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Norfolk Sea Swims

Burnham Overy Staithe, June 2020

Our first jaunt to the Norfolk coast took us to Burnham Overy Staithe in the Norfolk Coast AONB, where the incoming tide on the River Burn was so strong we just decided to go with it – quite literally.

While the rest of Norfolk was mostly dry and even sunny in places on the journey there, an annoying bank of cloud, shedding a fine steady rain, clung to the North Norfolk coast. Matt had been here during the week, paddle boarding in bright sun and heat, and had parked up in the same spot right on the river’s edge. But in this part of the world, ‘edge’ is a very loose term – there’s no real distinction between what is land and what is water, such is the flux in levels between low and high tide. When the tide comes in up the Burn the water just creeps up the concrete of the car park, for a few hours consuming everything. Today it just kept on creeping, and by the time we’d got our wetsuits on it was lapping at our tyres. A quick (and as it turns out, very good) decision was made to move our cars higher up into the village. By the time we’d finished our swim 45 minutes later, that whole car park was half a metre underwater.

Plan A was to get in the water from the car park we’d just evacuated, navigate the submerged dangers of railings and car parking signs, cross the short distance of the Burn and head for the numerous channels that weave through the marsh. The tide wouldn’t pull so hard here, giving us plenty of space to explore. Once in the water though this was clearly a laughable idea. Even before my feet were off the bottom I was being dragged with some force upriver. Forget trying to cross it – and forget the finesse of proper swimming strokes – this was now just a scramble to steer myself through a maze of moored boats and other hidden dangers and get to the safety of the edge. We eventually hauled ourselves out at some steps several hundred metres downstream. I wouldn’t say I’d actually panicked at any point, but I sure wasn’t far off.

Burnham Overy Staithe from the car park that was soon to be the river.

Plan B was to use the tide and treat this as a free lazy river ride like you get at a waterpark. The Norfolk Coast Path, perched on a steep embankment so it’s navigable at high tide, conveniently follows the Burn north from the village on its way east to Holkham. We walked through the cold drizzle about a quarter of a mile until we found a spot where we could get back in the river. Once submerged we were off, literally racing south with the tide and with no effort whatsoever. This was more like it! Moving to the centre of the channel to avoid smacking our knees on the boulders at the edge, we breezed back into the Staithe, safely navigating around a few oncoming yachts, rolling out onto the concrete of the car park like a pair of seals.

We repeated this once more before the cold started to bite. Getting changed by the car in a cutting wind and rain was pretty unpleasant, but it was all totally magnificent. Definitely another spot to go on our list of places to return to, but maybe when the tide allows us to cross the Burn and get to those sheltered channels.

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