A dull, sleety, cold January day and who couldn’t be excused for yearning after a week away in the sun! Not me. My idea of a winter haven is one of my favourite spots in the country, the North Norfolk coast and thats exactly where me, my partner and and our two dogs went to start the new year.
The North Norfolk coast is a wild and beautiful stretch of coastline 93 miles in length, most of which is covered by the ancient Peddars National Trail. Most popular among tourists is the stretch between Hunstanton and Cromer with some of the areas most spectacular beaches. My love affair with Norfolk began around ten years ago and regular visits since have instilled a deep passion for its brick and flint cottages, vast open beaches where you can lose yourself even when the car parks are full, friendly local pubs always ready to welcome you (and your dogs), and large swathes of unspoilt countryside. Its a treat any time of year, but my favourite time to go is during the winter months.
Winter on the Norfolk coast is a special time of year. Geese, pink-footed, Brent and Canada visit to spend the winter months on the open marshes. They are a wonderful sight each day as the light fades and they make their way in huge flocks to spend the night inland. The marshes are a beautiful and desolate place in winter. Marsh harriers are a common sight as they harry the geese and send flocks into the air with a riot of noise. Graceful white egrets are easily spotted among the browns and buff shades of marsh grass and this bleak wilderness is made complete with the haunting call of the curlew. But for me one of the most wonderful sights of this winter landscape is the glimpse of a ghostly barn owl hugging the hedge line in search of a meal. Barn owls are a common site here in winter. Cold short days mean they often have to venture out during daylight hours to hunt.
Norfolk just happens to be one of the driest places in the UK. A lot of the weather that spreads its way from west to east across the country peters out by the time it reaches the Norfolk coast. So it came as no surprise that our week at the beginning of January was largely dry and sunny, if not a little chilly. Plant life along the coast doesn’t change an awful lot from season to season. The stretch of coast between Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea is bordered by pine woods which comprise Scots pine, Maritime pine and Corsican Pine growing on sand. These majestic evergreen pines create the illusion of summer on a sunny winters day.
The pine woods are sprinkled in winter colour. The golden splash of gorse and silvery hues of Betula pendula (Silver birch).
The sand dunes that lay beyond also change little during winter, with clumps of tough grasses that not only harbour wildlife but are vital in helping to keep the dunes stable.
The dunes not only provide a sheltered place for a picnic but are also home to an abundance of wildlife. Grasses such as marram and sand couch provide protection for insects such as grasshoppers and dragon flies. There are clumps of sea holly and even some species of orchid. This stretch of dunes is particularly popular with rabbits and is littered with sandy burrows.
As dunes give way to marsh the landscape is dotted with reed beds and ponds that provide a home for many species of duck and other birds; this one is frozen over on a chilly bright day.
And then it’s the beach. The dogs and I running to the top of the dunes and over, bursting with excitement at the vast expanse of sand awaiting us as it goes on for ever, the tide is out! At this time of year high tides bring all sorts of wonders up on to the beach, from oyster shells to dead sea birds (I even found a Puffin once)! I’ve spent many a happy hour rummaging amongst the natural flotsam and jetsam.
The strong tides make beautiful shapes in the sand as the sea recedes.
Much further along the beach and there is a creek that sweeps round in towards the marshes. It is a favourite place for a small number of the coasts most favourite inhabitants, the grey seals. Blakeney Point further down the coast is the best place to see these lovely creatures and especially at this time of year, if you can brave the cold and choppy seas to venture out on one of the popular boat trips, as the small beach is crowded with seal pups! Grey seals have been breeding in this remote spot since about 2001 when just 25 pups were recorded. This year the population has exploded, with numbers rocketing to over 2,000 pups. Here at the creek our little group is a more relaxed sight. Most are shy and quickly submerge themselves as we and the dogs approach. But sitting quietly on the sand bank and all four of us are surprised and rewarded by one brave fellow who comes close for a better look!
Back home and looking out into a garden drenched in cold and sleet I take heart with these memories and the knowledge that winter isn’t all gloomy.