Once upon a time, a family took a walk along the Norfolk coast. They had children with them, and the group moved unhurriedly, most likely looking for crabs and shellfish. Nothing too odd about that.
What makes the little jaunt so notable is that when it took place, the concept of Norfolk belonged to some unfathomably dim and distant future. How distant, exactly? Put it this way: the kids wouldn’t have been pestering for ice creams. The footprints that they left behind, imprinted in the primordial mud, date back 850,000 years.
Fast forward to today, and my walking boots are crunching over the shingle a short way along the coast. “Glorious morning,” say a passing couple from beneath their cagoules. This is modern-era sarcasm. I’ve just started hiking the region’s new 23-mile Deep History Coast trail, and blanket drizzle is cloaking the beach in wet autumn murk. On the plus side, I’ve already found what may or may not be a fragment of fossilised antler on the foreshore, so quite frankly, it can rain all it wants.
Norfolk’s north coast oozes history. The tides and cliff slippages here routinely serve up prehistoric bones, fossils and stone tools. At various points in the past million years, the region has looked out across a land-bridge to the continent, been frozen beneath a huge ice sheet and seen the formation of Europe’s largest underwater chalk reef. In geological terms, this is Grand Central. The new trail connects eleven ‘Discovery Points’, each with display boards that touch on a different element of the coast’s past.
Basing myself in the village of Trimingham, roughly halfway along the route, I’m spending two days covering the full trail, walking from Weybourne in the west to Cart Gap in the east. It’s a rippling clifftop hike that also straddles well-known resorts such as Sheringham and Cromer. The trail has an accompanying app with location-sensitive features – try explaining that to Palaeolithic humans – which essentially means that it directs you from start to finish while illustrating what makes this stretch of coast so significant.
Plenty, it transpires. By my first afternoon, with the rain now abating, I reach West Runton, where in late 1990 the almost fully intact skeleton of a steppe mammoth was excavated from a cliff base. The creature was around twice the size of a modern African elephant. At other points of the trail, remnants of primeval hyenas, three-ton rhinos, giant deer and even macaque monkeys have been discovered, as well as lethal scimitar-toothed cats. When early hominids wandered what was then a pine-dotted estuary, it seems safe to surmise they were not at the top of the food chain.
Norfolk, incidentally, is today the only part of northern Europe with evidence of habitation by four different human species. Those impossibly old footprints, found off Happisburgh Beach in 2013 but now faded from view, were left by homo antecessor, a forerunner of homo sapiens. I know this much: it adds extra salt to your bag of chips when you gaze out from a row of beach huts and imagine hunter-gatherers roaming here among galumphing megafauna. The coast here might be in a losing battle with erosion, but its prehistory is nothing if not durable.
Crucially, the walk itself is a joy. The second day dawns bright, turning the North Sea to silk. Local wildlife might be smaller these days – anemones in the rockpools, kestrels over the fields, goldcrests in the brambles – but it still lifts the soul. And aside from a couple of very brief diversions, the new trail follows the fabulous Norfolk Coast Path throughout, so I’m treated to billowing 360-degree views and endless near-empty beaches to comb for antediluvian bounty.
Anyone whose attention has been piqued by Ammonite, the new Kate Winslet film that premiers at London Film Festival on October 17, will be pleased to know that fossil-hunting is actively encouraged along the trail. I discover a knapped flint blade and sea urchin imprints, which are thrilling enough, although they pale next to the find that the app shows me: a weighty 500,000-year-old hand axe spotted 20 years ago by a dog-walker, its dark sides gleaming like the inside of a jelly baby.
The trail app brings something new to the walking experience. There are numerous places, aside from the main Discovery Points, where extra nuggets of geological info are pinged to your smartphone. Kids, meanwhile, will enjoy the augmented reality features, which let you use your screen to watch mammoths and rhinos browsing the grassland (take that, Pokémon Go). That said, it would still be perfectly possible to enjoy the trail without relying on your phone. The coast itself – salty breeze, beachcombing and all – is the main draw.
I arrive at journey’s end in Cart Gap with a side-pocket full of fossils and a head full of outlandish timelines. Walks this profound don’t come along too often. But then given that the trail has been 850,000 years in the making, you’d perhaps expect nothing less.