British seasides: Norfolk
Paul Gogarty gets the best out of the beaches and bays of north Norfolk.
Last summer I drove 2,800 miles round the edge of England. On this journey - the subject of my new book, The Coast Road - there were so many rich new experiences that it's difficult to pick out a single coastal stretch that stands above the rest. Difficult but not impossible. My bouquet goes to the finely fretted 47-mile Norfolk fringe between Hunstanton and Cromer.
This coastline is among the most protected in the country and has landed just about every accolade around, from SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) to SPA (Special Protection Area under EU birds directive) and Ramsar (a designation for internationally important wetlands).
The acronyms are shorthand for an area that is outstanding for cycling, messing about in boats, birdwatching or simply playing on pristine sandy beaches beneath those big blue Norfolk skies.
Forming the eastern bookend is Cromer, a mainstream resort complete with freshly refurbished pier - restrained by Skegness standards, but no doubt viewed as wild and debauched by places such as Cley-next-the-Sea.
Hunstanton, in the west, is also a resort but not as Devon, Lancashire or Yorkshire know them. First, there are the distinctive carrstone homes gracing the village green. Then there's the demure amusement arcade and a small, rather sweet funfair. The pier was snatched years ago by the sea, the lighthouse is abandoned and the very elegant, grassed Boston Square has been made into a sensory garden with fragrant plants, Braile messages and a wheelchair trail.
East of Hunstanton, hand-painted oak signs introduce a succession of exquisite knapped-flint villages that serve as stepping stones along the coast - Holme-next-the-Sea, Burnham Deepdale, Wells, Stiffkey and Blakeney. Each hamlet and each town has its own character and story to tell. In 1999 druids gathered to play nose flutes to a 4,000-year-old henge, the oldest yet found constructed by axe, when it was uncovered at Holme-next-the-Sea.
Stiffkey had 15 minutes of notoriety 67 years earlier, when its incumbent rector, Harold Davidson, the saviour of London prostitutes, was found to be saving a few for himself. The defrocked vicar quit the village, became a lion tamer and was subsequently eaten by one of his charges in Skegness.
Norfolk moves slowly and its mostly tiny villages can be passed through in a twinkling if you don't slow down. Thankfully, there are no real resorts in the grand sense and little that you really must do. Activities consist of walking, sailing, fishing, swimming and looking.
On the beach beyond the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, I shared the endless expanse of sands with terns, skylarks and a pair of abandoned Second World War tanks. As I swam, Norfolk was barely visible, an intermediary world of shingle spits, dunes, tidal marsh, brackish lagoons and reedbeds. Following lunch (crab presented four different ways) at Titchwell Manor, I strode out along a dyke from the beached boats, caked mudflats and fanning dykes of Burnham Overy Staithe.
It was in these marshes, bizarrely, that the opening Korean paddy-field sequence in the last Bond movie (Die Another Day) was filmed. Somehow they managed to keep out of shot the National Trust windmill and the Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, where Prince Andrew and other members play with water on three sides. The club house appears like an island floating out to sea.
Just a couple of miles inland, the Georgian town of Burnham Market is always buzzing. It has become a focus of London downshifters, complete with hat shop, tea room, 17th-century coaching inn (The Hoste Arms), fine wine merchant, wet fish shop and deli.
Jamie Oliver was spotted in the deli a week before my visit and on that same day, the Arsenal footballer Thierry Henry and his bride-to-be were in nearby Wells, Hugh Grant on the links at the Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, and the Stranglers in Hunstanton on a photo shoot for their new album cover.
At sunset on a glorious summer day there is nowhere I'd rather be than on the terrace of the White Horse in Brancaster Staithe, with a jug of Pimm's in front of me. The rippled creeks become quicksilver, the still ponds copper, and everywhere birds twist, turn and sing in this in-between world of land and water. In a country blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful and varied coastline, it is quite simply the finest place I know to watch the sun go down.
Paul Gogarty's 'The Coast Road - A 3,000 mile journey round the edge of England' (Robson Books) is available for £16.99. To order, please call Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222. Please add £2.25 p&p per order.
Oceanus Sailing (01328 864141, mobile 07901 510236, www.oceanus-sailing.com) Opened this summer, this school in Wells offers sailing for adults and children and powerboating for the more adventurous. Two-day sailing courses cost from £160 (£120 for children). Alternatively, you can hire boats from £10 an hour (or £20 an hour with an instructor). Powerboating costs £40 an hour including tuition from a skipper.
Cromer Pier reopened last month, following a £2.5m facelift. End-of-the-pier shows run through the summer. Check out the programme at www.thecromerpier.com.
Until last year few people even in Norfolk had heard of Margaret's Tea Room, in the inland hamlet of Baconsthorpe. Then it was named by the Tea Council as the Best in Britain (it has an impressive line in coffee, too). Now it's mobbed. Lunchtimes are particularly busy (quiches, salads, homemade soups), so go early. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. No bookings.
Priory Maze Gardens (01263 822986, www.priorymazegardens.com), between Sheringham and Cromer, opened last year: 10 acres of peaceful walks, diverse habitats, and Norfolk's only copper beech traditional maze. Adult admission £3.50, children £2, family of five ticket £10. Closed Mondays and Wednesdays.
Escaping the crowds
Inland, you'll find quiet lanes tailor-made for cycling. Bikes can be hired from a number of places along the coast. The more adventurous can cycle from King's Lynn to Cromer on the Norfolk Coast Cycleway (www.cycle-norfolk.co.uk); families however may prefer Kelling Bicycle's (07788 132909) Huff & Puff trip - a five-mile ride (mostly traffic-free) and then a puff on the north Norfolk Railway from Sheringham to Holt - starting and finishing at Kelling Heath: £9.75 for adults and £8.25 for children, inclusive of railway travel. Alternatively, you could simply hire bikes and explore: £8 for adults, £5 for children, £4 for tag cycles (those that clip to the back of normal bikes for children to ride).
Take the coast path from Burnham Overy Staithe to Gun Hill (half a mile from Holkham and twice as quiet). Even in the height of summer you can usually find a spot of beach to yourself. For information on coastal walks here visit www.nationaltrail.co.uk/peddarsway.
Little Walsingham was recently voted the most spiritual place in Britain by listeners to the Today programme on Radio 4. The village (perversely larger than Great Walsingham) is just a short drive inland from Wells and has been a place of pilgrimage since 1061. The Anglican shrine is in the village itself and that of the Roman Catholics a mile outside, adjacent to the hamlet of Houghton St Giles. Where there are pilgrims there are souvenir shops and tea rooms, and you'll find both in Little and Great Walsingham.
Where to stay
Deepdale Farm (01485 210256, www.deepdalefarm.co.uk) is a very well located top-of-the-range hostel with two-, three-, four-, six-, eight- and 18-bed rooms with en-suite facilities and the use of a modern communal kitchen. It costs from £10.50 per person a night (£12.50 weekends). Tent pitches are also available for £6.50 per person a night and £2 for children.
Where to eat
The best places tend to be in the hotels or gourmet pubs.
Morston Hall in Morston (01263 741041, www.morstonhall.com). The owner, Galton Blackiston, provides a different four-course set menu daily, £40. The Sunday lunch I had here (£26) was the best meal I had during my trip round the coast.
The White Horse, Brancaster Staithe (01485 210262, www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk). Starters on the table d'hôte menu cost £4-£5.50; main courses £9-£13. Typical dishes: whole plaice with samphire, chive and tomato cream (£10.95), and grilled calf's liver with creamed potatoes and bacon (£12.25). Children's menu from £3.95.
Titchwell Manor (01485 210221, www.titchwellmanor.com) has a relaxed restaurant serving beautifully presented modern British cuisine. At lunch, tapas-sized dishes cost from £2.50, dressed Cromer crab £6.95, or there is a range of sandwiches for £4.95. Evening menu: starters from £4.50 and main courses from £9.50. (PS they do great fat chips!)
The Red Lion, Stiffkey (01328 830552, no website) is perhaps the best traditional pub along the coast, serving local beer such as Woodforde's Wherry and a good range of bar meals.
The Cafe in Cley-next-the-sea (01263 740336, www.thecafe.org.uk) is an organic restaurant providing four vegetarian courses for £22.50. It also has two contemporary rooms (from £195 for two nights' half board for two).
Fishes, in Burnham Market, a specialist in local fish (01328 738588, www.fishesrestaurant.co.uk), serves a three-course lunch for £15.50 and two courses in the evenings for £27.50.
Where to shop
Holt, a Georgian market town five miles from the coast, has plenty of quality clothes and food shops (the food hall at Bakers and Larners is like a miniature Fortnum & Mason). Norfolk's Deli of the Year, Byfords, is definitely worth a visit, but it's mobbed at weekends and holidays.
Burnham Market is the most fashionable place in Norfolk despite being no more than a village. The primarily upmarket and eclectic mix of shops includes Pentney House for hats, Brazen Head for antique books, the chic Ruby and Tallulah clothes shop, Humble Pie delicatessen, Satchells wine merchant and the Hoste Arms pub.
Cley-next-the-Sea has a handful of Hampstead-type shops. Picnic Fayre delicatessen is where second-home owners pick up their lavender bread, wines, stuffed olives, local chutneys and gourmet meals such as Moroccan lamb and apricot tajine. For smoked mackerel, or kippers, they head to the Cley Smoke House. Contemporary art is on show at the Michael Chapman Gallery, and for pottery and jewellery, Made in Cley is the place.
The North Norfolk Poppy Line runs a steam train (01263 820800, www.nnrailway.co.uk) from Sheringham to Holt -10½ miles of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Adults £8, children £4.50, family of four £23. No booking.
The Norfolk Broads are connected by natural rivers and were created when the sea level rose 700 years ago, filling up medieval peat pits. There's more than 120 miles of lock-free cruising on unspoilt waterways with boats available on a day-hire basis through Barnes Brinks Craft (01603 782625, www.barnesbrinkcraft.co.uk), £57-£82 for 10-man launches; or week-long cruising through Connoisseur (01603 782472, www.connoisseurafloat.com) on 2-8 berth boats, £799-£1,269.
Hop aboard open-topped boats from Morston or Blakeney to see the seals (there are about 250) at Blakeney Point, the National Trust-owned spit that juts out into the North Sea. Departures depend on the tide. A one-hour trip through Temples (01263 740791) or Beans Boat Trips (01263 740038) costs adults £6 and children £4.
Holkham Beach, a three-mile stretch (used as a backdrop in the film Shakespeare in Love), is one of the finest in Britain. Parking £2.
Holkham Hall (01328 710227, www.holkham.co.uk) is home to the Earl and Countess of Leicester. The Palladian mansion, deer park and lake (with boat trips), pottery, Nursery Gardens, Bygones Museum (history of farming), restaurant and cafes (plus the Victoria pub) are deserving of a day of your holiday. Open 1-5pm daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission to Hall £6.50 or, combined with Bygones Museum, £10 (both half price for children aged 5-16); Family of four ticket £25.
RSPB National Nature Reserve at Titchwell (01485 210779, www.rspb.org.uk) has 300 species of birds calling in a year and in excess of 100,000 human visitors - more than any other RSPB reserve in the country. Entry to the reserve is free, with binocular rental costing £2.50 and car parking £3. There are guided walks, a cafe and shops.
Norfolk Shire Horse Centre (01263 837339, www.norfolk-shirehorse-centre.co.uk), West Runton, near Cromer, offers wagon rides and the opportunity for children to meet mares, foals and small furry animals. Adults £5.50, children £3.50, family discounts on the website. Closed Saturdays.
Sandringham Estate (01553 612908, www.sandringhamestate.co.uk). The house is open when the Queen isn't in residence, and the 600 acres are available for visitors to enjoy all year round. Admission: adults £6.50, children £4. Family of five ticket costs £17 for the house, museum and gardens, or £11.50 for the museum and gardens.
Children will enjoy catching crabs from Cromer pier or Blakeney Quay. All they'll need is bacon bait, a line and a bucket, which are available locally.
Roads Once you hit the coastline, the roads become narrow and the signposts a little infrequent just a few miles inland. Head for the Tourist Information Centre at Deepdale Farm (01485 210256, www.deepdalefarm.co.uk/information/) and pick up a local OS Map (£5.99); you can also get leaflets on walking, cycling and all the local attractions.
Swimming The Norfolk coastline has some great beaches, but near the salt marshes, mudflats and estuaries there are some fast-flowing tides. Beware of rising water if you go off the beaten track, and keep a close eye on children when they're using inflatables in the channels. For information on tides, see www.bbc.co.uk/weather/marine/tides.
Restaurants If you're planning a special holiday meal it's best to book rather than turn up on the offchance.
Public transport If you're not travelling by car, the best way to see the coast is by bus, as there aren't any trains travelling farther than Sheringham or King's Lynn. The Coastal Hopper services the coast from King's Lynn to Cromer, including Sandringham. For travel information call Traveline on 0870 608 2608 or visit www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk.
The Telegraph - Journalist: Paul Gogarty