In the mid-1990s, thousands of tonnes of Norwegian granite were dumped in the shallow sea just off Norfolk. Sea defences are usually ugly things, spoiling the shoreline’s natural beauty. These nine “reefs”, however, added a curvaceousness to this coast that has transformed it for the better.
Sand gathered behind the offshore reefs, creating new dunes, new habitat for shore-nesting birds and elegant, sweeping beaches. These beautiful bays of sparkling seawater are perfect for swimming and, when the winds are strong, kite-surfing.
For the past three summers, my family and I have taken the eccentric decision to spend our summer holidays 20 minutes from our home, near Sea Palling on the east Norfolk coast.
The north Norfolk coast is justly celebrated, and hugely gentrified, but the eastern section – more than 30 miles of sandy beaches between Cromer and Great Yarmouth – is overlooked or even derided. When the National Trust surveyed the coast between Winterton and Great Yarmouth in the 1960s to see what was worth protecting from development, its surveyor concluded it was “unworthy of any attempt at protection or redemption … a scene of shacks, chalets, caravans, holiday camps, bingo halls, candyfloss, bicycles-for-two, greyhound racing, stock-cars, etc on a not very attractive stretch of coast, mostly of low cliffs”.
Dunes on this coast saw an uncontrolled building boom of holiday chalets during the first half of the last century, when Britain experienced a domestic holiday spurt comparable to today’s. What’s left of that scene has a retro charm today. North of Winterton, the chalets and caravan parks are less numerous, and duneland nature reserves and sandy beaches at Horsey and Waxham are home to thousands of pupping seals in winter and dark-green fritillary butterflies in summer.
The coast here has a peace and desolation even on the busiest days. We stay in some of the chalets that are scattered behind the dunes north of Sea Palling (Cottage in the dunes costs from £99 a night; Cosy Corner from £103 a night). There are plenty of small campsites, such as Walnut Farm in Waxham or well-sited Sea Breeze (fully booked until September). Inland, there are glamping pods by the gorgeous wild old canal at Tonnage Bridge (from £120 a night).
During the holidays, Sea Palling is a busy little resort with a tiny amusement arcade, pub, fish and chips, caravan parks and rather too many jetskis for my liking. To the north, there’s a pop-up Eco Burrito shack selling Mexican street food. Towards the lost (to the sea) village of Eccles-on-Sea and south to Waxham, the beaches quieten rapidly.
We spend our days digging castles and islands beside the sandy bay and swimming, with little terns diving into the clear water around us, expertly extracting little fish. Almost every time I’ve swum this summer, a curious grey seal has popped its head up to investigate.
A little elevation goes a long way in a flat landscape and I love walking along the tops of the sand dunes, scooped up over the centuries by wind and longshore drift. On one side is the North Sea – an unexpectedly cobalt blue on a good day – and on the other panoramic views across low, green countryside. On a clear day, I’ve counted 12 church towers from the dunes at North Gap, with Cromer lighthouse just visible 15 miles to the north.
Inland from Sea Palling are blackberry bushes galore and hidden green lanes that are nice for walking. There are some decent country pubs: the Ingham Swan offers high-end meals; the Star at Lessingham a tranquil beer garden and pub grub.
The Norfolk Broads are a short bike ride away, with the best of the Broadland nature reserves, Hickling, an easy four miles from Sea Palling on back lanes. Dusk is my favourite time here, when a walk to Stubb Mill, one of dozens of disused wind-pumps, reveals scores of marsh harriers flying down to roost. You might see barn owls too, and huge, charismatic cranes, which were absent from Britain in recent decades until they returned here. Norfolk Wildlife Trust offers an excellent electric boat tour of the reserve (£8pp, currently suspended because of coronavirus). Boat hire (canoes £25 for three hours; motor boat £20/hour) from the nicely old-fashioned Whispering Reeds boatyard is also available.
The east Norfolk coast is overlooked because it is a long drive on bad roads, and because it doesn’t really have an identity. The chalet coast has a nice ring to it; but it is also the changing coast, defined by its fragility. Happisburgh (pronounced “Hays-brugh”) has lost whole streets to drastic erosion in recent decades and the seaside village’s pretty red-and-white-striped lighthouse hasn’t many decades left. As its mud cliffs erode, so new treasures emerge, including the oldest “human” footprints outside Africa – preserved in the mud, a walk from 850,000 years ago. The coast from Cart Gap to West Runton, where a nearly complete woolly mammoth skeleton was discovered, has been branded the “deep history” coast, with an augmented reality app trail and real fossils to find.
Until recently, this coast’s vulnerability made seaside properties cheap. This attracted an interesting mix of new locals – artists, drifters, solitude seekers. But prices have soared recently, which is foolish, because Sea Palling’s defences are already halfway through their predicted 50-year lifespan, and the authorities have previously hinted that defending this coast will not be sustainable in the latter half of this century. With global heating and rising seas, this coast is likely to change dramatically by 2100.
The sea, sand and low land have always shifted here, and when the sea punches through the sand dunes (as it used to), the Norfolk Broads will become saltwater marshes, and freshwater species – and chalets – will sink beneath tidal estuaries. As well as losses, there will be gains, and the ephemerality of these edgelands makes me more determined to appreciate them while we can.