Let’s visit… Wells-next-the-Sea
The low down:
Unlike many British seaside resorts, Wells-next-the-Sea (I don’t know why the ‘to’ is missing) has charm in spades with three things to keep you coming back for more: a beautiful beach, a pretty quay peppered with boats and a pleasant town. Voted Best UK Beach by The Telegraph this year – beating Holkham for the first time – it really is a beauty, with miles and miles of soft, creamy sand and pastel-coloured beach huts hoisted up on wooden stilts . Having been to this spot more times than I can count, it’s high time I explore the town and the quay. Today’s the day… Fancy coming with?
Start looking for spaces on residential streets before you hit the centre – and it’s too late to turn back. Mill Road has several such spots and is perfectly located for the quay and the shops. You’ll come out at Beauty-next-the-Sea, winner of the Muddy Stilettos Best Beauty Boutique Award 2016. Head left here…
Once you’ve hit the pedestrianised shopping street, with its colourful bunting overhead, there are several options for a quick injection of caffeine. The Mermaid’s Purse, a café and gift shop with a pleasant area of outdoor seating, is ideal for taking stock before hitting the shops, while further down the street, The Picnic Hut has a large choice including iced lattes and flat whites. At the end of the street, turn right onto the Quay front for Grey Seal Coffee, a stylish café and roast-ery (not a word? It is now) with a couple of seats overlooking the harbour. For coffee on the beach, the blue and white stripy Beach Café sells a range of coffee to go plus homemade cakes, sausage rolls and buckets and spades.
If you can ignore the ubiquitous seaside shops selling rubber rings and other beach paraphernalia (and granted, there aren’t many) there are plenty of independent shops to enjoy on bunting-clad Staithe Street – the main drag. Music Too might look rather shabby from the outside but sells vinyl. I repeat *sells vinyl* – enough said.
I don’t know what’s Normal for Norfolk but I nearly took a dog out trying to get inside this cute women’s boutique, while the Country Garden next door is the place to go for all your fresh veg needs – if only all greengrocers oozed this much style. Amongst this strip too are Nomad and The Bowerbird and Simply Norfolk (winner of Best Gift Shop in the 2016 Muddy Awards) both selling quirky homewares, gifts and kitchenalia.
There are a few art galleries to pop into and pretend you have the money to buy things (no? just me, then), the first being the Saltmarsh Coastal Gallery on Staithe, while two more can be found on the Quay: the very tiny (and very sweet) Toby Newman gallery at East Quay and Quay Art next to Grey Seal Coffee.
There’s something about retro sweets in seaside resorts that bring back nostalgic memories of childhood holidays. Whether it’s Cola Cubes, Pear Drops or White Mice… the sweet shop in Wells sells it all. The Whin Hill Traditional Norfolk Cider Co. is another great find, a ciderworks and shop selling cider and apple juice produced just 10 miles away in Stanhoe.
No trip to the seaside is complete without fish and chips – here is no exception. Platten’s is a Wells institution that fries or grills seafood for eating in or taking away. Do as the locals and have it fried to take away, then sit on a wall overlooking the gorgeous harbour and munch while fighting off the seagulls.
There are queues out the door at Wells Deli on the day of my visit – hungry lunch-timers come in their hoards for the freshly cut sandwiches and rotating cakes (try the peanut butter caramel stack!). Hankering for a fresh seafood? The Wells Crab House on Freeman Street comes highly recommend – try the Crab Platter to share.
For something truly memorable, make a beeline for Dutch Pancakes – a boat selling an assortment of sweet and savoury pancakes with seats and tables on the deck. Sunset is met with Happy Hour: a pint of larger for £2.50pm between 7.30 and 9.30pm. I’m in!
For an evening meal, The Crown on the beautiful Buttlands – a square of Georgian Houses facing a large green (more on which later) – is a good choice. The venue has six – yes six – menus, including afternoon tea, dinner, lunch and children’s. There is even a dedicated pudding menu with a separate cheese wedge – two, three or four slices? You pay according to how much you eat. Genius!
With its extensive wine list and local ales, The Crown is also a great place for a quick tipple – particularly in the summer when you can spill out onto the green.
The Globe Inn, also on The Buttlands (why something so beautiful has Butt in the name I’ll never know), is also a good spot for a pint or a glass of wine. Its also serves food in its seaside-themed restaurant (which is much more stylish than it sounds) and has award-winning rooms (see below).
Another curious name is Bang in Wells which opened this year smack – er – bang in the middle of Staithe Street. A cafe and bar with rooms, it serves hand-crafted local and guest ales, Norfolk Whin Hill Cider and a large selection of wines and bubbles.
If you’ve got this far, you’ve read nearly 1,000 words without coming to the best parts of Wells-next-the-Sea. First up (and only because you’ll reach it first): the Quay, a sprawling area of boats moored on spits of sand or bobbing about in the water, depending on the position of the tide. There is plenty of wall to sit on or, if you walk further towards East Quay, a series of benches to sit and admire the view. And what a view…
But the star of Wells has to be its beach, which is hundreds of metres wide even at high tide (rarely do you see a British beach this large). Flanked by woodland, it has flour-soft, white-cream sand; sand dunes; rock pools when the tide is out; and – the best part – a row of individually-painted wooden beach huts on stilts. It really is drop-dead gorgeous. As if all this wasn’t enough, there’s a little train running between the quay and the beach (it’s a bit of a walk) which is not only practical but cute as a button.
I’ve already mentioned the pubs on The Buttlands, back in town, but this pretty green square is worth a visit in itself. Surrounded by Georgian houses, it looks and feels like a London residential square (with prices to match).
Most families heading to Wells-next-the-Sea with children will have crabbing in mind – grab a bucket and some bait from a hut on the Quay and see how many crabs you can catch (and throw back, please). If this fails to do the trick (and it will I’m sure), Wells has a large, well-equipped playground on the corner where the Quay meets the road to the beach with a climbable tractor and pirate ship, alongside climbing frames and slides.
Now, for adults and parents, how about a spot of sea fishing? Or a trip to see the gorgeous seals (although during the summer, they often come up onto the beach)? Come evening, the Granary Theatre, which contains the Screen-next-the-Sea, hosts an eclectic mix of productions and movies and is currently undergoing a major refurbishment to make it even bigger and better.
Feeling adventurous? Check out The Coastal Exploration Company – a new operation taking guests out on traditional wooden boats to explore the creeks and waters of North Norfolk. Deserted beaches and delectable lunches from local producers are guaranteed; three-day trips are also available for guests wishing to fish, forage and camp out under the stars.
Looking for a room with a view? Overlooking the harbour, Quayside Court contains two luxury flats, each with two bedrooms. Both 1 Quayside Court and 10 Quayside Court are modern, light and airy.
The Crown, The Globe Inn and Bang in Wells all have a handful of rooms each, too, each stylish and comfortable with everything you need for a great stay, including Wi-Fi and killer breakfasts.
The Pirate Festival from 9-11 September at Wells Maltings – a swashbuckling weekend of photoshoots, live music, stalls, games and – my favourite – Blackbeard’s Badass Bingo.
Don’t leave without buying some flappingly-fresh crab and lobster from the A&M Frary stall on the Quay and try perfecting your own crab sandwich at home.