Sandy Beaches, Seal Colonies and Archaeological Remains – The Norfolk Coastline

This section of the British coastline runs through Norfolk, the northern half of the East Anglia region. The coast is around 145km (90 miles) in length, and includes many features typically found along the British coastal, including fine sandy beaches, salt marshes and rural wooded areas. There are also some cliff sections and seaside resort towns that, along with the natural environment, attract tourists from far and wide to this coastline [1].

Just to the north of the Suffolk-Norfolk border are the two seaside towns of Gorleston-on-Sea and Great Yarmouth. The former is the smaller of the two, with a few restaurants and hotels, whereas the latter contains all of those amenities, plus fun fairs, amusement arcades, Britannia Pier and the Atlantis Tower viewing platform. However, both towns contain a rather extensive sandy beach.

North of Great Yarmouth, the sandy beach continues for many miles past the small coastal villages of Scratby, Hemsby and Winterton-on-Sea. Here, there is a low cliff adjacent to the sea which is rather vulnerable to erosion. However, the beach at Winterton-on-Sea – aptly named ‘Winterton Beach’ – is very open, with a large amount of space between the sea and the large network of sand dunes that provide a barrier between the sea and the land [2]. The beach directly to the north of here – Horsey Beach – has an even more open feel to it, and being well away from the hustle and bustle of seaside towns, this is a particularly wild and unspoilt stretch of beach. With the most extensive dune system in East Anglia – Horsey Warren – backing onto the beach, it definitely feels rather secluded. The beach is also great for seal watching – during the winter months, Horsey Beach is a popular habitat for seals [3].

Moving north-westwards, as we curve around the northern part of East Anglia, the beach maintains its sandiness, passing by the small coastal villages of Sea Palling, Eccles-on-Sea, Happisburgh and Walcott. Although the cliffs are intermittent along the Norfolk Coast, they are rather noticeable at Happisburgh, and stretch up to 10 metres (30 feet) above the waves. The village is located right alongside the soft clay cliffs here, and therefore coastal erosion is a huge problem – with an erosion rate of up to 1 metre (3 feet) per year, within a few decades the entire village could be wiped off the map unless strong sea defences are built and maintained [4]. The cliffs are even higher further north-west along the cliff, particularly at the village of Overstrand. Coastal erosion is also a huge problem here – however, it is impossible to deny that these are rather interesting cliffs to visit. Not only do they slope down towards the sea with several drops, they contain a degree of glacial till within the layers of sand and clay that was deposited during previous Ice Ages, when this area was covered in ice during various intervals over the past 2.4 million years [5].

Just to the west of these cliffs is the popular seaside resort of Cromer. This town is characterised by its old buildings, independent shops, art galleries and restaurants; however, it is also known for its pier [6]. Built in 1901, Cromer pier retains its Edwardian-era theme, and amongst other attractions, includes a theatre at the end of the pier – the only full-season end-of-pier show in the world [7]. To the west of Cromer, the cliffs continue for another few kilometres. The small seaside town of Sheringham is located in a gap between two cliff sections; this settlement contains hotels, restaurants and small shops located on a twisting network of old streets.

The cliffs peter out close to the village of Weybourne. Westwards, the coast is marked by a different type of terrain: around 50km (30 miles) of marshland and sandy beaches without any trace of cliffs. One example of these features is Blakeney National Nature Reserve. This is described by the North Norfolk tourist board as ‘a fantastic spacious landscape with salt marshes, sand and shingle spit, sand dunes and horizons stretching far out to sea’ [8]. It is a very tranquil place to visit, and contains a rich variety of animals, including geese, breeding ducks and wading birds. It is also home to the largest grey seal colony in England, with over 3,000 pups born every winter [9]. There is a visitor centre at Morston Quay near the village of Morston, and daily boat trips along channels within the marshland are run from the village of Blakeney every day between April and November.

As mentioned, there are many sandy beaches along this section of the Norfolk coast. One of these, called Brancaster Beach, has a wide expanse of sands, and sports activities such as kite surfing are commonly practiced here [10]. To the west of this beach is a series of sand dunes known as the Holme Dunes, followed by an area where an archaeological discovery was made. Dubbed as ‘Seahenge’, this was a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age timber circle around an upturned tree stump that was discovered on Holme Beach in 1998. Like with Stonehenge, which is located in the English county of Wiltshire, the purpose of Seahenge has not yet been determined. However, shortly after its discovery, the timber beams and tree stump were removed; these can be seen today in Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn, which is located around 30km (20 miles) to the south of Holme Beach [11]. No trace of Seahenge was left behind at Holme Beach.

It is at around this point where the coastline suddenly turns from a westerly to a southerly direction. This is because it is leaving the North Sea for some time, and instead starts to border a bay known as ‘The Wash’. This bay is unusual for its rather rectangular shape – the three sides of it that border the land are each roughly 25km (15 miles) in length. The sides meet each other with very little curvature; on a map, the sides appear to meet each other at right angles – it is only until you zoom in on Google Maps or any other online mapping website that one can see a slight curve. This is because, although the bay is natural in its formation, marshland and tidal mudflats once existed very close to the shoreline. However, most of these have since been reclaimed and are now used as farmland; the reclamation process led to the coastline being straightened slightly, which in turn made the corners of the bay sharper than they were before. The entire eastern side sits within Norfolk; it is on this side that the coastline intercepts the small coastal town of Hunstanton, before continuing to border farmland and then some marshy areas. After the coastline meets the River Great Ouse, it abruptly turns to a westward direction, and then starts travelling along the southern side of the bay. It is shortly after the Great Ouse that both the counties of Norfolk and Lincoln meet, signalling the most westward extent of the Norfolk coastline.


[1] https://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk/things-to-do/Beaches-and-Coast.aspx

[2] https://www.explorenorfolkuk.co.uk/winterton-beach.html

[3] https://www.explorenorfolkuk.co.uk/horsey-beach.html

[4] https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-04-05/british-village-crumbles-sea-family-holds-home-cant-be-saved

[5] https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-04-05/british-village-crumbles-sea-family-holds-home-cant-be-saved

[6] https://www.experiencenorfolk.uk/discover-norfolk/cromer/

[7] https://www.cromerpier.co.uk/cromer-pier-show/

[8] https://www.visitnorthnorfolk.com/thedms.aspx?dms=3&venue=0223047

[9] https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blakeney-national-nature-reserve/features/seal-watching-at-blakeney-point-in-winter

[10] https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brancaster-estate/features/brancaster-beach

[11] https://www.explorenorfolkuk.co.uk/seahenge.html




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