There are around 550 square miles of West Norfolk and every single one of them has something to surprise, inspire and delight, with stunning nature reserves, Fens waterlands, glorious sandy beaches, the seaside resort of Hunstanton, and country homes including Sandringham, the Royal Family’s rural retreat.
Sandringham House and Gardens.
The historic medieval port of King’s Lynn has a wealth of stunning buildings, heritage museums and attractions. On Purfleet Quay is the splendid 1683 Custom House, described by Pevsner as ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’, and now the tourist office.
Norman Castle Rising.
Just outside King’s Lynn is magnificent Norman Castle Rising, one of the largest and best-preserved keeps in the country, atop huge earthworks. Not far away is Castle Acre, not a castle at all, but extensive ruins of a Norman priory.
One of the most popular visitor attractions in West Norfolk is the Royal Family’s home Sandringham – the house and gardens are open from April to October with the estate grounds and visitor centre open throughout the year. A few miles away is Houghton Hall, built by Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole and renowned for its art shows and installations.
West Norfolk borders the Wash, the UK’s most important estuary for wild birds and a site of international significance. The sheltered mudflats here provide a vast feeding ground for thousands of water birds from as far away as Greenland and Siberia.
The natural coastal landscape is an ideal habitat for many species of wintering wildfowl, summer breeding birds and migrants.
There are numerous nature reserves in the area including RSPB Snettisham and Welney Wetland Centre on the Ouse Washes, home to thousands of wildfowl such as swans, wigeon and pochard who descend on the reserve during the winter months. In summer there are guided walks of this rich Fens area.
King’s Lynn, the capital of West Norfolk, was one of England’s most important cities from the 13th century, and today it is proud of its maritime heritage, with many listed buildings, museums and medieval merchants’ homes along its cobbled streets and beside the atmospheric quays on the River Great Ouse that leads to The Wash and North Sea.
The Custom House at Purfleet.
The focal point of historic King’s Lynn is The Custom House which has a display on the town’s links with the Hanseatic League. Look out for the statue of explorer George Vancouver.
The Holy Trinity Guildhall.
The Georgian Hanse House is one of the country’s most significant historic buildings, True’s Yard Museum is dedicated to the town’s fishing heritage and don’t miss the Holy Trinity Guildhall, the largest and best-preserved medieval guildhall in England, or King’s Lynn Minster. And if you want a step into prehistory, discover the story of Seahenge at Lynn Museum. They are all within a few minutes’ walk from the town centre and the station which has direct regular trains to King’s Cross.
Also make sure you find time to wander the streets, enjoy the multitude of local shops, and stroll around Tuesday and Saturday Market Places.
Hunstanton’s stripy cliffs.
The classic seaside resort of Hunstanton has a large, award-winning, sandy beach with safe, shallow water that provides a vast playground, alongside all the traditional attractions of a great family resort. Here you’ll find some of the best conditions in the country for windsurfing, as well as kite-surfing, land boarding, sailing and water skiing.
Hunstanton’s stunning striped cliffs of Carr stone and red and white chalk rise above the sea to the north of the town. At Old Hunstanton, the original fishing village before the Victorians came by railway, the vast beach provides miles of space to relax and unwind.
As the only west-facing resort on the east coast of Britain, Hunstanton basks in sunshine long into the evening and visitors can enjoy spectacular sunsets from the promenade.
Nearby Heacham has a connection to Native American Pocahontas, whose husband John Rolfe came from the village. It is also home to Norfolk Lavender. It may be best-known from the arid hillsides of Provence, but the aromatic herb has been grown at Caley Mill since 1935 and was originally brought here by the Romans. There are now 90 acres of purple-blue stripes that thrive in the light, sandy soil.
Nearby is Holme-next-the-Sea, the beginning of the Norfolk Coast Path to Cromer, and on a stretch of coast that has tidal marshes and beautiful sandy beaches, including magnificent Brancaster in Norfolk’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
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.
Holme Dunes Nature Reserve.
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 Lynn Museum.
Explore the Fens
Walking in the Fens.
Stretching across several counties and covering around 1 million acres, The Fens are a fascinating ‘natural manscape’, not least in the villages just south and east of King’s Lynn, where you’ll find some of the finest medieval ecclesiastical architecture and art in the UK. The landscape here is unlike any other: endless fields of rich black fertile soil and arable crops, split by drainage ditches and the Great Ouse, Little Ouse, Bedford and Nene rivers.
The Fens were originally low-lying marshlands and wetlands, with drainage work beginning in the 1650s under the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden and finally being completed in the 1820s when the introduction of steam-driven pumps replaced windpumps.
Naturally, there’s a Dutch feel to the reclaimed, low-lying environment, a world away from the inhospitable wilderness of squelching bogs where before a few hardy souls eked a living cutting peat for fuel, making thatch from reeds and existing on fish and wildfowl.
The ‘Cathedral of the Fens’ at Walpole St Peter.
It’s the churches in this area that captivate, their names appearing in village titles. At Terrington St Clement the parish church has the longest nave of any in the country, at Walpole St Peter the church is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Fens’ for its grandeur and fine proportions; in the Wiggenhalls, St Germans, St Mary Magdalen and St Mary the Virgin are well worth visiting, as is St Peter and St Paul at Watlington.
Swan feeding at Welney.
The ancient Anglo Saxon town of Downham Market is just fifteen minutes by train from King’s Lynn and is well-placed to reach the natural attractions of Welney Wetland Reserve on the Ouse Washes, home to thousands of wildfowl such as swans, wigeon and pochard who descend on the reserve during the winter months. In summer there are guided walks of this rich Fens area, and in the winter the spectacular movement of thousands of geese to and from their feeding grounds is an inspiring sight.
The fully-moated Oxburgh Hall, run by the National Trust.
Also nearby are Church Farm at Stow Bardolph, Gooderstone Water Gardens and National Trust Oxburgh Hall. Downham centres on the Market Place, marked by the town’s iconic Victorian clock tower. Weekly markets and crafts and collectables markets are held on Town Square and the market place.