The hail of Holkham Beach

October 31, 2012

One of Britain’s peculiarities is that, in my opinion at least, large parts of it look best in inclement weather.  Where Tuscan vales and Greek temples are indisputably at their finest under glorious sun rays, London’s narrow alleys and grey buildings take on extra mystery on cold, gloomy winter evenings.  Its pretty squares never look better than of an autumn evening – dark green secretlands with occasional pools of yellow lamplight – and its streets come alive with the glint of rain, as opposed to their pallid and dirty complexion during balmy spells.

And so it proves elsewhere, too.  Exmoor’s sweeping landscapes are bonniest in autumn, when the valleys and woods seem to boast every possible shade of yellow, brown, green and gold.  Scotland’s mossy Highlands become emboldened by the vitality of wind and rain, the thunderous skies above reflecting the dramatic nature on show below.

These thoughts crossed my mind again as I spent a late October weekend in Norfolk, and particularly during an excursion to Holkham Beach, part of the overall Holkham Nature Reserve.  Holkham Beach is one of those wild, windswept and impossibly scenic stretches of sand at which Britain excels – Wales and Scotland are littered with them, too – a billowy, barren beach that’s more for poets and painters than paddlers or Pimms-drinkers.  Flanked by Corsican pine trees (planted in the late 19th century by the 2nd Earl of Leicester to halt the sea’s advance), the beach is essentially a shallow basin that fills to become a lagoon.  As such, and lacking the windbreaking protection of a cliff or hill, it’s open and exposed.  In this large, unregulated playground, the elements can do as they please: the weather changes by the minute, as a constant procession of clouds and winds blow in from the North Sea, and the sands are permanently flooding or draining; rivers forming, ponds vanishing.  On the day we visited, there was a permanent cycle of watery sun and very-watery storm.  Less four seasons in one day, more two seasons every five minutes.

Picking and skipping our way across the dry-ish basin – finding the least flooded sands, leaping across inlets, skirting salt marshes – we reached the current frontline between land and sea.  The view ahead was impressive, as the waves crashed in and thick flosses of foam amassed on the temporary shore.  But the overall panorama was much more sensational: green woods at the distant edge of all this brown sand, an abundance of murky sky made silvery by low sunlight, foam being tossed about in the wind, vast starling murmurations weaving a path high above.  It was not a nice day by any typical weather classification, and yet it was perfect; in this stretch of North Norfolk, it rather seemed like the ideal day.

Turning for home, we were ambushed by a ten-minute hail storm.  Shelling us from all directions as we splashed and sloshed for cover, the icy pellets were fearsome, finding a way past every cagoule’s defence and registering stinging raps on tender ear lobes or eyebrows.  And yet I was laughing throughout it; even this was fun, memorable.  I felt alive, enervated by this large dose of unshackled nature.  Sun and sangria have their place, and lilos can be lovely, but right then, I didn’t want to be anywhere else than beneath the hail of Holkham Beach. 


Later, dry and still as delighted, I learnt that Holkham is a popular nudist beach.  Blimey, I thought.  I know nudists are tough, but I wouldn’t want my tender areas suffering those fearsome hailstones.  My mind might have relished the angry climate, but I’m fairly sure my private parts weren’t as keen to experience it…

(Richard Mellor)