Adaptable, succulent and THE taste of an East Anglian Summer, the crab is one of our great local delicacies and also provides children with hours of entertainment along the beaches and jetties of the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. Although the famous Walberwick Crabbing Festival had to be shelved because it grew too popular, it is still an easy and inexpensive way to get close to nature as long as you remember to put the crabs back.
The old Suffolk name for it is babbing, derived from the bab, a weight tied to the end of a line. As dialect expert Charlie Haylock writes in his book, Sloightly On The Huh, “He caught hell ‘n’ all th’uther day when he went a’babbin” and the whole practice has its roots in practicality and the provision of free food for the family.
The edible crab, or brown crab, (latin name Cancer pagurus), is the most abundant and largest crab you’ll encounter along the Suffolk coastline and they are commonly founf near to our piers, jetties and wharves, hiding under rocky outcrops on beaches and clustered around harbour walls. Crabs need shelter in bad weather and somewhere to escape predators and our seaweed-strewn coastlines is home to plenty of crabs, hastily scurrying away when they are disturbed. The flinty, chalky seabeds of the Norfolk coastline makes for excellent ‘gillying’ (crabbing in the local dialect) because the softness of the seabed literally gives crabs something to get their claws into as they haul themselves along, fighting the strong currents of the North Sea. This Cretaceous chalk underlies the whole Norfolk coast and is permanently visible at West Runton at low tide and it forms the largest chalk reef in European waters, some 25 miles in length. This underwater seascape called the Cromer Shoal Chalk Reef has arches of chalk 3 metres high and gives life and shelter to an amazing array of marine life now has protection after being designated a Marine Conservation Zone. It is here that those famous Cromer Crabs are found.
The old jetties of Felixstowe Ferry and Walberswick and the quay next to the Ramsholt Arms Pub are some of the best crabbing spots in Suffolk and Cromer, Wells Next the Sea, Old Hunstanton, the east promenade in Sheringham, and Blakeney Quay are their equivalent in Norfolk. We have heard good reports about the Bridge off Stiffkey Marshes where the shallow brackish tidal water both attracts crabs and is easy to dangle your line into and crabbing under the road bridge at Oulton Broad on the eastward side is productive because it also has salt-water tidal surges. If you want to visit Walberswick to crab, then all you need do is drive along the road past the small triangular village green and the villages oldest pub, the Bell Inn, and you’ll soon arrive at the wooden bridges where generations of us have perched, lines baited with rancid bacon, and then hopped onto the ferry over the River Blyth to Southwold and its pier for more seaside fun.
The best time to crab is on an incoming tide because this is when they naturally come in to feed. At high tide the water can be fairly deep and wharves quite high up – using safety aids such as arm bands or a life jacket might reassure you a little when you see your young children sitting at the edge of a drop into deep water. I have (less than fond) memories of taking twelve adolescent boys from an approved school alongside twelve service users from a rehab facility to crab at Walberswick on the hottest day of the year- a busy afternoon spent constantly head-counting amid the nagging fear that we had lost several off the quay- in fact some of them seemed engaged in a permanent attempt to push each other off when they weren’t smacking their fellow crabbers over the head with stinking, out of date streaky bacon. The return journey home in a mini-bus full of hot, festering teenagers, the air redolent with the smell of crab, bacon, seawater and strawberry ice creams will never leave the memory.
Use a crabbing line sold from most seaside shops which is weighted and has the bait tied on at its end- if you are in Blakeney you can buy them at at Stratton Long Marine or at the Blakeney Spar. Don’t use hooks as these are seriously harmful to marine life including birds should you drop them into the sea by accident.You’ll see some crabbers using a fishing net to land their crabs but serious crabbers do frown on this as it gives an unfair advantage and doesn’t reward the dexterous and the patient. The crabs will cling onto the string and bait so be careful pulling the line out of the water when you retrieve them and get them into your bucket (which should be filled with seawater and be spacious- crabs don’t like to be too close to each other). Using smelly bacon rind, squid or sand eels, available from seaside shops and bait shops tends to work the best in our experience. Other devoted crabbers get fish heads from the local fishmongers or swear by frozen sand eels, described as caviar for crabs. When you have finished, carefully release the crabs back into the sea. Don’t keep them for too long and keep the bucket covered too and out of direct sunlight.
Should you prefer to go rock-pooling instead, the two counties have a plethora of places to choose from and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust runs rock pool rummaging events on West Runton beach (5 miles wets of Cromer) throughout the summer. Shore crabs, beadlet anemones, starfish and squat lobsters are the most commonly encountered species although there are many more. The rock pools at West Runton are on top of an extensive flat platform of chalk which is slippery because of its seaweed covering- the non-agile of foot will usually find themselves slipping and ending up flat on their butt at some point so wear decent footwear. Children who take part in rock pooling can also get involved in fossil finding, and these sessions not only help children to understand the natural world around them, but also how their actions affect wildlife and habitats. The striated cliffs of Old Hunstanton where multiple layers of sandstone and carr-stone have formed a wonderful habitat studded with fossils and rock pools are another prime location for exploring the hidden world of rock pools. The pools that form between the groynes on the beach by the Lifeboat House in Wells allows you to catch a good size crab or two, even at high tide, and solves the problem of toddlers teetering on the edge of a high jetty.
We couldn’t end this feature without adding one of our favourite recipes featuring crab- Grilled Crabs from Cromer with Parmesan and Heat. Cromer crabs can be brought from fishmongers all over the region plus Bury St Edmunds market and Mummeries fish stall on Diss market too.
Grilled Cromer Crabs with Parmesan and Heat
- 1 shallot (finely chopped)
- 1 clove garlic (crushed)
- 1 tsp salted butter
- 3 browning
- 50 ml sherry
- 1 in shells
- 1 Cromer crab
- 1 handful chopped parsley (finely)
- 1 handful breadcrumbs (fresh)
- pinch of chile powder or cayenne
- 1 handful parmesan cheese
1. Gently fry the shallot and garlic in butter until softened. Pour in the sherry and bring to a simmer.
2. Add the crab meat, reserving the shell. Stir in the chile/cayenne then warm through for 4-5 minutes then stir in the parsley.
3. Spoon the mixture back into the crab shell. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and grate over a little parmesan and add a grind of black pepper. Place a few dots of butter on top.
4. Put under a hot grill for 1-2 minutes to crisp the bread and melt the cheese. Serve with hot toast.