It’s a wonderful experience for ornithologists but Zoe Dunford can also tailor her delightful Blakeney boat trips to suit all comers, as RICHARD BRYSON discovers.

No doubt over the years Coast magazine has featured great tales of derring-do on the seas around the British Isles. Maybe struggles in stormy waters near Shetland, or dicey navigations around Cornwall’s rugged coastline.

But this is not one of those ‘hang on to your sou’westers’ exploits.

Perhaps look upon this north Norfolk adventure rather like the Glastonbury visitor who prefers glamping, not getting their wellies too muddy, and stays as far as possible from any moshpit. What’s on offer here is a gentle introduction to sailing – a cruise around Blakeney’s saltmarshes that combines serenity, wonderful vistas, great wildlife watching and a few creature comforts. And as a sometimes reluctant sailor I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We meet at Blakeney’s quay on the most perfect early summer evening with barely a breeze in the air. Two weeks earlier we had to cancel the trip due to rain, cold and high winds. On board, as well as your Coast representative, there is the skipper of our vessel, Zoe Dunford, her friend and photographer for the trip Michelle Beckert and David North, local naturalist and author.

Zoe runs made-to-measure boat trips on this delightful part of the coast steering her Stiffkey Cockle Selkie, under sail or powered by a silent electric engine, through local creeks and marshes. As a Royal Yacht Association instructor you’re in safe hands, and she is happy to teach or simply let her ‘crew’ sit back and spot wildlife. I’m shown how to tie knots and lasso a buoy…or at least I try to learn these tricks of the trade.

Zoe’s love of sailing and water hasn’t come from a childhood spent in boats, instead it’s a sense of accomplishment that has spurred her to learn nautical know-how and set up her company Sail North Norfolk, as she explains: “I remember when a mother and child were watching me on the boat and one of the passengers that day was a man with a beard.

“Perhaps, through books or films, the child thought he was the boat’s captain but the mother, who was watching closely, said no, I think you’ll find the lady is – she’s doing all the work. I like to change people’s perspectives,” says Zoe.

She’s enterprising too: her excursions on the water can be for experienced sailors as well as families, working in some instruction with seal spotting and finding a remote spot for a picnic. For adventurers some trips can stretch along the coast plus there are ‘special occasions’ like a pre-wedding surprise, or a special birthday.

When not on Selkie she can be found surfboarding down the coast at West Runton, or occasionally (provided the sea temperatures are conducive) some wild swimming.

Anyway, back to our little expedition. We head off against a high tide and are soon bird spotting. David gives us a fascinating running commentary on what’s flying overhead, wandering about on the mudflats or just visible amongst the reeds.

“The saltmarshes are one of the few true wilderness areas left in England,” he explains. “Unlike most other habitats they are largely unmanaged by people – created just by natural forces and the interplay of wind, tide, and the plant life that traps the silt the tides bring in.”

Heading into the creeks there is no wind, the light becomes ‘HD’ sharp and we are blissfully drifting along towards Cley windmill. To our left a marsh harrier circles.

Once at the mill we moor up (no-one seems to mind if you clamber over another boat to reach the quayside) and go inside for a look around this now luxury bed and breakfast retreat, and enjoy a glass of prosecco.

More treats follow as we make our way back. A delicious picnic provided by Louise Clinton of High Tide Picnics plus Zoe’s own homemade chocolate brownies, soup and coffee. Both can provide snacks (hot or cold) for trips.

As the clock reaches 9pm, and the sun gradually dips away accentuating the twinkling lights of Blakeney’s little harbour, a cry goes up – “spoonbills”. They are on our port side but within seconds they have disappeared. We’ve spotted a veritable feast of wildlife but perhaps the most exciting sight of all has eluded us. No matter, it’s been a treasured experience gently navigating the saltmarshes.

Watch the birdies

Those aboard a boat trip from Blakeney across Blakeney Pit and up the River Glaven to Cley windmill might see the following species in summer:

Redshank – sentinels of the marsh with noisy alarm calls.

Curlew – they don’t breed on the north Norfolk coast but are present as non-breeders all summer. They have wild voices and long down-curved bills for probing the mud.

Shelduck – large black and white ducks with a chestnut band around their bellies – known in Norfolk as burrow ducks, as they often nest in rabbit burrows.

Marsh harriers – found all along the north Norfolk coast – they breed in reedbeds with several nests at Cley and Salthouse Marshes nature reserve.

Lapwing – also known as peewits (from their calls) and green plover from the purple and green sheen on their back feathers in sunlight.

Ringed plover – breed on shingle and Blakeney Point is a good breeding area.

Oystercatcher – noisy waders with a bright orange beak – nest on Blakeney Point but by summer Norwegian breeders are returning to winter on the Norfolk coast.

Little egrets – small white herons which stay amazingly whiter than white while feeding in gloopy, sticky muddy creeks.

In the bushes along the saltmarsh edge (shrubby seablite bushes) you could see reed buntings, linnets and meadow pipits. There are often skylarks singing overhead and they do carry on singing into the summer months.

A spot to stay

After his evening sail Richard Bryson stayed at Blakeney House, a 2 AA Rosette restaurant with characterful rooms, tucked away off the village’s high street. Set in attractive grounds it’s family and dog friendly (though there are adult-only and dog-free areas too).

Prices vary from room to room and according to seasons and days of the week.

Call 01263 740561 or visit