DISCOVER NORFOLK’S TRANQUIL SHORES
Pink-footed geese, misty ruins and cosy country inns; the north Norfolk coast is a wonderful place for a winter break
Keep company with pink-footed geese on the salt marshes, then take shelter in north Norfolk’s cosy coastal inns, says Charles Rangeley-Wilson.
I‘discovered’ the north Norfolk coast as a small boy in the late 1960s when my mother inherited a dilapidated old house beside the sea. All through my childhood years my parents lovingly restored the place, travelling up every other weekend from their jobs in London, me asleep, or groaning about feeling carsick again in the back of the car.
When I wasn’t queasy we’d stop for fish and chips in Littleport, just north of Ely. The voluminous leather and high-octane odours of our pre-fuel-crisis Bristol V8 made for a more bilious cocktail than the dull but frugal Renault we bought to replace it. So at least travelling in less splendour meant more fish and chips. But, Bristol or Renault, my father would routinely suggest we take “the back route” on our way to the coast, and if we passed just one car he’d joke that the roads were “rather crowded tonight”.
Because Norfolk’s spare, windswept beauty, its salt marshes, sand dunes, creeks, harbours and beaches, its forests of holm oak and Scots pine, its bonsai chalk streams, its haunted Roman roads, its ruins
“IN WINTER, NORFOLK FILLS WITH GEESE AND EMPTIES OF PEOPLE”
of castles and priories and its stunning birdlife were almost undiscovered in the 1970s. This suited me just fine. It was a wild place to grow up. I remember playing gunfights in the derelict bunkers and gun emplacements threaded through the sand dunes near our house and never seeing another soul but for the odd pioneering birdwatcher, or much more likely a wildfowler from our village, out to harvest a goose for the pot.
It’s not quite like that any more, though I still have to pinch myself for being so lucky to call north Norfolk home. The path to the beach is a bit crowded on a weekend in summer, and by that I mean a few dozen people will be on it. And here and there along the coast the odd pinch-point gets busy on bank holidays: the beach at Brancaster, Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham and Wells harbourfront are bustling in a pleasingly English-seaside kind of way, and the various quays at high tide as everyone races to get their dinghies launched.
So it’s not like the 1970s any more. At least not until November, when even these thin
crowds disperse and locals like me stride out ‘to the lonely sea and the sky’ and feel we own the landscape once again. In winter, Norfolk fills with geese and empties of people. Literally. More than a third of the global population of pink-footed geese comes to north Norfolk in winter. At dawn and dusk, thousands upon thousands of them take flight from foreshore and field and in endless waves fill the sky with their bossy but plaintiff honking. It is an amazing sight and sound.
In fact, the entire coast is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts – seals, hares, birds of all kinds, otters if you’re lucky – even if, or perhaps because, this is not a winterscape for the faint-hearted. Norfolk stalwarts like to say there’s not a scrap of land between here and the North Pole. And they’re right; there isn’t. It’s more a symbolic statement than anything else; the weather is not often straight out of the north, but it suggests an affinity that is not far from the truth. Norfolk is cold. It is also dry and bright and the skies, day or night, provide a glimpse of the eternal.
That spiritual heritage goes back a long way. I vividly remember when ‘Seahenge’ was discovered just a couple of miles from my home on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, a Bronze Age circle of timber with the upturned roots of an oak tree at its centre. This wooden chapel had remained buried under the sands through the millennia but emerged after a storm as testament, surely, to the transcendent quality of the north Norfolk skies.
A winter visit to Norfolk today, therefore, would start well in the Lynn Museum to which the timbers and tree were removed: they are displayed wonderfully. There is a second circle, by the way, still under the sands at Holme. It came to the surface after rough weather a few years ago and, within a few weeks, was buried again.
YOUR FIRST PORT OF CALL
Before you go there to feel its presence, take a stroll around King’s Lynn. Not far from the museum you’ll find, clustered around the quay and the ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Saturday’ Market Places, an astonishing conglomeration of architectural interest and occasional perfection; the quayside Custom House is described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the most perfect buildings ever built”. It now hosts the town’s tourist information centre, open daily. The largest chapel in the country, St Nicholas’ Chapel, dwarfs most churches and would make a modest cathedral (stnicholaskings
lynn.org.uk). It was built to serve the onetime fishing community of the town. Carved wooden bench-ends inside the chapel date its early fishery to the 15th century, when King’s Lynn fishermen would sail each summer to catch cod off the Icelandic coast. Beside the chapel, True’s Yard is now a fisherfolk museum set around two of the houses fishing families once lived in (Tue– Sat, 10am–4pm, £3, truesyard.co.uk).
Between King’s Lynn and the coast at Holme is Castle Rising, described by English Heritage as “one of the largest, bestpreserved and most lavishly decorated
castle keeps in England, surrounded by 20 acres of mighty earthworks”. I last went there with the family at new year. A thick fog had shut out the surrounding world and we felt quite alone and profoundly in touch with the past in a hushed echo chamber under the looming, saturated walls of the keep (open Weds–Sun, 10am–4pm, english-heritage.org.uk).
The coast and its hinterland are rich in fortified and ecclesiastical ruins, those tree chapels at Holme being just the start of things, historically speaking. There’s also the Roman fort at Branodunum, and the stridently straight march of Peddar’s Way that leads to it, one of the best ways of approaching the coast on foot, following in ancient footsteps. Further east, Baconsthorpe Castle – ‘open any reasonable time during daylight’ – makes for a quirky, East Anglian take on Ozymandias, a ruin that tells of the rise and fall of a prominent ancient family (english-heritage.org.uk).
Being only 1,000 years old, Binham Priory is a new-build in Seahenge terms, but underlines again the connection between the coastal fringe and the heavens, even if its priors, over the centuries, were more inclined to earthly pleasures and scandal (open daily, 9am–4pm, english-heritage. CLOCKWISE FROM TOP The walls of 15th-century Baconsthorpe Castle provide a backdrop to the dramatic rise and fall of the Heydon family, ruined by huge debts in the 17th century; the narrow lanes and eclectic shops in Wells-next-theSea add to the resort’s charm; pretty Burnham Market with its red-roofed Georgian houses is a stone’s throw from the coast
org.uk). The Augustinian Creake Abbey, set beside the tiny River Burn, completes the coastal tour of ruined antiquity; it’s worth knowing there are shops and cafés set in a cluster of farm buildings next door and a farmer’s market on the first Saturday of the month (open daily, english-heritage.org.uk, creakeabbey.co.uk). Nearby Burnham Market is one of north Norfolk’s better-known village jewels, a delightful cluster of Georgian houses set around a wide-open market space, now grassed over. With its array of galleries, jewellers, milliners and old bookshops, you probably won’t find a better place to go shopping. There are also Wells or Holt to try. Wells is a fabulously varied seaside town, with its quay and fish-and-chip bars, its intricate courtyards, lanes and eclectic shops: chandlers to delis to boutiques.
Punctuating the coast between these three market towns is a series of charming seaside villages, with quays and harbours, muddy walks out to lonely beaches and the best pubs and beer and whitebait in all of England. The Lifeboat, The Hero, The Jolly Sailors. The names tell a story on their own. There’s little better, midwinter, than a long walk and a slow pint to end it; north Norfolk is about nothing if it isn’t about both of these. You can walk the entire coast if you choose – and find lovely pubs all along it – or take in invigorating slices of it at Old Hunstanton, Holme, Brancaster, Burnham Deepdale, Burnham Norton, Morston, Blakeney or Cley next the Sea. All of it is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
My favourite walk runs west from Lady Anne’s drive at Holkham through the woods to a range of mountainous sand dunes: with salt marshes to your left and the wild sea to your right, keep going up and down through the volcanic blowholes in the sand until you reach the gap in the dunes at Gun Hill. At low tide (only at low, not when the tide is running!) this channel becomes the most delightful wild swimming pool. Take a bracing dip and you’ll have earned your supper at Holkham’s The Victoria Inn. You’ll also be glowing like a furnace and will have added a year to your life.
“NORFOLK’S SKIES, DAY OR NIGHT, PROVIDE A GLIMPSE OF THE ETERNAL”
ABOVE In a whirl of wingbeats and excited high-pitched honks, thousands of pink-footed geese head for their night-time roosts on the mudflats in The Wash National Nature Reserve, Snettisham. Up to 40,000 of these travellers fly from Iceland and Greenland to gather here over the winter months
TOP Captain George Vancouver presides over Purfleet Quay in King’s Lynn, with the much-lauded Custom House building behind ABOVE The beautifully preserved 12th-century keep at Castle Rising, seen through the gatehouse arch
Norfolk-based writer Charles RangeleyWilson is an angler, photographer and conservationist. His latest book, Silver Shoals (Chatto & Windus), includes the history of Norfolk’s herring fishery.