Layer-cake cliffs and shining creeks where bird life thrives
Between the striped cliffs of Hunstanton and the broad expanse of Stiffkey Marshes, where cockle-gatherers collect their evening meal, is a coast of flint-walled villages, cut off from the sea by dunes and salt-marshes which are constantly being reshaped as new land is won from the sea. The birds and plants that thrive on the marshes and creeks are protected by an almost continuous line of coastal nature reserves.
This quiet little Victorian resort has two unique features: it is the only seaside town in East Anglia which faces west, and it has about three-quarters of a mile of strange striped cliffs, 60 ft high. Below the cliffs the stone has fallen away in great boulders, and beyond is a splendid sandy beach, where at low tide wave-eroded rocks are exposed, full of little rock pools.
The resort grew up at the end of the 19th century, after the railway reached Hunstanton in 1862. The local landowners were the Le Strange family, who were largely responsible for the town’s development; there are still notices on the beach claiming the Le Stranges’ right to all oysters and mussels taken off the foreshore. As hereditary Lord High Admirals of The Wash, the Le Stranges could claim possession over anything on the beach, or in the sea as far as a man could ride his horse into it at low tide and then throw his spear.
On top of the cliffs are the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, where Edmund, King of the East Angles, is said to have landed in AD 850. A few yards away is a sturdy white-painted lighthouse, no longer in use.
All that is left of the pier is the main building, now an amusement centre; the seaward section beyond the promenade has disappeared. There are two ramps from the promenade to the beach; one, for sailing boats, is just north of the pier; the other, for powerboats, is at the southern end of the promenade. There are powerboat and sailing clubs, and water-ski championships are held. South of the pier the beach is protected by groynes, covered at high tide and marked by baskets on tall poles.
There is fishing from the beach for tope, dab and flounder. Boat trips go to Sea! Island, a sandbank in The Wash where seals bask at low tide.
Half a mile to the north is Old Hunstanton, a village with red-roofed cottages of fishing days, an attractive church and Old Hunstanton Hall, a moated mansion dating back to Tudor times. There is a quiet beach, reached down Sea Lane and across the dunes, or from the clifftop car park off Lighthouse Lane. A hut beside the track houses the inshore rescue boat; the public are sometimes admitted to see the collection of historic photographs and lifeboat relics.
HOLME NEXT THE SEA
Holme is a pretty village at the end of the Peddars Way, a trackway which may date back to pre-Roman times and can be traced inland for 50 miles, through Castle Acre as far as Knettishall in Suffolk, nearThetford. It is now a long-distance footpath.
The beach, dunes leading to sand, can only be reached across Hunstanton’s championship golf links, where notices beside the path warn walkers of the danger from flying golf balls. There is a car park just before the links.
A bumpy 1 mile track runs from the beach road to the Holme Dunes Nature Reserve, administered by the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust. It consists of about 500 acres of sand-dune and salt-marsh, rich in plant and animal life. Plants that grow there include sea bindweed, sea lavender, bee and pyramidal orchids, and sea buckthorn, which flourishes on the dunes. A 1 1/2 mile nature trail starts from the car park.
Adjoining the nature reserve is the Holme Bird Observatory, administered by the Norfolk Ornithologists’ Association. This includes a ringing laboratory and a number of hides. Among the 279 species that have been seen at Holme are 21 species of warblers, wrynecks, hoopoes, ospreys, sooty shearwaters, and the rare collared flycatcher and red-rumped swallow. Entomologists have recorded 363 species of moths on the reserve.
Joint permits for the bird observatory (open daily) and the nature reserve (open most days) are available from either warden.
A track a quarter of a mile west of Titchwell village leads to the car park and information centre of the RSPB’s Titchwell Marsh Reserve, which comprises shingle beach, a reed bed and a marsh. In the 1780s sea-walls were built and the land was reclaimed for agriculture; but the defences were smashed in the tidal surge of January 1953, and the land has reverted to its original state.
Species that can be seen include ringed plovers, bearded reedlings and little terns in summer; Brent geese, waders and shore larks in winter; and many migrants in spring and autumn.
The reserve is open daily; the information centre is open on most days in summer.
Nothing remains of the Roman fortress of Branodunum, built about AD 300 as one of the Forts of the Saxon Shore to defend the coast against marauders from across the North Sea. However, the name lives on -Branoduni castra, the fort of Branodunum, which has been contracted down the centuries to Brancaster.
From the neat village centre, a road runs north for more than 1 mile to Brancaster beach car park behind the dunes. A wooden ramp, suitable for manhandling small boats, leads over the dunes to a wide beach backed by a massive concrete sea-wall. The dunes are planted with marram grass, and protected by coils of barbed wire. Swimmers are warned of ‘swift and very dangerous’ incoming tides; visitors must leave the Wreck sands when the tide begins to flood, as the sands are quickly cut off and later completely covered.
This stretch of coast is administered by the National Trust.
The Romans are said to have started gathering shellfish here, and the industry continues on a very small scale. Nowadays the small harbour is virtually landlocked; at low tide the tide runs out, leaving only a narrow channel between mud banks. Boats can be launched from the hard foreshore within 3 hours of high water, and there is room for parking. The harbourmaster’s permission must be obtained for the use of powerboats.
Small boats take visitors across to Scolt Head Island at certain times, dependent on the tide.
SCOLT HEAD ISLAND
The National Nature Reserve on Scolt Head Island, at the entrance to Brancaster harbour, is owned jointly by the National Trust and the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust, and managed by the Nature Conservancy. A nature reserve since 1923, it is best known for its nesting colonies of common and Sandwich terns, which breed on a 4 acre fernery near the landing place for boats crossing from Brancaster Staithe and Overy Staithe.
A three-quarter-mile nature trail begins near the landing place. It is dangerous to walk across to the island at low tide, and visitors should not do so unless they have local knowledge. During the terns’ breeding season of May, June and July the fernery cannot be entered and dogs are not allowed on the island; at other times of year entry is unrestricted.
Linked to Brancaster Staithe by continuous buildings, Burnham Deepdale is one of the villages known as the ‘Seven Burnhams’ (the others are Burnham Norton, Overy, Sutton, Thorpe, Ulph and Westgate). Its trim little parish church was probably built soon after the Conquest. Inside is one of the church treasures of North Norfolk – a medieval ‘Seasonal Font’, cut from a single block of stone and carved with 12 figures each carrying out a task suitable for the month of the year, such as pruning in April, threshing in September and so on.
Burnham Thorpe, 2 miles inland, is famous as Nelson’s birthplace. The old rectory where he was born in 1758 was pulled down in 1802; but All Saints’ Church, isolated from the village, has the font where he was christened, a crucifix made of wood from the Victory, and a bust of Nelson in the chancel.
BURNHAM OVERY STAITHE
There are extensive views across the saltings to Scolt Head Island from this delightful little sailing village. Boats can be launched from a wide slope of hard sand between 2 hours before and 3 hours after high water. At low tide the sea goes far out, and there are tracks out on the marshes; one of them, called the ‘Cockle Path’, has been restored and leads all the way to Scolt Head. There are boat trips to Scolt Head Island. A plaque on a house by the harbour reads ‘Richard Wood-get, master of the Cutty Sark, lived here 1899-1926, and it would be hard to imagine a better place for the home of a windjammer’s captain. The village has an annual regatta, and there are facilities for windsurfing and boat hire; the bar at the harbour entrance can be dangerous to small craft.
On the A149 just west of the village is a superb restored tower mill which has been converted to a private house and is not open to the public.
Except for the harbour channel leading down to Wells-next-the-Sea, the whole 12 miles of coast between Overy Staithe and Blakeney forms the Holkham National Nature Reserve. Managed by the Nature Conservancy Council in co-operation with the Holkham Estate, it is the largest coastal nature reserve in England, covering almost 10,000 acres of unspoiled dunes, beaches and salt-marshes.
Holkham Gap is reached down the half-mile Lady Ann’s Drive, opposite the main gate of Holkham Hall; there is a car park on the grass verge beside the road. A gate leads into the nature reserve, past pine trees first planted during the second half of the 19th century to stabilise the shifting dunes. The dunes are crossed by a board track, which gives access to the Gap – a half-moon sweep of firm sand with good and safe swimming, though care must be taken, as the tide comes in very fast.
RAKING IN THE ‘BLUES’
As the tide retreats from Stiffkey Marshes a small army of cockle-gatherers strides out with rakes and buckets to collect the local delicacy – the prized cockles known as ‘Stewkey blues’. The pronunciation ‘Stewkey’ for Stiffkey has died out, but is still used to describe the cockles.
FRONTIERS LOST AND WON
IN THE TIMELESS
BATTLE WITH THE SEA
All around the coast of Britain, relentless tides and fast-flowing currents are constantly gnawing at the land, and nowhere are the shores more vulnerable to the attack than along England’s east coast. Mud, sand, clay and shingle are driven by the sea into long ‘desolate strips, and from time to time the tides repossess the land that man has fought to gain over the centuries. The battle against the sea is never ending. It is a struggle that has left villages beneath the waves and ports a mile from the sea in the constant redrawing of battle lines. On some parts of the Suffolk coast, partial victory to the sea has been conceded; from Kessingland in the north to Felixstowe in the south, the advancing waves have gained a quarter of a mile in four centuries. Surviving Aldeburgh is today no more than three streets wide behind its sea-wall, but even so it has fared better than its former neighbour, Slaughden, which is now beneath the sea. Aldeburgh was once at the mouth of the River Aide, but now the river is turned southwards by a massive shingle bank. For 10 miles the river runs parallel to the shore, changing its name to the Ore on the way and finally breaking through the shingle at Orford Haven.
By contrast, on stretches of the north Norfolk coast, from Hunstanton to Cromer, cattle graze on meadows reclaimed from the sea and protected by massive walls of sand and shingle. Beyond the wall the mud creeks and sand spits are at the mercy of the currents. Long spits of sand at Scolt Head and Blakeney Point are constantly changing direction, like wisps of hair caught in a breeze. At high tide the sea sweeps across the salt flats and then retreats, marbling the sands with silvery veins. But man’s grip on the land he has won is tenuous, and from time to time the forces of wind and water combine to break through the barrier. In 1953 a storm surge in the North Sea burst through the sea-wall like a battering ram, and for almost three months the reclaimed land was flooded.
A BATTLE LOST In the space of seven centuries the sea has reduced Dunwich from being a prosperous medieval town to becoming an almost deserted village that keeps a watchful eye on the skies. After the storms in the 14th century that destroyed the port the citizens lost heart, and by Elizabethan times the sea had engulfed much of the town and was advancing unchecked. By the middle of the 18th century most of the town had gone, including its market place, and early in the 20th century All Saints’ Church tumbled over the cliff edge. At very low tides flint rubble from the church may still be seen among the pebbles on the shore.
HOW GROYNES PROTECT THE BEACH
TAMING THE WAVES The build up or erosion of sand and shingle is caused by a dual action of the waves. When a wave breaks on the seashore it sends pebbles and sand towards the land; then as the wave retreats, the backwash or undertow claws them back again. But the power of the wave’s two actions is seldom equal, so that sometimes more sand and shingle is built up than is sucked back, and vice versa.
Where waves are driven ashore obliquely they carry material along the coast and form drifts and spits, which is what has happened at Spurn Head. This movement is arrested by the use of timber groynes or breakwaters. Shingle is swept away from one side of the groyne but trapped by the next groyne, so preventing it from being swept by the waves clear of the beach altogether.
HUMBER SAND SPIT The sand-and-shingle peninsula of Spurn Head , which curves across the mouth of the Humber, is formed from deposits washed from the crumbling cliffs of Holderness a few miles to the north. About every 250 years the sea breaks through the spit and the whole process starts again, with each neiv spit growing slightly west of its predecessor. The earliest record of Spurn dates from about AD 670, when a small monastery was established there. Since then there have been four spits; the present spit started to grow after the latest breakthrough by the sea in 1608. It is still growing, and erosion has been checked by groynes erected in the 1860s.
WAVE-SCULPTED CLIFFS The combined forces of wind and sea mould soft-faced cliffs, such as the chalk heights of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. Storm waves can force air into fissures in the rock with such violence that the rock often bursts asunder, and the alternate soaking and drying out of the cliff face between tides starts a chemical breakdown which enlarges the fissures. Caves are then formed, and blow-holes occur when air is forced up through a cave roof. Where the rocks are soft the sea constantly undercuts the cliff face and landslips occur, sending hundreds of tons of rock into the sea. In some parts of Britain the cliffs may recede at the rate of as much as 6 ft each year.
A BATTLE WON On the north Norfolk coast the first strip of land to be reclaimed from the sea was Ovenj Marshes, bought from Charles I in 1639 by a man named John Parker. He built a sea-wall and then drained the marshes east of it. Parker’s example ions followed by others, and in particular by the Coke family at Holkham. Thomas Coke (1697-1759) re-claimed more salt-marsh from the sea, and his great nephew Thomas William Coke (1754-1842) did much to develop the new land for agriculture. The work was continued by his son, who built a sea-wall at Wells-next-the-Sea. Asa result of the Coke family’s successes, two ports found themselves high and dry; both Wells and Cley next the Sea are nozu a mile from open water. At Wells, a channel through the sea-wall leads to a quay where coastal vessels trade. But at Cley sheep graze today where boats once rode at anchor, and the 18th-century Custom House is the sole reminder that this xvas once a port. ‘TWIXT LAND AND SEA At Blakeney the sea-ivall is a thin green line running out from the town to the shore and dividing reclaimed marshland from salt-marshes and mud-flats. A winding creek provides a haven for small craft.
This vast Palladian mansion, designed by William Kent for Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, was begun in the 1730s and took more than 30 years to complete. It is magnificently furnished and decorated, and contains paintings by Raphael, Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and other masters.
A later Coke, the famous ‘Coke of Norfolk’, changed the face of English farming during the first half of the 19th century. Known as ‘the first farmer in England’, he changed over from rye-growing to wheat-growing, and experimented with improved livestock breeds. Across the park from the house is the monument put up to Coke by his tenants in 1845, three years after his death. More than 100 ft high, it has a carved wheatsheaf on top, and a Devon ox, Southdown sheep, a plough and a seed drill at the corners of the base.
There is a pottery shop with a working pottery attached, a garden centre and a museum of bygones. The house and grounds are open during certain afternoons during the summer.
There are really three parts to Wells, though it is hardly larger than a village – the quayside, the old streets behind it, and the beach area a mile away to the north. The quay is a bustling jumble of cafes, amusement arcades and ships’ chandlers, with a harbourmaster’s office and a few fishing boats to give a nautical flavour. Quayside stalls sell local mussels, dressed crabs, cockles and samphire. The narrow High Street winds downhill to the large parish church of St Nicholas. Nearby is the attractive tree-shaded green called The Buttlands, a grassy rectangle surrounded by dignified Georgian houses.
Access to the beach is either by road, on foot along the sea-wall, or by miniature railway. The main beach faces north and is sandy, but swimmers should avoid the spit of land on which the lifeboat house is built. The safe and dangerous areas are marked on a large plan at the entrance to the beach. Next to the car park is a large boating lagoon, for canoes and dinghies, known as Abraham’s Bosom. There is a tide time indicator in the car park, and a beach lookout sounds a klaxon as the tide begins to turn, warning visitors on Bob Hall’s Sand to return to the main beach or face being cut off by the tide.
The village has a.water-ski club, and a sailing club with its own slipway.
A track opposite the church leads from this straggling village down to Stiffkey Marshes, owned by the National Trust. In July the marshes are coloured with the delicate purple flowers of sea lavender, a plant which is far less noticeable than the land variety, and scentless.