Size isn’t everything, so the saying goes. Except, we’d argue, when it comes to a beach in high season. It’s often the sheer scale of North Norfolk’s beaches that stops newcomers in their tracks. And the sense of splendid seclusion that comes with it.
Adjectives are easy to summon for more, let’s say, obvious seaside destinations. Rugged; dramatic; spectacular – that’s the Cornish coast to a tee (as is the harassed horde attempting to find a family-size space on the beach come August). Ditto for Devon. Understandably popular, and consequently over-subscribed.
There’s the Med of course, where it’s hotter, but no less crowded in the main. If you’re not into flying or all-day drives (and then some), you might try Brittany. Beautiful though it is, it could also be described as a larger version of Cornwall.
Norfolk is different. It isn’t dramatic. There are no soaring cliffs (unless you count Hunstanton). No precipitous steps down to rocky coves. But there is sand. More of it than you could possibly imagine, stretching endlessly towards the horizon. Standing on Holkham Beach, humbled by its vastness, you understand why they call this ‘big sky country’. There’s something about the abundance of space here that makes you feel alive. And though fellow beachcombers are often distant specs (even in summer), you feel strangely connected to them by the beauty of it all. You suspect they’re in on the secret. Like you, they get Norfolk.
There are also dunes, rising in great sandy crests where the beach begins, made for clambering up and rolling down like big kids (and perfect for secluded picnics). Sea grasses sway gently in the breeze. Behind the dunes, you’ll often find forests of fragrant pine inviting exploration – and providing shade on sunny afternoons. Which brings us to the weather. With gentler terrain comes a kinder climate, so while the West Country is typically hit and miss (those cliffs can be disappointingly drizzly!), Atlantic fronts don’t often make it this far east in summer.
So, having decided on an east coast adventure, with the ideal base to boot (The Harper is minutes from some of the coast’s loveliest stretches – just saying), you’ll be wondering which are the best beaches in Norfolk (indeed, among the best in Britain) for whiling blissful hours away this summer. Wonder no more…
From yachty Blakeney, a jumble of narrow streets and nautical boutiques, pootle westwards along the coast road (AKA the A149). Wells-next-the-Sea is your first stop, but not before a meander through Stiffkey sends you straight to Rightmove (its winding main street is lined with covetable flint and brick cottages, and cute Stiffkey Stores is something of a local legend). Wells beach, through the town (an atmospheric old fishing port) and out the other side, is up there with Britain’s best – as are its fabled beach huts – a step up from most, and not just because they’re on stilts.
This huge sweep of golden sand, fringed by dunes and pine forests, is at once invigorating and relaxing, and you can walk all the way from here to Holkham – arguably the heavyweight of North Norfolk beaches. You’ll likely arrive from Holkham village though, where Lady Anne’s Drive leads through reedy meadows to the Lookout Café (a stylish spot) and onwards along a boardwalk. If there were ever such a thing as a ‘sense of anticipation’ award for the nation’s beaches, Holkham would win hands down. On your eventual arrival, it doesn’t disappoint. The sea itself is a distant blue line, indistinct from the sky when the tide’s out, and the sand seems to stretch for miles, broken only by inviting, paddle-friendly rivulets. The whole, stirring scene is flanked by swathes of pine trees.
Following the coast road west from Holkham, you’ll wind up at Burnham Overy Staithe. From the village, take the footpath along the River Burn, across the saltmarshes and out through towering dunes to Burnham Overy Staithe Beach, another vast stretch of photogenic, pale gold sand. Brancaster, a little further on towards Hunstanton, is also worth the drive (a little over 30 minutes from The Harper). Brancaster Estate is managed by the National Trust, although the car park isn’t, and tends to fill fast. Get here early and spend the day wandering the sands (look out for kite surfers!) or take a salt marsh SUP tour with Northshore in nearby Brancaster Staithe – the network of peaceful tidal creeks here affords hours of paddle-boarding pleasure.
If, for you, nothing says Norfolk like a windmill, step forward Cley-next-the-Sea. A mile or two east from Blakeney, its quiet, shingle beach is dotted with fishing boats and lobster pots. It’s a gentle, 20-minute stroll across the marshes from the mill, and Cley’s uber-quaint quayside.
Perhaps what appeals most about a week or so on the North Norfolk coast is that it’s remote enough (though less than three hours from London) to remain refreshingly, and defiantly, uncommercialised – a haven for outdoorsy aesthetes and independent thinkers. Long may it stay that way.