May 10, 2021

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Explore Norfolk’s ancient past from 900,000-year-old footprints to the remains of a 10-ton giant


Stand on the secluded sandy beach in Habsburg and gaze across submerged Doggerland, the region that once connected Britain with Europe.

Sea level rise in about 6500 BC lowered it into a series of low-lying islands before flooding the entire area. Hunters who tour this part of the North Sea – named after 17th-century Dutch fishing boats, or doggers – have reserved partial remains of mammoths, bears, hyenas, and prehistoric tools and weapons.

And on the beach in Habsburg (pronounced “Hisboro”), the earliest evidence of human occupation of northern Europe was discovered in the form of 900,000-year-old footprints. The recently developed Deep History Coast Discovery Trail allows you to follow in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors and delve deeper into the world they inhabited.

The 22-mile Deep History Coast Discovery Trail starts in Weyburne and runs through Cromer (pictured above)

The trail begins in Weyburne, a beautiful beach resort along the North Norfolk steam railway line that winds its way, in season, between smart Sheringham and the quaint Holt. The trail runs for 22 miles to Cart Gap, following the coastline of the trail.

The newly opened luxury boutique hotel The Harper (theharper.co.uk), housed in the flint barn of a former glass factory in Langham, is a good base from which to explore.

The first stage of the trail takes you across the cliff top that stretches along the shoreline to the Victorian market town of Sheringham. From here, you climb the path to one of the largest and most popular hills in Norfolk. The meager, 207-foot-long Beeston Bump formed from remaining sand and gravel as ancient glaciers melted.

The trail goes down to West Runton Beach, famous for its multi-colored, fossilized cliffs and a popular spot for fossil digging. Look for blemnites, petrified sponges, and small bits of amber.

A couple on West Runton Beach 30 years ago discovered a large bone that turned out to be a mammoth steppe.

This beast would have weighed ten tons and had a height of 15 feet. Excavations revealed that 85 percent of its skeleton – the largest almost complete 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 pedestrians to virtually encounter this 600,000-year-old monster. It also provides an interactive link with 11 discovery points along its route that delve into the coastal heritage of northern Norfolk.

One of them, on the front at Overstrand, just east of Cromer, illustrates the importance of flint to the area. In the 18th century, the flint rifle industry was booming – flintlock rifles were the primary weapons of European armies – and it becomes very clear as you wander around the pretty village.

The West Runton mammoth is the largest almost complete skeleton ever found in Britain.  It is on display in the Cromer Museum

The West Runton mammoth is the largest almost complete skeleton ever found in Britain. It is on display in the Cromer Museum

It was used to build homes, was paved and incorporated into the tower of St Martin’s Church and the walls of the Overstrand Hall, designed by Sir Edwin Lutens.

The Queen and Stephen Fry are among the area’s newest residents, and newcomers are lured by the vast sandy beaches, quirky coastal communities and picturesque market towns. Nearby Burnham Market has many galleries, boutiques and trendy dining venues that have come to be known as Chelsea-on-Sea.

Halfway along the boardwalk, the 14th-century rock tower of Cromer Church leads you towards the Victorian resort, the alleys teeming with bars and restaurants serving the famous Cromer crab.

No1 Cromer (no1cromer.com), a ready-to-eat fish and chips store with a restaurant on the top floor, is the perfect place to grab a crab burger served with a view of the sidewalk. The Victorian structure survived storms, tidal surges and even a suggestion by the government to blow it up during World War II to prevent it from being used by the Germans as a landing strip.

The Sands of Time: The ancient Hapsburg footprints are said to be the earliest evidence of human occupation of northern Europe

The Sands of Time: The ancient Hapsburg footprints are said to be the earliest evidence of human occupation of northern Europe

A stone’s throw from the center but far from its own gardens, The Grove (thegrovecromer.co.uk) is an elegant Georgian hotel, formerly home to the Gurneys, a notable local Quaker dynasty. Look for a bathroom with granite walls in one of the double bedrooms.

A lot of the discovery path can be walked along the shoreline, depending on the tides. Get it right and from Cromer you can reach the lovely village of Mundesley, which houses a small marine museum located in a former Coast Guard observatory and is said to be one of the smallest museums in England. There is also a huge mammoth tooth on display at the spot of discovery here.

The trail ends at Kart Gap, near the Habsburg, where a storm in May 2013 revealed a mysterious hollows on the shore. These traces were revealed as the footprints of a small group of adults and children wandering around the muddy plains of what was the mouth of a river 900,000 years ago.

This discovery made Habsburg one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, and the dramatic erosion continued to lead to new discoveries.

Stand on the sandy beach in Habsburg and gaze across submerged Doggerland, a region that once connected Britain to Europe.

Stand on the sandy beach in Habsburg and gaze across submerged Doggerland, a region that once connected Britain to Europe.

On the cliffs above the beach is The Hill House Inn (hillhouseinn.co.uk), which dates back to 1550. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here and wrote a series of Sherlock Holmes stories. The small brewery on site, The Dancing Men, is named after one of them, and you can order a pint from the Dancing Men ‘Cliffhanger’ or stay in one of the independent ancillaries.

The Deep History Discovery Trail is already attracting new visitors to the area. The irony, however, is that although the erosion is revealing new archaeological sites, it also threatens the very existence of the Habsburg and other cities along this coastline.

In about 25 years, The Hill House Inn itself will likely be just another chapter in North Norfolk’s modern history.