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Best things to do in North Norfolk

North Norfolk is renowned for its spectacular coastline, fantastic wildlife, miles of glorious beaches, seaside communities and a beautiful hinterland of rolling countryside and picturesque market towns and villages. North Norfolk must be the birdwatching capital of the UK, and you can even take a boat trip to see our seal colony at Blakeney Point.

Holkham beach high tide aerial Mike Page

The huge beach at Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea, regularly voted the best beach in the UK.

You’ll experience 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.

Cromer aerial Mike Page 2

Cromer Pier with its end-of-pier theatre which has shows throughout the year.

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. 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 on West Runton beach, along with a prehistoric flint axe and 850,000 year old human footprints at Happisburgh – the oldest footprints of man found outside the Great Rift Valley in Africa. This area is also the Cromer Forest Bed.

Cromer Museum and church of St Peter and St Paul.

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.

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.

Felbrigg Hall, Estate and walled gardens.

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.

Sheringham Park

Sheringham Park views.

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 heads across Sheringham Golf Course.

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.

Kelling Heath cycle family

There are lovely Quiet Lanes to cycle on the Cromer Ridge at Kelling Heath.

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.

Blakeney Point sailboat sunset

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 village of Blakeney is a delight.

Blakeney Point Seals

Seals on Blakeney Point.

You can take a trip to see the seal colony from Morston quay. There are two trips a day in Summer and one in Winter. Beyond Morston is the village of Stiffkey (pronounced ‘Stookey’), which has access through to the marshes.

Little Walsingham. North Norfolk.

Christian pilgrimage village Little Walsingham.

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 became ‘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.

Pensthorpe Natural Park

Pensthorpe Natural Park. 

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 Natural Park, renowned for its involvement in the BBC’s Springwatch.

Wells-next-the-Sea to Hunstanton

Wells Next The Sea. North Norfolk.

Crabbing at Wells-next-the-Sea harbour.

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!

Panoramic view of cyclists on the Holkham Hall Estate in Norfolk.

Cyclists at Holkham Hall.

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.

Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe, where Horatio Nelson learned to sail. 

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.

Locations in north Norfolk