The Great Norfolk Walk
Bob Cains

Day 10 - Thornham to Stiffkey

Dunes and Marshes

Summary - Thornham to Stiffkey, Distance 21 miles (33.8kms) , Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 132

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  Day10 - Thornham to Stiffkey
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In the morning I was dropped in Weybourne to pick up the Coast Hopper bus that runs between Sheringham and Hunstanton.  I’d used this service before to pick up the Norfolk Coastal Path as it connects with the Bittern Line (rail) that runs from Norwich to Sheringham.

I stood outside the Ship Inn and looked across the road to Weybourne church with its imposing tower.  At the other end of the church’s knave are the remains of a Saxon tower and Augustinian priory.  This lends the church an unusual appearance and affirms links with the ancient past.  I was mulling on these thoughts of travellers past and present as the Norfolk Green bus appeared making its way around the corner.

The old tower of Weybourne ChurchThe fare was a reasonable £2.30 for the journey to Thornham.  The bus had several travellers on it already, the usual compliment of fellow walkers, birders as well as some older folks chatting merrily about how so and so’s gall-bladder operation had gone, how a new doctor was performing, and who in their circle of friends had died recently, the usual stuff.  With each stop the compliment of passengers varied in size but the topics of conversation remained the same.

The bus offered me an elevated position from which to observe the countryside as it passed by. The landscape hereabouts was formed by the action of glaciers of the last Ice Age when the ice sheet’s boundary lay on North Norfolk forming the Cromer-Holt Ridge.  The ridge runs inland from Weybourne, toward the market town of Holt. Today this is some of the highest terrain in the county at a giddy, in places, 300 feet above sea level.

The bus bowled along the coast road climbing out of Weybourne, up the Muckleburgh Hill past the entrance of the Muckleburgh Collection with its Churchill Tank gate guardian.  Cresting the hill the view opens to give a panorama out over the salt marshes to the defensive shingle sea bank, opposite the village of Salthouse.  I could see the distinct brown line of the bank against the sea, this had been one of my nemeses on the previous walks but today it appeared benign in the early morning sunshine.  Tiny figures were on the bank; a few walkers were making their way along its crest.  The bus descended down to Salthouse then followed the coast road at the foot of the higher ground.

The bus settled into a steady pace along the road passing carefully through the narrow streets of Cley-Next-the-Sea, Blakeney, the beginning of the colonised coast, Chelsea-on-Sea as some call it, to the town of Wells-Next-the-Sea, not yet completely absorbed into the genteel culture spreading along the coast.  This town, once a busy port – the only one on this coast still operating commercially - is quite attractive with Georgian houses and a village green called the Buttlands. Gradually the town has become gentrified its shops, pubs and restaurants becoming sophisticated, even the old warehouse on the dockside has become an estate agents and expensive apartments.  But there remain a few amusement arcades determinedly hanging on for those of us who still prefer the simple joys of the seaside.

The bus continued its route through the town and back out into the countryside, the little old ladies chatted away while I listened in on their conversations as I peered out of the window.  Stopping at Holkham a group of walkers got on the bus.  They were kitted out in impressive hi-tech gear including walking poles, over-sized backpacks and pristine clothing.  Our journey continued and we passed through the ‘Burnhams’, in Nelson, country before finally arriving in Thornham itself.

The from Thornham From Thornham the Norfolk Coastal Path describes an arc inland to the south as there isn’t a public right of way along the marsh edge.  Instead the path climbs out of Thornham along a country road south.  This had always seemed such a long arduous uphill trudge.  The previous experiences had prepared me for this leg and I soon made my way over the crest of the hill and down again to the place where the path turns off the road to the east.

The path plunges into a small wood that cut off the direct sunlight. Having emerged from the wood I blinked in the bright light for a moment before I plodded uphill until I came to a road crossing the path with a couple of dark industrial barns on its far side.  Once over the road I sat down in front of the barns I took my first break of the day and reflected on the previous years’ adventures on this part of the walk. I strolled around to the southern edge of the barns.  I found myself over-looking the rolling countryside undulating away from me to the south until faded into a hazy oblivion, it was beautiful.

Across another road and further along the track I came across a small encampment of tents and travellers’ vehicles at the point where the path turns to the north toward Brancaster.  They’ve been here every time I’ve walked this route.  There were no dogs on the loose this time and I slipped past the empty tents and vehicles.

The Norfolk Coastal Path runs through Brancaster’s centre, past the village church then along the road running over the salt marshes to the beach; and the ubiquitous golf course. The path turns off the road at the edge of the marshes and a raised boardwalk. Many of these were modified to provide elevated views across the marshes through panoramic windows or small towers equipped with telescopes.

Buoy at BrancasterBrancaster seems to have become the very centre of the Chelsea-on-Sea coast, the official title is the Heritage Coast or perhaps that should be the inheritance coast.  However I am surprised by how many of the residents who, undoubtedly, have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on their abodes insist in using the public footpaths as dog toilets.  I scanned the way ahead to detect and avoid the turds. 

Fortunately the turd count wasn’t too high but around a bend in the path scampered one of the culprits; a wiry grey brown dog of terrier stock. This isn’t my favourite breed and I braced myself for lots of yappy snappy behaviour but this fellow ran up to me and started to walk at heel beside me along the path.  Then his owner appeared; a lady of considerable years and substantial girth, not unlike Mrs. Slocomb.  I wished her a ‘Good Morning’, which went ignored and she passed me with wake of an old British man o’ war.  The terrier trotted beside me in the opposite direction.  Then from behind me the disembodied voice of the woman came hurtling through the air, ‘Chardonnay, Chardonnay, come along Chardonnay!’, in a voice that could not be disobeyed I looked down, into the deep brown, imploring eyes of this poor little – male – dog, and said ‘Sorry mate, looks like you’ll have to go home’. Another, more bad tempered, broadside of ‘Chardonnay, Chardonnay, come along Chardonnay!’ smote the air.  He stared back briefly and with a huff turned and trotted back down the path to his mistress.

Further down the path I decided to take a look at the site of the Roman fort of Branodunum; Dalmatian Cavalry were stationed here as part of the Saxon Shore in a vain attempt to keep the English out.  The fort is little more than a raised grassy field but it once had walls 10ft thick with defensive towers and an earthen bank.  I stood at the north western corner entrance to the field reading the information board, imagining the activity that once place in the field and mentally ticked this place off my list of places to visit from my old copy of Discovering Regional Archaeology (Eastern England).

From the fort I followed the line of the path again along the salt marsh edge as it led east along the coast.  I encountered more people here and the majority returned my cheery ‘Good Mornings’, but a few ignored me.  I didn’t partake of the excellent beer and food at the White Horse and pressed on past Burnham Deepdale on to the Deepdale and Norton Marshes.

I could see figures of walkers making their way along the raised bank of the Deepdale flood defences.  The marshes to the north were topped with sea lavender in humps between the meandering muddy grey-brown creeks.  Beyond them lays the dunes of Scott Head Island obscuring the sea.  I was left alone with my thoughts until I encountered an odd fellow walker.  A large woman came walking, a bit unsteadily, toward me.  She was thick set with fat limbs and a torso wrapped in black T-shirt, shorts and a shapeless hat on her head; mounted on her back was a full size rucksack. I gave a cheery ‘Good Morning’, all I got in return was an askance look but then she gave me a gruff ‘Hello’ back and continued on her way.

I continued my plodding progress past the 'Burnhams', of course just inland from here is Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of Horatio Nelson.  His father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson, was the rector of All Saints church in the village; Nelson's mother, Catherine Suckling was grand-niece of Sir Robert Walpole, the first de facto Prime Minister.  It was partly through these familial connections that led to Horatio taking a career at sea and becoming one of Britain's greatest military leaders.  Undoubtedly, the young Horatio would have known the countryside hereabouts and I took great pleasure in treading such noble paths. 

Eventually the path leads out on to the sand dunes at the western end of Holkham Beach.  I had a sense of accomplishment with this change of terrain so I stood at the foot of the dunes eating a triumphant Mars Bar when the most unlikely group of walkers appear over dunes’ crests.  These people looked like they’d dressed in the sort of clothes one may wear for an evening at the casino or in a cocktail bar rather than a walk along the beach.  The men were wearing blazers over sweaters and slacks with deck shoes; they only were missing the sailors’ hats set at jaunty angle on their heads to complete the image.  The women meanwhile were attired in dresses that wouldn’t have amiss at a cocktail party.  They all wore heavy jewellery and watches that if it hadn’t been so lavish would have appeared vulgar.  Tagging along behind them was a small group of youngsters – in more appropriate clothes – who were obviously reluctantly with the others.  They returned my ‘Hellos’ and asked if they were on the right path to Burnham Overy Staithe, I said that it was and they thanked me.  I couldn’t resist asking where they’d come from and one of the younger guys explained that they had been on a boat off shore and one the older members of the party had suggested that it would be a splendid idea if they all walked into the village across the dunes.  So a precarious ride in a small boat to the beach and a struggle across the sand and dunes had brought them all, at last, to the path and they still had another mile and half walk into Burnham Overy Staithe.  I watched as this unlikely band disappeared down the path.

Paddling my way up the slope of the dunes at their crest I stopped to take in the panorama of Holkham Beach.  The golden dunes gave way to a wide expanse of sand stretching away to the shore edge where the deep blue waves were breaking on to it with small white horses driven by a steady breeze coming in from the east.

Sand Devils on Holkham Beach Descending to the flat sand of the beach I headed out across it to the firmer ground near to the water edge.  The wind sent eddies of airborne sand particles scudding against my boots as if ghostly sand spirits were trying to drive me from the beach.  The sky was bright blue above me washed with streaks of high Cirrus clouds weaving themselves into a confusion of bizarre shapes; here a shape of a daffodil, there a boat and most disturbingly, for an atheist, the face of god, all flowing long hair and beard.  I tried to extract my camera from my pocket to capture the image but before I could it had gone, reforming itself into the shape of tulip; so you’ll have to take my word for it.  I could have followed the line of the Coastal Path through the dunes but the air felt fresher at the sea’s edge and I was able alone with my thoughts.  The wind grew stronger and the abrading sand devils scurried around me and occasionally struck me in the face.  I turned and walked with my back to the wind.  Stretching back, the way I had come, were a set of solitary footprints imprinted in the sand that disappeared into the dunes in the distance.

FootprintsI faced the wind again and realised I’d followed the shoreline too far out and need to head inland to save time.  I wandered across the sand trying to keep to the firmer going while attempting to avoid the Naturists’ section of the beach – I’d upset a couple I’d stumbled upon on my last walk along this section of beach.  In the end I made the decision to cut my losses and head directly across the beach onto the dunes and pick up the path on their far side.  In my efforts to avoid the naturists I managed to get myself lost in the large pine-clad dunes.  These rise to almost forty feet in places and run parallel to the coast across my path.  No matter how I tried to negotiate my way through them I kept finding myself pushed sideways along the length of the dunes rather than perpendicular to them.  Every track ended in a fallen tree, an un-surmountable slope or returned to the seaward side of the dunes.  In the stuffy atmosphere of the woods I became overheated and frustrated so sitting down on a log I took some water, ate some chocolate and collected my thoughts.  My repast done I scrabbled up a slope to the crest of one of the dunes, then down its far side and finally out on to the path proper – at last.  My short-cut had cost me half an hour.

The heat intensified on the landward side of the dunes but I was on familiar territory here and was soon making good time along its flinty surface.  I met a few walkers, again, of senior years then some birders all of whom were very pleasant until I came on a group of three birders in camouflage.  These guys were more hard core than any of the other birders I’d encountered their attire consisted of camouflage hats, waistcoats and trousers.  Slung across their shoulders were heavy duty tripods and each carried a powerful looking bird-watching telescope.  I greeted them cheerily and they responded readily too until one of them spoiled the mood by observing ‘Oh, you’re just a walker’.  I wasn’t surprised as he was a tosser with a pony tail.

Eventually I came to Holkham Gap and diverted left into it to follow the boardwalk through the pine trees to the low dunes overlooking Holkham Beach.  The day was warm enough for families to be encamped on the sand.  Mothers struggled fortuitously to keep travel rugs secured in the rising breeze while kids ran wildly around them.  I reflected on the visits I’d made here as a kid, a mixture of sandy sandwiches, running in the dunes and being told not to get cut off by the tide - always a danger on this coast.

Wells Next the Sea Harbour EntranceBut it was pleasant, walking in the golden sunshine tracing the curved route to Wells-Next-the-Sea, after all I wasn’t struggling over dunes.  Leaving the track at the northern edge of the Pinewoods Holiday Park I stopped at a small ice cream van where I treated myself to a 99.  I made my way through a car park to the flood bank beside the entrance to Wells Harbour.  Atop the bank I was taken aback by the strength of the breeze blowing from the east.  There were lots of people making their way either on top of the bank or on the path beside harbour.  It’s surprising how long it takes to walk the mile or so into the town especially as I’d just covered the best part of seventeen miles.  I arrived at the harbour-side chilled and weary.

Wells still has the sort of traditional sea-side attractions that were the staple of childhood trips to the seaside – arcades, chip shops and candyfloss stalls. Further along the harbour an old warehouse has become the premises of an upmarket estate agent so the process of gentrification is well underway here. I sat outside the Ark Royal pub before contemplating stopping having a pint then catching the Coast Hopper bus back to Weybourne.  I strolled along the harbour road bought a pork pie and a trusty bottle of Lucozade then sat on the harbour wall watching the holiday makers passing by.  Finishing my snack I debated whether to press on to Stiffkey, another three and half miles further to the east, or to quit and catch the bus.  As I turned I caught sight of the Coast Hopper just pulling away from the Ark Royal.  That sealed it, I was walking to Stiffkey.

Stiffkey is about three and quarter miles, by path, from Wells as a sign announced as I passed through a group of sheds on the eastern outskirts of Wells.  Not for the first time I had a pang of anxiety about whether I be able to cover the distance before the Coast Hopper bus arrived at Stiffkey at 17:13, it was now 15:50.

The Elephant at StiffkeyThe next hour was a desperate effort to follow the path between the salt marshes and the higher ground. This should be a pleasant stroll taking in the flat panorama of the marshes, watching the wild fowl and to contemplate the history of the area.

Instead I pressed on with into the breeze, from the east, as it strengthened in the late afternoon.  I made good time on the smooth undulating ground until I arrived at the first Stiffkey bound track.  It was 17:00 that gave me thirteen minutes to get to the bus stop on the A149 coast road.  I arrived at the stop dead on time but wasn’t sure if I’d missed the bus.  The sun had dropped beneath the cloud and I had to squint into the bright evening sunshine as I stood looking west along the road but my view was restricted by a rise in the ground. Suddenly the silhouette of the Coast Hopper appeared over the crest of the hill, much to my relief, I could have jumped for joy.  I boarded it and made the journey back to Weybourne.

Finished 17:00 Miles: 21 Weather: Dry, sunny but very breezy at times. Sun burned on my right side.

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