When you stand on the secluded sandy beach of Happisburgh, look out over the submerged Doggerland, an area that once connected Great Britain to mainland Europe.
The rise in sea level around 6500 BC BC Reduced it to a number of low-lying islands before the entire region was flooded. Fishermen who scour this part of the North Sea – named after Dutch fishing boats or mastiffs from the 17th century – have interlinked the remains of mammoths, bears, hyenas and prehistoric tools and weapons.
And on the beach at Happisburgh (pronounced “Haysborough”), the earliest evidence of human occupation of northern Europe was discovered in the form of footprints that are 900,000 years old. With a recently developed hike, the Deep History Coast Discovery Trail, you can follow in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors and immerse yourself in the world they lived in.
The 22 mile Deep History Coast Discovery Trail begins in Weybourne and passes through Cromer (pictured above).
The trail begins at Weybourne, a pretty pebble beach resort on the North Norfolk Steam Railway, which runs between chic Sheringham and picturesque Holt during the season. The trail extends for 22 miles to Cart Gap and follows the line of the coastal path.
The newly opened luxury boutique and spa hotel The Harper (theharper.co.uk) is located in the flint barn of a former glassworks in Langham and is a great base from which to explore the city.
The first stage of the route takes you over a ridge of cliffs along the coast to the Victorian market town of Sheringham. From here you climb a path to one of Norfolk’s famously flat hills. The tiny sounding Beeston Bump – all 207 feet – was formed by debris and gravel when old glaciers melted.
The path leads down to West Runton Beach, known for its multi-colored, fossil-strewn cliffs and a popular spot for fossils. Look out for belemnites, petrified sponges, and tiny pieces of amber.
Thirty years ago, on West Runton Beach, a couple discovered a large bone that turned out to be from a steppe mammoth.
This animal would have weighed ten tons and grown to be 15 feet tall. Excavations revealed 85 percent of its skeleton – the largest near-complete mammoth skeleton ever found in Britain. The West Runton mammoth is now on display at the nearby Cromer Museum.
The Deep History Discovery Trail app allows hikers a virtual encounter with this 600,000 year old animal. It also offers an interactive link with 11 discovery points along its route that immerse yourself in North Norfolk’s coastal heritage.
One on the front of Overstrand, east of Cromer, shows the importance of flint to the region. The flint industry flourished in the 18th century – flintlock weapons were the main weapons used by European armies – and there’s plenty to see as you stroll through the pretty village.
The West Runton mammoth is the largest near-complete mammoth skeleton ever found in Great Britain. It is on display in the Cromer Museum
It was used to build houses, was paved and incorporated into the tower of St Martin’s Church and the walls of the imposing Overstrand Hall designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
The Queen and Stephen Fry are among the area’s younger residents, and newcomers are attracted by vast sandy beaches, quirky seaside communities, and quaint market towns. Nearby Burnham Market has so many galleries, boutiques and trendy restaurants that it is known as Chelsea-on-Sea.
Halfway through the 14th century Cromer Church, the flint tower takes you towards the Victorian resort, where the alleys are full of pubs and restaurants serving famous Cromer crabs.
No1 Cromer (no1cromer.com), a takeaway fish-and-chip shop with an upstairs restaurant, is the ideal spot to enjoy a krabby patty overlooking the pier. The Victorian structure has weathered storms, tides, and even a government proposal to blow it up during World War II to prevent it from being used as a runway by the Germans.
Sand of time: The old footprints in Happisburgh are said to be the earliest evidence of human occupation in Northern Europe
The Grove (thegrovecromer.co.uk) is an elegant Georgian hotel that was once home to the Gurneys, a well-known local Quaker dynasty. Look out for the flint-walled bathroom in one of the double rooms.
Much of the discovery trail can be walked along the coast, depending on the tides. If you do them right, Cromer will take you to the pretty village of Mundesley, home to a tiny maritime museum housed in a former Coast Guard lookout and considered one of the smallest museums in England. A giant mammoth tooth is also on display at the discovery point here.
The trail ends in Cart Gap near Happisburgh, where a storm exposed mysterious hollows on the beach in May 2013. These were revealed as the footprints of a small group of human adults and children who roamed the Wadden Sea of an estuary 900,000 years ago.
The discovery made Happisburgh one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, and the dramatic erosion continued to lead to new finds.
When you stand on the sandy beach in Happisburgh, look out over the submerged Doggerland, an area that once connected Great Britain to mainland Europe
On the cliffs above the beach is the 1550 Hill House Inn (hillhouseinn.co.uk). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here and wrote a number of Sherlock Holmes stories. The in-house microbrewery, The Dancing Men, is named after one of them. You can order a pint dancing men ‘cliffhanger’ or stay overnight in one of the separate adjoining rooms.
The Deep History Discovery Trail is already attracting new visitors to the region. The irony, however, is that while erosion is revealing new archaeological sites, it is also threatening the very existence of Happisburgh and other towns along this stretch of coast.
In about 25 years, the Hill House Inn itself is likely to be just another chapter in North Norfolk’s recent history.