Common Blue on Fleabane

© Andrew Bloomfield

Nature Reserve


Won from the Wilderness

As with so much of the English countryside the look of the Norfolk coast is an intimate blend, part wilderness and part working landscape. From Burnham Overy to Wells the low-lying grazing marshes north of the coast road used to be tidal saltmarshes, separating offshore shingle and dune ridges from the main coastline. The tidal creeks were large enough to allow ships to load cargo from a staithe at Holkham village. From 1639 onwards a series of embankments were constructed by local landowners, including the Cokes of Holkham. By the time the Wells embankment was completed in 1859 by the 2nd Earl of Leicester about 800 hectares of saltmarsh had been converted to agricultural use.

In the late 19th century the 3rd Earl of Leicester planted pine trees on the dunes, creating a shelter-belt to protect the reclaimed farmland from wind-blown sand. Today the ribbon of mature woodland still separates seascape from farmscape. The fields and dykes, ridges and trackways have become part of the landscape. Nature moves on; Thomas Coke, the great agricultural pioneer whose memorial can be seen above the treeline in nearby Holkham Park, would hardly recognise the place.

July 2017 - Holkham Estate, has been awarded Approved Body Status under Section 35 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This will make Holkham one of a select few privately owned estates in England to hold this status and follows a lengthy application process. This special status will enable the estate to manage the Holkham National Nature Reserve, which has until now been managed by Natural England.

August 2017 - Three young Great White Egrets fledged. Click here to read more.

Please follow the Coastal Code which has important information for horse riders and dog owners when you visit the reserve. To minimise the risk of fire, the use of barbeques, fires or stoves is prohibited. Photography on Holkham Beach for any commercial purpose is not allowed without prior written consent from Holkham Estate.

Guided walks throughout the year are an ideal way to discover the diversity of wildlife on the Nature Reserve, click here for more information.

Special things to see… Winter

  • The tideline after a gale - lots of sculpted driftwood, stones etc.
  • Dew on spiders’ webs in October.
  • Migrant birds, landing exhausted in the seablite bushes in late October.
  • Thousands of Pink-footed Geese leaving their roost on Bob Halls Sand at Wells.
  • Flocks of Larks, Finches and Pipits in Holkham Bay.
  • A Peregrine or Harrier being buzzed by a cheeky Blue Tit or Pipit.
  • Dawn sunlight over Stiffkey Marshes.
  • Hordes of wildfowl (Pink-footed Geese, White-fronted Geese, Brent Geese, Wigeon) in the fields on either side of Lady Anne’s Drive.

...and in Summer

  • An evening panorama from Gun Hill.
  • Orchids in the Wells Dell in late June or early July.
  • Dashing flight of a Dark Green Fritillary over the dune flowers.
  • Little and Common Terns fishing in Wells Harbour.
  • Dancing of male Ghost Swift Moths at twilight.
  • Purple haze of Sea Lavender across the saltings.
A few facts about Holkham

Holkham Fort, near Bone’s Drove, dates back to around AD47 and is the remains of an Iceni settlement. Warriors of this tribe fought with Queen Boudica (Boadicea) against the Romans.

Holkham is the home of Coke of Norfolk, whose Holkham Shearings (gatherings of farmers and friends to discuss agricultural matters) helped to encourage agricultural reform. A memorial to Coke of Norfolk can be seen in Holkham Park to the south of the reserve.

Saltmarsh reclamation began on this coast at Burnham Overy in 1639 and was completed in 1859 with the construction of the Wells sea wall.

The Vikings sailed up a creek through the saltmarshes during the first millennium and built a fort at a bleak place they called Holkham (‘ship town’ in Danish).

As recently as 1986 Wells Harbour handled up to 200 large vessels and 100,000 tons of cargo (mostly animal feeds) annually. Nowadays a few crab boats and pleasure craft are all that remain.

Lord Nelson spent many of his boyhood days exploring this stretch of coast.