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

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; You’ll notice locals sitting in steamed-up cars doing exactly the same. Then board the Albatros, a 19th-century schooner turned bar on the quayside, for drinks and live music ( Prefer somewhere more trad? The locals’ local is the Bowling Green Inn, on Church Street, serving ale since 1673 (

Start the next day with a gourmet breakfast at Bang in Wells, at the top of Staithe Street (full English £9.50;, 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; 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; Whichever you choose, you’re getting the Coasthopper bus back to Wells (£2.10;

Don’t miss Holkham Hall, a Palladian mansion packing treasures by Rubens, Van Dyck and Gainsborough (£16; 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; 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;

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

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

Check Availability