Ever since I first moved to Norfolk I’ve been keen to visit Horsey beach to see the grey seal rookery – I’ve been assured this is the correct word to use! But everyday practicalities – work, weather – always got in the way. This year I was determined to make it happen and yesterday was the day.
Getting there was a bit of a challenge. I don’t drive and public transport in the area is patchy at best. Eventually I decided to take a bus to Winterton-on-Sea and walk along the coast from there. It seemed straightforward enough, at least in theory.
I knew it would be cold, but I was unprepared for the arctic conditions of a featureless beach in January. I’d done everything right: appropriate footwear, layers, hat, waterproof jacket, but there was no escaping the fact that it was rather chilly indeed. As I made my way through the frozen dunes towards the sea a muntjac deer emerged, stopped to take a good look at me, and disappeared again. Not quite the wildlife I was looking for but an impressive start to the day nonetheless.
Coming from a country the size of East Anglia occupied by at least seventeen million people, I was struck by the emptiness of the landscape. It being a weekday and freezing, I wasn’t expecting many walkers, but I doubt the place is heaving in the summer. The view inland from the dunes is no different. Some farms, some tiny villages, nothing else. I like it that way, but if you’re looking for lively entertainment and comfortable facilities, this is not for you.
About half an hour into my walk I spotted my first seal. Mission accomplished. It was playing merrily in the waves, not bothered by the cold or the light rain, and took no notice of me whatsoever. But I carried on, expecting to spot perhaps another animal or two, and then call it a day.
Soon I noticed a group of about ten seals going about their daily business. First learning point of the day: grey seals are not actually grey. They are white, black, brown, and everything in between. As the end of the breeding season was approaching the pups were pretty independent. One of them, noticing me, crawled towards the edge of the dune I was sitting on to take a closer look.
I stayed on the dunes during my visit. That way I got excellent views of the seals without disturbing them, even if some of them insisted on coming closer. Some people do go on the beach, and as long as they keep their distance the seals don’t seem to be bothered by it, but I felt safer where I was. Seals are slow on land but the adult males are huge and there are many of them. I wasn’t keen to experience firsthand how protective of their young they can get.
I must have seen hundreds of seals throughout the day. As rain went and sunshine came I sat on a dune and watched them. Good thing I don’t live closer to the place: I’d sit there looking at the animals all day and never get anything done. I managed to take some nice pictures but none of them captures the feeling of seeing them right in front of you. The mothers sniffing their young, the young males play fighting in the sea, the pups crawling around. The gentle hooting noises they make as they do all this. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was one of the most impressive experiences I’ve ever had.
Horsey, as mentioned before, has no facilities other than a car park. Not fancying the trek inland, where I’ve been told a lovely tea room offers ample food and drink, I slowly walked back to Winterton-on-sea. Not a walk recommended for the less-than-fit, I repeat: it’s a long distance and the conditions are rough to say the least. I was relieved when I spotted a familiar church steeple in the distance. The dunes, it should be said, are wonderful and home to many rare plants and animals. It would be interesting to explore them further when/if spring finally arrives.
Today I’m is another day off from work for me. This is a good thing. I’m knackered and buzzing at the same time. My legs feel like jelly. Was it worth it? No need to even ask the question. Would I recommend it? Absolutely, as long as you’re considerate of both yourself and the seals. They look feisty but they are vulnerable. It would be a real shame if human interference would make their existence even more precarious.
Curious and looking for more? The Friends of Horsey Seals have a great website packed with information (and they do a wonderful job protecting the seals).
Image my own.