Perhaps it’s because of my West Country origins that our family travels in the UK mostly seem to head west. Whatever the reason, that curious bulge on the UK’s east coast that is East Anglia has for too long remained a mystery – somewhere I have heard many good things about but never experienced for myself. After friends shared a series of photos from their family holiday in Norfolk – of beautiful, wide-stretching, gentle sandy beaches, my curiosity was piqued. I had long wanted to visit the famed Norfolk Broads yet Norfolk as a family friendly beach destination had never really occurred to me before now. It was time to do some exploring.
Roo, Beth and I arrived in the very north of Norfolk just as the sun was dipping low in a pale December sky. Our first port of call was a run around for the girls on the little beach of West Runton – the village in which we would be staying for the weekend. Roo delighted in collecting rocks from the shoreline and inspecting the wooden groyne sea defences with curiosity. The cliffs of the north Norfolk coastline are low and crumbling and the sea is constantly worrying away at its fragile coastline. The geology does have its benefits for young families though. The sea shelves gently making perfect paddling and shallow summer swimming for young children. Coastal walking with children also doesn’t carry the same heart-stopping drops or steep inclines of a more rugged coastline and best of all, the seals absolutely love it. Norfolk is home to some of the largest colonies of seals in the UK.
As the sun dipped below the gentle hills tingeing the sky with a weak wintery pink, we set off to find our winter weekend retreat. Brackenhurst is a self-catering property from Norfolk Country Cottages, located to the south of West Runton village. Tucked away at the very end of a quiet residential lane and backing onto National Trust woodland, it is far from the season’s commercial Christmas hustle and bustle and the start of some lovely gentle family trails. Greeted warmly by the owner who lives next-door, we were soon settled in and the house fully-kitted out for little children. It didn’t take long to get the wood burner in the sitting room crackling away merrily. Outside the wind was beginning to whip up but it felt very cosy in our little cottage.
As soon as the girls were safely tucked up in bed I snuggled up next to the fire on the leather reclining chair with a book and waited for my husband to arrive. Another bonus of being in West Runton is that despite being a village it has a good railway link. It took my husband exactly 3 hours, one quick change of train and two minutes on his bike from the station (or a 5 minute walk) to get to us from rush-hour central London on a Friday night – not bad considering how far it looks on a map. With all the family there, the fire burning happily, a glass of our complimentary wine in hand and some of the local bakery’s delicious mince-pies, it finally felt like the our festive season was beginning.
Winter Wanders with Walk Norfolk
The wind did not improve that night and by the morning it was blowing a hoolie. Storm Desmond’s long-reaching fingers had crept out as far east as Norfolk. We were in the right place though – as the rest of the country dealt with severe flooding and gales we only had to deal with some blustery weather. Barely a raindrop was to be seen over the whole weekend. Norfolk is amongst the drier areas of the UK – something not to be sniffed at when picking a holiday destination closer to home.
With the girls bundled up we set off to meet Tim Lidstone-Scott from Walk Norfolk in order to explore a little more of the north Norfolk coastline. Having worked with Norfolk’s National Trails for many years and an experienced rambler himself, Tim now helps visitors to Norfolk to explore the area’s many footpaths and lovely landscapes, either by providing walking routes and maps or by guiding them personally. I’m glad we opted for the latter. Tim was both personable and incredibly knowledgeable and had a lovely way with the children. We learnt an awful lot more about the north Norfolk coastline we were walking through with him than we would have picked up alone and it was great to be able to sit back for once and let someone else plan a child-friendly route for us to enjoy.
Our wander took us along the shingle beach at Weybourne and part of the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path before turning inland past wetlands, reed beds, an air quality observation centre and even a small field for light aircraft and up towards Muckleburgh Hill. There was plenty to keep Roo interested and she bombarded us with questions about birds, planes and more whilst her little sister snoozed in the carrier. Tim handled her questioning with aplomb. The wind kept up a relentless push against us and it did eventually get the better of Roo’s little legs just before we reached the top of the hill.
On the return leg, with the wind at our back and the suggestion of post-walk cake, Roo was off at a gallop once more! There is something invigorating about a winter walk,no matter the weather and it was with glowing pink cheeks and bright eyes that we said goodbye to Tim at the end of the walk. I’d like to come back on a calmer day and spend a little time watching for birds on the wetlands and playing on the pebble beach – it is a secluded, peaceful spot- even when the weather is at its most bracing.
Exploring North Norfolk’s Coastal Towns
With a promise of cake to fulfil we headed into the neighbouring seaside town of Sheringham. With its array of small shops, many of them independent, the lifeboat station down by the sea and its quirky pebble flint houses so typical of this area of Norfolk, this former fishing village is full of local character.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves warming up in the charming and inviting Camellia Cottage tea-house. Scones, cream and jam and Christmas cake soon disappeared, washed down with tea and hot chocolate for the girls with a side of baby marshmallows. The sandwiches being brought out looked good too. I loved their eclectic and mismatching array of traditional china-ware and the pretty country-cottage roses, giving the tea-house wonderful vintage charm. The space is a bit limited indoors for tiny tots and pushchairs would be best left at home until the summer months when they have a pleasant little outdoor seating area, just off the main high street.
Continuing our explorations of the north Norfolk coastline we headed to Cromer – a Victorian seaside town that is deservedly popular with Norfolk ‘s visitors and locals alike. Our visit coincided with the annual Christmas lights switch on and the town was a bustling hive of activity and festive market stalls. Out on Cromer’s historic pier Roo and Beth enjoyed peering through the cracks and watching people fishing. Forget your normal penny arcades though – perched at the end of Cromer’s pier and surrounded by wild waves is a theatre. It’s a wonderfully dramatic spot and as you wander down the board-walk, warmly lit by ornate Narnia-esque street lamps, it feels a million miles away from the town’s busy little streets just a short distance above you. From the pier you can see along the coastline in both directions – in the winter the promenade along Cromer’s sea-front here promises a gentle yet exhilarating buggy friendly stroll suitable for the dusky afternoons of the season’s shortest days. In summer I can imagine the beaches here must be lovely for young families and I looked longingly down the coast towards Overstrand. You can follow the gentle coastal path for around 3.5km with the option of a 12 minute bus ride to bring back tired little legs from Overstrand at the end. If only we had longer…
We popped into award winning No 1 Cromer Fish and Chip Restaurant on the way home. It seemed rude not to given its reputation and our proximity to the sea. The fish was freshly cooked and delicious. It made a comforting end to a wild wintery day munching our fish and chips back by the wood-burner at Brackenhurst although the eat-in restaurant with its locally sourced produce and Michelin Star chef was also very tempting.
Woodland Walks, Stately Houses and the Norfolk Seals
On Sunday we woke up to brighter skies but the wind still whipped up the creaking branches of the trees of our woodland setting. Too windy for our planned trip to see England’s largest seal colony at Blakeney Point sadly – all the boat trips with Beans Boats had been called off to our collective disappointment. I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the famed Norfolk seals yet though, especially as December is the perfect time to see the new baby grey seal pups whose white fluffy forms can be found in several parts of the gently sloping Norfolk coastline. Time for Plan B.
After a cooked breakfast (got to love the excuse of a weekend away to indulge) we headed out for one final explore on the footpaths from the holiday house. Within ten minutes we had wandered uphill through woodland to a Roman Camp and were treated to lovely views down to the north Norfolk coast through the trees. Our walk took us on an hour long loop along easy paths and with plenty of opportunities for the girls to scramble up trees or kick about in the leaves whilst we grown-ups drank in the regular views. Again – I wish we had had more time. I’d have loved to continue our route along to the viewpoint on Beeston Regis Heath, then perhaps down to the coastal path via Beeston Regis and into Sheringham along the seafront. I looked a lovely longer wander, with the possibility to reward tired little walkers with hot chocolate in winter or ice-cream and paddling in summer down at Sheringham. To add to the excitement for wee ones, the return trip could be easily made by bus or train.
Having thoroughly stretched all our legs, we hopped in the car and headed to Norfolk ‘s east coast. Our lunch stop was at the impressive National Trust estate at Blickling, where the grand house was decked out fully for the festive season. Several trails led tantalisingly away from the picturesque lake and off across the estate – yet another lovely place for a gentle, rewarding wander with young children. Blickling is not alone either – this area of Norfolk is dotted with many different impressive estates and stately homes with lots of activities for the children. If the weather had been better and the girls not both nursing colds we would have headed out to explore some of Norfolk ‘s many nature reserves too – there is a lot on offer for families here.
Back in the car and we reached our final stop for the day – the rural little village of Horsey. Despite it equine name, Horsey is more famed for its association with the large numbers of seals that flock to its beaches to breed every year. From the viewpoint at Horsey Beach it Is possible to see seals lining the beach as far as the eye can see.
At the time of our visit over 570 grey seal pups had been born and judging by the forward behaviour of some of the male adult seals, there should be just as many next year too! Walking along the rolling dunes at Horsey was probably the highlight of our weekend for Roo and Beth. It was truly magical to see the seals in such close proximity and without having to hang on too tightly to the girls. We lingered until dusk watching them as they nursed, played, fought and swam in the wintery sea. It was fascinating and Roo couldn’t wait to tell one of the volunteer wardens all about her observations.
Then it was time to leave Norfolk and head for home with a car full of exhausted children. We skimmed past the sunset lit structure of Horsey Mill and skirted round Hickling Broad – one of Norfolk ‘s famous waterways. We did our best to resist its siren call – next time!
Despite the blustery winter weather doing its very best to deter us, our weekend in Norfolk was invigorating, festive and surprisingly outdoors based. Nothing says winter like bracing walks, wonderful wildlife and a roaring fire to go home to and our weekend in Norfolk had all of those in abundance.
Norfolk’s gentle landscapes and footpaths, its long stretches of beautiful beach and its accessible, characterful towns make it a perfect holiday destination for young families all year round. This is a county I would like to spend longer in and see throughout al the seasons. I long to revisit the beaches and dunes and get to know them when they have shed their dramatic winter cloaks for lazy summer sunshine and I remain as keen as ever to explore Norfolk’s wetlands and inland waterways. The idea of taking on the long-distance challenge of the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path National Trails with the girls has also slipped into my mind…Norfolk, we will be back!
Our accommodation and guided walk in Norfolk was kindly sponsored by Norfolk Country Cottages, Visit North Norfolk and Walk Norfolk. As ever all writing, ponderings and wild winter wanderings remain entirely my own.