The Wash Estuary, Norfolk

Walk the lonely fenland marshes that fringe the Wash, a haven for birdlife

Published: May 18th, 2011 at 11:56 am


The coastline of the great Wash Estuary is the east of England’s last impenetrable wilderness. Internationally important numbers of birds reign supreme in the vast expanse of mud, sand, saltmarsh and open water, safe from heavy-footed predators and well-fed on mud-loving invertebrates.

You can watch the wetland wildlife safely from a footpath atop the sea bank, which marks the outer boundary of the farmland, built on the fen’s fertile fringes.

The footpath was created to commemorate Sir Peter Scott (1909-1989), founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, for his achievements in conservation. It’s a 10-mile route that leads
from the ornamental lighthouse where Scott lived, along the remote shores of the Wash to the mouth of the Great Ouse.
A historic ferry carries pedestrians across the river to civilisation in King’s Lynn.


The walk begins at East Bank picnic area in Sutton Bridge (the car park gates are locked at dusk), where two ornamental lighthouses flank the mouth of the River Nene. From the car park, cross the lane and go through the gate to the left of the East Light. Walking along the bank-top towards the sea, you’ll get a good view of the lighthouse where Scott studied and painted the wildlife you’ll see on the walk.

After ½ mile, the footpath turns sharply right, parallel with the coastline. Before 1974, the strip of solid land you are walking on was tidal marsh, like the landscape on your left. Since Roman and Saxon times, century by century and strip by strip, generations of farmers have been draining the fens to extend their field boundaries, because the marsh makes very fertile soil.

During the 14th century, the edge of the Wash was one of the most prosperous agricultural areas in Britain. Gazing south, you can see rows of former sea banks, which marked the end of solid ground in 1953, 1925, 1917, 1910 and 1775 respectively.

It was always a battle against nature to drain the fens, and now, thanks to the Great Fen Project, the remaining vast expanse of mud, sand, saltmarsh and open water to the right of you belongs to the plants, animals and birds. The whole of the Wash is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is also a Ramsar site – a wetland of international significance – and a Special Protection Area due to its importance for migratory birds.


A large offshore island, managed by the Fenland Wildfowlers Association, lies directly north and is a seabird nesting reserve. Listen for curlews – their haunting “cur-lee” cries epitomise the lonely marshes – as well as knots, sanderlings, little ringed plovers and dunlins. Overhead you may well see flocks of wildfowl, such as brent geese, pink-footed geese and wigeon. The largest colony of common seals in Europe live on the estuary sand banks.


After 6 miles, you approach the banks of the River Great Ouse, as King’s Lynn’s historic waterfront buildings grow larger on the opposite bank. This was once a prosperous port. West Lynn lies opposite King’s Lynn and there has been a regular ferry from here to the capital of west Norfolk since at least 1285.


Once in King’s Lynn, you’ll find there are a variety of pretty buildings lining the historic cobbled streets, including restaurants and cafés where you can refuel.

Useful Information


Thornham, Hunstanton
PE36 6LS
01485 525 652

Once you’ve stocked up on seasonal vegetables, local cheeses and fresh fish at the farm shop or picked your own fruit, you can wander the orchards, home to over 150 varieties of English apple.


Stuart House
35 Goodwins Road, King’s Lynn PE30 5QX
01553 772169

An independent hotel with its own bar and restaurant, Stuart House is a short walk from the river and centre of King’s Lynn. The building dates back to Victorian times.


Castle Rising
King’s Lynn PE31 6AH
01553 631330

The Lynn Ferry service across the Ouse was vital in 1310, when the lord of Castle Rising used to extract ruinous tolls on travellers passing his castle. Castle Rising is one of the most impressive 12th-century fortifications in England.


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