Big Skies: Walking And Glamping The North Norfolk Coast
Hands up who's done a walking holiday? How about combining it with a glamping experience?
I headed along the north Norfolk coast to try out the new Sandmartin holiday from Margins Walking & Glamping last July, covering 30 miles in three days and rediscovering some of the most remote, stunning parts of the British coast. It was just what I needed.
The biggest sustainable travel trends are to #staygrounded and to embrace slow travel so I decided to combine them both with a walking and glamping holiday on the north Norfolk Coast.
A secret in plain sight for those in the know, the Norfolk Coast Path is a spectacular part of the British coastline, and with huge swaths of the landscape protected as nature and bird reserves, it makes for a stunning escape, especially when you want to get away from screens.
The Norfolk Coast Path runs from Hunstanton in the west to Hopton on Sea along the eastern curve of the Norfolk coast for 84 miles, taking in nature reserves, areas of outstanding beauty, coastal defenses and through some of the prettiest villages and towns along the Norfolk coastline. While there are many circular walks, the best way to see it is to head out on foot from A to B or in my case Wells Next The Sea to Cromer over three days, otherwise known as the Sandmartin Holiday from Margins Walk and Glamp.
This family company move their sumptuous safari tents each night so all you have to do is walk with your daypack. There are several walking routes on offer, but each makes the most of their insider knowledge for pub stops, beaches and birdlife. What more could you want from a slow travel adventure?
Day 1: Wells Next The Sea to Blakeney
The idea of walking and glamping holidays isn’t new but combining it with a stunning seaside walk along the north Norfolk coast and getting more people to experience one of the most remote coastlines in the UK sounded like the perfect pebble getaway.
Starting in the pretty town of Wells Next The Sea, I kicked off the new three day experience, like all good holidays, with a pint of locally brewed cider at Whinhill Nofolk Cider, who took our overnight bags for Margins to pick up later.
I sat outside on the sunny early July Wednesday, under a bright blue sky, lookingover the map and detailed walking instructions to get us from Wells to Blakeney, then onto Sheringham and down to Cromer and already felt the stress ebb away. It might have been the cider, or it could have been the thought of having to do nothing more than walk and take in the views.
My first day’s walk of about 10 miles over to Blakeney set off firstly through some of Norfolk’s most stunning coastal landscape. It’s 51 years since this network of salt marshes, rivers, sandbanks and estuaries was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The raised footpaths curved into the distance alongside the sea defences, besides rivers and alongside fields, and as I edged slowly away from Wells towards the next village of Stiffkey, slowly the amount of dog walkers and bird watchers fell away until there was just the two of us, our yellow daypacks merging with the unique colour of the footpaths.
After a swift pub lunch at Stiffkey, we headed back out along the quiet coastal path to Blakeney, arriving in the quiet town along the quay. Our first night’s glamping was just behind Blakeney, up a hill at Galley Hill Farm Camping.
Image Wells was the start of our walk along the north Norfolk coast
As I arrived hot and sweaty to the campsite, our fab safari tent appeared out of nowhere, taking pride of place in a hedged in field that was home to a few other tents.
Margin’s team set up the glamping tent each night in a new location. A small kitchen with gas ring, fridge box, enamel crockery and everything you’d need to rustle up a cuppa or breakfast is there, waiting beautifully arranged, along with posies of peonies in glass jars.
Image Margin's team set up the most beautiful tent for a glamping and walking adventure
Our bedroom was strung with fairy lights, while a comfy double bed nestled under a thick duvet, blankets and hot water bottles. Everything from torches to tote bags for litter picking had been thought of, while the fridge was stocked with delicious Norfolk bits and pieces for a proper fry up come the morning.
I discoverd Gin’s mother’s tealoaf waiting for us, bunged the kettle on and we sat in the comfy camping chairs watching the heat of the day slowly fade, reading books and decompressing from normal, inside life.
Image Blakeney is the first night's stop on walking holiday along the north Norfolk coast
Day 2: Blakeney to Sheringham beach
The flint cottages of Blakeney glinted in the sun, along the river Glaven as we set off on July’s hottest day so far. Blakeney Point and the National Trust nature reserve here is famous for seal watching and beached sailing boats lay tilted on the muddy banks as we walked along the ochre raised paths above the low tide.
The North Norfolk Coast path heads out almost to sea, around the distinctive marshes before heading back inland at Cley Next The Sea. You approach this tiny village almost like a sailboat working its way up the estuary. Cley's ancient windmill was what I was aiming for, but the village is protected by semi circles of raised flood defences, the narrow footpath winds its way along the top of them before dropping down in the village. As I ambled into Cley, the centuries could have fallen away, this view has remained unchanged for decades.
Image Cley Next The Sea is a picturesque place to stop and explore
It’s worth stopping in Cley for a cuppa and a visit to their excellent traditional smokehouse - I would have picked up a picnic for lunch had it not had been so hot (I thought carrying fish around all day might have been a bit smelly!).
Following Margin’s excellent instructions, we dived down cobbled back alleys, between houses and the river and emerged under the shadow of the windmill, before heading out of town and towards our first stop of the morning, the Cley Marshes Visitor Centre. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust has had a nature reserve centre here for nearly 100 years, since 1926, where people have come to watch for bitterns, avocets and terns, and it was revamped as an eco-friendly building a few years ago.
"It really is amazing, what really makes you happy, as opposed to what we’re told makes us happy"
Blending into the marshes that head out to sea is a hard task, but the two storey visitor centre manages it with a grass roof and offers bird watchers a shady spot (and handy cafe) to scope out the marshes’ huge range of birdlife. Binoculars can be borrowed and the long benches by the viewing windows have beginners’ bird guides on them but it made me realise (and not for the first time on this trip), I have a shameful lack of birding knowledge.
As much as I could have spent all day mooching round the marshes, we had the hardest part of the walk to come. Several miles across a shingle beach down to Sheringham in the middle of the day.
In any other weather than blazing heat, I would have stopped to marvel at the huge dunes of shingle and pebbles or I would have had a seaside picnic but in 30 degrees and a coastline that seemed to disappear into the shimmering distance, the shingle miles were a little surreal, like finding yourself on an abandoned planet.
Sheringham is where the north Norfolk coast path goes up the in world and cliffs make an appearance for the first time.
First thought we dived away from the coast, via The Ship Inn in Weybourne for a much needed pint of lime and soda and a sandwich and then found our way back to the cliffs, cutting down a farmer's track between two thick fields of wheat, hedgerows a buzz with bees and insects, feeling like some Enid Blyton tale of adventure come to life as we navigated the footpaths, trusty paper map in hand.
It really is amazing, what really makes you happy, as opposed to what we’re told makes us happy. Striding down a quiet country path, no signage in sight, no phone signal to be had, feeling a connection to a landscape and the creatures around me, I will remember a bizarre sense of freedom for a long time to come.
Image Views along the north Norfolk coast from the cliffs at Sheringham
The afternoon was spent making my way up the cliffs and then along the top, through wildflower meadows, alongside golf courses and down the National Trust signed paths towards Sheringham, bare foot and sun dazzled.
After a much needed, medicinal even, ice cream, the last little push, through Sheringham and up and over what locals optimistically call the 'Beeston Bump', was worth the exertion.
Standing at the top of bump, the town meandering down to the North Sea in one direction, fields, pastures and a caravan park sloping down from the other side of the top, it felt like a huge achievement to have worked our way around north Norfolk’s coastline, on foot.
" I found a sense of escape in seeing everything in micro, not macro-detail"
We sat for a moment before descending down to our second night’s home at Beeston Regis Holiday Park. A walking holiday might not have the huge distances that make experiences seem exotic, but actually I found a sense of escape in seeing everything in micro, not macro-detail.
The step by step appreciation of the changing landscape, of progressing slowly, under my own steam, diving down back streets and footpath signed alleys that you’d never notice in a million years from the car, of being part of the natural landscape, under the same huge blue sky as the birds, bees, flowers and rivers in a way that felt totally foreign from my normal whizzing about.
Tired but happy, I found the Margins’ glamping elves had packed up our tent and reassembled it overlooking a medieval church on the edge of the caravan park. Enough bunnies to fill a Disney film, hopped and played in the field surrounding us, diving in and out of hedgerows as we trundled back and forth to the bathroom block.
While the bunnies didn’t help me prepare dinner, I didn’t need a lot of help, thanks to Margin’s superb evening platters.
A Norfolk produce ploughmans awaited along with homemade lemon posset and shortbread biscuits and bottles of local apple juice. As well as enough rations for us and the rabbits, what I loved most was the Margin’s team commitment to using reusable containers, no plastic and seasonal, local ingredients. It felt like discovering a picnic hamper from the past rather than relying on M&S.
A crochet covered hot water bottle warmed the bed while we played cards by lamplight before calling it a night, to the sound of….nothing. Pitch black, cosy, well fed and well walked...I slept like a log.
Day 3: Cromer pier and beyond
I’m not going to lie, well ok, I thought about it for a minute, but I didn’t walk the last 3.5 miles to Cromer Pier thanks to some rather large, hottest day of the year induced, blisters.
I didn’t want to miss out on Cromer’s famous crab so we said a sad goodbye to our fabulous safari tent after a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs and salmon from our Norfolk supplies. Pottering around the tent, filling the kettle, making breakfast, sitting and watching our bunny neighbours, I couldn’t have been more content. It’s mornings like these that make you realise we might be missing something vital from our lives, cooped up in our houses all the time.
Cromer’s not just famous for its sideways shufflers, the beach at Cromer is one of Norfolk’s best beaches and even on a muggy day, it had attracted plenty of swimmers by lunchtime. The cobbled streets and old shopping squares are worth a wander, while I stopped for a second breakfast at Rocket House cafe, which has the best outside terrace in town, that overlooks the pier.
The Norfolk coasthopper runs between Cromer and Wells Next The Sea fairly regularly, so with our sweaty walking boots strapped to our backs and our daypacks full of shells, sand and suncream, we headed back to Wells Next The Sea and real life.
Margins Sandmartin holiday is new for this summer and available until mid September. It has various walking and glamping options for all fitness levels. For more information on Margins Walk & Glamp holidays click here.