Along the often deserted coast of North Norfolk are some of Britain’s best biggest and most beautiful sandy beaches, punctuated by pretty fishing villages, nature reserves and some excellent hotels
North Norfolk is England as it used to be – or as we fondly imagine it to have been after regular doses of Miss Marple and Heartbeat. There are quiet villages of brick and flint cottages with roses over the door, little creeks and harbours full of wooden sailing boats, and sweeping, dune-backed beaches where the sea seems to stretch to infinity under the great dome of the sky. Looking seaward from the coast road, you see pinewoods, salt marshes and wheeling birds; inland, rolling cornfields and the tips of countless square church towers.
From Burnham Market to Blakeney, the coast is a neon-free zone, barely touched by the 20th century, apart from a rogue amusement arcade at Wells-next-the-Sea and the ranks of 4x4s parked (badly of course) outside holiday cottages and restaurants. This is a place for sailing, walking, painting, bird watching - and, above all, for old-fashioned family beach holidays.
WHAT TO DO
Hit the beach at Holkham for kite-flying, beach games and escaping the crowds, or at Brancaster and Wells for swimming (but be very careful of the strong tides).
Sightsee at Blakeney Harbour. Take a boat trip from Morston Quay with Beans Boats (01263 740505, www.beansboattrips.co.uk) to see the resident seal colony at the harbour mouth. The seals take tourists in their stride and boats can get very close; adults £8, under 14s, £4. Or charter your own skippered sailing boat in Blakeney Harbour through Norfolk Etc (01263 740704, www.norfolketc.co.uk); a boat for up to six costs from £68 for one and a half hours – for an extra charge they’ll provide a dawn picnic breakfast or a dusk supper cruise.
Steam through the countryside on the charming narrow-gauge Wells-Walsingham Light Railway (01328 711630, www.wellswalsinghamrailway.co.uk); return fare £7.50 adult, £6 child.
Mooch around the galleries, chic clothes and interiors shops and delis in the attractive market towns of Burnham Market and Holt; both towns also have good fishmongers selling local Cromer crab.
Walk a section of the Norfolk Coast path. The mile or so from Burnham Overy Staithe to the beach, through saltmarsh and dunes, is a good place to get a feel for the area; or stroll along the beach from Wells to Holkham and back through the pine woods.
WHERE TO STAY
Cley Windmill has six comfortable guest rooms in a converted windmill overlooking the coast and salt marshes in the pretty village of Cley-next-the-Sea. The top room has breathtaking 360-degree views – and very steep stairs to the bathroom. There’s a comfortable sitting room and large garden. Doubles with very good breakfast, from £120 a night. Set menu dinner £27.50.
The Hoste Arms is in a prime position in Burnham Market, one of the prettiest towns in the area, with Georgian houses around a central green. There is a buzzing bar, very good restaurant and comfortable, if slightly overblown, rooms; try to get one overlooking the garden rather than the courtyard parking area. Doubles with breakfast from £104 a night.
Vine House, on the far side of the green, is under the same ownership; it’s quieter and more restrained in style, with a pretty garden; guests eat at the Hoste. Doubles with breakfast from £128 a night.
The Victoria at Holkham is just a short walk from one of the area’s best beaches (remember the closing shots of Shakespeare in Love, which were filmed here?). Décor is Morocco meets Raj; double rooms with breakfast from £120.
The Old Vicarage b&b in the peaceful village of Hindringham (01328 878223) has just two double rooms, but both are large, very comfortably furnished in traditional country house style, and have lovely countryside views. Guests get a warm welcome and Aga-cooked breakfast. Double room with breakfast from £70. Dinner on request.
Norfolk Country Cottages (01603 871 872, www.norfolkcottages.co.uk) has a good choice of self-catering accommodation in the area.
WHERE TO EAT
Morston Hall (01263 741041, www.morstonhall.com), which well deserves its Michelin star, is the only starred restaurant in the area. Dinner is formal with a set no-choice menu at £55. Afternoon tea in the lovely garden (or by the fire in winter) is £15 (booking required for both). It has some lovely bedrooms too.
The White Horse at Brancaster Staithe (01485 210262, www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk) has stupendous sea views from its terrace and large airy bar area, and serves above-average pub food (mains about £8.50, no booking); there is also a good restaurant with the emphasis on locally caught fish (mains average £14).
Wiveton Hall café (01263 740515, www.wivetonhall.co.uk) is a delightful, if slightly whacky, place for an informal meal; it’s Cath Kidston style inside, but with outside tables among pick-your-own strawberry fields overlooking Cley marsh and beach. Open for breakfast, lunch, children’s tea (4-5pm), and early evening tapas on Fridays and Saturdays. Dishes make use of ingredients from the Hall farm; lunch from about £8.
The Bell at Wiveton (www.wivetonbell.co.uk) also has an idyllic location overlooking the church and village green in this tranquil hamlet. Very good pub food (Cromer crab cakes, roast rump of Norfolk lamb with asparagus) from about £14 a head; lunches from £8.