Pinpointing favourite treks, rambles and family trips, these 40 walks visit Norfolk in all its variety. From wild and windswept coast, Fens and Breckland to sheltered inland woods, broads and valleys, they offer geographical impact and a strong sense of history. Treading in the footsteps of warriors, drovers, pilgrims, weavers and reedcutters, this selection links to the county’s extensive network of long-distance routes. You’ll find Norfolk at its most photogenic, with swallowtail butterflies and wherry boats, windpumps, seals and sailing boats, round tower churches and medieval architecture. From coast road to historic villages, towns and cities, many of the walks start near public transport.
Anyone visiting Norfolk for the first time, especially a townie or hill person, will be struck not only by the county’s flatlands and big skies, but its variety too. For daytrips, weekends and holidays it’s a popular destination with more to it than favourites you may already love, yet it’s one of England’s least populated counties. This guide explores beaches, broads, brecks, forests, fens and farmland. At times, these vast landscapes seem to belong only to the rare and spectacular wildlife as the crowds disperse. Out of season, clues and relics left by ancient settlers, monks, marsh people, weavers and merchants are sometimes the only human signs.
About this guide
Throughout this book there are references to the regional long-distance paths that make Norfolk such a draw for walkers. The routes featured may only show small sections, but help to provide a perspective on how they link up across Norfolk as a whole. Times given for each walk are a rough estimate based on average walking speed of 3.5km per hour, allowing time to look at the guide and map and enjoy views and destinations.
In a county with so much water, be it seashore or watermeadow, access for walkers will always be dependent on the weather. Plan ahead, checking weather reports and external sources such as the Environment Agency and organisations’ websites and social media updates. For example, Welney’s fenland A1101 Wash Road is periodically cut off by floods, and high tides surge or spill onto Norfolk’s Coast Path. Areas with seasonal restrictions or dog bans are mentioned where possible and ‘sensitive wildlife area’ is a plea to keep dogs on a lead. Many routes cross land grazed by sheep or cattle for part of the year and walkers are advised to keep a respectful distance from cattle and calves, while always keeping any dogs on a lead.
Walkers were exploring Norfolk more than 800,000 years ago. Small hollows revealed on the storm-lashed shore at Happisburgh in 2013 appeared to be human footprints. Digital analysis later proved them to be evidence of a small group of adults and children walking the mudflats of a river estuary, making them the oldest footprints outside Africa and the earliest evidence of humans in Britain.
Grime’s Graves in the sandy Brecks is dotted with Stone Age flint mines, regarded as the oldest industrial site in Europe. At Holme-next-the-Sea, two Bronze Age ‘seahenges’ were found on the beach. The Celts had a stronghold in Norfolk, with the Iceni tribe doing their utmost to fight off Roman rule. Their biggest settlement (taken over by the Romans) was at Caistor St Edmund. The Peddars Way marks the route the Romans took across the county, and examples of their forts at Warham in North Norfolk and Burgh Castle in the Broads still remain. It was the Romans who made the first attempts to drain the Fens.
In the post-Roman period, the Angles created the kingdom of East Anglia, divided regionally into South Folk and North Folk – Suffolk and Norfolk as we know them today. The Saxons and Normans left a legacy of 131 round tower churches, a Norfolk speciality – there are 659 medieval churches here. The historic hearts of King’s Lynn and Norwich represent the county at its wealthiest and most populous, when trading focused on wool and weaving. In a climate that couldn’t compete with the north where surging rivers helped power the Industrial Revolution, it was the Agricultural Revolution that roused Norfolk. Mined by Stone Age toolmakers for flint, Norfolk soils have supported everything from rabbit warrening in the poor Brecks to flowers, root vegetables, salad and pumpkins in the fertile Fens.
Almost 20 percent of Norfolk’s modern workforce remains in the farming, food and hospitality sector. There are around 60 breweries and several vineyards. Sugar beet, malting barley, wheat, potatoes and oilseed rape proliferate, even on heavier claylands. Poultry farming has a long history here (Bernard Matthews’ ‘bootiful’ turkey empire started with raising and processing birds inside a grand country hall). Fields of pigs rootle in the Brecks while lavender and asparagus are a speciality in loamy North Norfolk, the foodie and farmshop hotspot.
Norfolk offers wildlife ‘spectaculars’ that seem to take you back to another era, thanks to the rarity of species, as well as sheer numbers. Much of the saltmarsh, sand, shingle and heath coastline is managed as a National Nature Reserve, and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves represent the county’s exciting variety of habitat and species, from reedbeds to pingo ponds.
The bulge jutting out into the North Sea is a magnet for birdwatchers. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds make landfall here, from vast and noisy skeins of pink-footed geese arriving from Iceland and Greenland in autumn to tiny songbirds that find refuge in the dunes and pines. Wildlife thrives relatively undisturbed in the remote Broadland, Breckland heath and Fens, allowing iconic species such as the common crane to make a comeback.
Managing human and canine footfall has proved possible even at popular beaches such as Holkham, and an army
of volunteers helps protect the seal colonies that are so vulnerable to disturbance. A consortium of rural estates is embracing the ‘rewilding revolution’, with species such as beavers reintroduced. Northern pool frogs are back in the Breckland pingo ponds, thanks to the Wildlife Trust. One of the county’s original survivors is the swallowtail butterfly. In England, it is now found only in the Broads, putting this exquisite species top of the wildlife bucket list.
Walking, weather and topography
The waterbound Fens, Broads and North Sea, as well as the arid Brecks, create unpredictable weather and microclimates. Checking wind direction is a top tip for coastal walks as northeasterlies blow cold even on fine summer days. Though generally a temperate region with low rainfall, the flatlands are exposed, with nowhere to hide. ‘Hill’ is sometimes a misnomer referring to a sand dune or gravel hillock, but the Cromer Ridge, an ice age glacial deposit reaching 102m high, runs for 14km along the North Norfolk coast, and river valleys gently roll.
Norfolk’s landscape is in flux. The Broads Authority predicts that some of Broadland will soon become saltmarsh. Receding cliffs and landslips are a feature of Norfolk’s far easterly coastline (for this reason not featured in this guide), but bear in mind they tend to occur when heavy rain follows dry weather. The website tidetimes.org.uk is useful for planning walks. Keep an eye out for warnings such as car parks liable to flooding. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution warns of dangerous sandbars and fast-flowing channels, and swimmers must be wary of riptides.
It’s not all perilous, of course. Walking is mostly unchallenging here on a network of almost 2000km of linear and circular routes around the county, many of them waymarked. The Norfolk coast stretches for more than 160km, most of which is accessible from the Norfolk Coast Path.
Rumours that rural roadsigns are removed by locals is occasionally confirmed by regional newspapers. Whether it’s a throwback to foiling Dad’s Army’s enemy or a campaign against the Chelsea Tractor, who knows, but SatNav is often as baffled as you. For natural navigators, the constellations might put you back on track beneath dark skies. Two sites on the North Norfolk coast are designated Dark Sky Areas. The low population of rural Norfolk and its farmed landscape make it quite remote, but despite low traffic levels, fast cars and tractors might take you by surprise. On some quiet country roads there are signs imploring ‘Slow You Down’ – the local dialect, another product of a remote location, is proudly maintained. Many place names are pronounced quite unintuitively: Stewkey is Stiffkey; Potter Heigham Ham; Wymondham Wimdom; and Hunstanton Hunson.
Having no motorway helps Norfolk retain its charms, but Norwich is only 90 minutes by train from London, and King’s Lynn is also on the mainline. The Bittern Line railway connects Norwich, North Norfolk and the Broads. Heritage steam railways are a way to explore the area, as well as being a nostalgic attraction.
Eco coal has been trialled, but if the thought of coal-powered travel has steam coming out of your ears there’s the Coasthopper bus route, Norfolk Coast Cycleway, National Cycle Network Route and long- distance walking routes.