Fishing boats lining the beach at Cromer © Clearvista, Dreamstime
This is the Norfolk that most city-dwellers hanker after: big skies, golden beaches and neat pebble-built cottages; mewing gulls and fishing boats beached in the mud.
From the slightly faded Victorian resort of Cromer to the village of Holme-next-the-Sea, the north Norfolk coast stretches resplendently east to west: a classic landscape of wide beaches, salt marshes, off shore sandbanks, muddy tidal inlets and all-too-rare harbours. This stretch of coastline is quite unlike any other place in the British Isles, and has been designated an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The icing on the cake is that there are even some modest hills here, with Beacon Hill near Cromer – 345 feet high – marking the highest point of the ridge where the southbound glaciations of the last ice age finally gave up the ghost as they deposited chunks of Scandinavia and North Sea seabed on Norfolk soil.
In spring, the road verges are emerald green with alexanders, a plant related to celery (of which it tastes strongly) that is particularly abundant at the coast and was recently considered for selection as the county flower of Norfolk. Predictably, the powers that be chose the poppy instead – a safe, if less representative, choice. In summer, the saltings glow purple with large swathes of sea lavender, and, with bright blue skies, the coastal marshes become an Impressionist painting of sea, sand and sky. Autumn brings waves of migrating birds, and the bushes twitch with freshly landed migrants at this time of year, as do the salt marshes where exotic waders feed cheek by jowl much to the delight of birdwatchers. In winter, the sky is oft en alive with noisy flocks of geese in their thousands. In fact, if you can put up with onshore wind that seems to hail directly from the Arctic, a bright, crisp winter’s day is hard to beat for a bracing walk along the seashore followed by lunch in a cosy pub.
With a range of distinct habitats for wildlife that include salt marshes, sand dunes, pebble banks, reed beds and woodland, it is hardly surprising that birds – even some rarities – are found everywhere, and that conservation bodies like the RSPB and NWT (Norfolk Wildlife Trust) have several reserves along this coast, as does the National Trust. In fact, Cley-next-the-Sea, a village with the vast NWT Cley Marshes Nature Reserve of salt marshes and reed beds, has long been considered one of the best sites for birding in the entire British Isles. Seals are easy to see too, and a boat trip out among them is invariably a hit with visitors of all ages.
This coast is largely a place of small fishing villages that have turned, in part at least, to tourism. Flint and pebble rules supreme, with whole villages – houses, pubs, churches, even bus shelters – constructed out of these plentiful beach materials. It’s almost a surprise that public phone boxes aren’t made out of them – since public conveniences generally are.