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Precarious beauty

June 9, 2006

 
With its broad, empty beaches, wide open skies, and tidal salt marshes and reedbeds which provide a home for some of Britain’s rarest wildlife, the North Norfolk coast is a special but threatened place. Martyn Oliver explores.

The first thing that strikes the visitor to North Norfolk is how empty it is. The coastal towns and villages with their reddish-brown stone houses, often substantial and Dutch-inspired, seem to echo a quieter, more peaceful time, a time before the roar of traffic, a time characterised instead by the catcalls of gulls and the ever-present background rattle of sail-shrouds against masts.

This reflects a paradox, a change in the national consciousness: fifty years or so ago, and especially during the first week or two of August when the hosiery mills and shoe factories of the Midlands had their annual shutdown, the whole of the East Coast from Skegness and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire to Great Yarmouth and Caister in Norfolk would be thronged with trainloads and coachloads of holidaymakers. Now, except for the resorts of Hunstanton, Wells and Cromer, the North Norfolk coastline is more often than not deserted.

Cut off from the more populous parts of East Anglia by the Fens in the west and the Broads in the east, and exposed in winter to the cold winds and snow driven across the flatlands of Northern Europe, the North Norfolk coastline is not the most inviting and easily accessible destination. The M11 motorway from London peters out near to Cambridge, and the A47 from the Midlands seems to go on and on for ever, while through trains from the capital terminate at Norwich. But for those intrepid enough to press on, the rewards are more than worth the effort.

The North Norfolk coast is bounded by uncharacteristic irruptions of cliff at either end: uncharacteristic because this water-formed part of the country is otherwise almost uniformly flat. Much of the coastline itself is inaccessible, indeed sometimes dangerous for the unwary walker. It consists largely of inlets, tidal runs, marshes and salt flats. The ‘coast’ road from west to east, along which our journey proceeds, is sometimes as much as a couple of miles from the sea, instead connecting the villages and small towns from which the yachting havens, fishing-boat quays and wildfowl reserves can be reached. The Norfolk Coast Path also avoids the water’s edge for a good part of its route, heading inland here and there.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit in late June or July, you’ll approach this section of the coast through fields of vivid blue lavender. At Heacham, north of the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, is Caley Mill, the home of Norfolk Lavender, founded by Linn Chilvers and Francis Dusgate in 1932. The company’s reputation was built upon the secret recipe for a lavender perfume originally prepared for King George IV.

We first meet the coast at Hunstanton, at the mouth of the Wash. The town of Hunstanton itself is a busy holiday resort [best avoided], but if you bypass the town and follow the signs to Old Hunstanton, the car park there gives easy access to the beach by the Inshore Lifeboat Station, and then a short amble along the sands and among the rock pools brings you to the foot of the spectacular layer-cake that is Hunstanton’s cliff face. Formed on a base of Carrstone, the local building stone, the red limestone dates from the Lower Cretaceous and the white chalk above is from the Upper Cretaceous. Both layers are full of fossils and, since the limestone is soft and subject to erosion, the beach and its piles of fallen rock are a magnet for fossil-hunters. However, just because of this liability to crumble, it’s best to avoid the area directly at the foot of the cliffs.
 

Hunstanton cliffs

Red cliffs at Hunstanton. © Dr S Dumpleton


 
Despite being on England’s east coast, Hunstanton’s cliffs face west, and in the right weather conditions the sunset seen across the Wash from the clifftop can be spectacular.

Old Hunstanton is a pretty and sleepy contrast to its upstart neighbour. On the way through the village a signpost directs you to St Mary’s church, cool and shady on a warm day. In the churchyard, marked with white boards carrying their occupants’ names, are the graves of William Webb and William Green, Revenue Officers shot by smugglers on two consecutive days in September 1784.  Old Hunstanton was a favourite landing point for contraband from the Low Countries, and marks the beginning of Peddars Way, a smugglers’ route that cuts a dead straight line south-east towards the centre of East Anglia.

Hunstanton Hall, on the edge of the village, is said to have been the inspiration for Rudge Hall, Aunt Agatha’s house in P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series of books. Wodehouse was a frequent guest at Hunstanton in the 1920s; he wrote, in a letter to a friend, ‘I spend most of my time on the moat, which is really a sizeable lake. I’m writing this in a punt with my typewriter on a bed-table wobbling on one of the seats.’ He spent a lot of time at the dinner table as well, observing the foibles and habits of his fellow guests, and of the Hall’s domestic staff too. At least a part of his character Jeeves may be based upon his host’s butler, who, wrote Wodehouse, had a row with his employer and hovered ‘like a spectre, very strong and silent. I’m hoping peace will be declared soon.’

A few miles up the road, past the wildfowl reserves at Holme and Titchwell, are Brancaster and Brancaster Staithe. Brancaster is the site of the ancient Roman town of Branodunum, and the remains of Roman fortifications are just visible, as a series of ditches, to the east of the village. A walk of a few hundred yards across the sands takes you to the inlet leading to the tiny harbour of Brancaster Staithe. The word “staithe” means a landing place, and at Brancaster the staithe was probably little more than a sandbank with some wooden pilings against which to moor the fishing boats that at one time harvested the abundant shrimp and shellfish beds nearby. Now the channel is too narrow for all but the smallest of pleasure-boats and dinghies, and for the tiny ferryboats that take bird watchers to the nature reserve on Scolt Head island.

 

 
North Norfolk is one of the country’s best-served areas for observing waterfowl. The shallow inlets and the marshland pools which characterise this stretch of coastline make ideal habitats for both native and migrant species. There are several wildfowl reserves, some of them private, such as the one at Stiffkey Fen (Stiffkey is pronounced ‘Stewkey’), but most are open to the public, sometimes for a small fee.

Probably the most numerous visitors are the geese and the terns. Several thousand brent geese set up home on Salthouse Marshes each winter, whilst on Scolt Head island in 2003  the Wetland Bird Survey counted 80,000 pink-footed geese in one roost. Scolt is also temporary home and nursery to three types of tern.
 

Salthouse Flats

Salthouse flats. © Martyn Oliver


 
The mudflats, marshes and reedbeds of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Holme, close to Old Hunstanton, host avocets, lapwings and water pipits (and, incidentally, natterjack toads).

A shingle bank protects the reserves at Salthouse and Cley. As well as the migrant geese, godwit, ruff, redshank and shore lark can be seen on Salthouse’s grazing marshes and saltwater lagoons. But the most exciting ‘find’ along the coast has to be the bittern, almost extinct for the past fifty or more years, but now beginning to be heard again (a shy bird, the bittern is rarely seen) as its deep, almost subsonic ‘boom’ vibrates over the flats at Cley.
 

 
While the Norfolk Coast Path strikes out eastwards here across Deepdale Marsh in the direction of Burnham Overy, the ‘coast’ road begins one of its forays inland soon after the Brancasters, heading towards Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea. On the way is the small town of Burnham Market (‘Burnham Markup’ to non-Burnham locals, a title which attests to the town’s healthy prosperity – and perhaps to the prices in its teashops and antiques galleries). At its heart is the long village green, shaded in summer by leafy trees and crossed by the Goose Beck which, at spring tides and with the wind in the ‘wrong’ direction, tends to overflow and send the Burnham residents hunting for their wellingtons. At the west end of the green stands another St Mary’s, St Mary Westgate, with its fine buttressed flint tower. The tower is unusual in that around its parapet are carved panels which give a kind of visual précis of Biblical history, from Creation to Crucifixion. Photographs displayed inside the church, close to the font, explain and decode the panels.

Holkham is the site of Holkham Hall, home of the Earls of Leicester. The coast road skirts the Hall’s considerable park on the way to the small cluster of houses that is Holkham village, and a wooden gateway gives access to Lady Ann’s Drive – essentially a long and largely empty car park from which to explore the marvel that is Holkham Beach. The path to the beach leads over a boardwalk through fragrant pine woods, and is guarded every few yards by strangely primitive (but extremely effective) beaters, flexible rubber mats attached to strong poles with which to snuff out fires in the thick bed of pine needles.

At the edge of the pine woods the path opens out onto what seems to be the widest vista in England.  In the near distance is a divided horseshoe of dunes, tufted with marram grass and in places fifteen to twenty feet high. Beyond the dunes and across the wide expanse of flat sand is the blue of Holkham Bay. At high tide the beach floods, but to no great depth, and much of the water remains behind as the tide recedes, to be warmed by the sunshine. Better to approach the dunes carrying your shoes. Better still, carry a picnic basket too. The beach is so vast that, even in high summer, it would be easy to believe you shared it with no more than one man and his dog, way over there in the distance.
 

Holkham beach

Marram grass on the dunes at Holkham. © Martyn Oliver


 
Wells-next-the-Sea is the next town along the coast road, and – heading east – a left turn takes you down to the quayside car park. The harbour is dominated by a huge granary, whose wooden gantry, lifted on sturdy supports, is jetted out across the road to the quayside. In the first half of the twentieth century (the granary was built in about 1905, and now consists of luxury flats with amazing views) grain would have been hoisted from here into the holds of the barges and small merchant ships that plied the North Sea.

Walk along the edge of the key later in the day (taking care not to trip over the lines of boys, young and old, fishing for crabs in the shallows) to see the motley fleet of whelk and shrimp boats that works from Wells. A causeway runs beside the shipping channel to the sea and at the end of the causeway is Wells Beach, backed by pine woods and famous for its gaily painted beach huts.

Blakeney is a busy little village dedicated to sailing, although the channel is narrow, shallow and often fugitive. Parking is restricted in the streets between the coast road and the waterside, but there is a free car park on the landward side of the coast road. It is possible to follow the Norfolk Coast Path across Fresh Marshes to the low-water mark, and then turn west over the dunes to Blakeney Point nature reserve. However, it’s not a walk for the timid, especially when the tide turns, and a better use of the Coast Path is to turn east and head towards Cley Mill. Cley (pronounced to rhyme with eye), the next village along the coast, is pretty and well-cared-for. Among its few small shops are a smokehouse, and a pottery whose ware is worth examination. There is also a restaurant which serves a fine (albeit restricted) menu and whose patrons often travel from such great distances that they choose to make a long weekend of it and book themselves into the restaurant’s accommodation.

Just along the road from Cley is Cookie’s Crab Shop, on the Green at Salthouse. Like many of the seafood shops on the coast, Cookie’s appears to be no more than a ramshackle old flintstone hut, with the prices chalked up on a board over the counter. Appearances, of course, are often deceptive! Salthouse Green is the start and the finish of the walk that accompanies this article, and there is nowhere better than Cookie’s to build up your strength before setting out across Walsey Hill, or to rest and recoup after the walk.

 

 
Cookies Crab Shop at Salthouse

Fifty years ago, fisherman Jack Cook hauled his wooden boat onto the Green at Salthouse, hung up his souwester, and opened Cookies Crab Shop. With his wife Elsie he sold mackerel and shellfish, crab sandwiches, mugs of tea and bottles of lemonade from the window at the front of their flint cottage, next to the Post Office on the Green. Their clientele were walkers, birdwatchers, local housewives and the occasional holidaymaker.

Today, Jack’s daughter Sue and her husband, Peter McKnespiey, still run Cookies in much the same simple and straightforward way. To the visitor, little appears to have changed, apart from the addition of a string of fairy lights on Jack’s old boat, and a couple of tables outside from where Sue’s customers can look out across the marshes while they sit and eat their seafood platters. Prices too seem to date back to Jack’s era, though Peter has developed the menu to give a much wider choice.

You could buy your crab salad or your lobster royal from one of the expensive hotel restaurants along the coast. But if I were you’d I’d make for Cookies instead.

 

Past the well-kept gardens, the teashops and the convalescent homes of Sheringham, Cromer is a busy town, built originally around its fishing fleet, but with the advent of the railway from Norwich it became a fashionable holiday resort during the Edwardian era, and now boasts pleasure gardens, a boating lake and a pier. However, unlike many of the coastal towns of North Norfolk, Cromer still has at least the remnants of a fishing industry. The narrow streets around the slipway lead down to the wide sandy beach from where, each morning, tractors tug the crab boats down to the water’s edge in the early hours. Cromer crabs are known for their sweetness, and local fishermen attribute this to the flinty seabed and warm, shallow waters. Both crab and lobster are caught in the traditional way, in crab and lobster pots, but unlike the crabs which find a ready market in and around Cromer itself, most of the lobster catch is sold abroad.

The nearest open harbour is at Great Yarmouth, nearly forty miles away to the south-east, and so Cromer’s two lifeboats give an important service to this stretch of the North Sea (there are two lifeboats at Wells, twenty-five miles to the west, but at low tide it can take as much as twenty minutes to tow them over the sands to where they can be launched). Cromer’s all-weather lifeboat operates from a slipway at the end of the pier, and the second, an inshore lifeboat, is launched from a new slipway on the beach. Our stretch of the North Norfolk coast ends on the clifftops at Cromer. As you stand above the pier and look down, there is a huge compass set into the forecourt pavement in front of the pier, marking some of the important rescues carried out by Cromer lifeboats over the town’s 200-year history as a lifeboat station.

 

The North Norfolk coastline, lying flat and vulnerable between its two buttresses at Hunstanton and Cromer, has always been at the mercy of the sea. Before the arrival of the Dutch engineers in the seventeenth century to drain the Fens, much of East Anglia was under water, if not for the whole year then for a great deal of it. And in the huge storm surge of 1953 much damage was wrought and many lives were lost on the coast. The features that make this stretch of shore so special, the wetlands, the wildlife reserves, the tiny fisheries and the yachting havens, these are the ones whose existence is the most precarious. Let’s hope they don’t have to contend, too, with sea-level rise, the result of man-made global warming. That is surely a battle they would not survive.

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