious little sympathy for what I had gone through to harvest his supper from the sea. But, as I ate the small crab in front of me wiping the brown meat from the shell clean with my fingers, I was certain I would never take such treasures for granted again. I was also certain I would never, ever set foot on a boat again.
Perhaps that is why Churchill didn’t have a good time in Cromer. Perhaps he went crabbing.