Holkham Bay – a splash through roiling waves


“Dudley and I set off barefoot over the sandy boardwalk through the wooded dunes and emerged blinking from the shade into the great gleaming theatre of Holkham Bay. A majestic sweep of dunes delineates an endless beach where, at low tide, the sea is only a distant, whispering line of white.”

A wallow in Holkham Bay’s shallows wasn’t part of the plan. Today’s trip was meant to take in a dip in the Waveney at Mendham Mill, followed by a second swim at nearby Bungay Beach. Instead, we’re driving north to the coast along empty roads, one our party’s illness forcing a last-minute change.

At the wheel is my old university friend, the poet and writer Tim Clare. A recent wild swimming convert, Tim enthuses about Holkham’s vast skies as we pull up under the towering poplars next to Holkham Hall and make for the boardwalk.

It’s immediately clear that we couldn’t have picked a better day to come to Holkham. A light breeze riffles up the beach, the tide well out and, just as Roger says, the sea “…only a distant, whispering line of white.”

Dried mud gives way to the soft crunch of wet sand as we stride out towards the surf. We’ve picked an open spot between two sets of dunes, a heat haze obscuring the views to Burnham Overy Staithe to the west. Dropping our bags, we assess the wild water. The currents here are notorious, despite the shallow depths.

We decide to go in one at a time, Tim quickly bounding in first. Tripping through the shallows, he lets out a short, gleeful yelp before heading ever more purposefully to the crashing waves. He sinks below the surface and, for a short moment, I lose him.

My heart thumps as I scan the near horizon. But there he is, jumping high into an oncoming breaker, before disappearing from view once again. Even from 100 metres away I can see his childish grin as he gets chucked around by the North Sea’s deep blue drink.

Ten minutes later, Tim emerges, exuberant, belting out the Baywatch theme tune like a loon. I fall over laughing as I struggle out of my jeans, into my shorts and sink my feet into the beach. I tread carefully around fresh horseshoe prints and splash into the shallows. The water is delightfully cool, almost tepid. Roger says in Waterlog that the small lagoons along this huge beach can be very warm. Unlike him I manage not to step on a Dover sole.

The icy seas of weeks gone by feel like a distant memory as I wade further into the knee deep water. Eventually, the tug of the tide and the waves roiling in from every direction take me and I’m swimming directly into an oncoming breaker. Elation grips me as I get a proper soaking.

I swim out further, jumping the bigger waves and taking the chance to look at my surroundings before getting another pummelling. Small clouds bubble on the horizon, but this is the perfect summer’s day, a true evocation of the spirit of Waterlog.

I turn myself quickly in front of a huge, oncoming wave and paddle furiously, riding its crest before being washed up. Knees grazed, I skip back out and do it all again. I glance back briefly to shore, raising my arms in victory to Tim. He’s holding his towel to the wind, billowing like a main sail as the breeze gets up. He punches the air in return and I fall back, catching the briefest glimpse of the sun before being rolled over by the biggest wave of the day.

The shifting sands means Holkham will have changed daily since Roger’s June swim here for Waterlog. But the boardwalk, the dunes, the huge skies are all the same. The utter isolation and freedom of this stretch of coastline are never better than on a day like this.

Dried by the sun, salt on our backs and our feet gritty, we crunch over razor clams on our way back to the car. They make a lowly hiss as the breeze throws sand across them. At the top of the beach, the sea is a far off blue line, marked white. I take one final look before we enter the cool shade of the pines.

5 Comments on “Holkham Bay – a splash through roiling waves

  1. That was me!!
    I was the one with illness!! (Again!)

    Gutted I missed this 😦

    Sounds perfect.

    Suffolk next month?


    • You were missed. The water was amazing. And yes, Suffolk next month for sure. Tim and Molly are both keen too.

  2. That’s my favourite spot, we often walk from Burnham Overy Staithe to Wells. Holkham is particularly stunning. I ventured in March 30 last year on a sunny day and lasted a minute. I’m impressed you went in swimsuits and not wetsuits. What was the temperature? I’m swimming in a lake at the moment WITH a wetsuit. Feeble.

    Then a cup of tea and cake in the caff at Wells – it’s very relaxed.

    Good luck, like hearing all about your swims.

    • It was surprisingly warm. I reckon about 15C, maybe a touch more. I managed a minute at Covehithe on a really sunny day back in April. I reckon anywhere else, especially a lake, and I’d have been donning my full neoprene outfit yesterday.

      Thanks very much – hoping to do lots over the summer now the weather is finally set fair.

  3. One of my favourite beaches… except in winter when the wind is blowing at gale force winds off the north sea… then it’s one of my least favourite places!

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