If you're desperate to travel this summer but don't want to risk going abroad, why not explore these Norfolk nature reserves? I'm lucky enough to have grown up with the whole of beautiful, wild Norfolk on my doorstep. Everything from those famous red cliffs and endless empty beaches, to the marshes, forests and of course, all that wildlife. With social distancing more important than ever – it's understandable that you might want to plan your UK travels and staycations around the countryside. Norfolk is such an underrated county and honestly, I think it's been the best place in the UK to spend lockdown. I could walk miles from my house and not see another soul if I didn't want to.
Whether you're hoping for a family holiday or a romantic weekend away, North Norfolk has everything you could want. From log cabins and luxury glamping, to self-catering cottages and holiday homes. Spend your days building sandcastles on the beach, or on long walks through the woodlands. Or take a boat trip to see the seals, go birdwatching or walk among the butterflies at the best stately homes and gardens in the area. Don't forget to check out my previous blog posts on Norfolk before you visit – they'll tell you all the best things to do and see, from a Norfolk native!
The 13 best Norfolk nature reserves and parks
If you're planning to visit any of the following Norfolk nature reserves, parks or gardens – make sure you check online before you go. While some of them are always open to the public, there are some that require entry or even time slots to be booked ahead of your visit. With social distancing measures across the UK constantly changing and being updated. I recommend checking the websites provided for the most up-to-date information regarding opening times, admission prices and to find out what exactly is open within the grounds.
This National Trust landscape park and woodland garden boasts panoramic coastal views around the family home. Plus you will traces of the rich industrial history and military archaeology including extensive fortifications dating back to World War 2. The Park was designed by Humphrey Repton in 1812 and remains the best preserved example of his work. It was commissioned by Abbot Upcher to change the Sheringham landscape and has been further developed by later generations. Expect extensive woodlands and gardens overlooking the coastal views, and lots of walks and trails to explore.
Pensthorpe Natural Park
Pensthorpe Natural Park is an absolute goldmine for anyone who is looking for somewhere to take the whole family this summer. Located near Fakenham, the park was voted Norfolk's Best Large Attraction 2014 & 2015. The 700-acre woodland conservation park and nature reserve has plenty to keep the kids entertained with interactive trails and eco-play areas. In the heart of the Wensum Valley, expect wildlife sightings, beautiful gardens, a sculpture trail, courtyard cafe and shop. Plus the Pensthorpe Explorer, Wildrootz and Hootz House.
There are lots of fun trails to explore and for over 30 years Pensthorpe Natural Park has held lots of events, talks and even a bird and wildlife fair. They also hold lots of fun activities during school holidays to help inspire budding young conservationists and wildlife lovers.
Broads National Park
Stretching over 300km across both Norfolk and Suffolk, Broads National Park is one of the top attractions to the area. Huge blue skies meet endless horizons, explore raw natural beauty and epic landscapes. Did you know the Broads are actually man-made? They were created by the flooding of peat workings but over the years have become a protected landscape. These days they provide a home for more than a quarter of Britain's rarest plants and wildlife. This water playground is a fantastic place to spend the summer – with 125 waterways to explore at your own pace. It's easy to hire a cruiser for the day, or larger boats for the weekend or longer. For group holidays or family trips – it's a great way to explore Norfolk.
Dersingham Bog & the Sandringham Estate
Now a bog may not be your idea of a fun day out – but trust me when I recommend a visit to Dersingham Bog. It's just across the road from the Sandringham Estate which is packed full of fab trails and walks, plus an enormous children's play area. The Sandringham Estate is truly beautiful and you could easily spend all day there – take a picnic! But across the road you go from the manicured beauty of Sandringham to the wild, untamed mire, heath and woodland of Dersingham Bog.
Stretching over 150 hectares, there is a circular walk which connects the two car parks. For wheelchair users, there is an easy access path which leads from the Wolverton car park to a viewpoint. Dersingham Bog is one of my favourite walks in the whole of Norfolk – plus it's always super quiet. It's also gorgeous in the winter, especially when there's frost on the ground.
Sitting on the North Norfolk coast, the Brancaster Estate is made up of Brancaster Beach, Brancaster Staithe's busy harbour, and Branodunum, a roman fort site. Managed by the National Trust, it has a rich history and the beach was even used in preparations for the D-Day Landings. One thing to note if you're visiting – the tide changes very rapidly at the beach. Don't walk out to the shipwreck of the SS Vina. Many have found themselves cut off due to the fast-changing tides and have required rescuing. But do enjoy this iconic sandy beach. It's perfect for long dog walks and you will often see kite surfers.
Find great walking trails at nearby Brancaster Staithe for the wildlife walk. It gives views of Barrow Common and Branodunum Fort. There is also the beautiful Burnham Overy Staithe Circular Walk which is around 2 hours and gives you a view of the National Trust Tower Mill.
Cley & Salthouse Marshes
When exploring Norfolk nature reserves – Cley and Salthouse Marshes should be high on the list for keen birdwatchers. Located just on the edge of Cley-next-the-Sea, the marshes were used as a location for 2008 movie, The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightly. Managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the area covers over 300 hectares and is one of the Trust's oldest and best known nature reserves. There is a cafe at the visitor's centre which offers panoramic views of the marshes and out to sea. They also have an education centre which regularly offers performances, workshops, guided walks and seasonal festivals. If you're keen to spot some spectacular birds, they reserve also has several old-fashioned birdwatching hides so you can be right at the water's edge .
Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve
A sanctuary for kingfishers, tawny owls and great spotted woodpeckers, plus many more of the most beloved birds in the UK. Owned by the Hawk and Owl Trust and located near Fakenham, Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve is internationally renowned for its wildlife. The reserve is also a haven for deer and butterflies. It's also the most easily accessible of Norfolk nature reserves and with all wildlife hides easily accessible by wheelchair. The 18 hectare estate incorporates fen, woodland and reedbed habitats, with boardwalks setting out the paths to follow. Dogs are not allowed onsite, but there are lots of walks available.
RSPB Snettisham Nature Reserve
The RSPB Snettisham nature reserve is made up of saltmarsh, tidal mudflats, lagoons and shingle beach. Three wildlife observation hides can be found across the site – including two that are wheelchair-accessible and suited to all weathers. Walkers and joggers enjoy the three popular trails including a circular 2km trail. There is also access available for cyclists and boating activities on the water.
Don't miss the Snettisham Spectacular – it's a real highlight for the birdwatcher's calendar. Hundreds of thousands of knot and oyster catcher wading birds are thrown from the mudflats by the fast incoming tide and they create quite a show as they swarm in the air. Although lovely in summer, the reserve comes alive in winter when up to 40,000 pink-footed geese fly migrate overhead. It's a sight, and a sound, that you won't forget.
RSPB Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve
Nestled between the beautiful villages of Titchwell and Thornham, RSPB Titchwell Marsh is a real haven for bird lovers. Whether you're an expert bird-watcher or you simply love wildlife, you'll enjoy open access to the state-of-the-art modern Parrinder hide. Overlooking both freshwater and saltwater lagoons, you can expect to see huge flocks of birds flying in all day long. You can also choose the old-fashioned bird watching hides, or view wildlife from a viewing platform in the sand dunes. There is great disability access to the boardwalks and it's pushchair-friendly, dogs are only allowed on the main path. The RSPC also hold lots of events each year from wildlife talks to photography workshops.
One of my favourite family memories from when I was a child was taking a boat trip to see the seals at Blakeney Point. Near Morston, it's another National Trust favourite and offers lost of long walks around the nature reserve, or popular events. Best known for the seal trips – it's home to England's largest grey seal colony. Seal trips are running this summer, but at reduced capacity, so book online before you go. But don't worry, if boat trips aren't for you, there's plenty more wildlife worth spotting from the coastal walks and stunning views. Also known as Blakeney National Nature Reserve, visitors should head to Morston Quay for seal trips and car parks for walks.
Holkham National Nature Reserve
One of my favourite Norfolk nature reserves – Holkham is spectacular. When you picture Norfolk coastline, this really is it for me. It's actually England's largest national reserve at 3,706 hectares and stretches from Burnham Norton to Blakeney. It's probably one of the most untouched, unspoilt natural landscapes in the area with a real wilderness feel about it. Holkham Beach is just through the pine forest from the car park and offers the widest open space of all the Norfolk beaches. You may even recognise it from the closing scenes of Shakespeare in Love, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. It's popular for those on horseback, or taking dogs for a walk. Or skirt the forest and look for the mudflats and saltmarshes for birds and wildlife.
Welney Wetland Centre
The UK's leading wetland conservationist charity provides one of the best places in the area to spot birds in their natural habitat and learn more about wetlands. Covering over 1,300 acres of of wetlands, it's a perfect adventure-filled back yard. They have plenty to entertain the whole family including a Fenland Worlds exhibition, plus activity stations and wildlife films. The centre offers bird and wildlife watching hides, play areas and lots of walks. Plus they also host events and activities such as pond-dipping, walks and talks.
Gooderstone Water Gardens
Head towards Swaffham to explore this six acre park at your leisure and enjoy a unique and enchanting garden. Sure to delight naturalists and photographers alike, you can explore the nature trail then enjoy some homemade cake. Watch out for kingfishers as you stroll across the bridges. You'll find a natural trout stream, waterways with 13 bridges, four ponds, a kingfisher hide, colourful borders and a tearoom.
Fill your summer with stunning parks and Norfolk nature reserves – if going abroad is not an option then Norfolk is the perfect place for a staycation. Why not book a self-catering Norfolk cottage or holiday home and enjoy a week in nature? Play games with the kids and have a competition to see who can spot the most wildlife. Or let them run wild on the huge, empty beaches while you relax. Long walks are a must in Norfolk and you won't be short of places to go – whether you prefer the beaches, the marshes or the broads!. Plan your trip to Norfolk now – you won't regret it.
Have you been to Norfolk? Which nature reserve would you love to visit?