Britain

On the Norfolk Coast Path: Exploring open beaches and charming villages

Fascinating as Cromer is as a place to explore in its own right, it really pays to venture from the centre and enjoy a stroll along the cliff tops. The town sits at the eastern end of the Norfolk Coast Path, a 47-mile waymarked trail stretching all the way to Hunstanton, so is a popular base for walkers.

The first few miles of the Coast Path were a little disappointing as walkers are forced to hike along busy roads and through caravan parks, which in total must contain hundreds, if not thousands of static units. I’m sure its very pleasant for residents and holidaymakers who live in these homes as they enjoy fine views, but they really do make parts of Britain’s shoreline very unsightly.

But soon the crowds – and the caravans disappear – and along some stretches of my 14 mile walk to Cley-next-the-Sea, considerable periods of time passed before I encountered another soul. The only sounds I heard were the waves crashing on the beach on one side of me and and the hooting of a heritage steam train passing through open fields in the distance on the other. Far away, in the North Sea, I could see sprawling wind farms.

Norfolk is famous for being flat, yet there were a few gentle climbs up cliffs in parts of my walk. The path started off being pretty good at first, but then descended onto a wide open shingle beach so I needed to stop several times to remove stones from my shoes. In other stretches, I walked on marshland protected by a shingle barrier which had hardened ground during my visit but I can imagine gets badly flooded in the winter.

The biggest place of note I came to on my walk from Cromer was the bustling seaside town of Sheringham. It had the usual bucket and spade shops that feature in other resorts, but it didn’t seem as tatty as other places on the coast, such as Cromer. In fact, from my stroll around its main streets, I don’t think I spotted a single empty unit, which is quite remarkable in this day and age.

Sheringham benefits from being the terminus of the train line from Norwich, just eight minutes further on from Cromer. Its beach is one of six in North Norfolk to have Blue Flag status, more than any other district in the country according to a copy of the North Norfolk News I picked up while in the town. There certainly seemed to be plenty of people enjoying the sands, as well as others sitting in their colourful beach huts.

In the aforementioned North Norfolk News edition, I read an article reporting on a 1960s promotional film entitled A Fine Resort which would have been sent to tourist boards and coach operators and has recently been re-discovered. Over the course of 12 minutes, viewers were urged to enjoy “wrinkled cliffs”, “blue sheet of sea”, “air as clear as wine” and “bags and bags of sky”. The beach, promenade and Sheringham Park were all featured.

Far more pleasant than Sheringham in my view however are the some of the little villages along the Coast Path. I stopped in Weybourne, half a mile or so inland from the beach, which boasts a decent-looking pub and a couple of tea rooms. I had a jacket potato for lunch in one, where when I asked if they could add coleslaw as well as cheese was told: “Yes, but we don’t always have it”. Clearly, they thought I was about to become a regular and didn’t want to leave me disappointed in the future!

And then I went for a coffee in the other tearoom within the enterprising village stores. So many rural shops have become unviable and closed in recent years, yet by bringing together a cafe with good coffees, a wide alcoholic drink selection and deli, Weybourne’s seemed to be thriving. When I first arrived there wasn’t a single table available as a big group of cyclists had called in for a pit stop.

Village store in Weybourne

During the Second World War Weybourne Camp, which is a short walk from the village centre was a training camp and an anti-aircraft firing range. It is now the home of the Muckleborough Collection museum featuring displays of armoured cars and artillery. Visitors can even arrange to book a ride in a tank.

My walk ended at Cley-next-the-Sea, which boasts rows of attractive flint cottages and was definitely the best village I had visited all day. Once a thriving wool port, it now is better known for its tourism and boasts galleries, antique shops, a book store, a popular delicatessen and a highly regarded smokehouse. An 18th century windmill, with its distinctive white sails which can be seen for some distance, is now a B&B and restaurant.

Cley’s full name is misleading in that it is about a mile inland – the former port has been left cut-off by the receding sea – but the walk up the road from the beach is worth it, especially when you reach the George Hotel, which has an excellent beer garden and is regarded as one of the best pubs in East Anglia. It was the perfect place to relax in the sun with a cold drink after a long walk. Cley lies on the edge of Britain’s leading nature reserves, which attracts bitterns, blue tits and a host of other wildfowl.

Happily I did not need to repeat the same walking route that had got me here as I made use of an efficient Coasthopper bus service that got me back to back to Cromer in about 35 mins. The buses, which have wi-fi and USB charging points on-board, zip along the entire length of the Norfolk Coast Path making them extremely popular with walkers.

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