Giant dunes and low cliffs on a curving coast of sand
With nothing but low, crumbling cliffs and high-piled sand-dunes to hold back the winter fury of the North Sea, this is one of the most vulnerable stretches of the East Anglian coast. Notices request visitors to keep off the dunes, which are planted with marram grass to stabilise them. Windmills, built originally for drainage, and the lofty towers of medieval churches are the principal landmarks in a flat landscape.
Mundesley (pronounced ‘Munsley’), is a small resort which still has plenty of space between the buildings. The old High Street runs inland, at right-angles to the coast road, and a little way along is Cowper House, a white-painted Georgian house where the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) stayed, both during his boyhood and towards the end of his life. He is said to have been inspired to write the hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way by the sight of a storm breaking over Happisburgh, 5 miles down the coast.
A ramp by the coastguard lookout station leads down to the promenade. The wide sandy beach is good for swimming, and small boats can be launched from the sand in settled conditions.
Just south of Mundesley is Stow Mill, a fine tower mill complete with sails. Some machinery is installed, and there is an exhibition of milling pictures and documents.
The village is famous in literary history as the home of the Paston family, whose ‘Paston Letters’ give a vivid account of life in Norfolk during the troubled times of the Wars of the Roses. A later Paston, Sir William, built the magnificent long thatched barn, dated 1581, which stands beside the road. St Margaret’s Church has a number of Paston monuments, and the remains of 14th-century wall paintings.
Between Paston and Bacton the road runs through acres of gasholders, pipes, control wheels and other gadgetry, all protected by formidable fences. This is the Bacton Natural Gas Terminal, which receives gas through pipelines from the offshore wells.
At the south end of Bacton, on the inland side of the main road, stands the ruined medieval gateway of Bromholm Priory, now a farm. Founded in 1113, Bromholm was famous in the Middle Ages for its possession of a piece of the True Cross, which was said to have the power to cure leprosy and bring the dead back to life. In Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale the miller’s wife calls for help on the tiddly croys of Bromeholm’. More than a century later Mother Shipton, the South Wales prophetess, prophesied that ‘Bacton Abbey shall be a farm’ – a forecast that proved correct,
The beach is sand, protected by groynes and a sloping concrete sea-wall.
WALCOTT AND OSTEND
West of Walcott the road runs for a few hundred yards along the sea-wall, with steps down to the sandy beach. A launching ramp at Walcott Gap is usable only in settled weather.
Walcott runs into the village of Ostend, which has holiday camps, caravan sites, and another ‘gap’ through to the sandy beach. South of Walcott is its huge isolated church of All Saints, the main landmark of the flat countryside round about.
Traditionally the name of this old village is pronounced Hazeborough, but today’s villagers are so often asked about ‘Happy’s burg’ that they are beginning to call it that themselves. However, the dangerous sands, which run parallel with the coast for 9 miles, about 7 miles offshore, are still called Hazeborough Sands.
For centuries the bodies of shipwrecked sailors have been buried in Happisburgh churchyard. The large green mound north of the church is said to be the mass grave of members of the crew of HMS Invincible, wrecked on the sands in 1801 when on her way to join Nelson’s fleet at Copenhagen. The church has a 110 ft tower, perhaps built to serve as a beacon for sailors. Inside the church is a superb 15th-century font, carved with angelic musicians, the four Evangelists, and wild men carrying clubs on their shoulders. On the other side of the village is a lighthouse built in 1791 and strikingly banded in red and white.
The beach is quite separate from the village, with a car park above it. A concrete ramp leads down past the inshore rescue boat hut to a sandy beach, where deep pools may form as the tide comes in. Boats can be launched in settled weather.
ECCLES ON SEA
From Whimpwell Green, a lane leads to Cart Gap and the beach. Cart Gap has the only proper car park between Happisburgh and Sea Palling. The beach is superb, with gently sloping sand protected by zigzag wooden groynes. There is a ramp suitable for small boats, which should be taken out only in settled conditions.
Eccles on Sea is a straggling collection of beach chalets and holiday houses, on either side of an unmade road behind the dunes. The beach can be reached across the dunes at either end of the road, but elsewhere the dunes have been planted with marram grass, and walking on them is forbidden. North Gap, at the south end of Eccles Beach, can be reached by a minor road from Lessingham village.
A lane from the village leads to a concrete ramp over the dunes to the wide, sandy beach; boats can be manhandled on to it and launched at any state of the tide. Swimming is good, but the dunes have been wired off to protect the marram grass. A bronze plaque beside the concrete ramp records the completion in 1959 of 8 miles of sea defences from Happisburgh to Winterton, made necessary after the dunes had been breached during the tidal surges of January 1953.
At Waxham the dunes take on the stature of small hills, and trees are beginning to colonise them – an indication of how vegetation can take hold on the dunes if it is left undisturbed.
Cars may be parked in the lane beside the disused church. At the end of the lane a steep sandy track leads over the dunes to the beach where the sand is soft and deep. By the side of the derelict church is a Tudor wall complete with corner turrets and gatehouse.
The beach can be reached in two places, down rough lanes followed by tracks across the dunes: from Horsey Corner, and from a lane in the village signposted ‘by-road’. Presumably it was along these lanes that smugglers took their contraband to Horsey, where it was loaded on to wherries and taken inland by boat to Norwich. Horsey village is hardly more than a hamlet, with a few houses and the little thatched church of All Saints hidden beneath the trees.
Horsey Mere, just west of the village, is a pretty, 120 acre stretch of water, owned by the National Trust. An offshoot of the Norfolk Broads, it is crowded in summer with small boats which can moor at Horsey staithe, below the fine tower windmill built in 1912 as a drainage mill to pump off surplus water. In 1943 the mill was struck by lightning, and it is being gradually restored. There are wide-ranging views from the gallery at the top, towards the sand-dunes and the sea, and inland across the Broads, dotted with the sails of boats.
The mere is a breeding ground for wildfowl and marsh birds. Nelson is said to have learned to sail there, though it is some 40 miles from Burnham Thorpe, where his father was rector. According to legend, the Romans used to sink the bodies of dead children in the mere, and once a year at midnight it turns into a garden in which all the children can be seen playing together.
From this attractive little village, which is almost 2 miles from the sea, footpaths lead inland to Martham Broad and the quiet water-meadows of the River Thurne. The church of St Mary the Virgin is up a steep lane east of the village; it has a round Norman tower with an octagonal belfry on top, and the remains of 14th-century wall painting in the nave.
In the churchyard is the massive sarcophagus, standing on lion’s paws, of Robert Hales, the ‘Norfolk Giant’. Born in West Somerton in 1820, the son of a local farmer, he grew to 7 ft 8 in. tall, and weighed more than 32 stone. As a young man he toured the country with his sister Mary, who was also over 7 ft tall, and went as far afield as the United States. In the 1850s Hales became licensee of a London pub, was presented to Queen Victoria and was generally popular and successful. He died at Great Yarmouth in 1863.
The entrance to the village is dominated by the enormous tower of Winterton church, 132 ft high. Inside is a reminder of the destructive power of the North Sea – the ‘Fishermen’s corner’, a memorial to all those lost at sea. Almost everything there has been to sea: the cross is made of ships’ timbers, and the items kept there include ropes, an anchor and a ship’s lamp. Fragments from wrecks on the Hazeborough Sands are often washed up on the shore at Winterton. When Daniel Defoe went there in about 1725 he wrote that half of the houses in the village were built of timber from wrecks.
The sea road leads directly down to a wide, sandy beach, where boats can be launched at any state of the tide. To look at, Winterton beach appears like any other on this coast, but prominent notices warn of the danger of drowning between two markers of the beach, and state that children should always be accompanied by an adult while bathing. There are volunteer lifeguards on Sundays in summer. To the north of the beach are high, grassy sand-dunes, part of which is a National Nature Reserve.
Overlooking the beach is a hotel consisting of separate round houses with thatched roofs, modelled on South African rondavels.