Nature in all its glory
Norfolk has long been a home for those who love the natural world. In the early 20th century, stretches of the county’s coastline and wetlands were among the first purchases by the founders of the National Trust and Wildlife Trust because of their environmental value and the amazing range of birds and animals they attract. Bird lovers flock here to see the latest travelling migrants stopping off on their way back from Africa or the Arctic, while thousands of seals lounging on the beach are always a spectacle and, further inland, woods and forests play host to woodland creatures and rare flowers.
I spy in Cley…
Cley (pronounced to rhyme with ‘eye’) is one of the best birdwatching sites in the UK. For many years, Cley Marshes reserve, tucked between a village and the sea just north of Holt, has been a destination to see the latest rarities. It’s Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s oldest reserve!
This is a special habitat, with the beautiful sandy beach rising into steep dunes from which sand martins dart in and out. You might spot seals out at sea and gulls riding the thermals high in the air. Behind the dunes are miles of salt marshes, the perfect habitat for waders from spoonbills to redshank. Above the sea pearlwort, curved hard-grass and reeds that grow here, watch marsh harriers glide low against the sunrise, the peace broken only by pink-footed geese loudly honking and cackling their way through the sky.
Park at the state-of-the-art visitor centre with its panoramic views of the marshes or, if you’re staying at Barn Drift, just walk from the village. When you've had your fill on the reserve below, come back to explore the gift shop packed with a treasure trove of nature books and gifts. The cafe serves a lovely selection of cakes and there are often exhibitions of art and photography going on, too.
"My recommendation for a refuel after your adventure at Cley is the Dun Cow in nearby Salthouse – a local favourite serving proper pub grub and spectacular views of the marshes from the beer garden."
Dig up natural treasures
To explore the natural history of Norfolk, there are few better places than West Runton beach, just half a mile down the road from the village where you can stay in Bluebird Cottage. This was the site of the famous 'West Runton Elephant' in 1990, one of the oldest and best-preserved mammoth fossils ever found in the UK. It’s still one of the best places to go fossil hunting with the kids – local schools often have trips here to teach their students about the geology of the chalky cliffs. See if you can spot a fragment of mammoth bone, or fossilised shells and other ancient creatures.
Explore the rocky beach with a picnic in hand to enjoy in front of the crashing waves. Bring a net and bucket so you can all go rockpooling together and examine the crabs you catch before you pop them back where they came from. It’s a proper old-fashioned family day out, suitable for all ages and straight out of an Enid Blyton novel! There are also lots of lovely pubs nearby and a car park at the top of the cliffs.
Can you see the seals?
Grey seals are a mainstay around the Norfolk Coast, with a huge colony off the coast at Blakeney. But my favourite place to see them is on the beach at Horsey. If you visit between October and March, you could be treated to the sight of thousands upon thousands of seals and their newborn pups as far as the eye can see. It’s a truly special sight and one that’s completely natural – the seals have gradually moved in on the area and are now protected by volunteers from the Friends of Horsey Seals who help visitors watch the seals safely.
There’s a car park on-site, from which it’s a short walk up to the viewing platforms in the dunes (the beach itself is roped off as I’ve been told the seals are capable of a nasty bite if you get too close!). If you’re lucky you might even see a fluffy white baby seal being born.
If you’re a National Trust member, you can also park at nearby Horsey Windpump. Be careful walking along the busy road, but turn off at the Nelson’s Head pub and you’ll enjoy spectacular views of farmland and heathland as you walk the mile or so to the beach along the footpath, and emerge near one of the seal viewing platforms in the dunes. The pub is perfectly placed to stop off at on your way back!
"The Friends of Horsey Seals are all volunteers passionate about protecting this natural spectacle, so do give them a donation if you can."
Continue the journey
Let us take you on a journey to Norfolk from the comfort of your sofa! In these uncertain times, we’re bringing the best of England and Wales to you – so read on and experience Matt from Norfolk Cottages’ favourite places to go and some hidden gems, too. We’ve got plenty of nearby properties, and can’t wait to welcome you back soon…