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Even first humans delighted in family days out on Norfolk's beaches

Pretty coloured beach huts on the edge of the sand at Wells next the Sea
Colourful beach huts at Wells-next-the-Sea line the miles of sand which sweep through to Holkham and beyond

North Norfolk’s beaches have proved popular for a million years – and they are probably the only beaches in the world which can prove it.

Scientists have found evidence of a family of four rock-pooling on a Norfolk beach between one million and 780,000 years ago – the earliest signs of Pioneer Man outside Africa. These first humans left behind fossilised footprints which palaeontologists found and could chart the family's activity and date their visit to Happisburgh, a village near North Walsham.

Today, North Norfolk’s 90-miles of unspoilt coastline offers something for everyone – sand dunes, salt marsh, tidal creeks, flat open beaches including six with Blue Flags denoting they are clean and safe for swimming, cliffs, rock pools, shingle spits and safe havens for boating and sailing.

The North Norfolk coast is a protected landscape, part of the Norfolk Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and home to globally renowned nature reserves at Snettisham, Titchwell, Holkham and Cley.

These reserves attract birdwatchers and photographers from across the world to some of the UK’s best birdwatching. The migration is spectacular, particularly the vast clouds of waders and skeins of pink-foot geese which fill the autumn skies in their thousands.

Time has stood still along this outstandingly diverse stretch of coast from Hunstanton in the west to Cromer in the east. Without a mile of motorway, Norfolk remains pretty remote and unspoilt. Birdwatchers and the discerning visit all year.

Hunstanton, Norfolk’s only west-facing coastal town, is a traditional and elegant seaside resort with sedate esplanade gardens and a touch of tranquillity. But this is combined with a more lively family resort offering pony rides, amusements, a large sandy beach and a summer season theatre.

Neighbouring Old Hunstanton is a charming village with remarkable red and white striped cliffs offering a backdrop to quiet sand-dunes, rock pools and another beautiful sandy beach.

Holme-next-the-Sea, where the Peddar’s Way joins the Norfolk Coast Path, has one of the most secluded beaches in Norfolk. It has sand-dunes, miles of sandy beach and a remote nature reserve. This is the beach where the famous Seahenge, a 4000 year-old Bronze Age timber circle, was discovered in 1998. Newspapers called it Seahenge as it resembled a mini Stonehenge. But Seahenge was built of wood at a time when the area was saltmarsh. A huge tree stump was found buried upside down surrounded by a circle of 55 oak posts. All were covered in sand or sea.

Seahenge may have been an ancient burial place which survived by being preserved in peat. It was only revealed by storms washing away the sands which covered it. The timber structure was removed by archaeologists for expert preservation and the original tree stump and some of the timber posts are displayed in King’s Lynn museum. A second ‘henge’ was discovered a year or two later and after recording and investigating it thoroughly it was left to the elements to determine its future.

Thornham’s secluded and flat open beach is ideal for birdwatching and walking. It was used by smugglers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Lifeboat Inn is well worth visiting.

Titchwell attracts thousands of birds especially waders and duck. A single group of 140,000 knot was recorded by the warden at its RSPB reserve in 2020. The reserve covers salt and freshwater marsh and reedbeds as far as Brancaster.

Brancaster has one of the UK’s top golf courses and a perfect family beach. Brancaster Staithe is famed for its mussels and oyster beds, sailing, fishing trips and boat tours.

Holkham beach, which stretches to Wells, is so vast and spectacular it was chosen as the setting for the film Shakespeare in Love starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The flat sands cover miles and are part of the 11-mile Holkham National Nature Reserve, the biggest in England.

This beach has been voted the UK’s best beach several times and is a favourite with horses from the Household Cavalry who visit on their annual holiday from London’s official duties.

Wells-next-the-Sea is a bustling seaside resort built around a working harbour and quay. This is good for crab catching. It has a photogenic row of 200 multi-coloured beach huts overlooking a perfect sandy beach.

Stiffkey marshes offer spectacular views of marsh lavender with quiet walks and unexpected relics of its earlier life as a wartime training base and gunnery school.

Morston’s creek, part of the Blakeney National Nature Reserve, is the launch area for seal boats to Blakeney Point – a four mile shingle spit with sand dunes, rare plants and an important breeding ground for sea birds. It is also home to the UK’s largest colony of common and grey seals. The muddy creek offers great walks across salt marsh or Norfolk’s Coast Path.

Blakeney was an important Medieval port before it silted up. Its two-towered church, on the hill above the village, is a link to its maritime past. Blakeney is a perfect spot for crab catching on the quay, coastal walks and attractive flint cottages with pubs, cafes and hotels.

There is a remarkable seven-mile hike from Cley along Blakeney Point’s shingle and sand spit to see seals and nesting terns.

A tractor and fishing boat on the stretch of shingle beach at Cley
Small fishing boats draw up on Cley's shingle beach in the snowy winter of early 2021 (Photo: Matt Bannister)

Cley, with its iconic windmill towering over reedbeds and visible for miles, was another important harbour in the Middle Ages. It was England’s most important trading port and welcomed pilgrims from Europe travelling to the shrine at Walsingham, Europe’s most important religious spot at that time. It has a pottery, art gallery, traditional smokehouse, coffee shops and a huge church.

Just outside the village is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes, its oldest and best known nature reserve. Broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough placed Cley Marshes among the top ten places in the world to see nature.

Weybourne is a great spot for fossil hunting. Its shallow beach has been seen as a likely place to repel invaders since the Danes in the 9th century and more recently a feared invasion by Germans in World War Two.

Sheringham became a resort when the railway arrived in Victorian times. The North Norfolk Railway’s Poppy Line still offers steam train rides to Holt.

West Runton’s cliffs are an internationally recognised spot for fossil hunting. Finds include the West Runton Mammoth, twice the size of an African elephant, and discovered in the 1990s. A rhinoceros skull was found in 2015.

Cromer has a pier, complete with Europe’s last end of the pier theatre, and an intriguing lifeboat museum dedicated to Britain’s most heroic lifeboatman Henry Blogg. It is famous for Cromer crab, caught by the richly-painted fishing boats on the beach, and fish and chips.

The Grade II-listed Cromer Pier pushes out over the sand into the North Sea
The Grade II-listed Cromer pier is home to Cromer Lifeboat Station and the Pavilion Theatre

Getting your tongue round the pronouciation of Happisburgh keeps locals amused. It is pronounced Haze-borough. The village has a 85 ft high, brightly coloured striped working lighthouse towering on the cliffs at Happisburgh.

The cliffs are being eroded by the sea at a rapid rate. But the erosion has exposed the earliest evidence of man in the UK. Fossilised footprints discovered on the beach in 2013 revealed evidence of a family of four people of an early human species from between 1 million and 780,000 years ago – the first known record of early man’s occupation outside Africa. And, scientists think the family of pioneer man or Homo Antecessor was rock-pooling at a time when this stretch of land connected to the Continent.

There is much more to North Norfolk’s beaches than appears at first glance.

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