On the face of it, the flat coastline of north Norfolk is an unlikely place to appeal to me. I’m a weekend mountaineer and time after time I’m drawn to rock and ice, gusty precipices and the puckered falls of remote glaciers. However badly I managed to scare myself on the last climbing trip, as soon as I’m home I always long to go back. Yet there is a special, plangent quality about this opposite part of the world that I love just as much. The sea is an insistent presence, forever drawing the eye across intermediary fields and marshes and filling the sky with crystalline light. Even a mile inland the air is full of salt and the harsh peep of sea birds. This border territory seems to belong as much to sailors as to farmers – appropriately enough, since here is the birthplace of Horatio Nelson and the Holkham estate, ancestral home of the agricultural reformer known as Coke of Norfolk.
This favourite walk – I have done it in all weathers, alone as well as in all sorts of company – takes in places familiar to both great men. From Lady Anne’s Drive, off the A149 and opposite the north gate to Holkham Park, a path leads through a belt of conifers and emerges on to Holkham beach. This is a vast expanse of rippled beige sand, scoured by north-easterly winds and seamed with razor clamshells that crunch satisfyingly underfoot. Sometimes, in a specially designated section, an occasional hardy naturist sunbathes, making one wonder where all the young ones go to wait out the years until they’re old enough to cast a clout.
You can choose either to follow the path close to the trees or to strike out towards the distant waves, but if you go for the beach make sure to keep an eye out for the racing tides. After a couple of bracing miles, where the view to the left begins to open inland and the bird sanctuary of Scolt Head Island lies straight ahead, there is a prominent cleft in the high dunes. On the day I passed, the finger post pointing inland to Burnham Overy Staithe was lying prone, but after a satisfying scramble to the crest of the dunes a boardwalk soon comes into view, curving away inland. Join this and it will lead to the marsh wall bordering Overy Creek. It was here that Nelson learned to sail as a boy, navigating his way through the currents flowing between the mudbanks.
I love the next exhilarating mile or so inland to the village of Burnham Overy Staithe, with the white arms of a windmill at its centre. Just as it is for me today, the soundtrack for the young Nelson would have been skylarks threading overhead. There would have been sheep then as now, grazing their way towards becoming juicy legs of salt-marsh lamb. “Overy” is the medieval word for sheep farm. A right turn leads along the rear of the harbour car park, briefly following the Norfolk Coastal Path, then the route turns left inland towards the main road. Here is the first refuelling stop, The Hero pub. (Note the time, because the next opportunity is one of those places that stops serving food at 2.30pm, sharp.)
Continue southwards up Gong Lane, following what was once the prehistoric route between settlements. For all the done-up cottages and parked cars and telephone wires, as the road gives way to a track, this feels very much an ancient landscape of woodlands and wide pastures with the sea always nudging at your back. On the right is Burnham Overy Town, actually a small village dominated by the church tower with a pretty belfry. Turn right at the B1155, and left again at the footpath sign beside a white cottage. Walk down the edge of two fields to a fringe of woodland with a disused railway track hidden within it. Turn left and follow the track, then leave it to pass through a kissing gate on the right. Cross diagonally over a big field towards a gate in the distance. On the day I came by earlier this month, there were some frisky cows and bullocks who crowded up to investigate, but the mood was inquisitive rather than threatening.
Here is Burnham Thorpe, where Horatio was born. The beautiful flint church of All Saints, where his father Reverend Edmund Nelson was rector, is well worth exploring. His parents’ graves are on the north side of the choir, but although he wanted to be laid to rest here, the hero himself lies in St Paul’s Cathedral. A replica of his flag as commander-in-chief at the Battle of the Nile is flown on special occasions from the church tower. A detour to the opposite end of the village will bring you to the parsonage, built close to the site of his probable birthplace at the now-demolished old rectory. A lake in the grounds is dug in the shape of a boat, exactly as it was in his boyhood. Facing the village green is the Lord Nelson pub. Nelson knew it as the Plough, and here he had his farewell dinner before leaving to take command of his ship in 1793. A pint of Nelson’s Revenge is worth a try, even if you’re unlucky with an order for a more solid lunch.
Returning to the church, cross the little road east of the churchyard on to a track that skirts a copse before heading towards a distant thick line of woodland – the edge of Holkham Park. When you reach the park boundary, a trim brick and flint wall, turn north and head for the pedestrian gate at West Lodge, which gives access to the park. Coke of Norfolk inherited the estate from his great uncle, the first earl of Leicester. Coke was a Whig politician but also a pioneer of farming methods who introduced selective breeding of sheep and a superior variety of turnip. His tenants, grateful for the increased prosperity that filtered down to them, contributed £4,000 to raise a monument in his memory. The vast pillar still towers over the trees, and intensive farming continues on his land.
Today, buggies ferrying tourists within the park sweep past hundreds of happy pigs rootling beside the road. Among the attractions on offer are bike rides, cruises on the ornamental lake or the Bygones Museum, should those appeal, as well as tours of the austerely opulent interior of the Hall. Walkers may pass by either the south or north frontage of the house, admiring the scale of the gaunt Palladian design by William Kent.
The last mile crosses the deer park, with herds of fallow and roe deer, and down a superb avenue of holm oaks to the estate village at the north gate. Ahead lies Lady Anne’s Drive, and the assertive sea once again. A ham tea or perhaps a mariner’s tot at the Victoria Hotel offers a restful opportunity to reflect on the marriage between land and sea that is the essence of this lovely walk. There are no crags or cliffs – just clear air, birdsong, and the intermingling of salt and soil.
‘The Kashmir Shawl’ by Rosie Thomas is published by Harper Collins in paperback, £7.99
A walk with the FT No. 4: Nelson country, Norfolk
Circular walk: 11 miles
As this is a longer walk important pointers are described in the accompanying text. However:
1. Park in Lady Anne’s Drive, off A149 opposite Holkham Park north gate. It is £5 a day. OS grid ref TF 892448
2. Leave beach to climb to cleft in dunes. Take boardwalk heading southwards to marsh wall.
3. The Hero pub, Wells Road, Burnham Overy Staithe (01328 738334).
4. Turn left along disused railway, then right through kissing gate.
5. Enter Holkham Park through pedestrian entrance at west gate. The park is open to pedestrians 7am to 7pm, April-October.
6. Pass Holkham Hall – or stop to visit house.