Your guide to the beaches in Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 12:18 19 August 2011 | UPDATED: 13:25 19 August 2011
Norfolk is blessed with a wonderful coastline and there is a resort to suit whatever you’re looking for — from the kid friendly to the brash, the historic to the quiet getaway. Here GOING OUT has a guide to some of our favourite seaside places to head for this summer.
On a sunny summer morning Great Yarmouth shimmers with anticipation. Driving across the marshes I see swans and horses still asleep. The town is silhouetted against that first thrilling glimpse of the sea and at the very end of the road, the sand on the vast beach is still smooth, waiting to be heaped into sandcastles, burrowed into, or tram-pled under thousands of feet. On the seafront a bustle of tiny businesses selling buckets and spades, bacon baps and tea ‘n’ scones, are opening up. But the beach sweeps on for miles to the left and right, and the sparkling ocean looks limitless. Could a space this big ever get crowded?
But the crowds do come to Great Yarmouth, and it’s easy to see why on a morning like this.
If you want beach, Great Yarmouth claims an amazing 15 miles of sand and sea. And the shore is so wide that Britannia Pier barely dips its sturdy wooden feet in the high-tide sea.
If you want seaside fun you’ve got it – from the small but perfectly formed world of a model village to the heights of the historic roller coaster or the living-it-large brashness of the arcades.
If you want piers there are two. There is nothing understated about Yarmouth.
But it can do posh too. By Dickens, there are literary connections, several museums, some of the best medieval walls in Britain, a handsome, historic port quarter, fine fish dining as well as fish and chips, and some fantastically ornate architecture.
There are at least three different days out packed in to this single resort – a beach day; an arcades, amusements, entertainments and rides day; and a day for herrings and history. And that’s all before the sun sets, the lights go on and Yarmouth transforms into the Vegas of the east.
Dig into the silver sands of Great Yarmouth, bite through the candyfloss and doughnuts, and discover just why this seaside gem of glitzy amusements, never-ending beach, white-knuckle thrills and riverside drenched in history is so great.
Britain’s only complete circus building stands one street back from the seafront, its impressive frontage of domes and pillars giving way to a lavish circular interior. When it was opened, more than 100 years ago, the Hippodrome was called: “Undoubtedly the finest palace of entertainment in Great Britain.” It still hosts world-class circus shows – and has an extraordinary extra trick of its own. As the finale of a show approaches the floor slides away, fountains soar, water gushes in, and the circus ring becomes a swimming pool. See the 2011 Circus and Water Show at the Hippodrome until September 18. It boasts motorbike stunts inside a giant globe, aerial feats, comedy, illusions and, of course, a spectacular water finale.
Just along the seafront is the Pleasure Beach with rides ranging from family fairground fun to white-knuckle stuff. Its crowning glory is the wooden rollercoaster – complete with a brake-man who rides every train, making each roll of the 83-year-old coaster unique. Some of the rides are the very latest in up-to-the-minute thrills, others have been loved down the generations.
The gentle snail ride potters through the foothills of the rollercoaster, a monorail gives fantastic views out to sea and the log flume makes a splash with wild surges down the watery slide. Pay per ride with tokens or stay all day and ride as many times as you like with wristbands.
It seems almost a shame that Great Yarmouth is one of the sunniest places in Britain because there is an abundance of indoor attractions too. From the 2p games in the arcades, to the museums of the heritage quarter, and from catching a show to meeting alligators, pythons and giant tortoises in Britain’s only reptilarium, there is plenty to do and see undercover.
The Time and Tide Museum takes over a Victorian herring curing works to tell the fascinating story of Yarmouth, including shipwrecks, fishwives and saucy postcards. You can still smell the fish in the timbers, as well as wander down a reconstructed “row” of homes and shops, hearing from the residents of a century ago. A special exhibition, Secrets of the Saucy Seaside Postcard, runs until September 4.
Yarmouth has a long and proud history of roller skating and has apparently produced more national champions per head of population than anywhere else in the country. At Retroskate, on the seafront, the whole family can get their skates on.
Everyone knows Nelson’s Column in London, but there is another in Yarmouth – and you can climb this one for stunning views of dunes, marshes, townscape and sea, inland windmills and drainage pumps and platoons of glittering off-shore wind turbines.
The Norfolk Naval Pillar, or Nelson’s Monument, was built as a tribute to Norfolk’s hero and finished a full 24 years before its counterpart in Trafalgar Square.
Guided tours up all 217 steps of the monument must be booked in advance. They will be run on six more days in 2011, between 10am and 4pm on August 27 and 28 and September 17 and 18. Book on 01493 850698.
For more information on climbing the monument visit www.nelsonsmonument.org.uk
Where to eat
Nothing beats a sea view when you are by the sea. Sara’s tearooms faces straight out to sea, one way, and into the pretty Pleasure Beach Gardens in the other direction. Almost next door are the lovely Merrivale traditional tea-rooms, enjoyed by visitors for more than a century.
If your budget is bigger, then how about Yarmouth’s rather swish four-star hotel, overlooking the dunes and the sea. The Imperial Hotel has a new terrace bar which serves meals all day, or try the champagne afternoon tea be-tween 3 and 5pm.
The Euroscope dial at Ness Point summons images of far-flung places: Rome is 886 miles to the south-east, it informs you, Moscow 1468 miles east, Paris 253 miles south.
But I headed west to Lowestoft, in search of the tourist-friendly aspect of a town that has always attracted holidaymakers while generally being better known for its fishing industry. Ness Point is a good place to start, if only because by comparison the rest of the town seems extremely hospitable: besides the Euroscope, Britain’s most easterly outcrop consists of a concrete landing behind a rail, beyond which foaming green waves smack and crash into a breakwater formed from mounds of mighty rocks strewn with hazard warnings.
It is not, it must be said, the most picturesque corner Nearby landmarks include a cobalt-blue gasometer, a sprawling industrial estate and –- pleasing to some, less so to others – the country’s biggest commercial wind turbine, nicknamed Gulliver. As you walk back into town past car dealerships and dilapidated business units you cannot help but think that Lowestoft could make more of being Britain’s most easterly point.
In 2002 I worked as a reporter in the town for six months. The main memories are of magistrates’ courts, the maritime festival, the decline in fishing, the rise in the wind-power industry.
Almost a decade on the trends have continued: only a small inshore fleet remains but the town is trying to establish itself as a regional centre for renewable energy.
Aside from the SLP turbine, there are plans for a great network of turbines miles offshore that will form the world’s largest windfarm when completed. The last three years’ economic climate has not been kind: Sanyo, Jeld-Wen and Wessex Foods have closed factories with hundreds of job losses. Tourism is becoming more important than ever.
So what does Lowestoft offer to daytrippers and holidaymakers? I took a walk around the town on a Monday, undertaken to a soundtrack of seagull cries emitted as they hung in the air and braced themselves for a renewed assault on the resort’s notably white-spattered roads and pavements.
The thing with Lowestoft, it struck me later, is that it is better than the first impression it offers: on leaving the train station you are confronted by a McDonald’s and the chain store-filled London Road North, which do not combine to lift the soul. But persevere and it becomes more scenic and far more interesting.
The country’s biggest commercial wind turbine is unmissable in that you can see it from all around. But throughout the summer no visit would be complete without a trip to the beach. This is Lowestoft’s great glory as a tourist destination: the stretches of sand north and south of Claremont Pier both have Blue Flags denoting them as internationally recognised for their quality and cleanliness. There are seafront restaurants and cafés, and parking and public toilets nearby.
The Claremont Pier has a restaurant and tea rooms, a bar, a rollerskating rink and arcades, and on a hot day children love running around in the Royal Plain fountains just off the seafront. But three of the best known family attractions in the area are actually out of town. The Pleasurewood Hills theme park, just north of Lowestoft, has been a firm favourite for 25 years, and today it offers rides including the 120ft high Wipeout rollercoaster, the Fireball spinning pendulum and several gentler attractions for younger children. Inland, at Somerleyton, is Fritton Lake Country Park, which offers an adventure playground, rowing boats, fishing, pony rides and a guided wildlife tour by boat. South of Lowestoft is Kessingland, home to the Africa Alive! zoo, which has an exciting array of animals from lions and giraffes to zebras and rhinos.
If you’re interested in Lowestoft’s past, the historic Mincarlo fishing trawler is moored in the Yacht Marina and open to visitors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10am to 4pm (last admission 3pm). Entry is free.
Time to investigate the town’s range of museums. There’s the Maritime Museum at Sparrow’s Nest, near Ness Point, which tells you about the history of the fishing fleet and lifeboats, and on the same site there is a collection dedicated to the Royal Naval Patrol Service in the second world war.
The Lowestoft Museum in Nicholas Everitt Park offers a comprehensive look through the past. It holds an impor-tant collection of 18th century Lowestoft Porcelain, displays of locally found fossils and objects from Roman and Anglo-Saxon sites, and information on famous residents such as Benjamin Britten and George Borrow.
Perhaps it depends on your mood. On the one hand there are few more cheering sights than the beach on a warm day, when the sand is golden in the sunshine and children paddle and build sandcastles. Or if you’re feeling more reflective, try gazing out to sea from Ness Point, watching the waves break on the rocks and following the Euroscope’s directions across the water to distant lands.
But my favourite, perhaps because it surprised me, was in Mariner’s Score, where an old brick archway frames a view down to the sea, the long descent of steps edged by flowering buddleia bushes. An information board ex-plains that there was a Mariners’ Inn nearby and also a Swan Hotel, which hosted Cromwell on his visit to the town.
Where to eat
For fine dining there’s the Crooked Barn restaurant, in an 18th century thatched barn at the Ivy House hotel in Oulton Broad, where the typical main course is priced at around £20. In town there’s the restaurant at the Hotel Victoria and the Red Herring Restaurant at Oulton Broad is well liked.
When I was first taken to Cart Gap beach, I was told: “this is a beach for people who know Norfolk”. I could immediately see what they meant. It is a beautiful, wild piece of coast with glorious sandy beaches, clear blue pools at low tide for children to splash in and spectacular views.
But it’s off the tourist trail: there are no flashing arcades, bucket and spade vendors or fairgrounds.
This isn’t to say that Cart Gap, near Happisburgh, doesn’t welcome visitors. There’s a well-maintained car park, a lovely café just a short walk from the beach, a toilet block and regular visits from an ice-cream van.
Nine times out of 10, the people you’ll speak to on the beach are local. They all think it’s their secret, their special beach – it’s what makes the place so magical.
Just down the beach from Cart Gap is what remains of Eccles, one of Norfolk’s lost villages, whose ghostly remains could once be seen on the beach at low tide and where tales are told of the church bell ringing under the waves.
The beach itself offers a ribbon of golden sand and a stepped walkway which is a perfect place to perch while your children play.
Next is the village of Happisburgh, whose name confuses practically every incomer and whose lighthouse is one of Norfolk’s most easily recognisable landmarks.
Just up the coast is Waxham, a far cry from Sea Palling’s bustle. It is a wild place where you share the shore with seals. It’s another place where my family spends sunny days, thanks to our caravan-share at Waxham Sands Holiday Park, which gloriously calls itself: “Norfolk’s leading low-profile holiday park.”
There’s no competition: it has to be the award-winning beaches with their miles of golden sand and shallow pools that form after high tide. It’s fairly common to see seals close to the bridge, and spotting the grey heads bobbing in and out of the water becomes like a marine version of ‘I spy’.
The first known human occupation of Britain was at Happisburgh, and what good taste our ancestors had. The village beach, and those surrounding it, is breathtakingly beautiful and a wonderful place for a walk, a picnic or simply a paddle in the sea.
There are plenty of incredible views in the vicinity, not least from the beach. But for two breathtaking views, head to the area’s two watchtowers which have served as landmarks to seafarers for centuries, guiding them into safe water and away from treacherous sandbanks.
St Mary’s Church at Happisburgh boasts one of the highest towers in the county. Both open during the summer and allow visitors to climb the steps to either the summit of the church tower or the lantern room, where spectacular views are afforded. Those with enough stamina to climb the 133 steps to the top can, on a clear day, expect to be rewarded by seeing more than 30 churches, two lighthouses, seven water towers, five corn mills, five drainage mills, three wind farms, the Trimingham RAF radar installation, Bacton gas terminal, reefs at Sea Palling and even the cathedral spire in Norwich.
At Happisburgh Lighthouse, the oldest working light on the Norfolk coast and only independently-owned lighthouse in Britain, you can climb the 112-step spiral staircase to rise 134ft above sea level. From the top, you can see for around 13 miles on a clear day.
The lighthouse will be open on August Sundays and on August 29, from 11am to 4pm. Tickets cost £3 for adults and £1 for children aged 16 and under. Children must be at least 1m tall to climb the tower.
In an area where the coast itself is the real star, it would be a shame to miss the glory of the beaches. But, with this summer’s refusal to be predictable, it’s handy to have a Plan B if the heavens open.
Many of the beautiful churches in the area remain open throughout the year and are definitely worth a look. One of my favourites is just a few miles past Sea Palling and towards Great Yarmouth – West Somerton not only has a lovely iron kissing gate and some of Norfolk’s most beautiful wall paintings from the 13th century. In the churchyard is the rest resting place of the Norfolk giant Robert Hales, who was 7ft 6in, weighed 30 stone and died in 1856.
Nearby is the atmospheric ruined church of East Somerton, a short walk from the church, hidden in the woods surrounding Burnley Hall.
Where to eat
Smallsticks Barn Café is a beautifully converted small barn which has its own enclosed courtyard where you can admire the impressive view over rolling countryside watched over by Happisburgh lighthouse. Around 100m from Cart Gap beach on Cart Gap Road, the café offers a wide range of hot and cold drinks (covering all bases with regard to the weather!) and makes delicious cakes and scones on the premises.
At Waxham Great Barn, there is a great café which serves homemade light lunches and snacks and has a picnic area outside where you can soak up the rays (if this summer ever provides any).
It’s called the gem of the north Norfolk coast – and with good reason. Cromer’s origins as a holiday destination can be traced back to the early 19th century, when wealthy Norfolk families would head there for the summer months.
It is the writer Clement Scott who is credited with turning Cromer into a fashionable destination. In the 1880s he visited the town and the surrounding areas and started writing about the area, famously dubbing the coast “Poppy-land” in reference to the magnificent scarlet floral displays he saw.
That, combined with the coming of the railways, turned the town into a popular vacation spot, the legacy of which is the beautiful ornate buildings which perch on the clifftops, and the famous landmark pier.
It’s not just journalists who’ve been inspired to write while in the area.
It’s said that Arthur Conan Doyle came up with the idea for the Hound of the Baskervilles after hearing the legend of Black Shuck while staying at Cromer Hall.
Cromer Pier is arguably the town’s most famous landmark. Generations of holidaymakers have headed there to be entertained at the Pavilion Theatre – or have a stroll along the prom.
The summer seaside special – a variety show with a bit of something for everyone – is a tradition which is sadly all but extinct – except in Cromer where it is alive, kicking, singing and dancing.
This year’s headliner is ventriloquist Steve Hewlett, accompanied by Tiny Tina and Pongo, plus comedian Paul Adams and singers Any Dream Will Do finalist Rob McVeigh and soul diva Scarlet Gabriel. And no Pavilion summer show would be complete without the Seaside Special Dancers.
You couldn’t write about Cromer without mentioning its most famous export — the crab. Why not have a go at catching your own? All you need is some bait – bacon is said to be the best – and a bucket.
He’s known as “the greatest of the lifeboatmen”. A crab fisherman who ran a deckchair hire business, Henry Blogg was coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat from 1909 to 1947. And in that time he showed his heroism again and again.
The RNLI’s most decorated lifeboatman, during more than half-a-century’s service he helped save more than 800 lives around the coast, helping vessels and was awarded three gold and four silver RNLI medals, plus the George Cross and the British Empire Medal.
The RNLI Henry Blogg Museum is situated in the Rocket House on the Gangway, and it’s a fascinating place to visit. And it really brings home the heroism of Blogg and his crew – in the late 19th and early 20th century, life-boats were powered by oars and the wind – the conditions they had to battle with are unthinkable.
Cromer Museum, in Tucker Street next to the parish church, is also well worth a visit and gives a fascinating in-sight into what life was like in the town in days gone by and how it was transformed into a fashionable holiday destination in the Victorian era.
And the Old Cromer Gallery is home to an unrivalled archive of photographs of the town and the Geology Gallery has an amazing collection of fossils and artefacts.
In Cromer you’re spoiled for choice. If you’re feeling fit, and have a head for heights, then it’s well-worth making the 150-plus step climb to the top of Cromer Parish Church. Make sure you take your camera, because once you’ve negotiated the winding stairs you’ll be rewarded with the most stunning of views. During the summer until the end of September the tower is open between 10.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday and from 10.30am-12.30pm on Sat-urdays. There’s a small charge.
Where to eat
No trip to the seaside is complete without fish and chips. They always seem to taste better on the coast for some reason. In the summer the queues at Mary Jane’s chip shop in Garden Street stretch as far as the eye can see – and rightly so. Its motto is “quality and quantity” and you couldn’t argue with either statement.
The newly refurbished Red Lion pub, hotel and restaurant, has been a real hit. Perched on the cliff top, grab a window seat for a fantastic panorama of the coast, and tuck in.
There’s a definite air of romance about Hunstanton, with its picturebook lighthouse, layer cake cliffs, wide sandy beaches and Victorian architecture built in warm local carr stone .
In 1846, Henry Styleman le Strange decided to capitalise on the fashion for seaside holidays and day trips and built, close to the family pile, the New Inn, now the Golden Lion Hotel.
When the railway arrived in 1862, the town became the darling of the Victorians, blessed with a bountiful ribbon of golden sand, clement weather and all the fun of the fair.
There are really two towns to explore, Old Hunstanton, the old fishing port where archaeological finds have revealed human occupation many thousands of years ago, and Hunstanton the seaside resort. With all the traditional seaside staples – ice-cream stalls, fish and chips, candyfloss, pitch-and-putt, amusements, donkey rides (the pier sadly disappeared in a storm in 1978) – Hunstanton also offers coastal connoisseurs something a little bit different.
For a start, it’s a town that retains its Victorian feel with its fairground, independent Princess Theatre, expansive promenade, aquarium and lighthouse. There’s no question about it, you won’t leave Hunstanton without feeling that you’ve had a proper day out at the seaside.
Situated on the corner of The Wash, where better to take a trip out to sea than at Hunstanton? Searles (www.sea-tours.co.uk, 07831 321799) offers a choice of guided coastal trips giving you a seagull’s eye view of the town from the waves – look at the candy-striped cliffs from on board The Wash Monster, an ex-military vehicle built in 1967 for use as a landing craft by American forces in Vietnam.
This 60-seater amphibious craft now takes tourists from the sandy beach straight into the sea on one of several tours on offer.
Cruising at eight knots in the water and 13 knots on land, The Wash Monster also ferries people to Seal Island, off the coast of Lincolnshire.
Hunstanton is packed with the kind of seaside staples that make any coastal resort a mecca for children. But if you want to try something a little more educational (and joyfully cost-free), head to the beach for some fossil-hunting.
A short distance north of the ruins of St Edmund’s Chapel, built in 1272 in memory of the former King of East Anglia, and the lighthouse, the coastal footpath descends to the beach and offers junior paelentologists the oppor-tunity to scour the beach for fossil finds.
Natural erosion of the cliff-face means there is a plentiful supply of fallen material throughout the year which can be studied at falling or low tide for a fascinating glimpse into the past.
The Sea-Life Centre is an obvious wet-weather draw with its incredible aquarium, seals, penguins and the three newest arrivals – three Cuvier’s dwarf crocodiles, the world’s smallest species of the razor-toothed reptile. The centre, on Southern Promenade, has its own Seal Hospital where sick and injured animals are tended back to health.
If you fancy something a little more competitive, head to Bowlers Ten Pin Bowling, at the Pier Entertainment Centre, The Green. The eight-lane bowling alley also boasts a bar where you can unwind while the heavens open.
As the only west-facing resort on the east coast of Britain, Sunny Hunny basks in evening sunshine during the summer months, making it the perfect place to catch a stunning sunset. Either head to the beach, sit in the resort’s beautiful gardens or stand on the stripy cliff tops to watch the sun disappear.
From the historical ruins of St Edmund’s Chapel, look out to sea and you’ll be able to see the offshore windmills generating electricity for thousands of homes.
One of the loveliest places to see the sunset is from The Marine Bar, St Edmund’s Terrace, where you can enjoy a glass of wine as you drink in the panoramic view of the sunset from the lounge.
Where to eat
There are plenty of places to enjoy lunch in Hunstanton, from upmarket pub grub to delicatessen delights or fantastic fish and chips.
We love Chives Brasserie, at 11 High Street, which serves a delicious selection of freshly-prepared ciabattas, sandwiches, pastas, pizzas and fresh salads.
Just down the road at Old Hunstanton is somewhat of a Norfolk institution, The Old Boathouse Café. Find it just down the lane which winds down to the beach next to Le Strange Arms Hotel.
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