“WARNING THESE WATERS ARE TIDAL IT IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TO BE CAUGHT ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE CHANNEL BY THE INCOMING TIDE. WHEN THE TIDE BEGINS TO FLOW CROSS TO THIS SIDE OF THE CHANNEL IMMEDIATELY.”
The words, “A SIREN WILL SOUND’ had been crudely deleted with white electrical tape.
Public autonomy over decision making, particularly around “Health & Safety”, is being eroded faster than the Norfolk coast by a municipal monopoly on common sense. But thanks to a broken siren, I’d have to make my own judgement about the safety of my walk. I should have checked the tide times, but a phone signal was unlikely and anyway, I would stay close to the shore.
At least, that was the plan.
Wells-next-the-Sea is a place that likes to speak through its signs – especially its sandwich boards. Outside cream and yellow shops, wooden pigs serve fried breakfasts, “second-hand books” are offered and there’s a blackboard headed up in capitals: “NORMAL FOR NORFOLK”. According to myth, “NFN” is pejorative shorthand doctors use to classify quirky eastern traits and thus avoid prescribing pills. Risking a diagnosis, the shopkeeper had scribbled “It’s always sunny above the clouds” while a chair for “bored husbands” sat firmly against equality guidelines. Staithe Street is so narrow, a seated man could almost browse in the seaside shop opposite. Written on the back of a Transit van was “DEFRA sucks – but they ain’t fishermen’s friends” and beside the lifeboat house a wooden arrow pointed out to sea: “Norfolk Coast Path”.
I followed the estuary for a mile, high up on the flood bank, where the coast path runs straight as a boulevard and points almost exactly north. Anchored to orange buoys, yachts and fishing boats settled on the mud as the tide pulled the sea from under their keels. I planned to walk west to Holkham beach, to see for myself why a 2014 travel industry poll voted it “Britain’s best”. Instead of walking back, I would ride the afternoon ‘Coasthopper’ bus to King’s Lynn in time for the train home to Yorkshire. Public transport in Norfolk is surprisingly efficient. Buses and trains run sequentially, so it’s easy to hop from one service to another to reach your destination, even if there is no direct route (to Wells, I took the X8 from Sculthorpe, then the 29 from Fakenham). You can even flag down the bus if you are stranded between villages. If only the rest of the country was so forward-thinking!
After twenty minutes of walking, and bypassing an old lady who thought I was her bored husband, I reached a gap in the dunes and a view of a beach as vast as the sky. This north-eastern part of the Norfolk coast is cushioned by a thick layer of sand like the subcutaneous fat on a seal, of which there are thousands hiding up the muddy creeks. If all the sand at Wells was blown into a huge glass lens, the sea itself would be merely the rim of a librarian’s spectacles, a picture frame, peripheral yet central to the existence and completeness of this scene: a planet of sand.
But the sea isn’t always so aloof. Above the high water mark, beside an amusement park called “Abraham’s Bosom”, Environment Agency workers were concreting in rock-filled cages to dampen the waves’ energy. Costing £1000 per metre, gabion defences are actually one of the cheapest engineering methods used to protect the low coast from erosion. In winter 2013, the highest storm surge in sixty years overran here, causing cataclysmic damage to beach huts and boardwalks. It also washed most of the punctuation off the danger sign, which leaned over drunkenly in the dunes.
I followed the arc of the beach westwards, past blue and yellow huts standing on stilts in the sand, the sort of fine, dusty grains my girlfriend calls “abroad sand” like billions of sandpits tipped out at once. It blasted in streaks around the headland and the beach steamed as if water was boiling underground. Shadows of clouds and birds skimmed along as the sun clicked on and off. It reminded me of Bamburgh.
Very subtly, the range of dunes I was walking beside began to drift away from the land, though the sea remained distant. An ageless couple wandered ahead, toeing the tips of the waves, tiny and silent in their jackets. Then I noticed the pinewoods were shrinking, subtly. Disoriented by the homogeneity and sheer size of a sandscape broken only by the marramed backs of the dunes, I was gradually walking out to sea. And the sea, if the tide was rising, would soon cut me off.
Slithering over the dunes, I splashed to the shore, through the thorns and into the calm safety of the forest. With the tide still so low, I had not been in any real danger. But I failed to appreciate how easy it can be to walk unwittingly into a precarious situation, in a place that tricks and eludes and is never the same.
Holkham was swampy, with triangles of green weed and two silvery channels forming an X-shape in an omega bay. To the south was a stake and wire fence so grotesque, I wanted to rip it out and wrap it around myself as protection from all the aggressive dogs. Was this really Britain’s best beach? It was nothing like the dramatic Holkham from the film Shakespeare in Love, when Gwyneth Paltrow walks delicately ashore to an unknown future. It looked ready to repel an invasion.
Sitting against a pine trunk, drinking hot chocolate as the rain spittered on the boardwalk, I began to doubt my navigational abilities. Wells’ beach was spectacular, and the real Holkham must be there too, somewhere. I had to catch the bus, but all the signs suggest I’ll soon be back on the North Norfolk Coast. I’ll find “Britain’s Best Beach”, and I’ll remember my common sense.