You couldn’t capture this in photographs. It’s one of those places that demonstrate how different our perceptual system is from a camera. Our eyes don’t take discrete pictures. Our brains assemble, not a picture, but a 3D model, drawing on memories and associations as well as what is literally in front of our eyes.
The hinterland of this coast is undulating rather than truly hilly, a green rolling landscape of fields, hedges, dark woods and pretty Norfolk villages with houses faced with flints and prosperous square-towered churches. The village of Blakeney descends from this gently undulating terrain to a quay where there are sailing boats and ice creams and people fishing for crabs.
But this is not the edge of the sea. The boats and crabs are in a tidal creek and the sea itself is another mile away. You can’t even see it from the quay, only the ridge of shingle behind which the beach lies.
Between the village and the sea is a marsh. To the right of the village, looking out, the marsh has been enclosed in a dyke and drained to make pasture on which cattle graze, to the left it is still undrained, a salty place of grass and shrubs and flowers that is intermediate between land and sea. Crabs crawl and bees buzz a few feet away from each other; the cries of seabirds mingle with the song of larks. A couple of dilapidated-looking houseboats lie stranded on the grey-green grass.
Because of the creeks, you have to go a long way round to stand on that shingle ridge. But from there you can look back across at the little villages dotted along the inner coastline, the edge of the solid land. There they are with their red roofs and their flint walls and their church towers, with the woods and fields behind them: Salthouse, Cley, Blakeney, Morston. I’ve seen them in bright sunshine over there while just behind me, waves sucked and rattled at the stones, terns dive bombed for fish and a ghostly mist came rolling in from the North Sea.
You could take pretty photos here, there’s no doubt about that: a stranded houseboat, oyster catchers on the pebbly strand, a church tower rising above the trees… But photos only show what’s in front of you and they reproduce perspective with a literalness that the human brain avoids without a moment’s thought. A shot that took in the whole of that string of villages, would necessarily reduce them, and the low green land behind them, to a narrow and insignificant-looking strip between expanses of sky and marsh. It would all seem quite flat and dull.
And now I come to think of it, flat and dull was exactly my impression of this place when I first came here many years ago. With no 3D model, no associations, I was reduced to taking mental snapshots and comparing them unfavourably with pre-conceived notions of what attractive coastal scenery should look like. This is no Cornish cove. This is no sandy bay. But to my mind now it’s as beautiful as anywhere on Earth.