Pink-footed geese, misty ruins and cosy coun­try inns; the north Nor­folk coast is a won­der­ful place for a win­ter break

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Words: Charles Ran­ge­ley-Wil­son

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


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.


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.


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.

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