The sandy beaches and choppy waves of Sunny Hunny promise to blow any cobwebs away, discover plenty more to enjoy by foot, bike and bus on the big-sky coast of north-west Norfolk.
Words by Paul Miles
Don’t tell Blackpool, but the town that lays claim to the title of Britain’s first purpose-built seaside resort of the railway era is Hunstanton in northwest Norfolk. Sadly, the last train chugged out of Hunstanton station in 1969 and since the pier blew away in a storm in 1978 most of the Victorian-era attractions are, sadly, no more. However, the town’s natural assets – stripy red and white cliffs and an easy-access, west-facing beach – means that ‘Sunny Hunny’ is still a big draw. Thousands flock to the sands, amusement arcades and fun fair; while kite-surfers whizz over the windy waves of The Wash.
If such thrills are not your cup of tea, you will be delighted to learn that the genteel, medieval village of Old Hunstanton, home for centuries to the aristocratic Le Strange family who planned and built the ‘new’ Hunstanton, is just two miles away. It’s a perfect base from which to explore eastwards along the coast to the pretty villages of Thornham, Brancaster (famed for its beach and oysters) and Burnham Market, dubbed Chelsea-on-Sea thanks to its influx of wealthy Londoners. The 84-mile Norfolk coast path starts in Hunstanton and there’s also an excellent coastal bus service, meaning one-way coast walks hereabouts are very easy.
FRIDAY 5pm A PEACEFUL PLACE
Our hour-long bus journey to Old Hunstanton from Kings Lynn passes through flat fields, conifer plantations and signs for Sandringham. The vernacular architecture is striking: pretty cottages of dark red stone, known locally as carrstone. In Old Hunstanton, we walk past the church and duck pond then through a gateway into the private grounds of Grade I-listed Hunstanton Hall, surrounded by a moat. We find the huge iron key to unlock the heavy front door of our holiday-let, once home to the squire’s coachman. Coachman’s Cottage is tall and airy, with original artworks on white walls. The views are of the estate – once a deer park – and the moat. In the well-equipped kitchen, our pre-ordered hamper of (mostly) local produce from Norfolk Deli (norfolk-deli.co.uk) awaits: Boadicea Gin from the Wild Knight Distillery, sourdough bread, delicious Binham Blue cheese, pasta, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and more. We rustle up dinner and settle in to our comfy home for the weekend.
8am BEACH, MARSH AND sand DUNES
We walk a mile through the village to the beach to admire the striking cliffs – white chalk, rare red chalk and red sandstone. We pass colourful beach huts nestled in the dunes. Unlike much of the rest of the North Norfolk coast, the beach here is easy to access without a long trek across salt marshes. We stop at Old Town Beach café on Sea Lane (open daily, call 01485 532931) before wandering east along the coast path for four miles on a track beside the sand dunes and through the marshes to the village of Thornham. Here we find Thornham Deli, a buzzy place that is famed for all-day breakfasts and good coffee. There’s also a ‘lifestyle’ shop and, of course, a deli (01485, 512194; thornhamdeli.co.uk).
11am SPOTTING AVOCETS
We take the 36 bus two miles further eastwards to Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve. Entrance is free, parking costs £6. We hire a pair of binoculars from the visitor centre and wander out to smart hides, looking across fresh water and salt marsh. We spot a dozen graceful avocets – the symbol of the RSPB – sifting silt with their long curved bills, and a pair of marsh harriers. A redshank is extremely beautiful with colour- coordinated bill and legs. Thanks to the varied habitats, over 100 species of birds can be seen here in one day. We enjoy homemade soup in the small cafe adjoining the visitor centre (rspb.org.uk).
3pm EXPLORING TOWN
We hop on the 36 bus again, onwards through Brancaster to Burnham Market, a picturesque inland village of boutiques, cafés and a fishmonger, set around a village green. We have fun in The Hat Shop at Pentney House (burnhamhats.co.uk), trying on headgear of all colours and styles. In nearby Fairfax Gallery (fairfaxgallery.com), we admire paintings of the Norfolk coast. Seascapes by David Atkins, oils painted en plein air, brilliantly capture the big skies for which Norfolk is famed. We peep into the much-lauded Hoste Arms, but it’s absolutely packed so instead we settle on afternoon tea in a little farm-shop-cum-café. The Tuscan Farm Shop (tuscanfarmshop.com) sells olive oil and wine from a farm in Tuscany as well as delicious polenta and orange cake – perfect with a cuppa.
6pm ORANGE IS THE COLOUR…
We take the bus back to Old Hunstanton. It stops outside the very pretty and characterful Orange Tree Inn, where the menu includes such treats as dressed Cromer crab or butternut and apricot tagine (01485 512213, theorangetreethornham.co.uk).
9am LAVENDER FIELDS FOREVER
A local company, Wheel Travel (07940 497093, wheel-travel.co.uk), has delivered bicycles for us. They come with panniers, helmets and a cycling map, showing a variety of routes, such as National Cycle Route One. We follow a gently undulating section of it – and other back roads – to Heacham, to visit Norfolk Lavender. The same growing conditions that allow lavender to thrive in Provence also exist here: full sun and well-drained soil. Since the 1930s, acres of the fragrant flowers have flourished in fields on the Sandringham estate and around Heacham. We wander among waves of purple and learn how the flowers are harvested and the oil distilled. The shop sells soaps and unguents, as well as fudge and chocolate, all with added lavender. We enjoy lavender tea and a lavender scone in the café (01485 570384, norfolk-lavender.co.uk).
12pm CYCLING TO LUNCH
We cycle three miles to the village of Ringstead, where the General Store surprises with a treasure trove of goodies, from bric-a-brac to antique tools (facebook.com/the-general-store-ringstead-norfolk). Then we have lunch in the new outdoor eating area of The Gin Trap Inn. The pub specialises in game and offal but there are other options too. I can certainly say the monkfish tandoor (£15) is delicious, as is roasted celeriac with tarragon mushroom and spelt (01485 525264, thegintrapinn.co.uk).
3pm HUNSTANTON HISTORY
We cycle back to Hunstanton and visit the Heritage Centre. We learn how the Le Strange heir holds the title of Lord High Admiral of The Wash and could once claim ownership of anything within the range of a horseman’s spear hurled at low tide. We read how the first British woman to swim the Channel, Mercedes Gleitze, later swam 25 miles across The Wash from Skegness to Heacham in 13 hours in 1929. A book tells of a couple of young women who, in the 1930s, flew an air-taxi across The Wash between Hunstanton and Skegness, fare £1. The women lived in a gypsy caravan on the air-strip (hunstantoncivicsociety.org.uk). Opposite the Heritage Centre is the Norfolk Deli. We call in for more provisions and meet the charming owners, Mark and Rosie Kacary. Then we recharge with tea and cake at outdoor tables with a sea view at the Deli’s corner café, which opened in December 2019.
5pm Off TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
We cycle along the cliff-top road to the lighthouse and the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel. This former patron saint of England stepped ashore here after a childhood in Denmark. From near the lighthouse we can see an off-shore wind farm and watch the sun sink into the sea, a somewhat unusual sight for the Norfolk coast, most of which faces east. Then we get back on the bikes again and cycle to Old Hunstanton, stopping for a bowl of bouillabaisse at The Lodge (01485 532896, thelodgehunstanton.co.uk). On our way back to the cottage, we also pass the highly acclaimed Neptune restaurant (theneptune.co.uk), where the small dining room is full of diners feasting on Michelin-starred creations such as Norfolk quail with truffle. We carry on cycling through ‘our’ private estate at twilight – rabbits and muntjac deer scatter, and stars peep through a darkening sky, unspoilt by light pollution.
coast stayed with holiday lettings company Norfolk Hideaways, which has several properties in and around Old Hunstanton. Coachman’s Cottage is located on the private Le Strange estate, just a 15-minute walk from the beach. It sleeps four people and prices start from £370 for a weekend (01485 211022 or 01328 888036, norfolkhideaways.co.uk).
HOW TO GET THERE
By rail: The nearest train station to Old Hunstanton is Kings Lynn, with direct trains from London Kings Cross (greatnorthernrail.com). Or travel via Ely from Birmingham (crosscountrytrains.co.uk). The onward bus to Old Hunstanton is on the Coastliner 36 bus (lynxbus.co.uk). A three-day pass for one costs £21, or a group of up to five can travel for three days for £42.
By road: From London the M11 leads into the A11 near Duxford, then the A10, finally hitting the A149 to Hunstanton.
For more information or to plan a trip, go to visitnorfolk.co.uk.
For more inspiration for your next trip to Norfolk, here are 5 Secret Spots in North Norfolk, and 10 best places to eat on the Norfolk coast or pick up the latest copy of coast magazine for more coastal weekend break ideas.