Where land meets sea
North Norfolk’s skies and empty beaches blend seamlessly with bustle and crying seabirds
Fiona Reynolds walks the north Norfolk coast
MY summer was wonderfully hillfilled, including a week in Snowdonia, during which I climbed eight of its biggest peaks, and—joy of joys—trekking to the top of the 12,225ft Mount Rinjani on Lombok. That last effort was more intense than anything I’ve experienced before, so my return to Cambridge was less a wistful look back at the hills than a happy reunion with flatland walking. I’ve resumed my morning riverside walks and an invitation to give a lecture at South Creake saw me heading happily for the north Norfolk coast.
‘I hopped and skipped over snaking water channels to reach the dunes
I love places where the land meets the sea and the Norfolk coast has its own special qualities. The adjective that springs to mind is ‘endless’, as huge expanses of saltmarsh evolve into vast beaches and sanddune systems whose horizons then merge seamlessly into enormous skies. Its sublime qualities led to it being designated as an AONB in 1968 and a coast path runs along its length.
It’s also rich in wildlife: Norfolk’s coast played an influential role in early nature protection as scientists, many from the University of Cambridge, investigated the seal and seabird colonies of Blakeney Point and the saltmarsh ecosystems of Scolt Head and Cley Marshes, supported by the pioneering Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society.
For my walk, I chose a spectacular section of beach with an equally impressive inland counterpoint centred on Holkham Hall. I set off from Wells-next-the-sea on a perfect autumn day, the sun still warm and just the tiniest breath of edge to the gentle wind. It’s a heavily modified landscape: as Arthur Young reported in 1768, ‘all the country from Holkham to Houghton was a wild sheep walk before the spirit of improvement seized the inhabitants’, yet I felt nurtured by its ancient roots.
Wells was busy, the sunshine bringing out families enjoying ice creams and fish and chips by the harbour. I started from the lifeboat station and walked inland along the high harbour wall, exchanging greetings with fellow strollers. Then, a quick taste of the town, its charming alleyways and flint-faced cottages with neat gardens contrasting with the vibrant shoreline scene. When I picked up a bridleway on Wells’s western edge, by an old railway cutting, I was alone. I revelled in the quiet, the sunshine and an unexpected profusion of latesummer butterflies.
A zig-zag later and I was at Holkham Hall’s East Lodge, approached by an avenue of twisted holm oak. Through the gate is the inviting pastureland of Holkham Park and, beyond it, the hall, sitting low in the landscape as you approach it from the north. Its palatial south front, however, is one of the most elegant in England, its gracious Palladian pillared façade looking out over the deer park, timelessly beautiful.
Laid out by William Kent, two million trees were planted in the park between 1781 and 1801. I walked to the magisterial Obelisk, past the dreamlike Temple, nestled in woodland, and back past the hall to the lake and 19th-century monument to Thomas Coke, the great agricultural reformer.
Bewitchingly beautiful, the park could have satisfied my aesthetic hunger, but now I headed for the beach, up Lady Anne’s drive to Holkham Gap, where miles of sand opened up before me. The Norfolk coastal path offered a return to Wells along the edge of the pine forest, but I wanted to dip my toes in the sea, so I walked due north into the horizon. It was low tide, so I hopped and skipped over snaking water channels to reach the dunes and, eventually, the beach beyond.
On this glorious day, it was almost empty except for the cry of seabirds and the occasional fellow walker. I walked east to return to Wells, sticking close to the sea, greeted on the last lap by a long row of jolly beach huts painted every colour of the rainbow. Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and her book, ‘The Fight for Beauty’, is available from Oneworld
A walking life
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