On a hot summer’s day there is nowhere better to head than the coast. I love wild places and the Norfolk is fortunately blessed with a very long coast to explore. From shingle spits like Blakeney Point, to sandy beaches such as Holkham, Brancaster and Holme Dunes; from soft crumbly cliffs of sand, clays and flints at places like Happisbugh and Mundeslely to coastal towns busy with summer visitors including Hunstanton, Sheringham and Cromer our coast is endlessly fascinating.
And everywhere, even at the seaside of our busiest coastal towns, there is wildlife to spot. But, for me, the wildest part of our coastline will always be the saltmarshes which are found along many parts of the Norfolk coast between the Wash and Cley next the Sea.
Some of our best saltmarshes can be found at Wells, Stiffkey and Morston and the coastal footpath which skirts the upper edge of these marshes gives wonderful views over a wild world of sinuous twisting muddy creeks and marsh pools that shine like magic mirrors. This is a world of strange marsh plants adapted to survive their twice daily inundations by the tide. Cacti-like samphire plants form miniature forests shining green against dark mud on the lower fringes of the marshes. The skies always look big over the marshland. The horizon is hard to pin down. Where does the sea start or the sky end? The open water beyond the marsh may be invisible but, listen carefully, and you may catch a murmur of distant waves.
Saltmarshes are Norfolk’s fuzzy edge. Fuzzy because it’s never quite clear where the land ends and the sea begins. A shape-shifting world of strange patterns that change as the sea gurgles and oozes in, filling the creeks, freeing boats glued to the mud which then bob and dance on their anchor chains. Then, equally mysteriously, the tide quietly ebbs out leaving this marshland world subtlety different: plants coated in a fine new layer of brown silt and marsh channels sculpted into new curves by the water’s flow. Nothing here stays the same for long. Tides shift things around and depending on both wind and moon every tide behaves in a slightly different way. In July and early August a small miracle: acres of our saltmarshes turn purple as great carpets of sea lavender come into flower. And just for a few weeks our coastal marshland hums with bees that may have travelled kilometres to take advantage of this summer season nectar source.
Sit for a while on the edge of one of these wonderful marshland worlds. Look and listen. Skylarks sing overhead, a redshank pipes noisily but remains hidden, black and white shelducks fly over the marshland, black-headed gulls clamour raucously and a little egret, poised in concentration on pool edge suddenly leans forward and stabs into the water with its black, dagger-like bill. You can’t sit by a saltmarsh for long and not see or hear something. Small flocks of wading birds wheel and twist over the marshland bringing a touch of wildness on their wings. In July and August some of these will be birds already returning from breeding grounds north of the Arctic Circle passing through Norfolk on journeys which may end on West African coastal estuaries where they will spend the winter. These waders, dunlin, ringed plover, sanderling, sandpipers and stints, no nothing of our international boundaries; their great migrations link our coastal saltings to those of distant lands. They bring a touch of wildness on their wings and the call of a single bird, the curlew, stands for all that is wild about our marshland.
Norfolk’s coast is special. Special for its many nature reserves. Special for the wildlife that thrives here. Special for people too. Being in nature makes us feel good and nowhere is this more apparent than here on the coast.
Discover more about coastal wildlife then come along to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s ‘National Marine Week’ events