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The Norfolk Coast

The coastline of Norfolk, which is skull-shaped, protrudes into the North Sea  - where it is exposed to the full force of wind and wave. Running for nearly 100 miles, it consists of a wide variety of terrains including: cliffs, beaches, sand dunes, salt-marshes, mudflats, shingle banks and spits. Over the centuries it has inspired countless writers - with its constantly changing light, its unpredictable tides and its bleak beauty. Even today, despite an influx of tourists, it still contains a wild and unspoilt quality.

Overstrand Beach

Overstrand Beach

On its western edge, it begins on the remote mudflats of the Wash - before heading eastwards towards the town of Kings Lynn. Steeped in maritime history, Lynn is one of Norfolk's best kept secrets. Once part of the Hanseatic League it possesses a wealth of historic buildings - most of them clustered around the quayside. In his  poem King's Lynn R.N. Curry invites us to: 'Explore now, as a freak wave might explore/This town that history could have made a city'.

From Lynn the coastline veers northwards along the eastern side of the Wash past the ancient town of Castle Rising and the Queen's favourite retreat at Sandringham to Snettisham - famous for its RSPB reserve. The Manx poet David Callin visited the area and wrote a moving poem called Snettisham which begins:
 

This is the Wash it seems -
a last exhalation
of the dying land, or something
the sea's been working on
for ages: sketching it in,
rubbing it out,
redoing and redoing it,
never satisfied.


At Hunstanton, cliffs appear for the first time - but these are no ordinary cliffs - but strikingly striped ones composed of red and white chalk and carr-stone. L.P. Hartley used them as a backdrop in his novel The Shrimp and the Anemone and in Patrick Hamilton's novel Rope the first chapter opens with George Harvey Bone walking along them. And according to the poet Andrew McDonnell, Hamilton's fictional character is still haunting the town today - see George Harvey Bone.

Striped Cliffs at Hunstanton

Cliffs at Hunstanton

Rounding the north western tip of the county - the cliffs subside - and the sand dunes and beaches of  Holme-next-the-Sea take over. This is a location familiar to the nature writer Patrick Barkham who used to come with his father on family holidays. Together they would search for butterflies - an activity which sparked a life-long interest and ultimately resulted in his book The Butterfly Isles (2010).

Sheltering behind Scolt Head Island lies Brancaster - which was once a Roman settlement. Lord Nelson learnt to sail in the creeks here and the stunning beach inspired both the novelist Angela Huth in Invitation to the Married Life and also the poet John Gallas in his poem Sunrise on Brancaster Beach where he notes: 'The sea looks white,/ like gnawed skin; the wrinkled sand feels cold.'

Burnham Overy Staithe, where the tiny River Burn reaches the sea, has always provided inspiration for the poet and children's writer Kevin Crossley-Holland - particularly in the 25 poems which make up his Waterslain collection where he depicts characters from the village.

Heading along the coast road, we then pass the Holkham estate - with its magnificent Paladian mansion and landscaped parkland. Another spectacular beach here was used by filmmakers in Shakespeare in Love and the wild swimmer Roger Deakin took a dip here and recorded it in his delightful book Waterlog.

Entering the narrow, flint-walled street of Stiffkey - history seems palpable. It was here in 1937 that the writer Henry Williamson tried his hand at farming and recorded the ups and downs in The Story of a Norfolk Farm. While in the county, he also collaborated with Lilias Rider Haggard, the daughter of Henry Rider Haggard, to produce the ever-green Norfolk Life.

Next comes the tiny village of Morston - famous today for its seal tours and fine food. The poet Edwin Brock (who lived at Low Tharston next door to another poet Anthony Thwaite) wrote a beautifully haunting poem called Morston Marshes - which captures the transience of the tides and the isolated beauty of the place.
 

Into this muddy coastline
the North Sea seeps silently
twice a day
under the kestrel's weather eye

in the growing puddles
gulls drill the marsh
for nothing we can see
or screech their territory
like fishwives
from the tops of poles


At Blakeney the famous four-mile long sand spit known as Blakeney Point curves round protecting an area of dunes and salt marshes from the ravages of the North Sea. The town itself was once a wealthy port, but declined when its harbour silted up. The poet Thomas Thornely wrote a fine lament about the loss of its trade entitled Blakeney.

The author Jack Higgins stayed at the Blakeney Hotel in the 1970s while  researching  and writing his WW2 novel The Eagle Has Landed about the assassination of Winston Churchill. He drew on a number of locations - including St Mary's Church at Cley - for his fictional Studley Constable. 

cley windmill

Cley Windmill

The charming village of Cley-next-the-Sea is renowned for its nature reserve, its church and its splendid windmill. Many bird watchers come here and stay at the George Hotel. My own poem Ornithologist hopefully captures something of the spirit of the place.
 

At Salthouse a fragile shingle bank protects the village from flooding - but it is regularly breached - as in 1953 and 2014. The precarious existence of the villagers is captured in a bleak but beautiful poem by John Press entitled Salthouse, Norfolk. The village originally got its name from the salt it produced and exported to the continent.

A short walk along The Quag, past Kelling Hard, brings you to the steep, shingle beach at Weybourne where cliffs suddenly reappear. Composed of sand and gravel deposited by a melting glacier - they offer little resistance against the onslaught of the North Sea. In fact, when John Taylor the Water Poet landed in Cromer in 1622 as part of his Very Merry - Wherry - Ferry Voyage he wrote:
 

It is an ancient market town that stands
Upon a lofty cliff of mouldering sands;
The sea against the cliffs doth daily beat,
And every tide into the land doth eat.'


Cromer has influenced many other writers over the years including Jane Austen who mentions it in Emma and Oscar Wilde who stayed at the Hotel de Paris while working on A Woman of No Importance. The town has inspired a good deal of poetry including George Barker's dramatic On A Friend's Escape from Drowning Off the Norfolk Coast. However, it's greatest claim to fame is probably that Arthur Conan Doyle found inspiration here (at Cromer Hall) for Baskerville Hall in his classic Hound of the Baskervilles adventure.

George Barker was also a regular visitor to nearby Overstrand and used it as a location for his long memorial poem entitled In Memory of David Archer.

The church at Sidestrand holds a secret. Despite appearances, it is not in its original location but was moved back from the cliff edge and rebuilt by the Victorians. However, the original cliff-top graveyard inspired the London theatre critic Clement Scott to compose his The Garden of Sleep. The poem contained the term Poppyland - which has come to describe this whole section of the Norfolk Coast. Scott helped to popularise both Cromer and Sidestrand and other affluent Victorian tourists soon followed including the sea-loving poet A.C. Swinburne.

Mundesley, with its flint and brick cottages, still retains considerable   charm. It was here that the troubled poet William Cowper came in 1795 to seek refuge from his depression and stayed in a house which now bears his name.

Cowper House, Mundesley

At Bacton the cliffs subside - but then reappear for one final time at Happisburgh. Stuck on an exposed section of the coast, Happisburgh has born the brunt of coastal erosion for many years. Despite groynes and rocks and other sea defence schemes large chunks of land have been disappearing. The houses on Beach Road were demolished in 2012 and even the doughty Mrs Nierop-Reading who stayed on finally had to abandon her beloved cliff-top chalet in 2013.

Beyond Happisburgh lies Cart Gap and the lost village of  Eccles-on-Sea. For many years Eccles church tower stood on the beach before finally being washed away by the sea. The village is commemorated by Anthony Thwaite's fine poem Eccles.

Eccles Church Tower

Eccles Church Tower

From Eccles onwards the Norfolk coast is dominated by sand dunes. Held together by marram grass - the dunes provide a barrier of sorts against the sea but are always vulnerable to breaches. The worst of these breaches in recent history occurred in 1953 when the sea burst through at Sea Palling destroying homes, inundating farmland and killing seven people.  Today the sea remains a constant threat to this part of Norfolk:
 

The sea will always triumph
Tomorrow or today
Despite Norwegian rocks here
Will always find a way

For the sea knows no time
Only deepness and cold
No clocks or watches
For the sea is very old


Horsey, with its iconic windmill is another location under threat from the sea. The poet John Betjeman knew Horsey well from boating holidays on the Broads and it features in his East Anglian Bathe where he recalls walking from the staithe, swimming in the sea and Horsey Mere.
 

Oh when the early morning at the seaside
  Took us with hurrying steps from Horsey Mere
To see the whistling bent-grass on the leeside
  And then the tumbled breaker-line appear,


Winterton has always had a reputation as a dangerous place for shipping. The author Daniel Defoe dedicates a long section to it in his A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain and it is off Winterton Ness that  Robinson Crusoe experiences his first shipwreck.



Winterton Ness
 

Beyond Winterton lie the seaside resorts of Hemsby, Scratby and California with their holiday chalets and caravans and amusement arcades. Then comes Caister-on-Sea - where the Paston family had their castle and where in the 15th Century the stout-hearted Margaret Paston saw off an armed raid while her husband was in London.

The last large town on the Norfolk coast is Great Yarmouth. Today, it is a holiday destination - famous for its Pleasure Beach and attractions  - but not so long ago it was a thriving fishing port where herring boats packed the quaysides. And it was the smell of fish which permeated the air when David Copperfield first arrives here - in Charles Dickens' famous autobiographical novel.
 

'When we got into the street (which was strange enough to me), and smelt the fish, and pitch, and oakum, and tar, and saw the sailors walking about, and the carts jangling up and down over the stones, I felt I had done so busy a place an injustice; and said as much to Peggotty, who heard my expressions of delight with great complacency, and told me it was well known (I suppose to those who had the good fortune to be born Bloaters) that Yarmouth was, upon the whole, the finest place in the universe.'

On the other side of the River Yare the coastline arrives at Gorleston - which was once part of Suffolk. From here sandy beaches run next to the promenade and the links course until we reach Hopton and the start of Suffolk proper. Behind us now lies the entire curve of Norfolk - like a 'land of lost content'.

Links:

More Photographs of the Norfolk Coast

Photographs of Coastal Erosion in Norfolk

 

 

 

 

 

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