Mark Rowe explores the Norfolk coast, discovering How Hill’s landscapes and wildlife and visiting the coastal towns of Cromer and Sheringham.
The River Ant, I find, is well named. At Ludham bridge to the southwest of the village of Ludham, the waterway meanders hypnotically, introducing me to the reed-fringed twists and turns of the Norfolk Broads. Away in the middle distance, acting as locator beacons, stand a sprinkling of the drainage mills that are such a feature of the Broads. Some have had their sails restored, while others resemble lobotomised daleks.
The Ant navigates a huge loop and passes part of How Hill nature reserve, where bitterns are returning and the keen-eyed may spot otters and water voles. From Easter to autumn you can take the Electric Eel, an Edwardian-style boat, through the reeds and fens and dykes. Nearby is How Hill windmill a former grain mill and now a stunning place to stay.
Interactive video: Highlights of the East Coast of England
The above interactive video is part of a series produced by Greentraveller Media for the Coastal Pass – an initiative created by the National Coastal Tourism Academy (NCTA), which works to improve the visitor experience on the coast and support coastal businesses.
After the solitude of the Broads, the coastal town of Cromer can feel like the bright lights. Art galleries lie in wait with their evocative seascapes and the pier is one of England’s loveliest. You’re not charged for the privilege of stepping foot on it, families fish and dropping lines for crabs over the rails, and at its far end where it would have been easy to build an amusement arcade there’s a lifeboat station.
Overlooking the pier is the superb Henry Blogg lifeboat museum, named for Cromer’s – and the RNLI’s – most decorated lifeboatman. Pride of place is a 1930s lifeboat and I’m halted by the display of 19th-century proto-life jackets (think cork, cork and more cork). The Rocket House cafe on the top floor is great too, though in summer one feels they miss an opportunity by not opening beyond 5pm. A 10-minute walk up behind the museum leads to The Grove tucked away in woodland and its own leafy grounds. It proves a charming hotel, the rooms featuring original fireplaces and 18th-Century sash windows. Dining is outstanding: all meat and fish is sourced locally. Afternoon tea in the conservatory is a delight (warning: the scones may be seriously overloaded with cream).
Next day I decide to walk the four miles to Sheringham – walkers can hug the coastline here thanks to new paths and freshly minted fingerpost signs put in place by the English Coast Path project. My first stop after Cromer is the village of West Runton where a mammoth – twice the size of an African elephant – were exposed on the beach by a storm in 1990. At Woodhill Park caravan site I pass a wildflower meadowd brimming with poppies, lady’s bedstraw and white campion. Come back at dusk, I was told, and I’d spot a barn owl swooping low across the fields.
Beeston Bump, a large hillock that pops out of the gently undulating landscape, comes into view. Although just 63m high, Beeston Bump gives extraordinarily far-reaching views of its low-lying surroundings. The summit is a good place to nail the myth that Norfolk is uniformly flat.
I soon reach Sheringham, Cromer’s neighbour and rival for the seaside tourist shilling. The main attraction lies inland – Sheringham Park, a gracefully landscaped estate with huge monster specimens of rhododendrons that have long since metamorphosed from large shrubs to trees. In places they form low arches, a guard of honour. At the bottom of Sparrow dale I discover a wonderful spring-fed pond, fringed with reeds. There are no fish, so it’s a haven for whirligig beetles and other insects, and in turn something of a banquet for dragonflies, damselflies and bats.
I pass a pleasant hour by taking the scenic railway branch line back to Cromer – and then returning again to Sheringham. It’s a fine evening so I have drink outside the Two Lifeboats pub. As the sun sets, briefly I’m disoriented. Looking out over The Wash I expect to be facing east; instead a stunning burnished glow floods the waters. Thanks to kinks and curves in the north Norfolk coastline, I’m actually looking due west and the vast dimensions of the wash allow the sun in the west to fill the frame with a magical golden light.
The pub has four recently refurbished double rooms, all with views, so you can look the sunrise in the eye too – though Norfolk is a considerable way south of midnight sun territory, it can feel in mid summer as though little more than 40 winks separate nightfall from dawn’s first twitching. In parts of Asia this sort of spectacle draws thousands of guide-book clutching travellers eager to pay homage. On a global scale, the Wash and the North Sea are tiny. The setting and rising sun makes them seem like a vast ocean.