We’re at Holme-next-the-Sea on the north Norfolk coast, the starting point for a road trip along what has to be one of Britain’s best stretches of seaside. Weaving through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the 36 miles of A149 coast road from here to Cromer offers an irresistible cocktail of marshy nature reserve, mudflat estuary, sweeping sand, idyllic villages, fresh seafood and characterful towns. It’s the kind of journey that might last a day or – should you fall in love with it – a lifetime; a road trip that would be written into fame and myth if located Stateside and would surely be a magnet for crowds. But here, in early July, it’s still quiet. It all feels wonderfully wild, like we’re standing at the very edge of the world.
Spirits soaring with lungfuls of morning air, we make our way back to the car, crossing sand dunes and passing through waving marram grasses. Where freshwater streams weave their way to the slack seawater, oystercatchers wade and I spot the creamy plumage and long black beak of a little egret, a small white heron. The salty sea vegetable samphire sprouts around our ankles like juicy mini-cactuses. This nutritious and delicious plant is one of the region’s delicacies, found all over the area’s saltmarshes. I pick a bunch and bite into a stem; it tastes like the sea and provides a tangy morning wake-up call for the tongue.
Our next stop, four miles east, is Brancaster and its wide beach, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. This entire sweep of coast is littered with history with many of its mysteries exposed at low tide – such as the remnants of a once-great ancient forest. Inland are wooden henges from the Bronze Age. Further east, at Happisburgh beach, a flint hand-axe dating back 555,000 years was discovered. Brancaster and the neighbouring fishing village of Brancaster Staithe have a more modern ancient history. The Romans built a fort and settlement here, Branodunum, apparently – in part – because of the quality of the seafood.
Today at the water’s edge, little has changed. The sea is out and fishing boats idle on their sides, stranded on the mudflats. Seagulls shriek. There is a tangled stack of crab and lobster pots, and a queue of people at a wooden shack named The Crab Hut. Some are in smart suits – businessmen who clearly prefer crustaceans to corn flakes for a morning bite. “What’s good for breakfast?” I ask the lady behind the counter when it’s my turn. She narrows her eyes and fires back: “The crab.” Well, when in Rome.
Sharing a dressed delight, served in its shell with a dollop of mayonnaise, we’re back in the car and drifting inland to Burnham Market and its impressive street of multi-coloured Georgian houses and neat gardens. This little town appears a quiet corner of old Englishness with its hat shop, deli and swifts screaming through the blue sky. But for anyone interested in sampling more of the stunning sea bounty north Norfolk has to offer, it also has an unmissable fishmonger.
Gurneys fish shop began life as the miniscule Hole in the Wall on the coast road at Brancaster before moving to its genteel village location in the 1990s. Now its brightly painted signboards adorn postcards of the region and it has grown into a place of pilgrimage for fans of lobster, oysters, prawns, crab, mussels and whatever dizzying array of fish has been brought in that day. Stepping into the cool of the shop, I spot sea trout, bream, brill, flounder and a stack of lobsters and ask the guys behind the counter what is it that makes this coast so special for seafood.