First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Half of Norfolk seemed to have descended on Hunstanton this glorious afternoon. Corny old tunes blared from the seafront bandstand, chip vinegar scented the breeze, and holidaymakers in their thousands strolled the dusky red sands and revelled in the unbroken blue of the sky.
It feels weird that Hunstanton, a Norfolk coastal resort, faces west rather than east. The town sits on the eastern flank of The Wash, a mighty tidal basin into which drain four great rivers – Nene, Welland, Great Ouse and Witham. Looking seaward from the promenade today we saw long banks of purple sand, scars of red rock, and paddlers far out in the shallows of the receding tide.
The cliffs to the north of Hunstanton are remarkable to behold. They form a striped sandwich of rock, the white of chalk on top separated from the rusty orange carrstone below by a thin crumbly band of red chalky limestone. It looks as though a giant carrot cake with white icing has been neatly sliced and left at the back of the beach.
We walked the sands and clambered among the rounded and thickly barnacled boulders on the beach. At the feet of the cliffs a litter of big chalk slabs showed how unstable and prone to falls the structure is. Stretched out among the rocks we found the cast-iron skeleton of the steam trawler Sheraton, wrecked in 1947, now slowly rusting into dissolution.
The muddy shore was scribbled with wormcasts. A gang of turnstone chicks pattered among them, quite unafraid as we passed. In cracks of the cliffs on the boundary line between red and white, fulmars stared out from their nests with sooty panda eyes.
At Old Hunstanton the cliffs dipped. The orange carrstone disappeared beneath the shoreline, the white chalk followed suit, and a line of sandhills took over the north-eastern march of the coastline. Soon the kaleidoscopic jumble of brilliantly coloured beach tents and swimming costumes filtered out to an empty beach and a dune system rich in birds and flowers.
The coast path ran between dunes and grassy hinterland. Sea holly showed its blue-green prickles, stonecrop pushed up sulphur-yellow stars from fleshy stems. Everything that can withstand salty winds and retain rainwater flourishes here – solid southern marsh orchids and spindly twayblades, deep blue curls of viper’s bugloss and white trumpets of sea campion.
Beyond Holme Dunes we emerged from the sandhills to find the sea suddenly close inshore, a fan of sand spreading beyond an apron of creek-cut saltmarsh to the east. Linnets with rose-coloured breasts flitted among the sea buckthorn bushes, and a reed bunting with white collar and black bill swayed and squeaked on a twig like a tiny impassioned preacher.
We turned inland along a zigzag of flood banks guarding grazing marshes reclaimed from the sea, and made for the red roofs of Thornham across the fields as evening began to close in.
How hard is it? 6½ miles; easy; level walking on beach and coast path
Start: Hunstanton seafront, PE36 5BQ (OS ref TF 672409)
Getting there: Bus – Norfolk Coastliner from Thornham (on A149 Hunstanton-Cromer)
Road – Hunstanton is on A149 between Heacham and Brancaster
Walk (OS Explorer 250): From Hunstanton seafront, turn right along beach (low tide) or Norfolk Coast Path along cliffs, to Old Hunstanton. Continue along Coast Path (waymarked) to Thornham. Opposite Orange Tree Inn (733432), take Norfolk Coastliner bus back to Hunstanton.
Lunch/Accommodation: Orange Tree Inn, Thornham PE36 6LY (01485-512213, theorangetreethornham.co.uk) – excellent village inn, perfectly placed at walk’s end.