A Coastal Drive In North Norfolk
Norfolk is for old people. Posh old people to be more precise. All that Norfolk lavender on their doorstep – they can posy till their heart’s content and sleep so soundly for the last decade of their life! A land so flat and water-laden it makes the Dutch weep. And, a place so boring it proudly declares by its own testimony; ‘Norfolk – the most reliable bus service in England.’
It’s at risk of going to seed : when the last OAP trips on his U-shaped toilet rug and can’t quite make it to the emergency pull chord, Norfolk will disappear into the realms of yester-year, and will only be occasionally referenced on Radio 4.
However, there is one very important lady, who has impeccable taste in holiday homes, that has decided Norfolk is good enough for her and her royal family. Granted she’s a little old too but who would argue with the Queen about the quality of her selections. So what does the north Norfolk coastline have going for it and where is worth a visit if you find yourself in this British approved AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty)? I can give you some tips if you like?
A Bit Of Norfolk History
I’m not done with the ‘old’ bit… A team of scientists recently found some of the oldest human footprints ever discovered outside of Africa. On the North Norfolk coast, not far from the little town of Happisburgh, sea tides exposed the prints in ancient mud which became evidence of the oldest known humans in Northern Europe. Less than 2 weeks later the water had washed them away again. It seems to me that anything significant that has ever happened to Norfolk has followed in the same fate – shreds of evidence of a bygone age just washed away, whether that be by the tides of life or in fact the brutal waters that are claiming 2 metres of coastline every year. I mean, in 1984 The Krankies performed at The Pavilion on Cromer Pier and it’s like the world has just forgotten, as if it never happened. Tragic.
A bit later on in history, under the rule of the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries, Norfolk was the most densely populated county in all of England and the most agriculturally productive too – a definite contrast to the small-village-speckled landscape that now exists.
Fast forward almost to our day and Norfolk became the talk of the town in London when a certain journalist of the 1880’s, Mr Clement Scott, exhumed the beauty of a little village called Overstrand, near Cromer. Due to his enthusiastic reviews many of his theatrical friends and acquaintances in London high society started to buy land and property there; a place to spend the weekend if you will. Overstrand actually carried the nickname The Village of Millionaires. I think you’ll find that even today Norfolk attracts the wealthy southerners on weekends and there are still many second homes and holiday apartments filled with Barber and Horse and Hound magazines.
North Norfolks Coastal Towns
So where is worth a visit? What is there to see and do? And, are there any places you really mustn’t miss as you meander your way along the coastal road of North Norfolk? Starting at Overstrand and driving west towards Hunstanton on the A149 you will definitely come across some gems and places worth stretching your legs in.
If it’s a clifftop walk you’re after then Overstrand should be your starting point. Only 1.5 miles to Cromer along the edge with uninterrupted views of arguably one of the best beaches in Norfolk, all the way to Cromer. The village itself deserves a slow amble too, if only to clasp eyes on some commissioned architecture from the days when it was known as the Village of Millionaires. There’s also a clifftop cafe where you can drink your coffee with those amazing views.
Cromer is all about the pier. The town is a mishmash of little streets selling seaside stuff to the masses of tourists each summer, a typically English beach resort with enough bucket’s and spades on sale than will be ever needed for the number of sunny days England sees. The town is also famous for its Cromer Crab and definitely something you should try if you’re partial to a bit of seafood. But oh that pier : In 2015 it was voted Pier of the Year by The Pier’s Society, yes they are a real organisation and yes they take wooden promontory’s very seriously (man, can you imagine their Christmas parties!?) A rare example of Victorian architecture and so, so beautiful. Jutting out into the sea by 140 metres and tipped by one of the most inspiring museums you should come across – the Henry Blogg Museum. What a guy! Henry Blogg saved 873 lives from the perilous North Sea in his 53 years of service to the RNLI. The museum is a collection of stories and photographs from bygone years and many which will bring a lump to your throat. To top off your visit, if you’re lucky enough to catch a lifeboat launch too then you’re quids in. Ice cream on the pier is obligatory but watch those seagulls, and if you’re in town for longer you must check out the Cromer Pier website for dates and times of current shows at the Pavillion Theatre.
The Beeston Bump
You see all you need to see of East and West Runton and Sheringham at 40 mph along the A149, small villages with some fascinating palaeolithic history attached to them but not much in the way of sights and places of interest. However, as you approach Sheringham on your right you may notice it sits at the base of an unusual mound on the landscape, The Beeston Bump. The Beeston Bump is called a kame, a giant molehill formed by retreating glaciers in the ice age. It has served as a Y-station; gathering intelligence in world war 2, but also was the beginnings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The author was on a golfing holiday nearby and was told the old tale of a wolflike creature who lived on Beeston Bump and got its kicks from scaring local folk; and so a novel was born.
The North Norfolk Coast Nature Reserve
As you drive the next 10 miles or so from Sheringham to Blakeney you cover a landscape that is most associated with the North Norfolk coast, that of salt marshes and nature reserves. Through the winter months, these narrow lanes are serene and captivating, broken only by the occasional traditional style windmill (the one in Cley next the Sea was once the family home of James Blunt) or crab shop. Walkers cut their way through the long swaying coastal grasses with binoculars and flasks of tea to the next village pub or crab house. In the summer though the roads can be tricky to navigate; traffic is high and bends are blind – be careful you don’t become too distracted by the views and clip the heels of a saltmarsh sightseer (mind you, one less tourist wouldn’t do the area any harm!)
Blakeney is so perfect those nearby grassy reeds sound like angels singing. But with perfection comes attention and this can turn into nowhere to park your car and drinking your coffee standing up. It’s idyllic and sweet and people come to see Blakeney in droves between May and September, so do yourself a favour and book a cosy bolthole out of season. The streets were built for Instagram; pretty flint fisherman’s cottages and cute little gift shops everywhere, plus there are enough deli’s, pubs and coffee shops to satiate a couple of days in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Walks along the beaches, boat trips to colonies of seals and views for miles across wide-open spaces – it’s no wonder the area has several art galleries to display the wares of artists who just can’t help themselves in these surroundings.
If you are looking for a cosy stay in Norfolk then try The White Horse in Blakeney – a gorgeous gastro pub with rooms. Muted country-style decor and comfy beds with big fluffy pillows and gorgeous little extras.
Wells Next The Sea
Wells sums up every family’s summer holiday in Norfolk. Fish and chips out of newspaper and entertaining the kids for hours with buckets and homemade crab lines off the sea wall. I’m not a massive fan of the town itself; it’s a bit too busy and there’s nothing particularly pretty to feast your eyes upon. In fact, it’s only missing the donkey rides and arcades to compete with Scarborough or Southend. It’s not to be written off completely though when you finally emerge on the vast stretch of sand at the end of Beach Road. Once you’re past the pitch and put and caravan parks a wall of pine trees in a sandy forest stands between you and the sea and is reminiscent of somewhere like Sardinia or Portugal. West Sands beach is a feast for the eyes. Even in the winter months, the car park gets rather full but if you come at low tide there is plenty of room for the world and his dog, and it appears this is exactly who turns up here. You may be treated to a show of seal pups if it’s the right season but other than that it’s the perfect British turnout of summer bathers, in spite of the crowds, framed so nicely with wooden beach huts in all shades of the rainbow. A Where’s Wally beach scene with bells on it!
Although not essentially a coastal town in North Norfolk, Burnham Market must be visited – if only to appreciate the type of wealth which keeps north Norfolk’s high-end gastro pubs and art galleries in business. Middle-aged Landrover lovers with a penchant for hats and Labradors carry wicker baskets on their arm between butcher and baker whilst their car is parked illegally across the drive of a frustrated local. Smiles are frowned upon and apparently, it’s OK to charge £12.50 for a ham and cheese toastie. The stiff upper lip snobbery is more than offset though by the picturesque weekend homes on the village green and their oh so beautiful wooden doors, equilibrium is restored to the universe when 1 sour puss Londoner = 1 nice-looking front door.
If it’s reasonably priced excellent food you’re after, linger not in Burnham Market but carry on your way a little till you reach Brancaster Staithe. Look out for the White Horse on the main road and find yourself a table in their conservatory – never has a glass building been more appreciated than for these epic sea views whilst you tuck into their infamous mussel sharing bowl. Their Sunday Dinner ticks all the right boxes too.
So if you find yourself in East Anglia for the weekend and fancy a drive along the North Norfolk coastline you now know all the places that are worth a little stop. It’s a beautiful stretch of coastline with some dramatic scenery unique to Norfolk, including the traditional flint stonework on the churches and houses and the long views across salt flats out to sea. The basking seals and bird reserves add an element of calm and the unusual mixture of pine trees and salt air have you thinking of the med – go on, it’s time you took a road trip through one of Britains Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
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