Country diary: A Norfolk walk of crumbling cliffs and jostling seals

Wells-next-the-Sea to Diss, East Anglia: We encounter Sunday fisherman, farming at vast scale, and talk in the pub of the sea’s inexorable advance

For this year’s 11-day walk, we follow Norfolk’s coastal path and the Angles Way. At the outset, flocks of geese wheel above extensive salt marshes – “pink-footed”, advises a bird watcher who also points out two spoonbills. Wind turbines glimmer offshore, far beyond the mud banks, creeks and distinctive red‑tinged vegetation.

The next day, we take the bus from Cley and proceed on low cliffs that are prone to landslips. Later, along miles of beaches, receding tides allow us to walk on wet sand below vulnerable sea defences. Towards the gas distribution station, Sunday fishermen line the beach.

At Happisburgh, holiday chalets have been removed from unstable cliff land and, in the pub that evening, we hear of the sea’s inexorable advance, the imminence of baby seals, and fossilised footprints of Homo antecessor, who lived on the estuary here 900,000 years ago. Next come dunes of pale marram that are protecting adjoining copses, Horsey Marsh, and heathland on Winterton Common. On top of the dunes, viewing areas allow sight of dozens of seals wallowing and emerging from the rough sea to jostle for position near uncovered groynes.

A creek amid the saltings.
A creek amid the saltings. Photograph: Virginia Spiers

After a day trip to Norwich we resume walking, away from Yarmouth’s historic quays and up the tidal Yare. Ruinous Burgh Castle, its walls built of split flints and orange tiles, commanded this way inland in Roman times; nearby, Fritton’s thatched Norman church has a typical round tower built of small rough stones.

Through the Somerleyton estate towards Oulton Broad, shoals of crunchy acorns strew sandy paths and lanes; hedgerows are thick with haws, crab apples and sloes. Along the meandering River Waveney, strong wind bends the willows and soughs in reeds; swans fly upstream and alight on rushy pastures below the enclosing embankments.

Beyond Beccles, tracts of arable land are planted with winter corn. Huge ricks of rectangular straw bales at Bungay (destined for the biomass power station) and gigantic sugar beet harvesting machinery at Flixton emphasise the scale of this land’s agriculture. Towards Diss, acres of eye-catching fresh greenery are coriander and fennel, to be mechanically harvested and freeze-dried.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Virginia Spiers

The GuardianTramp

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