I begin my walk by joining the coast on the Western outskirts of Mundesley. The tide is high and the beach is covered. Even the groynes are under water for most of their lengths. With no beach, I am forced to walk behind the low wooden sea wall, between the wood and the low cliff. The shingle here is rough with large stones and the going is very tough. I am relieved to get round the corner and find some exposed sand.
I soon reach Mundesley beach, beginning with a row of colourful beach huts. There is some excitement in the air. The local rescue team is practising on the beach. One man, in wet suit and life vest, rushes into the sea. The other team members confer briefly and then run in to rescue him. They look cold – but enthusiastic.
Walking eastward, I leave Mundesley behind. It is chilly. The sky is grey and threatening. The tide may be receding, but still hits the wooden sea wall with forceful waves. Ahead of me the beach forms a long curving bay and, at the end of the curve, just inshore, I see a tower in the distance. I consult the map to find out where the tower is. I would like a landmark to aim for. But the coastline on the map appears straight. I am confused by this and feel, unreasonably, anxious – are my eyes playing tricks on me?
According to my map, a long distance footpath, The Paston Way, runs along the edge of the beach, above the wooden sea wall. I decide to stick to the sand. I see no other walkers, neither on the sand or on the footpath. I soon loose sight of the tower.
After a mile or so, I reach the first sign of human activity – some steps leading up to a small village with caravans. A sign says this is “Cable Gap” – but there is no “Cable Gap” on my map. This adds to my feeling of disorientation. From here there is a wide concrete sea wall, making walking easy. I meet a few other people out walking, but they disappear quickly as spots of rain fall.
I continue along the featureless wall, curving away into the distance. I am not sure where I am. I seem to have been walking for ever along a wall with no end. Eventually, I climb up a some steps leading up from the wall and find, surprisingly, that I am peering over a low concrete wall at the end of a road, with houses on either side. A man is about to open up his small shop and I call out to him, asking where I am. He says, “Cable Gap”, but then helpfully adds, “Bacton”. This, at last, gives me a position on my map.
The cloud is dark and threatening rain. I pick up my pace along the wall. The plan is to meet my husband for lunch at the pub in Happisburgh and this must be 3 miles away still. Eventually, the concrete path comes to an end and the coast rises into a crumbly cliff. I am walking on the beach now, behind the end of the groynes. The cliff look unstable, with areas of landslip – a familiar sight on this part of the coast. I can no longer see far ahead along the beach, groynes obscure my way. The landmark of the tower has disappeared. I have no idea if the access to Happisburg still exists – or has it slipped into the sea? And I have no idea how I will know that I have reached Happisburg. The beach here is deserted. My iPhone has lost its signal.
I see some giant steps cut in the crumbling cliff with some young boys sitting at the top. They clearly want to come down the steps but are hesitating. Just beyond them I see a church tower. This must be the tower I saw earlier and, looking at my map, I realise I have reached Happisburgh. Surely there must be an easier way up the cliff?
I continue walking. I clamber across ruined sea defences; great metal walls, twisted and battered by the waves. Then, round a curve, I find a strange sight. A metal tower, like a scaffolding tower, rises from the beach, a few yards away from the cliff wall. There are steps running up inside the tower and a gangplank leads from the top of the tower, across to the top of the cliffs. These must be the access steps to Happisburgh.
A woman with small children is sitting on the beach. I ask her if this is Happisburgh and she confirms I have arrived and, very politely, corrects my pronunciation. Apparently Happisburgh is pronounced “Hayesboro”.
At the top of the steps I meet a young woman about to come down. She has had a moment of vertiginous anxiety. The scaffolding tower appears even more precarious from the top and the steps are made of metal grills, with the beach clearly visible below every footstep, giving the unfortunate illusion you are walking into empty space. I give her a reassuring smile, “It is safer than it looks”.
The view from the top is wonderful. And, my mobile phone is working again. I walk across a field and through a caravan park, towards the church. The pub, The Hill House Inn, is a welcome sight. No sign of my husband – turns out that there are two pubs in Happisburgh – but he arrives eventually. We sit outside and enjoy a good meal.
Setting off again after lunch, the tide is out and I take time to enjoy the grand view from the top of the strange steps.
Down on the beach itself, I walk eastwards through a dramatic landscape of battered sea defences. I thought I had seen the worst of the cliff erosion, but here I am shocked to find back gardens sliding into the sea, garden sheds lying on the beach below and shattered houses with empty windows, abandoned to their fate. Huge boulders have been dumped against the crumbling cliff, in an effort to hold back the tide. This leaves a small sliver of beach to walk along and, if the tide was in, it would be impossible to continue my walk along this stretch of beach, strewn as it is with boulders and debris. I stop and take photographs.
Round the corner and I am walking on a lovely wide stretch of empty beach. There are a few dog walkers out and people flying kites, but the beach is relatively empty. After a mile or so, a good solid concrete sea defence wall begins. The lower part of the wall is stepped and I walk along this covenient pathway. Every so often there are gaps in the wall for beach access and I notice these gaps have floodgates embedded in them. The cliffs on my right grow lower and turn into dunes. Drifting sand covers the concrete pathway and, in some places, covers the wall itself.
I come to a point where the beach turns abruptly southwards and see, in the distance, my husband making his way towards me. He has driven ahead and is walking back along the beach to meet me. The sky has been grey all day, but suddenly clears. The sun is shining and, as I turn southwards to follow the beach, I see a wonderful sight. This is Sea Palling beach, a wide expanse of clean sand that stretches as far as I can see ahead. A hundred feet or so off the shoreline are rows of sea defences, consisting of short lines of large rocks running parallel to the beach. Between each line of boulders is a wide gap. Where the gaps exist, the waves have created natural horse-shoe shaped bays in the sandy beach. With the sunshine, the long stretch of clean sand and the blue sea, I feel as if I have stumbled on a tropical beach.
We pass a few sunbathers and head for the little lifeguard station which marks the beach access from the village. There are kids cycling and familes strolling. We stop at a little cafe and have a cup of tea, before setting off for home.
On this walk today, I have seen the ugly results of cliff erosion and the twisted evidence of the damage the sea inflicts, defying our attempts to tame it. This wonderful little resort, with its beautiful beach, has come as an unexpected and beautiful surprise – a perfect end to an interesting day.
Vital stats: 11 miles. 6 hours (including lunch and photography stops). Blister count = 0.
Interested in coastal erosion and the history of the attempts to hold back the sea on this part of the Norfolk Coast? Read this article, “Why Canute failed” on the Marinet website.