Seabirds and big skies on the pristine shore
Launching a new series, David Wickers explores a perfect coastal cul-de-sac
North Norfolk is a long way from anywhere and on the way to nowhere else. Bellying out into the North Sea, its coast is a stretch of flinty villages fringed by some of our wildest beaches and capped by the biggest skies this side of Wyoming. You can walk between horizons without meeting a soul, following the crest of the grassy sea-defence walk above a spread of salt marshes and venous creeks.
This was once a hotbed of maritime commerce, with fishing fleets and ports serving the Continent, but the silting-up of its rivers put paid to its prosperity. Today, north Norfolk is a coast in trust, one of the most protected in Britain, cosseted by bodies from the National Trust to Heritage Coast.
Bring your binoculars, but think twice about your cossie — the sea is mostly too shallow for swimming, the currents too fierce and the walk to the beach too far for toddlers. And forget about roaring resorts. The region is a cul-de-sac of natural pleasures, such as cycling, sailing, birding and walking. Even in high summer, you can always find somewhere where yours will be the only footprints in the sand.
Titchwell: the RSPB reserve at Titchwell is our first stop, but the last one for Sammy. This lonely chap with bright orange legs is a testament to the appeal of the Norfolk coast. Sammy is a black-winged stilt, a familiar sight on the Mediterranean, but the only resident of its kind in Britain.
“He flew in 10 years ago, forgetting to stop in Spain on his way north from Africa,” says the warden, Steve Rowland. “He must have liked it so much, he decided never to go back.”
Titchwell has recorded 300 species of birds. And it’s popular with humans, too: it attracts 100,000 visitors a year, more than any other RSPB reserve. Over the next few weeks, its lagoons and reed beds will be busy with breeding avocets, terns, bearded tits and marsh harriers. Admission is free (just pay for parking), and you can rent binoculars for £2 (01485 210779, www.rspb.org.uk).
Brancaster: there are two Brancasters: low-tide and high. When the trickles in the creeks swell to streams, the Staithe comes alive with yellow wellies and jaunty hats, and boats that have lain on their ears in the mud sit upright and await their masters.
There are boats for hire for those who can sail, and RYA courses for those who can’t, both through SailCraft (01485 210236, www.sailcraft.co.uk). This summer, Brancaster will host the 40th European Sharpie Championships (July 20-25).
The prime spot for just sitting and gazing across the fantastic salt marshes, purple in July when the sea lavender blossoms, is the conservatory restaurant at The White Horse (01485 210262, www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk), Norfolk’s official pub of the year. It serves seafood with sea views, including mussels from its own beds; main dishes about £12. It also has 15 rooms, from £108pp for two nights, B&B. Too expensive? Just up the road is the most stylish backpacker hostel you’ll ever see. Deepdale Farm (01485 210256, www.deepdalefarm.co.uk) has been in the Borthwick family for four generations. They have converted the old stable block into dorms, plus three double rooms, each with a smart ensuite bathroom and use of a communal kitchen and barbecue. It’s all very environmentally friendly and costs from £10.50pp (£27 per double).
Burnham Market: for a small village of mostly second homes, the terribly chichi Burnham Market has several stylish shops overlooking its pretty green, including Gurneys for smoked fish, the Humble Pie deli, the Brazen Head Bookshop, Satchell’s the wine merchant and Pentney House for Ascot hats.
The bar in the 300-year-old Hoste Arms (01328 738777, www.hostearms.co.uk), where local lad Admiral Nelson came to pick up his dispatches, has become something of a celebrity berth (Amanda Holden, Stephen Fry, Jamie Oliver). Owned by the ex-bouncer and politician Paul Whittome, the Hoste serves up the best local ale (Woodforde’s Wherry from Woodbastwick) and good food; accommodation is from £46pp to £110pp (half-board from £65). Book your weekend table well in advance, or else try The Fishes next door (01328 738588), which does a three-course lunch for £15.50.
Holkham: since the 18th century, Holkham Hall (01328 710227, www.holkham.co.uk) has been the seat of the earls of Leicester. There’s a full afternoon of pleasures to be had here, including a visit to the house, a rather austere palladian mansion full of family riches, including paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Gainsborough. There’s also the old walled kitchen garden, a bygones museum and a 3,000-acre park. Admission is £6.50 (Thursday-Monday, May 24-September 29, 1pm-5pm), or £10 for the house and museum. Holkham’s most impressive asset, though, is its beach. It is one of the best in Britain: sandy and vast, three miles long and a 15-minute low-tide walk from the dunes to the sea. It provided the setting for Gwyneth Paltrow’s final scene in Shakespeare in Love.
The Holkham estate also owns a rather chic hotel, The Victoria (01328 711008, www.victoriaatholkham.co.uk), decorated in homage to the Raj with lots of furnishings sourced from India; B&B from £60pp.
Wells: this is a much more workaday place. Still an active port, it has the odd amusement arcade and flash of neon on the front for those who want a reminder of more traditional seaside pursuits. But most visitors miss the small town’s most handsome feature, its Georgian green. In pride of place at the head of the green sits The Crown (01328 710209), a pub with a restaurant (three courses, £29.95) and rooms (from £55pp per night).
Wells also offers decent high-tide swimming: launch yourself just beyond the lifeboat station, in front of the stilted beach huts (but heed the warnings about currents).
From here you can take a ride on the narrow-gauge steam train to Walsingham, once a place of pilgrimage on a par with Canterbury, and home to the ruins of a 14th-century abbey. For train times, call 01328 710631.
Morston: Morston Hall (01263 741041, www.morstonhall.com) is a small country-house hotel with just seven rooms and the only Michelin star on the coast. Galton Blackiston started his career at 17 with a home-made-cake stall in Rye; here he offers a different set menu every day (£38). Doubles are from £95pp, including breakfast and dinner.
From Morston, you can catch an open-topped ferry to see the common and grey seals off the shingle spit of Blakeney Point. Departures depend on the tide: a one-hour trips cost £6 (£4 for children) through John Bean’s Boat Trips (01263 740038) or Temples (01263 740791).
Blakeney: from Morston, you can easily walk along the sea wall to boaty Blakeney. The quay is often thick with kids busily hauling up crabs (you just need a line with a hook and some bait from the butcher). There are more seal trips on offer here — sailing times and prices are posted on boards along the quay — and you can also set sail aboard the traditional sailing barge Juno, with beach landings at Holkham or Scolt Head Island. Choose between 5- or 12-hour trips (01263 740377).
The Blakeney Hotel (01263 740797, www.blakeney-hotel.co.uk) is a popular base, with an indoor pool, several rooms with views and a sobering mark beside the fire in the lobby showing the level reached by the sea in the “great flood” 50 years ago; from £73pp, B&B.
Cley: Cley-next-the-Sea is next-the-sea no longer. The tiny village was a thriving wool port in the 18th century, but its River Glaven is now a mere trickle. You’ll find the sea at the end of a narrow road cutting through the reed beds to the old coastguard station, now the quirky little Arkwright’s cafe, a popular roost for bird-watchers.
Browse the Cley Bird Book here, but don’t be fooled by the sighting of a great auk “seen flying west and surviving with difficulty”. The bird was not only a flightless species, but has long since gone the way of the dodo. The entry is dated April 1.
If you can manage the heavy trudge over the pebbles from here, it’s four miles to your next cup of tea at the National Trust cafe at the end of the spit.
Back in the village, you’ll find the excellent Picnic Fayre deli, a Made In Cley shop for pots and jewellery, an oak- fired fish smokery and a smart vegetarian restaurant-cum-guesthouse called The Cafe (01263 740336, www.thecafe.org); a two-night weekend stay costs £145, including one dinner.
The coast’s favourite pin-up is also here. Cley Windmill is a B&B (01263 740209) with views of the salt marshes; from £37pp, dinner £17.50.
A few miles further east, Kelling Heath Holiday Park (01263 588181, www.kellingheath.co.uk) is another good budget bet (from £111 for three nights). The award-winning site, a mix of log cabins, fixed caravans and tent pitches, occupies 250 acres of wooded heathland. It’s set on the Cromer Ridge, which marks the limit reached by the last ice age.
Weybourne and Sheringham: tanks and artillery fill the lawn of the Muckleburgh Collection military museum (01263 588 210; £5.50) near Weybourne — it looks disconcertingly like an abandoned battlefield. There are demos of a working panzer (2pm on Sundays, plus Monday- Friday in the school holidays), rides on an armoured personnel carrier, or, for £75, you can have a go at driving a tank.
Sheringham is essential for anyone who hungers for a helping of traditional British seaside attractions. It is also the point of departure for another steam-train jaunt, this time to the Georgian market town of Holt, following a five-mile stretch of track now run by volunteers.
For lunch, head for Byford’s, Norfolk’s deli of the year; for dinner, try Yetman’s (01263 713320), a yellow and white cottage on the southern edge of town (three courses, £32).
Where to stay: we’ve listed some of the best pubs and hotels above, but cottages are also popular here. Norfolk Country Cottages (01603 871 872, www.norfolkcottages.co.uk) is the largest independent agency: it has several properties near Holt and along the coast. Honey Barrel Cottage in Stiffkey, for example, sleeps four and costs £518 for a peak week this summer.
Other companies with self-catering properties include Hoseasons (01502 502588), Blakes (0870 078 1300) and English Country Cottages (0870 078 1100).
Link: www.visitnorfolk.co.uk Tourist-board site with plenty of accommodation options.
Sunday Times - Journalist: David Wickers