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The Smugglers Code

The Smugglers Code

In the 1700s, rich and poor alike hated the government’s Customs and Excise surcharges on goods like brandy, wine, tea, gin, tobacco, lace and silk. In east Norfolk the intricate waterways of the Broads became illegal channels for avoiding import duties. But smuggling gangs didn’t work alone.

Studded with graceful windmill sails, Norfolk’s narrow dykes, rivers and seedbeds were known only to locals. If customs men were on their way, bargemen, mill owners and marsh men raised the alarm using a special Norfolk Broads code. If the nearest mill was turning, the sails were briefly stopped, positioned at St Stephens diagonal cross. Once the next mill responded by doing the same, the first mill continued turning and so on, in a chain which, it’s said, could pass a message from Great Yarmouth to Horsey in a mere quarter of an hour. If there was no wind, a boy climbed the sail and pushed it to the coded position. Even with the fastest horses, customs men could not compete. When danger had passed, the sails were set to St George (square) – the all clear. If a wherryman saw the sails stop, he’d swiftly submerge tubs of contraband, marking the spot with a discreet reed float.

So now you’re in on the Smugglers’ Code, just like those who once frequented the inns of the Broads. When you order a gin in a riverside pub, ask yourself, if someone offered you a chance to pay less tax, would you take it?


Decoy Broad, Norwich, UK


30 mins


Sensory Experience






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