Taking on Norfolk's Coastal Path (Neil S Price)
Article Words : Phoebe Smith | 23 October

Great British Escape: North Norfolk Coast

In the summer it oozes classic British seaside charm but, come winter, the north Norfolk coast takes on a very different character…

Any second now, I was going to fall. Not just any fall but a headfirst drop down tens of metres. I braced myself for the moment and took one last look at the sea rippling the horizon before swooshing towards the concrete with an almighty scream. Then, it was over.

That was my first introduction to the north Norfolk coast: the bright lights, deckchairs and donkey rides of Hunstanton – a place so classically British seaside it could’ve been designed by Harry Ramsden. Back then, the summer sky shone, arcade machines hummed and fairground lights flickered all around as I was coerced into going on a ride ominously called G-Force.

Fast forward several years and the scene that greeted me in that same town was a very different one. It was now winter and the azure sky had been replaced with a thick mist; the amusements were shut for the season, covered in canvas coats; the only sound came from the one open fish-and-chip shop as its sign creaked in the breeze. Snow lay thick on the ground.

I had ventured back to tackle the Norfolk Coast Path, the 76km trail linking Hunstanton and Cromer. When combined with the Peddars Way (which runs from the outskirts of Thetford to Holme-next-the-Sea), it forms one of the UK’s 15 National Trails – a network of long-distance walking routes in Britain that traverse some of the country’s best landscapes.

As long-distance walks go, this is one of the best – especially for first timers. It’s relatively flat, not too long and goes through enough villages to ensure that there’s plenty of refreshments, toilets and accommodation options. It also boasts the handy Coasthoppper bus service, which runs frequently year-round between the start and finish points – great for breaking up the route or escaping off it should you fancy a little exploring.

Sand, sea and snow

Escaping was the last thing on my mind as I began my walk along Hunstanton’s Promenade, snow squeaking beneath my boots. The bright-red giant poppy at the foot of the war memorial was the only flash of colour in an otherwise monochrome seascape. Fulmars swooped overhead, recognisable by the black flash on the tips of their wings; their cries seemed somehow hopeful in the mist.

As I reached the old lighthouse the cloud began to part; once I stumbled upon the sand dunes and beach huts of Old Hunstanton, it was starting to clear. The hedgerows were wearing a dazzling coat of rime, glistening like an intricate network of crystals; the sand dunes were entirely coated in white. Despite growing up by the north Wales coast, I had never seen this combination of sea, sand and snow before – it was enchanting.

I looked back towards Hunstanton and could just make out the striped cliffs that flank the town. Their geological mix of brown carstone, white chalk and red limestone stood out against the pallid sand. Behind me icicles dangled from the wooden roofs of the pastel-coloured beach huts: the whole scene looked lifted from a snow globe.

Afew steps further and I was in Holme-next-the-Sea, a more tranquil alternative to Hunstanton. In the off-season quietness, everything was still and gloriously frozen.

But it wasn’t always so quiet here. Back in 1998 the village buzzed with excitement after the discovery of Seahenge: a timber circle around an upturned tree, buried in the sand. Seahenge is believed to be a Bronze Age altar, dating back to 2049BC. It had been hidden underwater for years but, with dropping sea levels, was suddenly revealed. Now it’s gone again – not due to the sea but because (somewhat controversially) English Heritage excavated it to try to preserve it; Seahenge now sits miles inland, in the Lynn Museum.

Turning the corner, I reached Broadwater, the site of one of Norfolk’s many bird reserves. Norfolk is the birdwatching capital of Britain, owing to the high volume of migrating and native species that are spotted here. And today, despite the cold weather, the twitchers were out in force. I went from walking in a pretty wilderness to facing a barrage of binocular-clad ornithologists. Every one of them smiled and greeted me; a couple filled me in on that morning’s sightings.

I continued on, funnelled down an avenue of tall, golden reeds. Emerging into Thornham, the path cut inland to avoid the boggy salt marshes. As I reached the fields, the purples and pinks of the setting sun began to flood the massive sky; it seemed to stretch on forever.

With the drop in the sun came a drop in temperature, and I shivered as I headed back towards the coast, passing through the chocolate-box houses and church in Brancaster. By the time I reached the harbour at Brancaster Staithe there was little light left in the sky – just enough to make out the stacked crab baskets and the sails on the moored boats, which chimed against their masts. No one was around as I finally reached Burnham Deepdale, for my night in a yurt. Walking in winter may mean fewer daylight hours but, as I watched the surrounding tents fade into darkness, I knew I’d made the most of every one.

Wild sands and wanton priests

An icy chill crept into my yurt the following morning, tickling me awake. I went outside to find that a layer of hoarfrost had caked my canvas walls.

The bitter wind showed no sign of relenting as I headed out onto the path, this time towards the sea near Scolt Head Island – another birding hotspot. It was hard to hear any birdsong, though – the wind was far too loud for them to compete with. With relief I headed towards the old windmill at Burnham Overy Staithe before emerging into the open at Holkham beach.

Here, though still cold, the expansive sand made this feel like a proper coastal walk. Horses and their red-coated riders galloped passed me as – despite my lack of equestrian experience – I imagined the delicious freedom of exploring this wild place atop a mighty steed.

Behind the sand dunes, trees started to appear; then, as I neared Holkham Gap and the noble-sounding Lady Ann’s Drive – a die-straight road leading up to the village of Holkham and its eponymous grand hall – more telescope-clutching birdwatchers greeted me. An excited crowd clustered near a hide; I carried on past them and was soon alone again, until the path curved straight into Wells-next-the-Sea.

Here the bird hides were replaced by a smattering of beach huts, the waves drowned out by the chatter of visitors riding the mini-train down to the chippy-lined highstreet. Suddenly I was hit by sounds and smells of amusement arcades and greasy spoon cafés. I hurried along, trying not to be seduced by their offerings.

Soon the built-up sprawl became expanses of grass, merging into miles of salt marshes. Here the briny air had worked hard to thaw the snow, and the ground was a slushy combination of ice-melt and mud, making it slippery underfoot as I approached the edge of Warham Salt Marshes. This area – like many sections of the coast – was scattered with military relics, the remains of efforts to defend our island nation from seaborne attack. Already I’d passed spigot mortar emplacements and pillboxes; here, tarmac roads used by training soldiers led off the muddy walking track.

Despite the evidence of war, there was a real feel of peace, especially after the bustle of Wells. To my right, a sign pointed towards Stiffkey – a great detour, if only for the homemade cakes at the local store. It’s just a small hamlet – a blink-and-you-miss-it type place – but it has a big reputation. Not only is it famed for its cockles (the renowned Stewkey Blues) but also for notorious former resident Harold Davidson, reverend here in the 1930s, who – due to his penchant for visiting certain Soho establishments – became known as the Prostitutes’ Padre.

He vehemently denied any immoral behaviour and sought, unsuccessfully, to clear his name. Banished from the church, he joined a fair and preached from a lion’s cage in Skegness; here he met a grisly end – courtesy of the lion.

Smiling as I thought of him, I noticed the light had lowered. I passed through Morston, launching point for many a boat excursion to see Blakeney Point’s seals, then on to the town of Blakeney, and finally down to Cley-next-the-Sea – home to an iconic windmill. By the time I arrived, the last of the daylight had faded. I was glad that my wait for a Coasthopper bus, which would take me back to my camp in Burnham Deepdale and a warm pub meal, wouldn’t be too long.

Pier review

The next morning the temperature actually rose above zero and I got up quickly, ready to complete my journey. The bus dropped me back in Cley, from where I continued out towards the sea. Here the path felt properly wild again. The route underfoot was shingle, and akin to crossing sinking sand. I moved as fast as I could, passing huddles of fishermen, all grouped around deckchairs and windbreaks. Crumbling bunkers poked up from the beach as the ground began to rise at Weybourne. I teetered as close to the edge of the cliffs as I dared; it was good to be back on terra firma.

The snow had all but gone by the time I reached the flurry of Sheringham. The scent of vinegar from one of the cafés twanged my nostrils and once again I fought my urge to nip in for a sneaky bite. I proudly summited the 63m promontory of Beeston Bump – small maybe, but in a county as flat as Norfolk it felt truly mountainous – and from here I could make out the pier at Cromer, the end of this path and the end of my walk; it was tantalisingly close.

With a renewed spring in my step I followed the path inland for the final time. It wove its way up through trees, past signs warning of Britain’s only poisonous snake (it was clearly too cold for adders today), and into Cromer itself.

After the tranquillity of the woods, this Norfolk beach town felt like a thriving metropolis. I was giddy with excitement as I caught a glimpse of the sea, and the pier thrusting into it. Though the path officially ends just above this Edwardian jetty, its wooden slats and wrought-iron rails are a much more fitting end to a long-distance walk.

As I made my way down the steps and out onto the pier, the setting sun now casting a warm glow over the town behind me, I realised that this visit hadn’t been so different from my first trip to Hunstanton all those years ago. From wild empty beaches to busy seaside resorts, military spoils to birdwatchers, crying gulls and extreme weather, this had been like a fairground ride from start to finish.

As I stood watching the pier cast shadows over the lapping waves, I smelt the unmistakable aroma of salt and vinegar once more. But this time I didn’t deny myself. I rewarded my efforts with a cone of chips – and they’ve never tasted so good.

Essentials: North Norfolk Coast

Your quick guide to the stunning seaside stroll

When to go

Accommodation can get booked up fast during the summer. Winter can be a magical time to visit especially if you’re treated to snow-covered dunes, though some B&Bs are closed.

Getting there and around

The Norfolk Coast is a dream for walkers – you won’t need to get in your car once. At the western end of the route, buses connect Hunstanton to King’s Lynn train station for onward services to Cambridge and beyond (including London). At the eastern end of the path, buses and trains link Cromer to Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

The excellent Coasthopper bus runs between Hunstanton and Cromer every hour in winter (more frequent in summer); use this to hop on and off as much as you like between walking stages. For up-to-date routes, timetables and ticket prices, check out www.coasthopper.co.uk as well as www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk.

Accommodation

There’s a wide range of options available – from five-star hotels to camping – all along the coast. See visitnorfolk.co.uk for details.

Further information

The Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path by Phoebe Smith (Cicerone, out
15 March) contains detailed walk descriptions and OS mapping. More info can be found at visitnorthnorfolk.com. For national trail information, see nationaltrail.co.uk/peddarsway.