We’ve recently returned from a glorious few days at the White Horse at Brancaster Staithe on the north Norfolk coast. It’s about a 4-hour drive from home and as we like to do our motorway travelling when there are few trucks on the road we set off on the Sunday. We intended to stop off after a couple of hours for a bite to eat, but in the meantime we badly needed a Wimbledon ‘comfort break’ so we pulled into a small service station. Would you believe we managed to pick probably the only one that didn’t have ‘facilities’? However, we were able to buy sandwiches as we knew all the eating houses would be jam-packed serving Sunday lunches. Then a few miles further on, we spotted our sanctuary – a Little Chef – they’d have loos wouldn’t they? So we quickly parked up and trotted into the restaurant where we were immediately waylaid by a very effusive and determined manager. ‘Morning sir, Morning madam’ he beamed. ‘A table for two – right here’, and he almost pushed us towards it. ‘Special offer today - sandwich, packet of crisps and a coke for £5.’ We didn’t get a chance to explain we weren’t looking for food, and found ourselves ordering 2 specials we didn’t really want. However, we did find the ‘facilities’ and continued our journey in comfort.
Arriving at our hotel around teatime, we settled into a very comfortable room and after unpacking went out onto the terrace for a cup of tea. Just yards away is the shoreline and at low tide areas of salt marsh and mudflats stretch out to the horizon. The whole area is overgrown with sea lavender, which looks a bit like heather and spends half its time submerged in salt water. Mussels are harvested from beds here to be served fresh in local restaurants.
After tea, we ventured out for a short walk and stepped straight onto the Norfolk coastal path that runs directly in front of the hotel. The path meanders past pretty cottage gardens, a small harbour and sheds where fishermen process and sell their catches. I like to think this area has changed little over the years. Just good sea breezes, sunshine and the marvels of the natural world. Brancaster Staithe remains a true working village where you can buy lots of locally caught fish, crabs, lobsters and oysters as well as cockles and mussels. Returning to our terrace table for an aperitif before dinner, we watched the sun sinking into a wide expanse of pink and understood why artists and painters marvel at the vast empty skies of Norfolk.
One of our reasons for choosing this particular area was to visit some of the spectacular nature reserves, so next day we went to Titchwell. This coastal RSPB site has featured on the BBC Nature Watch programmes and the centre posts a daily record of the rarities seen on the reserve and gives their location and the vantage point or hide from which the observations were made. Armed with yesterday’s sandwiches and a flask of coffee, we wasted no time and set out with the intention of getting as close to the action as possible.
When the tide recedes at Titchwell acres of mudflats are exposed, leaving rich feeding grounds for thousands of seabirds and water fowl. Many are seasonal visitors and migrants, but some have made their permanent homes in these wild areas. In late summer an astonishing variety can be seen; we saw redshanks, turnstones, knots, and godwits, to name but a few. The keen bird watchers were looking out for the elusive bittern but, as interested amateurs, we were just bowled over to spot several Little Egrets, a Marsh Harrier, Little Stints, a huge flock of dunlins skimming across the water at breakneck speed and some strikingly handsome Egyptian geese digging in the mud, not forgetting a beautiful charm of goldfinches feeding on thistles.
The reserve path eventually led us onto the sand dunes and beach and we sat down to eat our snack. Very soon we were joined by a rather inquisitive gull. Not recognising it, Rhoda thumbed through our bird books and decided this was something special. She announced quite emphatically that it must be a Bonaparte’s gull, ‘rarely seen on these shores’ according to the book. I wasn’t so sure but she wouldn’t let me check her observations and later when someone asked us if we’d seen anything of note, she proudly showed him the picture of the rare gull. He hesitated, and then said, ‘I don’t think you’d see a Bonaparte’s gull here - it was probably a young blackheaded gull.’ ‘But it didn’t have a black head,’ she wasn’t going to be put off. ‘That’s right,’ he countered, ‘Blackheaded gulls don’t get their black heads till they mature.’ Rhoda suddenly realised she was dealing with an expert birdwatcher here and would have to back down. ‘Yes, of course you’re right,’ she said rather sheepishly. Our new friend smiled, ‘Don’t worry, we all make mistakes but if you pop into the Fen Hide on your way back – you might get lucky and see a spoonbill – he was there this morning.’ So we parted good friends, and wiser.
On another day we visited Holkham Bay which boasts the best beach in Britain. As we walked across the bay we could hear a distant honking and within minutes thousands of migrating Brent geese crossed overhead. Wave after wave of them all on their way to feeding grounds nearby; a wonderful spectacle.
We also managed a visit to Snettisham, another fabulous RSPB site. We would have liked to have spent much longer at Holkham Beach and as we didn’t get time to see Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, I guess we’ll be back in Norfolk before too long. Rhoda might even see a Bonaparte’s gull next time!
PS. We can recommend the White Horse for comfort, food and friendly service.
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 02:03 PM GMT [Link]