The Coast With The Most

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.
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A dot appears on the horizon, a smudge moving at speed between the blazing sky and the great stretch of beach. Racing along the water line, throwing up sea into a mist, it resolves into a horse and rider thundering through the surf. From the other direction a Labrador gallops excitedly after some driftwood; then a man arrives, casually strips to his trunks and dives into the waves. It’s hard to imagine a more picture-perfect beginning to a day. 

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.

We’re lucky, geographically,” confides Matt Falvey, the manager, as he lifts a new tray of crabs into place among the ice. “There’s a ridge of chalk out at sea that runs all the way from here to Cromer and it provides the perfect conditions for shellfish, especially the sweet-tasting crabs we get. And you have to try the shrimps. Landed this morning at Brancaster

I do and they’re delicious. I buy a pot of them, as well as some of the house-smoked prawns, and devour both in the sunshine outside.

Fortunately Holkham, five miles along the coast, provides a perfect setting to walk off any mid-morning indulgences. This cute village is dominated by the grand Holkham Hall, a Palladian mansion in its own deer park, built for Thomas Coke – pronounced Cook – 1st Earl of Leicester, and still lived in by his descendants. In contrast to its formal exterior, the hall’s interiors are a treasure trove of lavishness, including a red velvet-lined saloon, Greek and Roman statues and some truly sumptuous bedrooms. Yet for many people it is the estate’s natural treasure – the flawless Holkham beach – that is the greatest draw.

Leaving the village we take the long avenue down to the sea, following the boardwalk into dry, scented pinewoods. Beyond, an enormous sweep of sand stretches off to meet two blocks of blue: water and sky. Paths lead off into the shady woods and secret bird hides, but sweltering in  the heat, we kick off shoes and march over the scorching sand and millions of broken-up razor clam shells to reach the water. Pulling on swimming shorts we run into the sea, floating on our backs in the unexpectedly calm and warm blue of the North Sea.

Thanks to the sun we’re bone-dry by the time we reach the car again and, windows down, we make the five-minute drive to Wells-next-the-Sea. This harbour town is a collision of narrow streets crammed with second-hand bookshops and art galleries leading down to a working fishing port. Like the sandy expanse  of Holkham, its beach is fringed with fragrant pinewoods, as well as having its own iconic coloured beach huts on stilts. Fearing sunburn however, we stick to the shade of the streets and browse the shops, bumping into local celebrity, Roger Law, the famous co-creator of groundbreaking caricature show Spitting Image. Now retired from TV, he is a Wells resident and ceramicist, creating Chinese-style porcelain in beautiful jade-green.
He explains how he grew up an hour away from here and, after leaving London, felt drawn to return. “Spitting Image was a hell of a show to put out as everything on camera was handmade,” he says. “So by the time the series stopped, you were in great need of repair. Norfolk always delivered. It is a magical place. Something about the wild, rising tides keeps you on your toes.” He smiles. “Edward VII used to come down here too… with his ladies. He’d do a lot of shooting, eat toast and honey, drink Champagne and stay at Holkham.” I remark that there must be something in the sea air and he tips me a wink. “D’you know I heard a story that they used to bring back the French dead to this coast, grind them up in a mill and plough it all into the land. Apparently it has an ingredient that helps longevity. And people here live for an awfully long time on those French bones.”

Perhaps more seriously, he points out that birds thrive in the area. And it’s true. You can find exotic species all over the north Norfolk coast. Just east of Wells-next-the-sea is Blakeney – site of the renowned National Trust nature reserve – where populations of feeding and nesting redshanks, waders, terns, widgeons and teal draw legions of twitchers every summer. But with hunger starting to surface again, we hit the road and skirt Blakeney’s wildlife-packed marshes, dunes and shingle spits to pull-up at the tiny hamlet of Salthouse beyond.

Cookie’s Crab Shop isn’t much to look at – a shed beside the road with a scattering of wonky plastic tables and umbrellas – but it is brightened by trellises of pretty pink flowers and views over the saltmarshes. Inside a Portakabin, the menu is permanent-markered on a whiteboard above the fish counter: soups, sandwiches and platters of crab and lobster salad. Don’t be fooled by the word “salad” though or the less-than-inspiring photos beneath, it’s definitely less leaves and more seafood. A whole crab arrives surrounded by smoked fish, prawns, crayfish, shrimps, mussels and whelks, all for £8.50. I have to check my receipt to believe you get so much for so little. And it’s clearly fresh off the boat. Despite a strict “seating for food only” rule that requires everyone at every table to order a main meal, in terms of value, taste and authenticity Cookie’s is pretty unbeatable. Full to bursting, we waddle back to the car and crunch back out onto the road.

The last stretch of A149 to Cromer is a driver’s dream. Winding through the green, thick-hedged lanes and golden wheat fields, the sun begins to sink westward. By the time we park in the Victorian seaside town’s quiet backstreets and drop down to its waterfront, the sea is swelling against the shore. Below us swimmers jump about in the waves with boogie boards, the town’s incredible pier providing a grand backdrop, circled by gulls.

It’s a bastion of a structure, Cromer Pier; a grade II-listed beauty and home of Europe’s last “End of the Pier” show. Leaning on its rail as fisherman cast lines into the water, we look west at dark cliffs silhouetted by the sinking sun, edged by a shimmering silver sea. We could be in Sorrento.

A westward view is a rare sight anywhere on the east of England’s shores. Fortunately our hotel for the night, Best Western Le Strange Arms, back at Holme-next-the-sea, has one of the finest aspects on the coast. We return the quick way from Cromer (via the inland A148) in time to catch a colourful sunset from the hotel’s terrace, which practically sits on the beach.

Like Holkham Hall, this handsome building was once a destination visited by Edward VII. In the hallway there is a menu from one his dinners, involving copious amounts of wine, brandy and some of the area’s amazing produce. (For more on this menu and two recipes to try at home, see  Fit for a king on page 44). It’s heartening that the restaurant is still located in the room where the feasting happened. And in a glass cabinet here’s also a guest register from 1880 to 1940 with some intriguing entries. One from the 1930s describes how difficult a family finds it to leave the area. The writer explains that they ended up staying for four weeks but even then felt like they hadn’t come close to exploring everything. After today, I definitely know the feeling. 

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