An undulating road winds along the north Norfolk coast. Wooden windmills and flint churches sprinkle green fields. To one side, meadows of saltmarsh edge the blue sea. Suddenly brown signs appear. A shady, tree-lined lane beckons invitingly. At the end of it, a boardwalk snakes through pine trees. The air fills with their scent. Pinecones hang like strange fruit and needles crunch underfoot. The walkway leads to a balcony overlooking a dramatic scene. Below lies Holkham Gap, a huge sandy plain ringed by grassy dunes. On the horizon beyond is the distant mirage of Holkham beach.
Arriving at Holkham almost feels like a movie sequence or stepping onto a stage. Unsurprisingly, this dramatic setting has become an iconic TV and film backdrop. Gwyneth Paltrow walked barefoot along the sand at the end of Shakespeare In Love. Thirty years earlier, Diana Rigg made her debut in The Avengers searching for spies in the dunes. Location scouts are drawn to Holkham’s unspoilt appearance. There’s no prom, no pier, shops, toilets, or litter bins. Instead, there are four uninterrupted miles of golden beach.
When the sun beats down on a hot day the lack of landmarks can be disorientating. At low tide especially Holkham can seem dreamlike and other-worldly.
Holkham regularly wins polls and awards for Britain’s best beach. Among Holkham’s admirers is Caroline Millar, a writer and lecturer who created this trail. ‘The north Norfolk coast is one of my favourite places since childhood holidays,’ says Millar. ‘It’s partly connected to my fascination with the writer WG Sebald, who taught at UEA and is a ghost in the Norfolk landscape. I also love places where there’s a story hidden just below the surface. Dig a little deeper and you get a very different perspective.’
The first ghost in Holkham’s landscape emerges at the car park. Lady Anne’s Drive, the lane leading up to the pines, provides the parking for Holkham Gap. ‘The lane is a mile long but can fill up very quickly,’ says Millar. ‘About halfway, a bump slows drivers down. Its only small but tells a story.’ From 1866 to 1952 Holkham had a railway station beside Lady Anne’s Drive. As more people travelled to the sea by car, the railway closed due to declining passengers. The hump marks the site of a level crossing and is the first fingerprint of human handiwork in this seemingly untouched place.
Old maps show the railway linking Holkham with Wells and Burnham Market. Modern maps still show an enduring difference between Holkham and its neighbours. Much of the surrounding coastline, from Scolt Head to Blakeney Point, is a squiggle of twisting creeks. At Holkham however straight lines score an expanse of marsh. Millar explains, ‘Holkham station and the railway stood on land reclaimed from the sea. From 1639 a series of walls, dams and ditches were built to hold back the water and drain the land for farming.’
Holkham’s scenic pine woods illustrate this vast redevelopment. Standing in neat rows, they provide shelter from sea breezes and trap sand blowing off the beach. ‘Pines are tough and grow quickly, so they are often planted on the coast to create a windbreak,’ says Millar. ‘Their main purpose here, though, is protecting farmland’. As the trail continues along the beach, the pines become a green stripe between the blue sky and yellow sand. It’s strange to think how different the area would have looked, and that seabirds once splashed where cattle now graze grass.
There is still plenty of birdlife at Holkham. Migrating and resident species include oystercatchers, little terns, ringed plovers, and pink-footed geese. At Burrow Gap the trail leaves the beach to enter an elevated bird hide. Besides a place to watch feathered friends, the hide gives sweeping views of the 25,000-acre Holkham Estate. The architects of Holkham’s transformation were the Coke family. Their Estate includes Holkham Gap, the pine woods, surrounding farmland and Holkham village. The Cokes’ influence was so great that they moved the village to build their spectacular home, Holkham Hall.
The Cokes weren’t the first people to settle in the area. It’s thought the village’s name stems from the Norse for ‘ship town’, after Vikings built a fort by one of the creeks. From the bird hide, it’s possible to make out the banked remains of Holkham Camp. This Iron Age hillfort was built between 650BC and 43AD on a defendable tidal spit. During the Iron Age and Roman eras, it was occupied by the Iceni tribe. It’s tempting to imagine Queen Boudicca looking out to sea from the ramparts. Archaeologists have found Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools at the Camp, suggesting an even earlier settlement.
‘Holkham may seem natural, wild, and untamed,’ says Millar ‘but people have shaped this coastline for thousands of years. Holkham is carefully developed and looked after’. Above and below the high tide line, the beach is managed by the Holkham Estate and Natural England respectively. The trail’s entire route is within England’s largest national nature reserve. Strict rules protect the local environment. Fires, camping, surfing, and various other activities are prohibited. The dunes are out of bounds to visitors and areas of the beach are periodically fenced off to protect ground-nesting birds.
Despite Holkham’s image for calm and serenity, Millar suggests ‘there is a tension between people’s desires and the landscape’s needs’. The beach has become increasingly popular. The Holkham Estate estimates 800,000 people and 300,000 dogs visit every year. Ironically, many arrive in search of solitude. Like other outdoor spaces throughout Britain, Holkham experienced a boost in numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions on foreign travel saw even more two- and four-legged visitors explore Holkham for fresh air and vitamin sea.
Inevitably, greater footfall means greater pressure on the landscape. The Holkham Estate reported that in 2020 the nature reserve ‘suffered hugely’ from littering and damage to wildlife habitats. Estate wardens now patrol the beach to maintain the rules. A new stipulation is that between April and September dogs must be kept on a lead at Holkham Gap. These measures are a reminder that the beach is privately owned, with various costs and balances. From Burrow Gap, the trail goes back to Lady Anne’s Drive. Instead of returning along the beach, the route follows a track on the other side of the pines. Along the way it passes Salt’s Hole, a large mirror-flat pool. ‘If you dipped your finger in, it would taste salty,’ says Millar. ‘Look closely and you’ll spot sea anemones in the water.’ Salt’s Hole is one of several saltwater ponds in the area. They are remnants of the tidal creeks that the Coke family drained to extend the Holkham Estate.
Salt’s Hole is essentially a rock pool marooned inland. If rock pools are windows to the ocean, this one is an eye to Holkham’s soul. As Millar says, ‘There’s much more to Holkham than it’s glorious beach. This is a complex landscape that rewards a closer look.’ Millar describes following a Discovering Britain walk as like being a landscape detective. Holkham has plenty of clues yet retains an air of mystery.