Fogbound: Heacham to Old Hunstanton

Earlier this week we walked from Heacham to Old Hunstanton along the seawall. To say that it was a bit foggy would be an understatement as the whole of northwest Norfolk lay shivering under a thick blanket of dense fog – a white-out, or rather ‘grey-out’, that rendered visibility poor in the extreme.

We made our way through Heacham village, past gingerbread carstone cottages and then holiday bungalows and caravan sites before arriving at North Beach, where the previous night’s freeze had created thin blades on the stems and leaves of shoreline plants and shrubs.  

A few distant ghostly figures could be seen out on the wall, walking dogs or just taking exercise. The Wash that lay ahead was an unappetising grey soup that disappeared from view not far beyond the groynes that ran into it. On the far shore lay Lincolnshire; today, it may as well have been Narnia. It is said that on a clear day it is sometimes possible to make out Boston Stump (the soaring tower of Boston’s St Botoph’s church) on the distant shore. Not so today. The tide was going out, its recent turning delineated by a line of seaweed, broken shells and energy drink cans. A washed-up sprig of plastic holly added a timely if lacklustre reminder of the coming festive season.

Approaching Hunstanton, the resort slowly came into focus as the mist started to clear. Soon after, a hazy disc of sun shone through and fragments of blue sky began to piece together overhead. By the time we reached Old Hunstanton the transformation was complete – perfect light to appreciate the banded cliffs that rise here. Some unknown hand had created a piece of citizen landscape art on the beach – a collection of painstakingly assembled cairns of red and white chalk that echoed the cliffs of the backdrop. On the shoreline, oystercatchers perched companionably on seaweed-covered rocks while sanderlings scurried like clockwork toys and turnstones did exactly what their name suggests. A scene to savour, albeit briefly – by the time we turned around to walk back into town fog was already starting to descend once more.

 

Snettisham

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There’s a good omen as we leave Heacham before dawn: the sharp cry of a tawny owl emanating from somewhere in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, walking from Snettisham RSPB car park towards the beach at The Wash, there are already a  few skeins of geese in the sky, flying west, ready to breakIMG_3208fast on sugar beet fields.

Mostly though, you hear them before you see them – a noisy gabbling racket coming from dark rafts of life out on the water. Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese overwintering from Greenland and Iceland – west Norfolk must seem like Shangri-La after all that tundra and icy water. The geese peel off in groups at regular intervals, forming fluid arrowheads as, honking excitedly, they fly west inland.

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There is an unwritten discipline at work, and every bird seems to know its place in the squadron. Flapping inland, the geese merge loosely with other groups before they eventually disappear from view. To our human eyes, Snettisham church rising out of the mist is the only recognisable local landmark; perhaps its steeple serves as a beacon to the geese too, as they seem to know exactly where they are going. IMG_3218

The sun rises over the land, a brilliant orange fire that lights the birds as they fly over head, turning their underbelly pink, orange, red. Momentarily they almost resemble flamingos.

IMG_3244The tide is turning quickly and hidden sandbanks are revealed as the unseen moon sucks water from the land. As dawn-pink drains from the sky our attention is drawn to an untold number of hyperactive waders a little way to the south. Mostly dunlin, curlew and knot, it is the latter, another Arctic winter visitor, that are the most extraordinary as dense clouds of them rise sporadically into the sky, tightly grouped like starling murmurations. As they swiftly weave and turn, shifting the angle of their wings, the colour of this mass organism transforms dramatically from black to white to golden – the avian equivalent of a firework display. Such fleeting serendipity of form and colour: a photograph can hardly do this justice. As with the pink-footed geese, the Arctic’s seasonal loss is Norfolk’s gain.

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Of Saints and Shipwrecks

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Beneath the spectacular white and red chalk cliffs of Old Hunstanton in northwest Norfolk lie the sorry remains of what was once a working boat, the Steam Trawler Sheraton. Although she started life in 1907 as a Grimsby fishing trawer, and would later serve a a patrol boat and mine sweeper during World War II,  the Sheraton suffered the ignominy of serving as a target practice vessel for the RAF in 1946. In 1947, a gale caused the boat to break free of her mooring on the Lincolnshire side of the Wash and the Sheraton eventually washed up on Old Hunstanton beach.  Much of her bulk and fixtures were salvaged and now only the bottom of her hull remains, reduced to just a barnacle-covered skeleton of ribs and braces after more than half a century’s scourging by the tide.IMG_8366

The coast at this spot is known as St Edmund’s Point, a name that references the arrival of St Edmund who is said to have been shipwrecked here in AD855. The 14-year-old boy, who would be crowned King of East Anglia the following year, would go on to become a religious cult hero and England’s first patron saint after his matrydom at the hands of Danes in 870. Later, in the 13th century, the monks of Bury St Edmunds would build a chapel on the cliffs above the spot where Edmund was reputed to have landed in gratitude for his safe deliverence. The ruins of the chapel lie close to a white early 19th-century lighthouse, now a private residence, whose light was extinguished at the outbreak of World War I never to be rekindled.

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The beach at Hunstanton is one of the few places in Britain where the foreshore is privately owned. The Le Strange family, who have been lords of the manor here since shortly after the Norman Conquest, have in their possession a charter that states that as well as the beach itself they own ‘everything in the sea as far as a man riding a horse can throw a javelin from the low-tide mark’. The hereditary title of Lord High Admiral of the Wash is also retained by the family. So, the skeletal remains of the Sheraton wreck belong, technically at least, to the Le Strange estate, as do the picturesque seaweed-covered rocks that set off any decent photograph of the cliffs. If St Edmund had pitched up here a couple of centuries later than he did perhaps he would have become the property of the Le Strange estate too?

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