Friday, 26 May 2017

To be beside the seaside - North Norfolk Coastal Walk Part 1

My birthday falls in May, conveniently between two bank holidays, and with the weather getting warmer I'm wanting to be outdoors all the time.  My mum and I (occasionally accompanied by my dad and youngest sister) have been walking the North Norfolk Coastal Path between Hunstanton and Cromer.  We did stretches on it in May and September 2016, and this May did our final section.  It's not a massive walk - about 45 miles or so, but that combined with the incessant flatness of my home country it makes for a really manageable hike that's less about clocking up the miles and more about appreciating the scenery of one of the most beautiful places I know...

Although I admit I am heavily biased.
The dunes at Holkham

Hunstanton to Brancaster - 9.5 miles

I actually did this section last as my parents, who live at one end of the Peddars Way (the Roman road that links central East Anglia to the coast) did it solo when I wasn't there, so I went back and added it on at the end.   This is the Western-most point of the road, and Hunstanton is (justly) proud of being the only West-facing town on it, and therefore the only place on this walk where you can watch the sun set over the sea.  It's your typical seaside town, a bit tacky in places but I have very fond memories of the sea front and SeaLife Centre from my childhood.  It's also remarkably quick to leave!  The path stays off the beach, but if you head down onto the sand you get the better view back at the crumbling two-tone cliffs.


The Lighthouse at Old Hunstanton

On a clear day, which I had, you can see all the way across The Wash to the coast of Lincolnshire.  You'll also walk past the remains of the trawler Sheraton, shipwrecked in 1947 by severe gales.  It couldn't be re-floated and now only the ribs and part of the hull remain, encrusted with winkles and hiding crabs under the bow gunwales.

As you head away from civilisation, the beach suddenly broadens out into this.

These vast expanses of sand are always here, particularly huge when the tide is out, often empty apart from other walkers and their dogs, or mussel pickers from local restaurants.  It's a long walk down from the top of the beach to water, which is likewise shallow and therefore often warm.  It can feel like a desert, not a great habitat for people, but there's life around.  You'll see quite a lot of red-stockinged Oystercatchers scurrying back and forth near the surf, and the shells of lugworm and cockles in the sand.  This beautiful aloneness is one of my favourite things about the Norfolk coast.

As you get near to Holme-next-the-Sea, the lowest point on this very flat journey, you'll come into sand dunes and then the saltmarshes that form the sea defences, a weird liminal space between the beach and the villages.  Boats are moored here, hitch up to old sun-bleached posts and languishing in the quick-mud until the tilde comes back in again and their owners can take them out to sea.  The path goes over the ridge of the dunes and turns into duckboards, and then a sturdy dirt path on the top of the earth defenses to take you back inland towards Thornham.

The Thornham dunes

Unlike the beach, which features mainly Herring Gulls and Oystercatchers, the saltmarshes are alive with birds.  Because the tides rush in and out so fast here, due to how flat it is, they leave behind thousands of small pools and keep the grass and samphire scrub well watered so the place is a massive bird larder fifty percent of the time.  In just the short stretch between Holme and Thornham (about 3 miles) I was surrounded by the calls of small birds; finches, tits and reed buntings, the occasional skylark, a heron, cuckoos back in the woods, and a kestrel stooping after something in the grass, probably mice.

Thornham is that way!

At Thornham the path swoops back inland for a bit, to dodge the A-road, and drops you back on the coast at Brancaster.

Brancaster to Holkham- 8 miles

The family walking group assembled for this bit, and we did a couple of legs together in May 2016.

Leaving Brancaster, the path hugs the edge of the saltmarshes for a bit and then kicks out dramatically in a sort of square peninsula that takes you far away from the houses and into the middle of nowhere, with saltmarshes on one side and fields to the other as you walk along the top of the sea defense, and then brings you back again. It was really windy on this particular day and there's nothing  at all to hide behind out here.  We got a bit wind-battered between Brancaster and Burnham!

Emma, Mum and Dad, with the farmland on the left, and salt marshes on the right as we head back inland.
Stranded boats on the saltmarshes

After passing the Burnhams (Deepdale, Norton and Overy Staithe) the path leaves the ploughed fields entirely and heads of towards the sea as you arrive in the Holkham Nature Reserve.  The weather brightened up a bit too, which was nice as we were coming to one of my favourite places.

Leaving the farmland and heading into the dunes at between Brancaster and Holkham

Holkham beach - one of my favourite places.
With the sun now out, the sea blue, and the path giving way to soft yellow sand you'd be mistaken for thinking you'd arrived somewhere in the Caribbean.  The path runs right along the top of the beach, practically begging you so walk on the sand... so we did!

There's a stately home at Holkham, and a car park for beach access, but no coastal village, facilities or entertainment here.  There are no shops, no chippies, and no arcades.  There is just the beach, and it is huge.  It can easily take you a good half hour to reach the sea when the tide is low, but of course that means it's never crowded and I always love coming here (and inevitably end up swimming, regardless of whether I planned to or not).  I've written about Holkham before and it's still my favourite beach.  Emma and I, for some reason, decided we wanted to jog along it, despite the fact that I was in bare feet at the time, poking about in pools like I usually do, and the parents were almost out of sight before we decided we'd better stop!  At Holkham we headed up the beach to Holkham Hall, where you can find food, drinks and, most importantly, the bus stop that took us back to our accommodation at Blakeney.

On a sunnier day!

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