It is not on the way to anywhere, so there is no passing trade. To visit North West Norfolk (NWN) is a decision. Norfolk itself is of course renowned for farming. NWN is renowned for its beauty, big skies, birds, beaches and boats. The Burnhams, particularly Burnham Thorpe, are renowned as the birthplace of Lord Nelson, the national hero hopefully not due for cancellation in the name of wokeness – that would mean a change to the Welcome To Norfolk signs such as on the A10, as well as the names of countless Norfolk pubs.
It is not necessary to be a birdwatcher, a twitcher, to appreciate the birds drawn as if magnetically to NWN, particularly the marshes and protected areas from Snettisham, near Hunstanton, to Cley, just past Blakeney. The migrant geese, such as the pink foot, arrive in their thousands in Autumn, and the sight and sound of their vast flocks in flight, or even small cohorts, are a special NWN experience. The birds’ resting and nesting places, whether migrant or indigenous, are to be respected. The night owl hoot brings a smile. The nature reserves of NWN give it special meaning.
In Summer of course, and at other times, especially school holidays, people come for their holidays, though not many foreign visitors. But NWN does not draw the thousands like Cornwall. There are second homeowners who are largely welcomed not just as a necessity by local people, and especially when they join the community. There are campsites and caravan sites. Hunstanton is a draw for families, but many visitors rent holiday lets. However, along the NWN coast there is not the volume of accommodation, not hundreds of hotels, to cater for too many people. The coastal roads, mostly narrow, get busy but traffic jams are rare in NWN.
The attractions are fairly simple and largely natural. There is a lot of walking to be done. The coastal path, say from Brancaster to Wells, is well used by people going the length or simply covering part – for example Holkham to Burnham Overy Staithe, a few miles of marsh/coastal walking – but it is rarely overcrowded. Cycling is becoming more popular, but the narrow roads make it more perilous than in some other places. The beaches, such as Hunstanton, Holme, Brancaster, Holkham and Wells, provide for an old -fashioned holiday for families. They attract hundreds of people, and on a hot sunny day it is parking that can be the only problem. But there is always plenty of room on the beaches, especially at low tide as it goes out a truly long way, and so social distancing, whether required or simply desirable, is easy. However, it is wise to be prepared for a coastal breeze, or stronger most of the time. And even the mud of the staithes at Brancaster and Burnham Overy provide abandoned messy amusement. Seeing the seals at Blakeney via one of the tour boats from Morston or Blakeney itself is a delight, but of course it can only be done when the height of the tide permits. All coastal activity is regulated not just by the weather but by the tide: a tide timetable, paper or virtual, is a vital accessory, and factoring its implications into a plan is important.
There are boat trips available. A spectacular one is from Brancaster Staithe with Branta Cruises: a boat for 6 people run by Jon Brown will take you around the Staithe into the marshes up to Scolt Head island, which is largely deserted of people and preserved for the birds. The North-facing beach has an uninterrupted “view” of the Arctic, so it is no wonder the wind can be cold. This wonderful 2-3-hour trip, accompanied by Jon Brown’s knowledgeable commentary on geography and wildlife, depends on the tide, and not too much wind.
For children, “crabbing” from the little jetties or launch points at, for example, Thornham, Brancaster Staithe or Burnham Overy Staithe is a simple delight – but not when the tide is out. Baiting a line , often with bacon much loved by NWN crabs, dangling it in the water, hooking crabs of various sizes ( none too big for a six year old ) and then releasing the catch to scurry back to the water’s safety is endless fun and a source for youngsters’ tall “fishing” stories.
Holkham Hall, the home of the Earl of Leicester and his family, is the central country estate of the area. It includes a large working farm, is a wonderful walking spot, with woods, a lake, a deer park, a huge walled garden, and a grand “natural” playground for children; plus for culture and history, a visit to the historic hall, as well as small shops and a café. Holkham beach is part of the estate. Holkham regularly hosts entertainment events, largely music, both indoors and out, as well as fayres, such as for local foods and drink. Its barley feeds the Adnams’ brewery which has a major presence in many drinking outlets, but there are numerous local beers as well. If buildings such as Holkham, and history, are an attraction, every village has a church or more than one, some dating back up to 10 centuries. And “country houses” are a feature of Norfolk. NWN boasts Houghton Hall, which again often hosts art exhibitions, and , Holkham apart, Sandringham itself is on the doorstep, with others such as Felbrigg Hall further afield.
The Summer features a local classical music festival. The Wells Maltings in Wells-Next-Sea is an outstanding modern cultural centre with a theatre/ Cinema, exhibition rooms, a variety of displays and local activities, well worth looking into for entertainment.
For food and drink the local seasonal produce is outstanding. See North West Norfolk – What to eat and where to get it? for more about excellent local seafood, fruits, cheeses, pork and other things. Local roadside stalls are common, selling just picked “allotment” vegetables.
For some people, shopping is a major pursuit: NWN is not generally a place for sophisticated retail. There are many local art galleries and antique shops but, apart from the occasional boutique, “brand” shopping is not a big event. For example, Brancaster Staithe has the “Front Room” art gallery, great for a 15-minute muse and a gem of a picture may be found. The occasional specialist shop, such as the Hat Shop in Burnham Market, can be found and can surprise. Wells has a lovely toy shop, Ele and Me. There are others, but NWN is not a shopper’s paradise. NWN is rather a place for the open air and big skies, superb coastal landscapes, not continuous indoor activity, where a big storm with driving or sheeting rain, thunder and especially lightning on the horizon, can be a most memorable experience, if not one that is wanted every day.
Finally, NWN is not just a Summer place: every season brings a new natural face to the scenery – compare say the Autumn colours with the wildness of Winter – and it is always inspiring. Perfect for an old-fashioned family holiday or a peaceful refreshing long weekend. Just best not to tell too many people.