It’s late August and I’ve spent all summer on my driveway turning my van into a camper van, which still isn’t done. The only new people I’d met were staff at DIY stores, who now knew me far too well. It was time to escape for a few days before summer had gone entirely. I’d go somewhere fairly close where I could try out my unfinished camper van but wasn’t too crowded with other holidaymakers. Somewhere on the coast, because I love beaches. Enter Norfolk, with its quick tides that reveal wild beaches as vast as deserts, the home of windmills, lighthouses and seals. I was sold. I started at Horsey Corner, Norfolk’s famous seal beach, and ended at Old Hunstanton 60 miles to the west, stopping at as many different parts of the coast as I could.
Best Beaches in Norfolk
In this short video I’ve put in order all my favourite beaches in Norfolk. Carry on reading to find out more information about them all (working from east to west along the coast).
This is Norfolk’s famous seal beach and my first stop. Sadly I didn’t see any the day I went, but I wasn’t there for all that long. It’s in a fairly quiet part of Norfolk but is still quite popular in the summer. The main entrance to the beach from the car park isn’t the prettiest of beaches in the county owing to the huge concrete slabs and groynes everywhere to help stem the erosion of the coast. It gets wilder further up, though. In any case it’s definitely worth going for the seals, but probably best in winter when there are pups too! For general beaching around there are better beaches further round the coast. Do take a stop at the windmill in the village, too – it’s one of the most photogenic ones in Norfolk.
The beaches from here on up are a little coarse with a lot of sea and erosion defences. They didn’t blow me away all that much. Happisburgh was the nicest with its beautiful red and white striped lighthouse standing on top of some small cliffs. It comes into its own at sunrise.
Then from here up you’ve got larger seaside towns popping up along the coastline. They’re your standard cute English seaside beaches only with lots more space than your average English beach. But again, they’re nothing to write home about for me; I’m all about wild beaches, so I didn’t spend too much time in the area. One place I did like though was Overstrand, a little east of Cromer. It had a café on top with beautiful ocean views and a little shack selling freshly caught seafood.
Clay Next The Sea
After Weybourne things start to get wilder again. The sand turns to shingle and there are vast networks of salt plains. It feels big and empty here with a barren beauty to it. I can appreciate just how cold and nasty it must be here in winter! My favourite spots along this large area are at Salthouse and Cley Next The Sea. The former is the wild camping spot popular with fishermen, the latter is the main point of access complete with warden. It’s a popular area for all types of birds and has some photogenic old boats shored up. Head a little further west to Blakeney Point and you’ll reach another popular place for seals to hang out and a good summer alternative to Horsey. You can take a boat trip to see them or have a long walk up the coastline.
The shingle beaches stretch as far as the eye can see at Weybourne, but once you hit Wells-Next-The-Sea they turn to sand. This is where the really good stuff starts. The beach at Wells-Next-The-Sea is lovely, with some of the softest sands in the whole of Norfolk and lined with its famously colourful beach huts. It gets very busy here in summer, though. The beach is big enough to absorb all the people (as with most beaches in Norfolk it feels never ending) but it’s still busy, and parking can be a nightmare. To avoid the crowds go in the early morning or off season. I was there from around 7-9am in August and it was blissfully quiet. The town itself is a nice place to explore too, and a great spot for crabbing.
Next up you’ll come across Holkham Beach. It’s one of the most famous beaches in Norfolk as one of the last scenes of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ was filmed here. It’s also very popular, and for good reason. From the car park, a long tree-lined road opposite the manor house, you walk through some beautiful old pine forests and out into the lagoon. It’s a huge area, and it’ll take you a good 15 minute’s walk to reach the water’s edge and that’s when the tide is still high. This huge wild beach with its dunes and marram grass is stunning, and after you’ve been funnelled with the rest of the people through the forests and estuary you can walk in either direction for miles and get a spot all to yourself. It’s also a popular spot for horse riding and other activities (there’s an information centre there that put on talks and little events too). I liked Holkham a lot, even though it is busy. It’s been voted as the best beach in the UK but I think that’s pushing it. You need to go to Scotland for that!
From here on in the coastline is essentially one gigantic beach, and you’re likely to find vast open sands and dunes wherever you are. But access isn’t quite so easy in the next several miles; the roads are a little further inland and the beaches aren’t signposted all that well. To reach them you’ll have about a one-mile walk from the little villages. On the plus side, these spots are much quieter. Burnham Overy Staithe is the next town to have immediate access to the water, where there’s a harbour, and from here there are lots of water activities to do, including a trip to Scolt Head, a wild spit of land full of dunes and birds. You can also walk to it at low tide too.
And now we come to my favourite beach of Norfolk: Brancaster Beach. In my mind it’s equally as stunning as Holkham, and it seems just as big. It’s still very popular, though not quite as much as Holkham, but access to the beach is much quicker and you seem to be able to escape the hoards much quicker too. But finally, and crucially; it’s home to a shipwreck!! Yes, a short way out to sea lies SS Vina, built in 1897 and half-deliberately sunk in World War 2 when it was used as target practise. It’s been in the sand ever since, despite attempts to move it. You can see it looming out to sea at high tide but at low tide you can actually reach it. So of course I had to.
QUICK WARNING: If you ever decide to visit the Brancaster shipwreck be very careful!!!! The tides are ridiculously fast and strong here, and people get stranded or swept out to sea whilst visiting it far too often. Find out the tide times and only visit it during the very lowest parts of the tide (the day I went there was about a two-hour window when it was safe).
From the entrance of the beach it takes about half an hour each way to reach the ship. The ship is actually on the edge of Scolt Head, which is separated from the mainland by a fast-running channel of water. At very low tide this channel is only knee deep for an adult and is nothing to worry about (though still surprisingly strong). At any other tide time this channel becomes one big vacuum and is easily capable of sucking you out into the ocean. Once you’ve crossed the channel it’s another five or ten minutes to the wreck. It is awesome!! You can go right up to it and poke it, have a look inside its cavities and so on. From here it feels like you are in the middle of a vast desert. I loved it.
And in a few hours’ time the ocean will have swallowed it up again and you’ll just see it’s dark outline out to sea, because by this point you’ll be back on permanently dry land, right?!!! Good.
So all in all I love this beach. It’s got looks AND personality. Access is easy – there’s a big car park so close to the beach that the tide floods it each day. The turning to this road is well signposted right next to Brancaster’s church.
Heading further west you’ll soon reach the bird sanctuary of Titchwell, another beautiful sandy duney spot. There’s an RSPB visitor centre here. But if you’re just looking for a beach to hang out at the next section along is your best bet; Holme Dunes. This is now the far west side of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and nearing the end of the many nature reserves. I’ve got a soft spot for this beach; its neighbours take all the fame and glory meaning this one goes by a little more unnoticed. And yes, the sand is a bit coarser and it’s not quite as attractive, but it’s still a gorgeous beach. Plus its quiet. There are lots of beautiful dunes to explore here too. The best access to it is a quiet dead end next to a golf course, which you have to walk through in order to reach it (there are some hilarious warning signs – “warning! Flying golf balls in this area” – and they’re not lying! One flew straight over my head). It’s also one of the few west facing beaches in the area, meaning it’s great for sunsets.
Park ups and campsites for camper vans in Norfolk
Okay, I’ll be honest, this was a bit of a sticking point for me. I spent all afternoon looking for somewhere wild to stay between Old Hunstanton and Holkham and failed pretty miserably. Parking restrictions are everywhere, and there were no unaccounted corners where you can park up close to the beach that I could find. A bit further inland there were a few various verges, etc, but none were particularly discreet and were predominantly right on the main roads. A lot of the places on Park4Night listed are actually car parks with overnight restrictions, and whilst you could probably park up there I prefer to play it by the rules as much as possible (though there was a spot listed on the site that I missed in Thornham that looks promising).
So I gave up and decided to stay in a campsite for the night. This turned out to be pretty difficult too. Sure, there are caravan parks aplenty, but a lot of them are just static caravans. Wells-Next-The-Sea area has the biggest selection of actual campsites in the North Norfolk area – Pinewoods, Blue Skies and High Sand Creek. Pinewoods is the biggest and most commercial of the three and is basically a holiday park right next to Wells-Next-The-Sea Beach. High Sand Creek is the smallest, with a great location next to the sea and salt marshes, and Blue Skies somewhere in between (and further away from the beach or towns). But I didn’t actually stay in any of them because they were all full and Pinewoods only accept DVLA registered campervans. Book in advance if you want to stay at a campsite in summer!
I eventually found one quiet campsite close to Holme Dunes called The Poplars. It feels like you’re just turning into someone’s drive, but behind the houses it opens up into a few modest fields with toilets and shower in. This was fine by me as it felt much closer to wild camping and it was very quiet. It cost £15 for a pitch.
Down in the south of the county things are even harder for wild park ups but there are a lot of campsites scattered around.
Best wild spot for camper vans: Salthouse
I did find one fantastic park up which I ended up going back to after giving up on the Holkham area entirely the next night after my stay at The Poplars campsite. It’s just outside the town of Salthouse down a little road signposted as the beach, and called Beach Road on Google maps, which leads to a dead end right next to a gigantic shingle beach. With the beach in front of you and salt marshes either side, it really is a beautiful spot. I shared it with about three other campers on a weekday of late August, and about ten or so at the weekend. It’s a fairly long road and I suspect that it never reaches full capacity. You’d have it to yourself outside of July and August, with the exception of the fishermen that come here. Here you’ll be treated to gorgeous sunrises and sunsets and the village of Salthouse is very pretty with a few places to eat, too. One thing to note: the road is narrow at the end with a ditch either side making it quite hard to turn around. Big campers might want to stop short of the very end of it.
The road that takes you to this beach turning – the A149 from Weybourne to Old Hunstanton – was my favourite stretch of road to drive in Norfolk. The scenery is stunning, it takes you through countless beautiful villages and it’s just a really fun road. It’s windy and sometimes narrow which makes it a little challenging, but never difficult enough to take away from the enjoyment. If you drive it at dawn when it’s empty you can really let loose down it (the joys of having a little camper van!).
Best village in North Norfolk: Cley Next the Sea
Which leads nicely to my favourite village, just a short drive from Salthouse on the A149 – Cley Next the Sea. This charming little village rolls the best of Norfolk into one tiny space; it’s exceptionally pretty, there’s a windmill, some nice places to eat including a fishmongers selling locally caught produce like crab (famous in Norfolk), and a mouth-watering delicatessen. Seriously, everything looked and smelt amazing in there. All this and it was still sleepy and quiet. Oh, and it’s the one place that actually had free parking with a portable loo. What more could you want?
The parking here does say ‘no occupied vehicles overnight’, so it’s a bit more relaxed than most of the other car parks in the area but still anti-camping to an extent. People have stayed there overnight, but personally why sleep in a car park when a few miles down the road you can sleep beside the beach and marshes without restrictions?
Final thoughts on camper vanning in Norfolk
Norfolk is undoubtedly beautiful and incredibly photogenic. And that’s reason enough to go already. I can see why it’s such a hit with young families and retirees, too (which made up about 90% of the people I saw there). But there was something about my actual experience of it that didn’t blow me away.
Perhaps it was the daily hunt for a nice place to park up or stay for the night – or even just park in general – that dragged me down and killed hours of time (outside of summer wouldn’t be such a problem but the extortionate parking charges won’t change! Nowhere was less than £1 an hour. I found two free carparks in the 60 miles of coastline I drove. Most close at 8pm too). The places I did find to park were fairly unglamorous and nowhere near anywhere worth being.
I compare it to the freedom and ease of West Scotland, where every corner feels like a hidden gem, where a beautiful – and legal – park up appears so often you don’t know which to choose. Yes, I’ve been spoilt. And I also love my beaches unspoilt, with as little evidence of human management and intervention as possible. Norfolk ticks the unspoilt box and they look wild, but signs of ownership and limitations are everywhere. And for me this sucks the enjoyment out of them somewhat. Not to sound ungrateful; there are restrictions because the whole area is a nature reserve dedicated to preserving all the rare flora and fauna here. It’s just a sad fact that in most of England, ironically, the only way to have a wild beach is to fence it off.
Of course this is just my personal opinion. If you don’t mind planning your trip well in advance, staying in pricey but well-equipped campsites and having a more structured or traditional holiday, then you will have a great time. And it’s worth reiterating that Norfolk really is beautiful, and you’d be hard pushed to find such big pristine beaches within a three-hour radius of London. But if you want to go down the wild camping/touring experience and aren’t limited by how far you can travel to do it then don’t spend too much time here; there are better places for you elsewhere in UK.