North Norfolk coast and countryside
Highlights of North Norfolk
A stunning Palladian hall in beautiful parkland, with many attractions and events throughout the year
Voted the best pier in Britain, and the only one left in Europe with a theatre on its end
North Norfolk Railway
Known as the Poppy Line, ride from seaside Sheringham to the Georgian market town of Holt
Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea beaches
Voted the best beach in Britain, look out for the jaunty row of 200 multi-coloured beach huts
Seals at Blakeney Point
Take a boat trip to see the friendly and inquisitive seals, the largest colony in England
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the coast here has fine sandy beaches, cliffs, and tidal salt marshes and creeks
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Between the lively seaside resort of Hunstanton and the pretty town of Sheringham is a spectacular coastline, most of which is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Here the landscape of tidal marshes, creeks, shingle spits, and sweeping golden beaches is backed by explorable pine woods. It includes the Holkham Hall and Estate, and its beach at Wells-next-the-Sea, consistently voted the best in Britain.
Further to the East is the imperious clifftop setting of Cromer, with its Victorian pier striding proudly out to sea. The coastline then meanders southward to the secluded beaches of Mundesley and Happisburgh, with its striped lighthouse, and inland to the traditional market town of North Walsham.
The magic of North Norfolk is that as the seasons and tides change, it offers completely different qualities and scenery.
The North Norfolk Railway begins at Sheringham and ends at genteel Holt, a fabulously handsome market town which has become a mecca for discerning visitors looking for independent shops. Most of Holt was burned in its famous fire of 1708, and in its place rose a splendid Georgian town focusing on an appealing Market Place.
This is also Deep History Coast, where the biggest and best-preserved mammoth skeleton was found, along with a prehistoric flint axe and 850,000 year old human footprints – the oldest evidence of man found outside the Great Rift Valley in Africa.
Centuries ago Cromer was actually a long way inland, but if North Norfolk's charm is in the fact it retains an air of being timeless, it's actually an area that's been relentlessly shaped and changed by natural elements.
By the 1880s the town was on the coast and with the advent of railways, it became a fashionable attraction for the Victorians and then Edwardians, who built a string of grand hotels on the seafront and a magnificent pier, which has the last end-of-pier show in Europe and was voted 2015 UK Pier of the Year! It's also one of the Seven Wonders of Norfolk.
Cromer is famous for the eponymous and world-famous Cromer Crab – a fresh brown crab which you can find in many establishments throughout the town, in salads, sandwiches, dressed or in their shells. The reason Cromer's crabs are so tender and sweet is that they grow slowly on the chalk reef just off the coast (Yes, really! A reef!).
The town doesn't have a harbour, so the fishing boats are hauled up on to the shingle by the cobblestoned Gangway. Nearby is the Henry Blogg Museum, named after the town's most distinguished lifeboatman.
Above the family-friendly beach, you can explore the town's tight streets, the church of St Peter and St Paul with its wonderful stained glass and 160ft tower (the tallest in Norfolk), and the Cromer Museum where you can learn about the town's fishing, trading and seaside history - or just simply enjoy the peaceful mini-parks and gardens. Oh yes, and the little subject of our amazing Deep History Coast, home to mammoths, hyaenas and lions!
Two miles southwest of Cromer is the Jacobean Felbrigg Hall, run by the National Trust. The lovely limestone and brick façade of the main house has the skilfully carved inscription Gloria Deo in Excelsis, and the parklands are a delight to walk through.
From Cromer's Esplanade you can walk east towards Overstrand, or west to the large beaches of the Runtons (where the biggest and best-preserved mammoth skeleton ever found was discovered by dog walkers), and to the 200ft high Beeston Bump, beyond which is Cromer's sister coastal town of Sheringham, with its easy-going charm and The Mo, an enjoyable museum on the seafront.
Close by is Sheringham Park, laid out by Humphrey Repton, one of England's most celebrated landscape gardeners, whose highlights include the rhododendron garden (best in May and June) and the watch tower and Gazebo which have amazing views over the coast.
The North Norfolk Railway, known locally as 'The Poppy Line', stretches 5 miles between Sheringham and Holt, with stops at Weybourne Heath and Kelling Halt, which gives access to Kelling Heath, a protected parcel of heathland covered with gorse, heather and bracken – and lots of rambling paths.
wells to hunstanton
Wells-next-the-Sea, now about a mile from the sea, was one of the great Tudor ports, having significant trade with the Netherlands. The harbour is still used by sailing boats and crabbers and the quay and narrow streets are a pleasing mix of shops with a friendly welcome for visitors. From the quay is a long road and pedestrian path to a car park and huge beach.
At low-tide here, the sand seems to stretch to the horizon – no wonder the beach from here to nearby Holkham Bay was used in the Gwyneth Paltrow shipwreck ending of the Hollywood film Shakespeare in Love. Behind the long string of candy-coloured beach huts is a pine wood, with some lovely nature walks. You'll notice the beach huts here are stilted, but the fun won’t be! There's a small gauge railway to the harbour.
There is another car park at Lady Anne's Drive on the coast road, which leads directly to the gates of magnificent Holkham Hall, a Palladian dream designed by William Kent for the first Earl of Leicester in the 18th century and which was used in the Keira Knightley film The Duchess. The interior retains much of its original decoration and a must-see are the intricate reliefs of the Marble Hall.
A little further to the west are the Burnhams, including Burnham Overy Staithe, situated next to a silted harbour, Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of England's greatest naval commander, Horatio Nelson, and the picture postcard Burnham Market, often referred to as Chelsea-on-Sea because it has become a magnet for a sophisticated London set and celebrities.
The saltmarshes begin again at Burnham Deepdale, protected from the sea by Scolt Head Island National Nature Reserve, in the care of Natural England. A mixture of dune, shingle, marsh and mudflats, the environment is perfect for birdlife, from migrating wildfowl and breeding terns to waders such as the wigeon, teal, shelduck and curlew.
At Brancaster harbour you will find the National Trust's Millennium Activity Centre, from where you can take guided walks, birdwatching rambles and sailing courses, and there’s more twitching activity at the RSPB's Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve where from the hides you might see avocets, marsh harriers and bearded tits.
After Thornham, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust-run Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve has salt and freshwater marshes, pine woodland and reedbeds which attract waders and migrant wildfowl, as well as nesting birds such as oystercatchers and ringed plover in spring and summer. Snipe, avocet, lapwing and redshank breed on the marshes.
Before the road turns south and heads to Hunstanton, the quiet flint cottage settlement of Holme-next-the-Sea provides the point where the Peddars Way walk ends and the Norfolk Coast Path begins. It was here in 1998 that gales uncovered a prehistoric circle of timber posts. 'Seahenge', as it inevitably became known, can now be seen in the King's Lynn Museum.
cley to fakenham
Golden sand turns to tidal marsh at Salthouse and Cley-next-the-Sea, once a busy wool port and where you can now find the Cley Marshes Nature Reserve, operated by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Go into the visitor centre and from there head out onto saltwater and freshwater marshes, reedbeds and shingle ridge that are reputedly home to the enigmatic bittern. There are some interesting artisan shops and a distinctive windmill in the village itself.
From Cley you can take the hike along a 4-mile shingle and sand spit to Blakeney Point, a nature reserve renowned for its terns and seals. The other, and less strenuous, way to see the seals is to take a boat trip from Blakeney, a delightful village whose port is now silted up, but from where fish, corn and salt was once sent out to the world. It's also the home of the Greasy Pole competition (see film left). Seal trips can also be found at Morston, a mile further along the coast road, where the National Trust runs the quay. Beyond Morston is the village of Stiffkey (pronounced 'Stookey'), which has access through to the marshes.
On the roads inland from here to Fakenham are various attractions, including the substantial remains of Binham Priory, The Thursford Collection, which claims to host the world's largest collection of steam engines and organs, and Little Walsingham, a Christian pilgrimage centre since the 11th century. According to legend Richeldis de Faverches, a lady of Walsingham, felt that Mary the mother of Jesus, 'took her spirit to Nazareth, and requested that a replica of the Holy House at Nazareth be built at Walsingham'. This becomes 'England's Nazareth', a place of prayer and reconciliation and one of Europe's four great pilgrim places in the Middle Ages. The pilgrimage season at Walsingham runs from Easter to the end of October.
Walsingham has a terminus of the Wells & Walshingham Light Railway, said to be the longest 10-and-a-quarter inch narrow-gauge steam railway in the world.
In the Fakenham area you will find a National Hunt Racecourse, with racing from April to December, the Museum of Gas & Local History, the only surviving town gasworks in the country, and Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, renowned for its involvement in the BBC's Springwatch.