My first encounters with Norfolk’s Deep History Coast – as nobody was calling it back then – weren’t the most sophisticated. It was the early 1980s and I recall family outings of sandy sandwiches and buttoned-up cardigans, and my uncle stripping to his trunks, dashing into a chilly, churny sea and pulling a moony as the rest of us cowered behind the windbreak.
But I knew even then that it was a boon to grow up so close to this stretch of shore, where at the weekends we could drive – or even catch a train – to watch the tide ebb and flow beneath Cromer’s Victorian pier, or make castles from mile upon mile of soft yellow sand.
850,000 years of history
The area’s full backstory was unknown at the time. The Deep History Coast (deephistorycoast.co.uk), which encompasses a 22-mile cliffed section of northern Norfolk, from Weyborne to Cart Gap, is so named because it’s now understood to plunge right down to the depths of the past. This is where the Cromer Ridge – formed by glaciation hundreds of thousands of years ago – rises from low-lying salt marshes and is mercilessly gnawed at by the North Sea, yielding significant archaeological finds.
In 1990 a large bone exposed in the cliffs of West Runton proved to be part of the largest and oldest near-complete mammoth skeleton in Britain; in 2013, the oldest human footprints ever found outside Africa, from around 850,000 years ago, were revealed at Happisburgh. This ever-changing seaboard, one of the fastest eroding stretches of coast in the country, is literally ground-breaking stuff. It can be hard to comprehend, but these days a Discovery Trail, with 11 information points and an accompanying interactive app, helps bring the stories to life.
Everything you want from a seaside holiday
This shoreline isn’t undiscovered exactly. It includes the comely resorts of Cromer and Sheringham, which have been pulling in tourists since Victorian times. But there are plenty of patches that still get overlooked. Because this is Norfolk’s ‘bit in between’. Head further north-west – to Blakeney, Cley, Holkham – and it’s all very gorgeous but gentrified, with second-homers flooding the flint cottages and organic delis.
Strike further south and you’ll soon hit kiss-me-quick Great Yarmouth – fun but hardly serene. The Deep History Coast bestrides these extremes of smashed avocados and slot machines. That’s not to say elements of both can’t be found here, it’s just that neither dominates. It feels a bit more real.
“Cromer and Sheringham are popular tourism destinations and places like Walcott and Mundesley are well used by those in the know, but there are many places where you can walk for miles along the beach or coast path and not see a soul,” says North Norfolk District Council’s Anny Wooldridge. “Every aspect of the classic UK coastline – Blue Flag beaches, cliffs, geological phenomena, seaside resorts, quaint villages, seafood cafes, lighthouses, windmills, rich flora and fauna – are within easy reach.”
It’s true, you can find a bit of everything along the Deep History Coast: good surf, a vintage steam train (01263 820800; nnrailway.co.uk), an easy coast path connecting the lot and the chance of seeing seals at almost any point. At West Runton you’ll not only find excellent rockpooling but also Beacon Hill – at a mighty 103m, it’s Norfolk’s highest point.
One of my favourite spots is Trimingham (trimingham.org), which sits high on slumping, lunar-like clay and sandstone cliffs, behind a shock of trees – the views here are far-reaching. The village was an important medieval pilgrimage site, with devotees flocking to its St John the Baptist’s Head Church, which contained an alabaster cast of the saint’s skull. It’s sleepy these days, but there’s talk of turning the old Pilgrim’s House into a community cafe.
I also love Happisburgh (happisburgh.org.uk) – both on account of its normal-for-Norfolk outsider-tripping name (it’s pronounced Haze-bruh) and its see-it-before-it’s-gone urgency: you can almost watch the caravans sliding down the cliffs in real time.
A trail leads around the historic village, via St Mary’s Church (climb the tower’s 133 steps for enormous views), the Hill House Inn pub and micro-brewery (Conan Doyle once stayed here; 01692 650004; facebook.com/HillHouseInnsLtd) and the red-and-white-striped lighthouse, built in 1790 and the oldest in East Anglia. It was once part of a pair – the brick remnants of the long-gone ‘low light’ are revealed on the beach at low tide, and are set to become the site of a new ‘Time and Tide Bell’ installation this autumn. From here it’s only a short walk to the lovely Small Sticks Café (01692 583368; smallstickscafe.co.uk) at Cart Gap, where you can tuck into homemade cakes, produce from the owners’ farm, and crab and lobster straight from the boat.
Obviously, the seafood is good all along the Deep History Coast. You can buy Cromer crabs fresh from their titular town at Davies Fish Shop or Jonas Seafood. But I prefer to leave the hard work to Richard and Alison Matthews at Rocky Bottoms (07848 045607; rockybottoms.co.uk), a 19th-century brick-kiln-turned-cafe on the road to West Runton; Richard has been fishing here for 35 years, and his catch is served in delicious dishes such as crab linguini.
Weybourne village, at the northernmost end of the Deep History Coast, is the least visited discovery point. But it provides some of the most impressive views and interesting features, particularly the precarious coastguard cottages, the Saxon church tower, the medieval priory ruins and 19th-century windmill.
Here, the Ship Inn (01263 588721; theshipinnweybourne.com) is the place for local ales, 100-plus gins, pub grub made from regional produce and a bed for the night. Or head to nearby Kelling Heath Holiday Park (01263 588181; kellingheath.co.uk) – a designated Dark Sky Discovery Site, its camping pitches and lodges offer some of the best stargazing in the country: on a clear night the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye.
The most atmospheric stay is probably the Gunton Arms (01263 832010; theguntonarms.co.uk), an 18th-century farmhouse turned pub-with-rooms on a huge deer estate near Cromer. It manages to combine the traditional and the very cool – locals drink beer in the shadow of priceless art (Magrittes, Emins, Hirsts); quality meat sizzles on a huge open fire in the flagstoned Elk Room. It’s a significant step up from the sandy sarnies of my childhood. But I’m glad this stretch of seaside still offers both.