The Journey: Summer 19

Norfolk skies

The Norfolk Coastal Path is a treat for walkers, as Ben Lerwill discovers on a hostel-to-hostel hike.

Now here’s a name that deserves an ice cream: Henry L’Estrange Styleman Le Strange. I’m in the seaside resort of Hunstanton, the start-point of the Norfolk Coast Path, and the day is a sunny one. To my right, herring gulls are wheeling over Britain’s largest joke shop. To my left, a statue of a man with a walking cane and enormous mutton-chops is gazing out at sea. A plaque informs me that this is, well, let’s call him Henry Etc., the developer who created Hunstanton in the mid-19th century.

What his title lacks in brevity (I’m not even sure where the Christian names end and the surname begins), his resort town makes up for in location. This is North Norfolk as you imagine it: big skies, gust-blown birds and a coastline yawning off to eternity.

The region might be lacking in mountains and mega-sights, but in its own quiet way it’s as enchanting as Snowdonia, the Lakes or anywhere else you care to unshoulder your backpack.

Henry’s walking cane is apt, too. I have two long days of hiking in front of me, a journey representing the first 41 miles of the Coast Path. It’s a meandering route studded with three evenly spaced hostels: YHA Hunstanton, YHA Wells-next-the-Sea and YHA Sheringham. Looked at on the map, they form the kind of happy dot-to-dot constellation that says “walk me” to anyone who’s ever known the joys of sturdy boots and a waymarked trail. So commanded, I get moving.

Within minutes, Hunstanton vanishes. I’m striding along the beach, scrunching razor-clam shells as oyster-catchers fuss in the shallows. Dunes topped with pale marram grass stretch out under painter-blue skies. I’m heading east with a westerly at my back, a breeze firm enough to stipple the waves but calm enough to make the morning a mellow one. I have sandwiches, apples and almost ten hours of daylight to walk the 22 miles to Sheringham. All told, it’s pretty much the perfect situation.

“Redshanks,” confirms a birdwatcher on the raised earth-bank outside Burnham Overy Staithe, a few hours later. He points at a group of scarlet-legged birds on the saltmarsh. The trail has already led me under windmills, along inland greenways and past the one-time site of ‘Seahenge’, a 4,000-year-old sacred site. Monotonous? Hardly – and the wildlife has been every bit as varied. I’ve seen a migrating white-tailed sea eagle (yes, really), been stared out by a muntjac deer (yes, really) and trained my binoculars on everything from yellowhammers and avocets to lolloping hares.

The earth-bank is one of many along the route – long winding walkways that separate the foreshore and saltmarsh on one side from the grazing fields on the other. They curve out for miles, serving up beautifully meditative walking and phenomenal birdlife. Curlews high-step through creeks, skylarks twitter overhead and lapwings zigzag in the middle distance.

Dominating the afternoon is Holkham Beach, a show-stopper of boundless blonde sands and distant pinewood belts. It’s almost laughably beautiful, the kind of beach where even if a dozen film crews rocked up (and they often do) it would still feel empty. Admiral Nelson was born just a few miles from here – “I am a Norfolk man” he once said, “And glory in being so”. His pride was understandable.  

However, by the time Wells-next-the-Sea arrives (disclaimer: it’s not actually next-the-sea, but on a pretty quay a mile inland), I’m fatigued and famished. YHA Wells-next-the-Sea, a welcoming red-brick period property, is self-catering, so I treat myself to fish, chips and mushy peas from Plattens on the quayside then retire to the age-old Bowling Green Inn – seconds from the door of the hostel – for the restorative gifts of locally brewed Woodforde’s Wherry. I sleep well.

By 8.30 the next morning I’m wending east under maritime skies again, passing lonely lobster traps and fishing sheds while skeins of Brent geese scud across the coast. The landscape is flat but far from desolate – the welter of birdsong is everywhere, and the savannah-like spread of gorse and marsh is so broad that at times the sea is rendered almost invisible.

Little coastal settlements come and go. Morston is all seal-watching vessels and the sound of halyards slapping on masts. Cley-next-the-Sea, once a thriving port for grain and spices, is Dutch gables and the slow flap of black-headed gulls. These towns and villages provide small flurries of activity along the route, but fast recede when I walk on. The gentle, airy topography of the North Norfolk seaboard means the scenery soon swallows you up.

Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking the coastal path represents a stroll. Walking hostel to hostel like this, covering an average of 20 miles a day, is a glorious but sapping hike, something hammered home when I reach the 4-mile stretch of shingle beach that heralds the arrival on the horizon of Sheringham. It’s a cracking beach, but the trudge-trudge-trudge seems to go on forever. When the shingle eventually gives way to soft green cliffs, which in turn usher me into town, I’m a happy man.

I walk past a boating lake and down into the centre. Two kids charge past me into an amusement arcade, heading for the tuppenny slots. A North Norfolk Railway locomotive is steam-puffing its way out of the town station. I arrive at YHA Sheringham in time to shower, fill up on the hostel’s Thai veggie curry and catch its fortnightly open-mic night. The rolling trail of the past two days has wowed me. Which probably – I reflect, as a local strums his way through a bluegrass number – wouldn’t have surprised Henry L’Estrange Styleman Le Strange, 41 miles away across the beaches and the bird-flown marshes.

Coast-hopping

You don’t have to walk to make the most of the North Norfolk coastline. Regular Coasthopper (between Sheringham and Wells-next-the-Sea) and Coastliner (between Wells-next-the-Sea and Hunstanton) buses make getting around a doddle. Don’t miss Holkham Hall, or the seal trips out to Blakeney Point.

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