East Norfolk’s empty places

by Martin.Pilkington

Full of history but empty of people, the east Norfolk coast from Yarmouth to Overstrand has beautiful beaches, fantastic seafood and lashings of family appeal

With Burnham Market now Chelsea-by-the-Sea, north Norfolk has become a gentrified version of itself, still beautiful but almost too looked after. It really shouldn’t be easy to find a latte in the countryside. Carry on along the A149 and the county’s east coast offers far more of a contrast with urban life.

Running from Cromer to Great Yarmouth, Norfolk’s east coast still has places that few from outside the county seem to get to. Being a returning exile adds a layer of nostalgia to visits, but also puts rediscoveries into a new light.

The sight of the old trading wherry Albion, complete with traditional black sail, sweeping down Ranworth Broad is one wonderful reminder of Norfolk’s history. But Great Yarmouth, a place that to many means the tacky Golden Mile, with its unforgettable aroma of horse manure and fried onions, hides so much more history. Avoid the shopping centre – except for the cockle stalls on the market – and the front, and explore instead the Nelson links. A pint in the Wrestler’s Inn on Church Plain takes you in his footsteps; discover the house he shared with Emma Hamilton; or take a stroll along the beautifully restored South Quay and visit the Norfolk Nelson Museum, and the Elizabethan House Museum.

Kids love the gruesome stuff, so it’s worth the short walk from there to the Tollhouse Museum, complete with dungeon, and it’s easy to work in one of the remaining Yarmouth Rows, the incredibly narrow streets peculiar to the town. Another child-friendly place is Time and Tide, another short stroll away.

For an aroma a thousand times more enticing than horse muck and burgers, follow your nose along the spit of land on which Yarmouth stands to the South Denes, where there is still a smokehouse producing Yarmouth bloaters, lightly smoked ungutted herrings that sadly, for some unaccountable reason, are mainly appreciated in the Mediterranean these days. These reminders of Yarmouth’s days as a major herring port are fabulous reheated with just bread and butter to accompany them.

Yarmouth and Caister just to the north have excellent beaches, as indeed does the whole east Norfolk coast, but in the summer you can have much more space by heading up to Winterton (where Robinson Crusoe landed on one of his earlier sea-going disasters), Sea Palling, or better still Walcott. My family loves Walcott: it has (maybe) the best chippy in the county, and there is nothing as good as plaice and chips after a walk on the almost always empty sands. On good days you can have staring competitions with curious seals and find sprats driven ashore by hunting mackerel; and if you look very carefully among the pebbles you can find fossils, little black stones with white markings.

The roads north from Yarmouth take you past plenty of windmills, and the National Trust-preserved Horsey Wind Pump is worth a detour. Norfolk is not over-burdened with hills, so places like Horsey Mill or, a bit inland, Ranworth Church tower open up the vista wonderfully, albeit at the expense of the nerves in those with vertigo. The drive along the coast is more relaxing, on small roads with ancient flint-napped churches in unexpected places. It is reasonable to call it motoring rather than driving.

The Broads, or at least those at Hickling, Filby and Ormesby, are 10 minutes’ drive from the shore. Their lush vegetation and fascinating wildlife make a great contrast with the beach. Hickling Broad is the most open of all; the Norfolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve there is a treat for birders and walkers alike. The boardwalk at Hickling allows visitors to get to otherwise totally inaccessible places, and in the summer there is a boat that takes you further still.

Further north along the coast and you come to the picturesque scenery of Poppyland, the villages of Mundesley, Sidestrand and Overstrand. There is something very Edwardian about the district and not just from the architecture, like the Lutyens-designed Pleasaunce in the last named village, one of many elegant homes built in the boom inspired by Clement Scott’s writings.

Families holidaying here (as Churchill did when a child – his father owned Pear Tree Cottage in the village) come to fly kites in the North Sea breeze, to make sandcastles, and to watch the fishing boats bring in their catches – with an eye to buying the freshest and best crabs in the world. It’s time travel the easy way, which maybe should be the motto of the whole of the east Norfolk coast.

Martin.Pilkington

Martin Pilkington is a freelance writer and journalist, writing for a wide variety of magazines and websites including Sailing Today, Harper's Wine and Spirit, Lovefood.com, Hortus, various county magazines, and the wonderful information-britain.com. His particular interests are food and drink writing and travel, with another strand in business journalism. All three of those areas were linked in his previous career as a polyglot sales director in manufacturing industry, being paid to travel the world and eat well. Married to a very supportive wife who didn't faint when he decided to change career in his late forties, a company merger having given him the option, Martin has a teenage son who is still not convinced that what he does now is a proper job. And as it is so much fun, he may be right. Favourite places: France: Normandy, the Dordogne, the Cevennes, Burgundy for the food and wine. He loves the USA having travelled extensively there on business, Indonesia likewise, and the Basque region of Spain where they really know how to eat.