Feb 272010

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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A brisk southerly wind scoured the North Norfolk coast, smearing livid silvery light between the clouds. The midwinter quiet over Burnham Overy Staithe was broken only by the snap and clink of halyards against hollow aluminium masts. Low-built old houses along the village lanes, barn-like sheds of flint cobbles and tarred brick along the staithe on Overy Creek; the fishwife screech of blackheaded gulls, and the estuarine stink of salt mud.

‘A land that is thirstier than ruin;

A sea that is hungrier than death;

Heaped hills that a tree never grew in;

Wide sands where the wave draws breath.’

That was the quotation from Algernon Swinburne’s ‘In the Salt Marshes’ that I found posted on the staithe. Looking seaward to the long ridge of the sandhills and the lines of pinkfooted geese hurrying across the windy sky beyond, I thought how winter seemed caught to perfection exactly here and now.

Burnham Overy Staithe was one of North Norfolk’s string of coastal settlements that prospered until silt choked off their direct access to the open sea. A broad barrier of saltmarsh developed seaward of the little ports, threaded by winding creeks unnavigable by ships of any decent size. Horatio Nelson, born in Burnham Thorpe a topmast hail away, sailed these muddy rivulets as a lad. Nowadays Burnham Overy Staithe sits brooding in its green prison of marshes, as chockfull of salty atmosphere as any sea shanty.

The curleek! of curlews and wistful piping of oystercatchers came up the ebbing Overy Creek. Its fringe of reeds bent in the wind, tossing a million feathery heads together, and the hiss and rustle of the reedbeds followed me out through the piled sand dunes. Hawthorn bushes leaned out of the sandhills, their lichened twigs whistling with wind. Marram grass seethed like a crazy man’s hair. The sand of the dune slacks was full of minuscule snail shells, each whorl scoured to a pale ghost by the rushing sand grains.

Down on the beach the wind forced me along. A girl ran ahead with her dog, making it leap for driftwood, her long black hair streaming. What magnificent good fortune to be out here among the sand dervishes in a good-going gale, lord of a strand half a mile wide, crunching across an epic graveyard of razorshells with the sting of salt and the tang of pine resin in my nostrils.

The pine trees bounded Holkham Meals, the landward margin of the beach, all the way to Wells-next-the-Sea. Beach hut owners were repairing the winter’s ravages with a great clunking of hammers. Wells lay a mile inland, a painter’s dream with its colourful harbour houses and big waterfront granary. The dredger Kari Hege was hard at work clearing the old port’s lifeline of a channel. As I stood idly watching, a dozen brent geese flew low overhead and went barking away towards the sea, intent on their own purposes, utterly oblivious of the works of man.


Start & finish: The Hero PH, Burnham Overy Staithe PE31 8JE (OS ref TF 843442)

Getting there: Coasthopper Bus (www.norfolkgreen.co.uk); A149 from King’s Lynn or Cromer

Walk (6 ½ miles, easy grade, OS Explorer 251): Opposite The Hero PH, turn down lane to quay. Right along coast path (yellow arrows, white National Trail acorns) for 5 miles to Wells-next-the-Sea beach huts (915455). Inland along embankment (‘Norfolk Coast Path’) to Wells-next-the-Sea. Right along B1105 to bus stop.

NB – Online maps, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk

Lunch: Plenty of places in Wells-next-the-Sea; The Hero, Burnham Overy Staithe (01328-738334; www.theheroburnhamovery.co.uk)

Accommodation: Victoria Hotel, Holkham, Norfolk NR23 1RG (01328-711008; www.victoriatatholkham.co.uk) – characterful, cheerful and welcoming

Info: Wells-next-the-Sea TIC (01328-710885); www.visitnorfolk.co.uk; www.ramblers.org.uk

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