Holkham Bay

From Wells Next-the-Sea to Burnham Overy Staithe

I've spent so much time walking, exploring, relaxing and taking photo's around Holkham Bay that today I felt that a blog devoted to all I've learned and enjoyed about the area, was long overdue. So here goes......

A Changing Landscape
From Burnham Overy to Wells-next-the-Sea, the present day low lying marshes and pasture used to be tidal salt marshes, separating off shore shingle and dune ridges from the main coastline.

The earliest evidence of mans intrusion on the Holkham Bay landscape is Holkham Fort near Bones Drove, which dates back to around AD47 and is the remains of an Iceni settlement.
Holkham Fort from the air (looking North, towards the sea)
not much to see now, just raised earth banks around the two ponds
This is one of only five or six earthwork forts or ‘hill forts’ in Norfolk known to have been built by the local Iron Age warrior tribes. (Another site is close by at Warham – South East of Wells).
The traditional interpretation of these sites is that they were heavily defended tribal centres, either occupied permanently or at times of unrest. They may also have been ceremonial centres. Whatever their purpose, an immense amount of work was involved in their construction, with ditches up to four meters deep and with banks of similar height. On top of the banks were wooden walkways and palisades, making quite formidable fortifications.

an artists reconstruction - looking south, inland
The Holkham fort was constructed with double banks and ditch in a very defendable position, on an old sand spit, with the sea and salt marsh on three sides.

It's thought that warriors from this tribe fought with Queen Boadicea against the Romans. After the failure of the revolt the Roman legions slaughtered or enslaved most of the Iceni and forced the few survivors to abandon their tribal ways and live in a Roman style planned town. The under populated countryside became very attractive to Germanic migrants, in particular the East Angles, who would later settle the area and expel any of the remaining Icenian Britons. The provincial capital under Roman occupation was Venta Icenorum (present day Caister St Edmunds). A Roman Road runs along the west side of the present day Holkham Estate.

Later in Anglo Saxon times, legend has it that the Vikings sailed up a creek through the salt marshes and built a fort at a bleak place they called Holkham (‘ship town’ in Danish).

There is another theory that the name Holkham derives from hoelig ‘holy’ –ham ‘village’ in honour of Saint Withburga who was brought up at Holkham before moving to nearby Dereham to build a convent. She is commemorated in the church on the grounds of the Holkham Estate, (built over a much earlier Anglo Saxon structure).

Part of 19th Century Holkham Bay
From Iceni to the 1500’s the high tide line would have been roughly where the coast road is today. The tidal creeks were large enough to allow ships to load cargo from a Staithe at Holkham Village, (still present in the early 19th Century – see map above). By the 1500’s the channels had silted considerably, but small fishing vessels were still able to use the Staithe.

From 1639 onwards, local landowners, including the Cokes of Holkham, constructed a series of embankments in order to reclaim the salt marsh from the sea. Reclamation began at Burnham Overy in 1639 and was completed 220 years later in 1859 with the construction of the Wells sea wall. In that time about 800 hectares of salt marsh was converted to agricultural use.

In the late 19th century the 3rd Earl of Leicester started planting Pine trees on the dunes (Holkham Meals), creating a shelter-belt to protect the reclaimed farmland from wind blown sand.
1921 Ordnance Survey map of Holkham Bay showing the railway line and Holkham Station
In 1864, despite opposition from the Earl of Leicester, a railway line and station was constructed that ran across the reclaimed agricultural land. The station was very small, equipped with a single platform and no goods facilities. It was approached from the coast road and down Lady Anne’s Drive. There was a level crossing across Lady Anne’s Drive which was controlled by a wooden signal box.

During WWII the railways strategic coastal location meant that it provided a natural rampart behind which a potential beach invasion could be repelled. For this reason a line of pillboxes was constructed along the railway line.

The line was eventually closed to passengers in 1952 due to falling passenger numbers, but a freight service continued until the North Sea floods of 1953. The floods badly damaged the section between Holkham and Wells, damage which British Rail judged not worth repairing.

The station buildings have since been demolished, and the track bed to the west of the station converted to a farm track. However, visitors to Holkham Bay who park along Lady Anne’s Drive, will notice the “speed hump”, all that remains of the track bed and station, as they speed down the drive towards Holkham Gap.

Present day Holkham Bay.... but for how long?
Today, the broad band of level farmland between the pine ridge and the coast road that was reclaimed in the 18th and 19th centuries is slowly being given back. Until the 1940s this was a sweep of pasture for grazing sheep and cattle, but in the Second World War some areas were ploughed for arable crops. Modern farming methods meant that the water table of the whole marsh was gradually lowered. The old grazing marshes dried out and became much more productive for winter cereals, but were far less attractive for wildlife. However, in recent years things have changed again. In partnership with the Holkham Estate and its tenants a system of dams and water control points has been introduced to raise water levels. This in turn has brought back the wildlife.

Nature moves on; Thomas Coke, the great agricultural pioneer who put so much effort into reclaiming the marshes, would hardly recognise the place. Perhaps in another 50 years it will have been restored to something more familiar to him?

At the eastern end of Holkham Bay lies Wells-next-the-sea.

Rising tide in the Harbour - Favor Parkers Granary dominates the quayside
In the late 16th Century, Wells (as it was then known) was the major port for the area, with up to 19 ships trading corn. It’s status as a port carried on well into the early 20th Century. The stone quay side was constructed in the early 1900s as were many of the large building including the prominent Granary and loading gantry (built in 1903). The Granary has now been turned into luxury flats with a Quayside view.

the beautiful Dutch clipper, The Albatross, floating restaurant and occasional charter boat
The Albatros which now resides in Wells-next-the-sea, is a 100+ year old Dutch clipper, built in Rotterdam in 1899.

The beautiful ship was built for Johannes Muller from Middelharnis, Holland where she remained until being sold to Denmark in 1918.

It is belived her owner at this time, and through to the Second World War was a Captain Rasmussen, who used The Albatros as a cargo ship, exporting grain from Denmark to Sweden and even assisted Jewish refugees with their escape from Nazi Germany and delivered weapons to the Danish Resistance.

In 1983 Tonn Brouwer purchased the ship and she has since been fully restored.

From 1990-1996, she was used to carry Soya beans from Belgium to Wells-next-the-sea for a Norfolk agricultural merchant.

In more recent years The Albatros has been used by Greenpeace as an environmental study centre for schoolchildren, and she has now returned to Wells-next-the-sea where she resides on an almost permanent basis.

Curlew feeding below the footpath alongside 'the channel' to Wells quay
The mouth of the Wells Channel and parts of the eastern shore are muddy and beneath the grey surface there are hidden hordes of lugworms and cockles - perfect food for wading birds with long beaks such as curlews and oystercatchers.

I've got my eyes on you - a Common (Harbor) Seal in 'The Run' at low tide
Although there are frequent boat trips from Wells Quay to see the seals, there seems little point when you can watch them for free on Wells beach. This fellah was having a great time showing off – swimming deep and ‘jumping’ out of the water to dive – more like a dolphin than a typical seal. A bull seal later swam up to him and sent him off with a flea in his ear for disturbing the peace. Young hooligan!

Locked Up for the Winter - on a sunny but cold December afternoon
Wells Beach Huts are almost unique – unlike the vast majority of beach huts that are situated on council land, these form part of the private Holkham estate, and their owners have traditionally been given a freer rein to exercise their creativity.

They are built directly on the beach at the base of the dunes and just above the high water line. Being at the mercy of the tides they have to perch on stilts.

Those without stilts might prove difficult to find when summer arrives.
Walking west ,past the beach huts, along the edge of the wooded dunes, you will eventually arrive at Holkham Gap.
Holkham Gap
At Holkham a surfaced track, called Lady Ann's Drive, leads to a point near the beach; where after a short walk a vast panorama comes into view. A sweeping beach, so flat that it looks as though its been rolled, is bordered by Pine trees that grow to the edge of grassy dunes of soft golden sand. That is Holkham Gap.

a vast panorama

bordered by Pinewoods that grow down to the edge of grassy dunes

grassy dunes of soft golden sand
If you choose to walk directly to the beach there is a long strip of compacted mud and several small tidal streams that have to be negotiated first.

mud flat and tidal stream are covered in sea-lavender in the summer months 

I always prefer to turn left and walk west for a short way, along the dune edges, (towards Burnham Overy), before turning to walk over soft sand to the sea. Once on the seashore you can walk for miles, swim, soak up the sun or shout, sing, play ball games - you won't need to worry about disturbing, or being disturbed by, another soul. The vast open space is just so liberating. 

Alone at last (in a Holkham Watercolour)
Paddling,in the polished siver sheen
Of a washed out blue, watercolour scene,
We're now content in this grainy light
To see the dunes are almost out of sight.
Soon they'll be merged with sea and sky
And be invisible to the naked eye.

The gloomy clouds are massed
To cloak the land in ghostly shrouds.
The North wind swells and casts
The ocean waves, and sombre clouds
Surging, to frothy shore.
While fearful folk run from the bay,
John with his Labradore
Runs out, to meet the storm, and play.

The beach is an enormous playground an home to activities like:

- Kite Flying

- Horse riding
- Contemplation, Photography and Cloud Watching
There is a better sky.
A secret from the crowds.,
No fear of falling here
While drifting with the clouds.
But as the ripples dance
Across my Mirror Pool,
The clouds are stolen by the wind.
Goodbye, my summer jewel.

- Singing, Dancing and having fun
Not to mention: Kite-boarding, Cycling, Walking, Swimming, Sun-worship (incl. naturism), sailing, Bird watching, etc., etc.. Clearly there is something for everyone. But for me its the space, the sky and the endless photo opportunities at all times of the year.

In the summer, when the sun gets to be too much - head inland to the pinewoods. THE SILENCE of the pinewoods comes as a surprise after a walk along the shore. The cushion of needles absorbs every footfall and the high canopy keeps away the wind (and sun). So the scurry of a grey squirrel, the drumming of woodpeckers, or the cone-tearing activity of a flock of crossbills can sound like a riot. (Early morning at the Wells side of the wood you will be unlucky if you don't hear, and catch a fleeting glimpse of the Munjac deer that have taken up residence in the wood). 

Three kinds of pines grow in the woods, Corsican (grey trunk, small cones), Scots (orange upper trunk) and maritime (large cones in tree-top clusters). The dense shade and thick carpet of needles make life difficult for most other plants but there are a few specialities, such as the pretty little creeping lady's-tresses orchid and yellow birds nest.

The high canopy keeps away the wind and sun
Where the canopy lets in a little more light there are patches of bramble, privet and honeysuckle, and on the wood-edge there are even some Holm oaks planted along with the pine trees, by the 3rd Earl of Leicester who brought them over from Holkham Park where they had grown since being imported from the Mediterranean in the 18th Century. 

On the landward side of the pinewood - dabchick can usually be seen here (and at Holkham Park)
On its landward side the ribbon of pines is edged by deciduous scrub, a priceless asset to the nature reserve. In summer the birches and brambles provide nest sites and feeding areas for breeding warblers such as lesser whitethroat, blackcap and willow warbler. In autumn this is the place to look for Siberian waifs like yellow-browed and Pallas' warblers - tiny vagrants well adrift from their usual migration routes.

Keep walking west towards Burnham Overy (either along the beech or through the woods) and you eventually have no option but to walk inland, on the Burnham Overy Bank. The embankment forms part of those original sea defenses, begun at Burnham Overy in 1639, designed to help reclain the Overy and Holkham marshes. Walking along the top of the bank provides wonderful views of the mudflats and multitude of wading birds that feed there. Continuing along the bank you eventually arrive at the scenic Burnham Overy Staithe.

Burnham Overy Bank Sluice

Burnham Overy Staithe (Nelson Country)
Nelson was born a couple of miles away in Burnham Thorpe, in 1758, but it's believed that Nelson learned to row and sail a dinghy here at the age of 10, two years before joining the Navy.

Ships Chandler at Burnham Overy Staithe
While Nelson never lived in the village, the village did have one notable resident - Richard Woodget, Captain of the Cutty Sark - he lived in Burnham Overy Staithe from 1899 - 1926,  following his retirement from the sea. He died 6 March 1928 and was buried at nearby Burnham Norton Church.

Richard Woodget was appointed Captain of the Cutty Sark in 1885. On his first voyage in command, the ship sailed from England to Sydney in 77 days and returned in 73 days - this was the start of 10 years domination by Cutty Sark in the wool trade.
Low Tide - boats moored at Burnham Overy Staithe
Burnham Overy Staithe is now a popular centre for sailing and boating of all types, with a regular summer ferry service to the nearby Scolt Head Island at the western side of Holkham Bay.


  1. As an artist working in and living near norfolk I would just like to say your are a very talented and artistic photographer. well done your work is beautiful. Mike Stuart

  2. Great blog. Very nice photo collection. Thanks!



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