Great British Breaks: Wells‑next‑the‑Sea

Published in The Sunday Times 18th February 2018

Hang out with seals and sailors by the best beach in Norfolk

Why?
Wells-next-the-Sea isn’t actually next the sea. What is arguably the finest beach in Britain — a Sahara-like expanse backed by fragrant pinewoods, with the North Sea somewhere in the distance — lies a full mile from town. It was The Sunday Times Beach of the Year in 2016, but there are more winning qualities here than sand alone. Right now, Wells-next-the-Sea is having a perfect moment, teetering between the kiss-me-quick delight of a working fishing port and the chichi charms of 21st-century gentrification.

What you do
Arrive in the afternoon, dump your bags and head to the harbour at sunset for a fish supper from French’s (haddock and chips £7; frenchs.co.uk). You’ll notice locals sitting in steamed-up cars doing exactly the same. Then board theAlbatros, a 19th-century schooner turned bar on the quayside, for drinks and live music (albatroswells.co.uk). Prefer somewhere more trad? The locals’ local is the Bowling Green Inn, on Church Street, serving ale since 1673 (bowling-green-inn.co.uk).

Start the next day with a gourmet breakfast at Bang in Wells, at the top of Staithe Street (full English £9.50; banginwells.co.uk), then browse the shops: designer jewellers and ethnic crafts live peacefully alongside the organic butcher and a hardware store.

If it’s sunny, continue to the beach (huts from £14 a day; pinewoods.co.uk). The swimming is best in the Cut — the channel running to the distant sea, where grey seals bask on the far bank. If it’s cloudy, hit the Norfolk Coastal Path. Head west and it’s a gorgeous 10 miles of level walking through forest, salt marsh and beach to Brancaster Staithe. Head east and it’s an easy seven-miler, past tidal creeks teeming with birdlife (and the odd seal), to the pretty harbour at Blakeney.

Your reward is either a lunch of moules marinière and a pint of Oystercatcher at the Jolly Sailors, in Brancaster Staithe (£11; website); or the fish of the day and a bottle of Sancerre at the Blakeney Hotel (£13; blakeney-hotel.co.uk). Whichever you choose, you’re getting the Coasthopper bus back to Wells (£2.10; stagecoachbus.com).

Don’t miss Holkham Hall, a Palladian mansion packing treasures by Rubens, Van Dyck and Gainsborough (£16; holkham.co.uk). Just inland is Burnham Thorpe, birthplace of Horatio Nelson, whose father was a local vicar. The church is full of Nelson memorabilia, including a photo of his medicine chest: ask the rector nicely and you might get to see the real thing.

For a gentle outing, take the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, reportedly built by angels in the village known as England’s Nazareth (£9 return; wwlr.co.uk). Prefer something more physically challenging? Join the former Royal Marines of the Coastal Exploration Company for a thrilling overnight course in smuggling techniques, culminating in the recovery and delivery of “contraband” (from £200pp; coastalexplorationcompany.co.uk).

Where you stay
There are four boutiquey rooms at Bang in Wells (from £105, B&B; banginwells.co.uk), while the Old Custom House is a B&B on the quayside (from £100, B&B; eastquay.co.uk). The hotel choice is the Crown, which added five new rooms last year, complete with outdoor copper baths and terraces (from £100, B&B; crownhotelnorfolk.co.uk).

Where you eat
Wells Crab House is so popular that you’ll need to book (mains from £14; wellscrabhouse.co.uk). The pub grub at the Golden Fleece is decent, the harbourside location special (mains from £11; goldenfleecewells.co.uk). For fine dining, take a cab to Michelin-starred Morston Hall for an eight-course tasting menu (£80; morstonhall.com).

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