The last ice age, coastal erosion, longshore drift and the activities of man have all had a huge impact on Norfolk’s changing seashore.
Along the 90 miles of coast you’ll be able to witness many dramatic scenes of how the landscape has changed over the last few millennia and earlier into prehistory when Norfolk was the last piece of the British Isles still linked to Continental Europe. Yes, really!
Here our top 10 locations to see why Norfolk’s coast is the most dynamic in the UK…
To see the coast changing right now, go to Happisburgh where tidal surges have taken away huge chunks of cliffs over the last few years – two roads in the village that end at a precipice to the sea are testament to that.
After a tidal surge in 2013, scientists from the Natural History Museum and British Museum saw some recognisable shapes in the low tide estuary mud – after carbon dating and analysis they turned out to be 850,000 year old human footprints, the earliest evidence of man found outside the Great Rift Valley in Africa, where man came from.
Yes, the first tourists ever to come to the UK came to visit Norfolk! And who could blame them.
Stand on the cliffs facing East and imagine that here was the last land link between this country and Europe over which those tourists walked, as little as 6000 years ago.
Enter Cromer on the A140 from Norwich and you’ll come over a brow where the road drops down to a magnificent view of the glistening North Sea. That brow is part of the Cromer Ridge, the highest point in East Anglia. And you thought Norfolk was flat!
Norfolk’s unique landscape is largely down to the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago. The clay soil, chalk and flint are all down to the moving ice sheet and Cromer’s height is down to a terminal moraine, the furthest point of a glacier before it lost momentum and deposited everything it had dredged up from the North Sea, forming new landscapes.
A thousand years ago Cromer (possibly named for ‘Crow Mere’, the lake of crows) was a mile inland and the coastal village was called Shipden-juxta-Felbrigg, which is now hundreds of metres out to sea.
Between Sheringham and Cromer you’ll find East and West Runton – and the Beeston Bump, a circular hill, known as a kame, which is made up sand and gravel deposits from the Ice Age glazier. Head to the top for great views.
Or head down to the beach, and you’ll see the cliffs where in December 1990 after a weather-ravaged night two dog walkers found bones from a mammoth. Excavation revealed the largest and best-preserved mammoth skeleton found in the world – the only bits missing had been nibbled by hyaenas.
How did they know the bones were eaten by hyaenas? Read our Deep History Coast blog to find out and discover more about when this land was more like African savannah.
Scavenge on the beach here and you might find mammoth teeth or paramoudra (known in Norfolk as pot stones), strange-shaped flint stones that resemble doughnuts.
The Runtons are also the best place in Norfolk to go rockpooling.
Stand at the foot of Burgh Castle near Gorleston-on-Sea, look across to the Caister water tower to the north-east and you’ll see the Rivers Yare and Waveney, pastureland and arable land. Now imagine that 2000 years ago, when the Romans built the brick fort, what you see in front of you was a huge 3-mile wide estuary to the open sea and navigable for large boats to go almost 20 miles inland to the town of Venta Icenorum.
Villages here would have been islands and Great Yarmouth, the east coast’s premier seaside resort, didn’t even exist!
From Roman times, a large sand spit began to form across the mouth of the River Yare, the result of longshore drift. It finally became stable enough for people to make dwellings on it, and it was used for the salting and smoking of herring and drying of fishing nets, albeit with tidal breaches.
Yarmouth was mentioned in the Domesday Book but a proper port and a proper harbour’s mouth was still centuries away. Around 1650 Dutch engineer Joas Johnson was consulted over the erection of stone and timber piers on the river Yare which finally secured a single accessible entrance. It took more than a dozen attempts to make the final ‘cut’.
Now established as a port, there was no looking back for Great Yarmouth.
The sands are still shifting though. The building of the outer harbour has established a huge beach at Gorleston-on-Sea, big enough to take 5000 extras for the hit Danny Boyle film Yesterday, and offshore you can Scroby Sands, a constantly shifting sandbank that is home to a seal colony. Boat trips visit during the summer.
Today, The Wash is one of the most important birdwatching areas of the country, not least in the Winter and Spring when more than 400,000 migrating and wading birds congregate here. To see them take off at daybreak from RSPB Snettisham is a spectacular part of Norfolk’s Winter Wildlife Safari.
In medieval times The Wash was uncontrolled and marshes and estuarine mudflats extended through The Fens as far as Peterborough and Cambridge. Vikings used this route to invade East Anglia and Middle England and they established themselves in Cambridge in 875.
In the mid-16th century Dutch engineers began large-scale drainage and coastal reclamation to create rich agricultural land from salt marsh. This work continued until the 1970s and The Wash is now protected by sea defences on its three landward sides.
It was, of course, in The Wash where King John lost the Crown Jewels in 1216, commemorated by a statue in King’s Lynn.
Like Great Yarmouth, Blakeney Point is a sand and shingle spit resulting from longshore drift. It’s also home to the largest seal colony in England, which you can visit by boat.
The 4-mile long spit is still dynamic – between 1886 and 1925 it lengthened westwards by 132 metres and it is gradually moving towards the mainland by about 1 metre a year.
It became Norfolk’s first nature reserve when taken over by the National Trust in 1912, but in medieval times the spit sheltered three important ports linked to the River Glaven – Blakeney, Cley-next-the-Sea and Wiveton. Indeed, Blakeney provided ships for King Edward III’s Siege of Calais in 1347 and 36 ships in 1588 when England was threatened by the Spanish Armada. Between the 14th and 16th centuries it was the only port between Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn to have its own customs officials.
Land reclamation schemes in the 17th century led to the Glaven shipping channel silting up and later the tidal channel to Salthouse marshes, east of Cley-next-the-Sea, which was by now not by the sea.
Packet boats ran from Blakeney to London and Hull in the 19th century until the channel became too small.
Follow the Roman Peddars Way to Holme-next-the-Sea and you’ll see the ancient road disappearing into the marshes. It is possible that in Roman times The Wash was much smaller and that, at low tide, travellers could walk across into what is now Lincolnshire.
In 1998, the shifting sands revealed 54 posts in a circular shape similar to Stonehenge. Scientists decided the construction had been made at the same time, around 2050BC, when this part of Norfolk would have been ancient forest. Then-English Heritage chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens said it was ‘one of the most exciting and enthralling archaeological discoveries of our time’. Inevitably it was named Seahenge.
Today Holme-next-the-Sea is an important nature reserve with a lovely beach.
Holkham and Burnham
Famous now for Holkham Hall and a beach that has been voted the best in Britain by readers of BBC Countryfile magazine, this stretch of coast first consisted of saltmarsh protected by ridges of sand and shingle. Vikings navigated the creeks to establish Holkham as a settlement, but access as a harbour was stopped by reclamation of the marshes from the 17th century.
The 2nd Earl of Leicester planted Corsican, Scots and Maritime pines in the 19th century to prevent sand blowing into the arable fields and to protect the pastureland and fresh water meadows. The 3-mile long length of pinewoods is now an iconic landmark.
Walk west along the beach and you’ll come to the River Burn which leads inland to Burnham Overy Staithe. In the Middle Ages this was a thriving port with trading ships bringing cargo back and forth. Commercial shipping declined with the arrival of the railway in 1866, and the harbour soon became silted. Today, the Staithe is a recreational sailing centre.
The stretch of low-lying coast north of Great Yarmouth was one of the worst affected by the devastating 1953 floods. Further north it is protected by extensive groynes, breakwaters and granite blocks which at nearby Sea Palling have created shallow bays that are perfect for paddling.
But here at Winterton the coast is protected by an extensive system of marram grass-topped sand dunes. The grass has deep roots which prevent sea surges removing sand. Nonetheless, the sea is changing the shape of the seashore, with a new spit slowly being developed that’s now a perfect home for a growing seal colony. For many years a very successful beach cafe operated here but has been abandoned as the sea will soon claim it.