You’ll find Wells-next-the-Sea in the heart of the North Norfolk coast. This lovely town is today a hugely popular spot for a seaside holiday, famous for its wide stretch of golden sand and its candy-coloured beach huts backed by pine forest. It is, without doubt, one of the best places to visit in Norfolk.
But it wasn’t always an upmarket seaside town.
Wells-next-the-Sea started life as a fishing port before becoming a major importer of coal. Later it was a commercial port and large wooden sailing ships were built here. Today, there is still a fishing industry although nowhere near on the same scale as before. Still, you will spot crabbers and commercial angling ships working out of the harbour.
We chose North Norfolk for a much needed break from London. We were hoping for a holiday by the sea but, to our delight, quickly discovered is that there are also a lot of things to do in Wells-next-the-Sea that don’t just involve sand castles.
In this guide we share our experience of visiting Wells-next-the-Sea, what to see and do and practical information for your visit.
Oh, and in in case you were wondering, the name Wells-next-the-sea comes from the many spring wells that you could once find in the area!
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Things to do in Wells-next-the-Sea
Wells-next-the-Sea is a small town so it’s very easy to get your bearings. The quay buzzes with life throughout the day and from here you can wander along the front towards the Granary and its distinctive gantry; this was used to transfer grain between the building and ships. The building has been turned into apartment blocks but the gantry remains.
Wander the town
Staithe Street is the main high street in town, lined with old cottages that have been turned into shops and cafes. You’ll spot a number of upmarket stores along here, part of the reason why the town is sometimes called Chelsea-next-the-Sea, in reference to the upmarket London neighbourhood. But you’ll also spot shops that look like they’ve been there for decades. Mr C’s, for example, displays giant tubs of old fashioned sweets in the shop window and is where we went to buy crabbing equipment.
Elsewhere, Wells-next-the-Sea is filled with charming fishermen’s cottages and narrow lanes, which are a joy to wander around. Buttlands, a wide green space, sits at the top of town.
Crabbing on the quay
Crabbing, or gillying as it’s known locally, is a popular pastime in Wells-next-the-Sea. If, like us, you have never been crabbing before arriving in Wells-next-the-Sea, the concept is simple.
Buy your bucket and net from somewhere like Mr C’s (as mentioned above), source some bait (called gilly bait) from Arthur Howell Butchers on Staithe Street and then join the families standing on the quay. Add some bait to your bucket, lower the net into the water and wait for the crabs to bite. If you get lucky you can add your trophy to your bucket filled with seawater until you’ve had enough and you release them back into the water. It provides hours of fun!
Fish ‘n’ chips on the quay
Another popular Wells-next-the-Sea activity is eating fish ‘n’ chips on the quay. There are two shops right on the quay that serve excellent battered cod and piping hot chips, French’s Fish Shop and Plattens Fish and Chips.
We also ate a lot of ice cream during our time in Wells and can recommend the best place. We tried both Wells Ice Cream Company and John’s Rock Shop and can say with confidence that both produce excellent ice cream. However, if we had to choose one, it would be John’s – the flavours were multiple and excellent!
You’ll also find ice cream at the cafe next to the car park at Wells Beach and there’s often an ice cream van parked there too.
Wells Beach is part of the Holkham Estate and lies one mile from the town centre. It is a truly beautiful beach; a vast swathe of sand bordered by traditional beach huts in candy stripes and pastel colours.
You can walk to the beach from town or there’s a car park right near the beach. You’ll find a Joules shop opposite the cafe by the car park, another reason why the town is regarded as a little high-end these days. During summer months the Wells Harbour Railway, runs between the town and the beach. This is a 10¼” gauge miniature railway,
You can swim at Wells Beach and there’s a dedicated swimming area away from the shipping channel. Be aware that the tides change very quickly here, however, so make sure to check the tide times if you do fancy a dip. We turned up one afternoon to find the tide miles out to sea.
Hiring a beach hut at Wells-next-the-Sea
The beach huts that line the beach at Wells are reason enough to visit Norfolk. These traditional beach huts are insanely popular in the UK today with some selling for more than the average price of a house.
Many were former fishermen’s huts or boat sheds and others were converted from Victorian and Georgian bathing machines. You can hire some of the beach huts and I highly recommend that you do. We hired Stay-next-the-Sea for the day and had a wonderful time.
The hut, painted in pink and white stripes, comes equipped with everything you might need. There are deckchairs and wind breakers, camping chairs, beach games and picnic blankets. Tea, coffee and hot chocolate are also provided. During summer months the hut is available for hire on a weekly basis.
The hut is owned by Zoe who also has a couple of holiday rental properties in Wells.
When you hire a beach hut you’ll also want a picnic. We ordered a hamper from A Little Bit of Luxury Norfolk and it was fantastic. Organised and put together by the owner, Lou, the hamper came with so much food that we had enough for dinner.
Lou will tailor your box to include everything that you like. We enjoyed local cheeses, some cold meats, an excellent quiche, freshly baked sourdough bread, delicious lemon cheesecakes and more.
Coastal Exploration Company
One of the best ways to enjoy this corner of Norfolk is actually out on the water and what better way to do it than on a traditional wooden sailing boat. Ex-marine Henry Chamberlain runs the Coastal Exploration Company and leads trips out to explore through salt marsh, across sand banks and onto the open sea.
Henry runs a number of different seafaring trips; some are on traditional mussel flats, others on crabbing boats and some on Salford, a proud 30ft whelker dating back to the 1950s. The trips are fantastic and can be adapted for families.
Places to visit near Wells next the Sea
There are lots of things to do in North Norfolk and plenty of activities too. The following is quick overview of some of the best things to do in this corner of Norfolk. We didn’t get to all of them during our week in Norfolk but more detail on the places we did visit is given below.
- Cromer Pier
- Holkham Hall
- Houghton Hall & Gardens
- Broads National Park
- Royal Sandringham
- North Norfolk Railway
- Captain Fawcett’s Marvellous Barbershop Museum
- Pensthorpe Natural Park
- Oxburgh Hall
The traditional seaside resort of Cromer is popular with families for its sandy beaches and surfing opportunities. It’s most well known for its Grade II listed, 151 metre long traditional Victorian pier. The pier opened in June 1901 and is still standing today despite storms, surges and an attempt to blow it up in WWII – the government were apparently worried that it enemies would use it to land their aircraft.
It’s one of only five UK seaside piers with a theatre and home to the only end of pier show of its kind in the world where variety acts entertain visitors during the summer months. We didn’t get to see a show but we did shelter in one of the pier pavilions to eat our lunch while the rain fell – a typical British seaside holiday activity!
I loved the town of Holt when we visited. The town is very pretty, filled with 18th century Georgian buildings that are today a mixture of restaurants, art galleries, independent shops and cafes. Nearby is Holt Country Park, a 100 acre woodland with various walking trails. There is also a playground and a cafe sits in the car park – perfect for pre- or post-walk treats.
The coastal village of Blakeney was another one of my favourite places to visit in Norfolk. It’s located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is famous for its seal colonies.
You can walk from the village to see the seals, across the marshes, but be aware that it’s an 8 mile round trip.
The best way to see the seals is by boat and a handful of companies run daily tours out to see the grey seals and their pups. This is the largest seal colony in England with over 2,000 pups born every year between November and early January. Make sure to check the times as sailing depends very much on the tides.
Blakeney itself is a lovely village; the streets are lined with pretty flint cottages that once belonged to local fishermen.
We rented a cottage through Norfolk Hideaways and stayed in Quay View Cottage, a shorty walk from the quay in Wells-next-the-Sea. It was perfect for the five of us and the cottage was really well appointed. Other options can be found on the map below, which allows you to compare hotels and short-term rental / holiday cottages in Norfolk. All you have to do is add your travel dates and group size and you will see the best deals for your stay.
Some practical tips
- Norfolk is a popular holiday destination, if you plan to visit during summer months in particular, make sure you book your accommodation well in advance. This is also the case if you hope to book a beach hut.
- Although the sea warms up during the summer months, it’s the North Sea so will never feel like the Caribbean! If you plan to swim then it’s worth having wetsuits.
- Similarly, if you plan to swim then make sure to check the tide times. The waters rise and fall quickly in this corner of England and when the tide is out, it’s a long way out.