Norfolk is beautiful at any time of year – and is a great destination for eco-conscious and wildlife-loving families. By Penny Bunting
Norfolk is well-known for its stunning beaches and remarkable wildlife, and is a popular summer destination for families who flock here for the vast sandy beaches and pretty seaside towns.
But you don't have to visit Norfolk in summer to appreciate the county's wonderful scenery. Winter or early spring can be full of dramatic beauty – the empty beaches bathed in watery light from a low sun, and grey, stormy waves crashing onto the sand. It's a time to wrap up in warm clothes and get out for an exhilarating stride across the sands.
There's no better place to do this than at Holkham. The beach here famously features at the end of Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, in a scene in which Will is coming up with the storyline for his next play. And it's certainly a place for artistic inspiration. On a sunny winter's day, the dark green pines that form a backbone to the beach contrast with the white dunes, blue sky and slate sea.
But to call this a 'beach' is a bit of a misnomer – it's actually an extensive seascape, with a wide range of different habitats. From the car park, visitors travel through pinewoods, scrub, saltmarsh, grasses, dunes, and shallow streams and rivulets before reaching the bucket and spade part of the beach. And even then, when the tide is out, it takes a good five minutes of brisk walking to reach the sea.
Visiting after a storm, as we did, you'll find the sea has washed a myriad of shells ashore. The foreshore is also rich in birdlife, with curlews and oystercatchers using their long beaks to hunt for hidden lugworms, and ringed plovers and dunlins running comically in and out of the waves.
The foreshore here is just a small part of the Holkham Nature Reserve, a vast area covering some 3700 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat. The pinewoods and scrub that border the sands support a huge number of nesting birds and insects – including some rare species of butterfly such as dark green fritillary and white-letter hairstreak.
Perhaps the most fascinating section of the nature reserve, though, is the grazing marsh. Sandwiched between the coast road and the pinewoods, this area of wet grassland is home, in winter, to thousands of visiting wildfowl including pink-footed geese and brent geese. Birdwatchers from far and wide visit the area in winter – the sight of thousands of geese filling the sky as they return to the marshes to roost is one of the world's greatest wildlife-watching experiences.
Holkham Nature Reserve stretches east along the coast all the way to Wells-next-the-Sea, a picturesque and historic Fairtrade village that makes a pleasant stop for an hour or two.
With its harbour full of bobbing fishing boats, a summer train transporting tourists from the village to the beach, and rows of colourful beach huts lining the sands, it's a good destination for families.
The village centre of Wells offers excellent shopping, with plenty of independent boutiques and gift shops lining pretty Staithe Street. For lunch, the friendly, low-carbon Wells Deli serves good value panini, pizzas, soups and cakes, with a wide choice of vegetarian and vegan options.
Heading further east along the coast brings you to Cley-next-the-Sea. Here there's another great refreshment stop to be found at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's superb, eco-friendly visitor centre. The café here has wall-to-wall windows where you can keep an eye on the wildlife on the adjacent Cley Marshes – a breathtaking view, with or without binoculars – while tucking into coffee and cake.
The wetland pools and reedbeds of Cley Marshes form one of Norfolk's best-known nature reserves – a flat expanse of blue pools and green grasses that stretches down to the sea.
This habitat supports a wealth of wintering wildfowl and wading birds, including wigeon and pintail. Bittern, marsh harrier and teal can be seen year-round; in summer look out for avocets and spoonbills.
Just along from the visitor centre is a raised walkway leading all the way to the sea. A bird hide halfway along this path offers shelter from the wind and a chance to get a close-up view of some of the reserve's residents.
The beach is an expanse of pebbles that stretches for miles. Off to the west is Blakeney Point – a hooked spit of land that is home to the largest seal colony in England. Some 2,000 grey seal pups are born on Blakeney Point each winter – the best way to see them is on a boat trip from nearby Morston. Try Beans Boats – an hour-long trip that gets you close up to the seals for some fantastic photo opportunities.
This region of Norfolk is not just about stunning coastline though. There's plenty inland to keep eco-conscious families busy, with enough attractions and activities to fill a fortnight.
The Green Britain Centre, in Swaffham, showcases sustainable living by focusing on three big issues: transport, energy and food.
It's a great place to learn about renewable energy. You can climb up the wind turbine – it's the only one in the world that's open to the public – and find out more about solar power.
The inspiring organic garden at the Green Britain Centre includes a heritage orchard where unusual varieties of apples, pears and plums – including many old Norfolk varieties, dating back over 200 years – grow alongside blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes.
The centre's shop, Ecotopia, sells a range of products that support a better way of doing things – whether it's local, Fairtrade, organic or sustainably sourced. And there's an eco-friendly café too, offering locally sourced plant-based dishes.
For more garden inspiration, head to Pensthorpe Natural Park – 700 acres of gardens and wildlife habitats, with walking trails, just outside Fakenham.
Home to four of the most spectacular gardens in Norfolk – including a meadow and lake – the park is beautiful all year round. The Millennium Garden is an excellent example of how gardening can help wildlife: in summer, colourful flowers provide food for butterflies and other pollinators, while in winter, birds benefit from seeds and nesting places.
Pensthorpe Natural Park is home to one of the largest wildflower meadows in North Norfolk. Situated in the floodplain of the River Wensum, this traditionally managed meadow provides the perfect hunting ground for barn owls, and is a haven for butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies.
Where to stay
West Lexham offers a range of accommodation options, from stunning treehouses to gorgeous glamping in bell tents. The superb campsite facilities here include individual, tiled bathrooms with vintage decoration, masses of hot water, and underfloor heating.
West Lexham is managed sustainably with 95 per cent of energy provided by renewable resources, including a biomass boiler and solar PV panels.
Furniture in the treehouses is handcrafted or made from reclaimed materials – creating a unique vintage look that's superbly stylish. There is excellent attention to detail, with lovely little touches everywhere you look.
Tilia and Quercus treehouses at West Lexham are quirky and luxurious, with ensuite shower rooms, central heating and cooking facilities. They are highly recommended if you want a memorable stay for a special occasion. See our full review of Tilia Treehouse.
Green Adventures February 2018
Wind turbine; organic garden © Green Britain Centre