By 1994 nearly all the Coastguard Lookout Rooms had been shut by the Government, just a forgotten footnote to our maritime history. An explanation for this remains unclear.
The chill wind of neglect has already blown through many of the coastal Lookout Rooms. Some had been sold as holiday homes or seaside cafes and had sadly passed out of community use. There remained a few that were still intact, including the one at Mundesley.
The request over the phone was simple....
"Would you be interested in trying to re-open a Lookout Room, somewhere on the North Norfolk coast, to offer a 'visual safety lookout' for the local community and for those offshore, to be manned entirely by unpaid volunteers?"
Richard replied that he would and, after a brief discussion, put the phone down.
It soon dawned on him that he really didn't know of any suitable building anywhere along the coast between King's Lynn and Winterton Ness. Fortunately, word got around and within days Richard was invited to meet with three chaps from Mundesley Parish Council. They had leased the old Watch House from North Norfolk District Council, and were planning to re-open it as a museum, and offered Richard the use of the upstairs room for the purpose for which it was originally built.
Having secured, verbally, the use of this facility, Richard felt that the next step would be to visit the Coastguard Headquarters for this part of the Norfolk coastline, at Great Yarmouth.
"As this had never been tried at any location on the eastern side of the UK, I wasn't entirely sure what sort of reception I might receive from the professional Coastguards!", says Richard.
However, on arrival at Havenbridge House in Yarmouth, he was made very welcome by the then Senior Officer, Colin Sturman. There followed a very interesting hour or so, as Colin offered some direction and much encouragement.
"Just as I was leaving", Richard recalls, "I will always remember, Colin turned to me and asked three questions ....
'How many volunteer watchkeepers do you have?'
'What equipment do you have, with which to offer this service?'
and finally ... 'How much money do you have, with which to purchase equipment?'
To all of this, I had to answer - NONE!"
Driving home from Great Yarmouth that day, Richard felt quite optimistic, having not only secured the use of a Lookout Room but also having received the necessary blessing of the Area Manager, HM Coastguard.
And so, on the 19th May 1995, watches commenced at National Coastwatch - Mundesley. Equipment then was limited to a brass direction pointer left behind by the Coastguards and personally-owned binoculars. Men and women volunteer watchkeepers started to step forward. They looked at what we were trying to do, thought it worthwhile, and decided to get involved.
Richard says " It is important to note that I couldn't think of a better group of people, both past and present, with whom to have run a volunteer-manned coastal lookout. For it is they who have brought a completely empty old Lookout Room on the North Norfolk coast in 1995 to the "Queen's Award for Voluntary Service" in June 2009. Just an incredible achievement by all of them."
National Coastwatch - Mundesley
EYES ALONG THE COAST
Two seafarers, Tony Starling Lark (a Trinity House pilot) and Peter Rayment (a trawlerman), decided to try to re-open some of these Lookouts using volunteers, and founded the National Coastwatch Institution. The great vision of these two men should be applauded but, sadly, will probably now go un-noticed. That year, the first Coastwatch station was opened at Bass Point in Cornwall.
"A phone call, early in 1995, was the start of National Coastwatch - Mundesley", recalls station founder and Chairman Richard May, "A call from someone I didn't know then, in distant Cornwall. I must confess that, to this day, I don't know how Tony got my telephone number!"
Did You Know.......?
"Larboard" was the old name for the left-hand side of a ship, when facing forward.
Early vessels had the rudder, or "steering oar" on the right-hand side, and, to avoid damaging the oar when they came into port, sailors had to moor on the left-hand side.
So the right-hand side was the "steering board", (starboard), and the left-hand side was the "loading board" (larboard).
During the early years of the 19th century, "larboard" began to give way to the term "port", in order to avoid confusion with "starboard".
The change from "larboard" to "port" was made official in 1844.