Why you should visit this crumbling Norfolk seaside town before it's too late

Claire Irvin
This village and its famous lighthouse are falling into sea - Steve Docwra

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be part of a community that is gradually crumbling into the sea, then you need to visit Happisburgh – and quite soon, too. This village and its famous lighthouse are falling into sea.

Norfolk? In autumn? Isn’t it a bit cold?

If you don’t like hunkering down in your own seaside mansion after a blustery coastal walk, then yes. But if you don’t go in the autumn, you will be missing out on so much.

From November, some of the best seal-watching in the world can be found here. Colonies gather at nearby Horsey Beach for breeding season, so it’s the best time to see pups.

There are also beautiful displays of autumn colour. If ever there was a time to pack your fleece and walking boots and head off for a blustery UK break, it’s now.

So where do I find my own mansion?

August House (or Happisburgh Manor, as it’s known locally) is one of the few so-called “butterfly houses” in the UK, an 18th-century Arts and Crafts mansion that everyone should visit – and stay in – at least once in their lives. It has one of the biggest thatches in the UK, which has been maintained by four generations of the same family.

Singer Ellie Goulding shot her music video for The Writer on Happisburgh’s cliff tops Credit: Getty

It can’t be seen from the road and offers panoramic views of the sea and its grounds. If you’re afraid of getting cold, you’ll be pleased to learn it has a total of three multi-fuel burners to snuggle up in front of, too. No wonder it has the royal seal of approval (from £3,950 for a short break in low season for up to 20 guests; 01637 881183; uniquehomestays.com).

Oh, that old chestnut…

No, seriously. The house has played host to several royals including the Queen Mother (it was owned for years by her brother, Michael Bowes Lyon) and one of its 12 bedrooms is named after her. You can see how she’d have felt comfortable bumbling around its spacious rooms, although she may not have approved of the swimming pool and hot tub which was installed during the recent restoration, which did a pretty good job of maintaining a sense of history with a classically contemporary flair (they did keep the wooden “throne” that the Queen is said to have, ahem, done her royal business on).

How far to the beach?

Happisburgh Beach is just a five-minute walk away across the owners’ field. In fact, it takes you not only to a glorious stretch of fine white sand, but the oldest working light on the Norfolk coast and the only independently operated lighthouse in the UK (01692 650982; happisburgh.org.uk). There’s also a well-equipped playground and a locally renowned burger shack.

Happisburgh Beach Credit: Getty

Burger shack? Intriguing…

It certainly is. Burgers At The Beach is a unique takeaway serving a selection of tasty locally sourced quarter pounder steak burgers, Happisburgh crab burgers, vegan lentil and walnut burgers, homemade cake and scones (07770 481827; facebook.com/burgersatthebeach).

If burgers on the sand really isn’t your thing, fear not. The ultimate pub lunch (or dinner) is not too far away at The Gunton Arms. Owned by “rock’n’roll” art dealer Ivor Braka, it’s a pub with rooms in the midst of a magnificent deer park and just the right mix of rustic and Groucho Club cool.

Enjoy Cromer crab caught by local fishermen Credit: istock

Venison from the deer park and beef from the local herd at Blickling are cooked over a large open fire in the Elk Room and there’s a menu of seafood, mussels and Cromer crab caught by local fishermen. You can very easily while away a winter’s afternoon here admiring artwork by the likes of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud and Paula Rego, while the children run across the thousand acres of parkland and sculptures by Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham and Phillip King (telegraph.co.uk/the-gunton-arms-hotel).

So where can I find the seals?

Drive over to Horsey Beach, wander a along the beach path and, between November and February, you simply can’t miss them. At any other time of year, this is a seemingly endless stretch of sandy beach but during pupping season, as you climb to the top of the dunes you’ll be met with black and grey seals piled upon one another as far as the eye can see. The beach itself is cordoned off to protect the seals (and visitors who might make them angry) but great paths mean you’ll have no trouble getting great views.

During pupping season, as you climb to the top of the dunes you’ll be met with black and grey seals piled upon one another Credit: GEtty

Anything else worth doing?

Exploring The Broads, of course. These navigable rivers and lakes form a network of more than 125 miles of lock-free waterways in the Broads National Park and a trip to Norfolk wouldn’t be complete without hopping on a boat to experience them. Horsey Broad, close to Happisburgh, is one of the prettiest and has a windmill that you can visit.

The windmill at Horsey Broads Credit: Getty

Boat trips can be booked or hire your own and explore at your own pace (visitnorfolk.co.uk/explore/Broads). Alternatively, take a river trip at The Museum of the Broads (01692 581681; museumofthebroads.org.uk) aboard the steam boat Falcon.

Landlubbers, too, will have plenty to keep them occupied inside at the only waterside museum of Broadland life. There could hardly be a more tranquil and picturesque location than Stalham Staithe to discover the boats of the Broads and see how people’s working lives shaped the landscape.