First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The black-backed gull was having a real struggle with its breakfast down on the muddy banks of Blakeney Quay. We stopped to watch it battle a flapping flatfish that kept writhing out of its beak like a monstrous silver tongue. Eventually gull had fish subdued, and we turned our steps seaward along the mile-long creek that nowadays connects Blakeney with the North Sea.
Looking back from the shingly shore at the distant red roofs and flint-and-brick walls of Blakeney, it seemed incredible that the town was once abutted by the sea. The enormous apron of salt and freshwater marshes that has grown through silt deposition along the North Norfolk coast has cut Blakeney off from the sea, but it has also made the former port a wonderful place for birdwatchers and walkers.
Redshank piped nervously among the marsh pools. A flock of dark-bellied brent geese, newly arrived for the winter from northern Russia, scoured the grassy marshes for food. Wigeon in twos and threes went hurrying across the sky with fast wingbeats. Canada and greylag geese sailed in company on a fleet of water. The more we looked, it seemed, the more there was to see.
We turned the corner by the sea, and made for the white cap and sails of the great coastal windmill at Cley-next-the-Sea. Like neighbouring Blakeney, Cley is now separated from the sea by a long mile of marshes. It, too, is entirely charming, a Londoner’s weekend dream with its flint walls, red roofs and narrow, curving street round whose blind corners bus drivers and pedestrians dice with one another. You can get home-made lavender bread and spinach-and-ricotta filo parcels in Cley’s picnic shop – not exactly traditional Norfolk fare, but a good indicator of the change that has come to these delectably pretty villages of the marshes.
We passed under the sails of the windmill and went seaward along the floodwall towards journey’s end at Salthouse. Samphire grew scarlet, green and yellow along the marsh edge. A black brant goose, a rarity in from America, bobbed its white shirt-tail. Pinkfooted geese in long skeins passed across the cloudy sky, and a grey seal swam off the shingle beach with a powerful breaststroke while he checked us over.
Beach pebbles laid a carpet of many colours along the strand: black, white, amber, grey, ochre and jade. Goldfinches jockeyed among yellow-horned poppies whose long seedpods quivered in the wind off the sea. Hundreds of golden plover stood huddled by a pool, close-packed like one wind-ruffled organism. All nature seemed intent on its own business in the marshes, indifferent as to whether we were walking there or not.
Start: Blakeney Quay car park, NR25 7ND (OS ref TG 028441)
Getting there: Coasthopper Bus (Hunstanton-Cromer) – coasthopper.co.uk.
Road – A149 from Hunstanton.
Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 251. Online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): From car park, climb steps and walk seaward along flood bank (‘Norfolk Coast Path’/NCP), following path for 2¾ miles to Cley-next-the-Sea. Follow road through village (take care! Narrow, sharp, blind corners!). In 500m, left (045439, signed) to Cley Windmill. Follow NCP seaward along floodwall to Cley Beach for 1 mile, then right (east) along shingle bank for nearly 2 miles. Opposite Salthouse Church, inland (078444, yellow arrow) to A149 (076437). Left to bus stop/right to Dun Cow PH. Return to Blakeney by Coasthopper Bus.
Lunch: Dun Cow PH, Salthouse (01263-740467, salthouseduncow.com)
Accommodation: Blakeney Hotel, Blakeney Quay, NR25 7NE (01263-740797, blakeney-hotel.co.uk) – really comfortable, classy and obliging.