Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

In Search of the myths and legends of Stiffkey

Freshes creek

An 8.5 mile walk along a section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Wells-next-the-Sea and Morston, with a diversion through the village of Stiffkey.

Stiffkey (locally pronounced Stewkey) is referred to as Stivecai in the Domesday Book, which means "island of tree stumps". This is thought to relate to the remains of an ancient wooden structure dating back 8,000 years, that was found on the marsh. Today it is a sleepy little village on the North Norfolk Coast Road renowned for its topiary including a line of elephants all trunk to tail at Nellie's Cottage, a guitar sitting proudly atop a hedge at the home of a guitar teacher and a fox by the gate post of the Fox family's house. It does, nevertheless, have an intriguing recent history with stories of Black Shuck, the ghostly devil dog, and the tale of the infamous Reverend Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey who was defrocked in a national scandal involving ladies of the night and ended up being mauled by a lion.

Wells-next-the-sea to Morston Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Wells-next-the-sea View in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
Morston View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
8.5 miles
Walk difficulty


The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. The links include published hard copy as well as online plots and downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map
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Online Ordnance Survey Route
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Online OpenStreetMap Route
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Online Google Route
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ViewRanger App Route
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GPX data for route (download)


Mill Farm Camping and Caravan siteView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Mill Farm camping and caravan site, Wells-next-the-sea. Close to town and basic amenities


Details of public transport that is required for the walk

Various Operators - Bus Service
Service Details
Coasthopper CH1, CH2, CH3 - Unfortunately, in recent years the highly acclaimed Coasthopper bus service has suffered from subsequent takeovers with a consequent deterioration of the service and continuing doubts upon is viability. Due to its constant changing operators, it is therefore best to use the Traveline website to determine the current timetables and services.

Walk Data

Date of Walk
Walk Time
12:30 to 17:00
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Warm and sunny summers day

Walk Notes

This walk is an unashamed ramble along the Norfolk Coast Path. This is something anyone can undertake and one doesn't need the likes of this report to follow it. However, there is so much to discover along Norfolk Norfolk and religiously sticking to the coast path can result in missing out on a few things. This walk takes a diversion away to the village of Stiffkey which sits on the natural curve of the contours in the landscape along which the River Stiffkey flows.

The village has a charm about it despite the somewhat busy road which becomes a bottleneck for traffic during the holiday season. The art of topiary is alive and kicking in the village. For those who do not know of this art, it is the name given to the shaping of shrubs and the village of Stiffkey excels in this craft. There is a fox sitting atop one bush in the garden to what I have been told is the Fox family. There is the shape of a guitar which I have been told is the house of a musician. I have never discovered why the line of elephants standing trunk to tail was cut that way but the sculpted hedge is impressive. All in all it is a delight to take in.

This walk can also make a veritable pub crawl with some fine old inns to frequent along the route. Wells, Stiffkey and Marston all have pubs that are well worth the visit and the Coasthopper bus service makes a convenient method of return.

The Albatros Wells-next-the-sea
The Albatros Wells-next-the-sea


The route uses the Norfolk Coast Path with an excursion into the village of Stiffkey

Take the Norfolk Coast path marked by the National Trail acorns out of Wells by following the quayside and then heading down the track by the fishing huts. Keep to the path until Stiffkey which is easily noticed by the camp site on the hillside and the car-park which the footpath leads through. Take the lane from the car park up to the main road and turn left. This is a busy road with no pavement so care is advised on walking this short section. The Red Lion is on the left. Another lane further up the road on the left leads out past a playing field and back down to the Coast path. Follow the National Trail acorns until Morston quay is reached. A track from the car park here leads into the village, bear around to the left on the main road and the Anchor Inn is on the right.

The Red Lion StiffkeyThe Anchor Morston
On the left The Red Lion Stiffkey; On the right The Anchor Morston


The Edinburgh, Wells-next-the-sea View in OS Map | View in Google Map

The Edinburgh, Wells-next-the-sea

In 1752 the public house was known as The Fighting Cocks before being renamed The Leicester Arms while owned by the Hardy family. It was sold to James Alexander Davidson in 1887 and renamed The Edinburgh Inn after Davidson's home town. The pub is now a freehouse offering food, accommodation and ales from Woodfordes brewery.


A new barrel of Wherry and we were first to taste. Excellent!

The Red Lion, Stiffkey View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
The Red Lion, Stiffkey

The Red Lion can be traced back to the 1600's and since then it has swapped between being an inn, a private house and a doctors surgery. Records show that it was owned by the Reepham Brewery and was called The Black Lion in 1878 when it was sold to Bullards. There appears to have been a period between 1903 and 1917 that Morgans Brewery of Norwich took control of the premises before reverting back to Bullards. From 1963 it was used as a private house before eventually reverting back to a freehouse in 1991.

An intimate and interesting old Inn frequented by walkers, cyclists, birdwatchers and those seeking refuge from the rigours of the nearby saltmarsh. Low ceilings, old beams, old pews and an open fire in the bar make this a very charming and unspoilt pub. Ales include Woodfordes which is served straight from the barrel and locally sourced food including local Mussels, Blakeney whitebait, Norfolk game pie, and Cromer crab salads. Accommodation is also available.


Always a delight to visit this pub. Wherry straight from the barrel - we are spoilt!

The Anchor, Morston View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
The Anchor, Morston

The Anchor Inn, is an old smugglers pub bursting with plenty of character. Locally sourced food is complimented with Woodfordes Ales plus other guest ales. Trips to see the seal colony can be booked from the pub all year round. The pub is open all day, and serves food from 9am to 9pm.


Another pint of Wherry. Also had Winters Golden on offer. Good to see this Norfolk brewery getting more outlets

The Albatros, Wells-next-the-sea View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
The Albatros, Wells-next-the-sea

No visit to Wells is complete without a visit to The Albatros. Captain Ton Brouwer, bought the vessel in 1980 and operated it as the last European sailing cargo vessel up until 1996 when it was refurbished as a passenger ship. In 2001 the Albatros became based in Wells-next-the-Sea where it was used as an educational centre supported by a trust called The Albatros Project. This lasted until 2005 when, in order to keep her commercially viable, the ship was used as a bar, restaurant, music venue and B and B which has now become a full time all year round business.

The former cargo hold, decorated in sea charts and an assortment of bric-a-brac, is now the restaurant and bar, where a variety of traditional Dutch Pancakes and other Dutch specialities are served together with Woodfordes ales straight from the barrel. Live music is offered every Friday and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. From the deck of the ship there are superb views across the quay and marshes and out to sea. There is no better way of spending a warm sunny afternoon than sitting watching the tide come and go from the deck of the Albatros.


As ever, I cant fault this 'bar'. Such unique surroundings to drink in. Very friendly, the Captain always has time to engage in conversation. The beer, served from pins on the bar is excellent with Wherry and Nelsons Revenge on offer and sometimes a Sundew available as well. Very much recommended.

Stiffkey ScarecrowNational Trail
On the left Stiffkey Scarecrow; On the right National Trail


Black ShuckView in OS Map | View in Google Map

Black Shuck, Old Shuck or simply Shuck is the name given to a ghostly black dog which is said to roam the Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk coastline. The area around Stiffkey has long been associated with the legend. One revealing account comes from the 20th century author Christopher Marlowe. At the time he was lodging in a cottage beyond the marshes, along a lane about 800 yards from the A149. Having heard the local legends about the Shuck Dog, he resolved to spend the night in the nearby marsh to try to see it. He settled down in a hollow beside a pool not far from the high tide mark, and some time later, by the light of a half moon, saw an "indefinable shadow" appear on the horizon. At the same time there came "the most appalling howl." As the shape came closer to his hiding place, he saw it clearly to be a dog with "a great black body" and "a pair of ferocious eyes", with its muzzle to the ground as if hunting for something.

As he thought the prey to be himself, Marlowe yelled in terror and fled towards the cottage which was his lodging for the night, with the feeling that he was being pursued all the way. As he banged and yelled for the door to be opened, he turned to see the "ferocious eyes" right behind him, and felt a "scorching breath" on the back of his neck. Just in time the door opened and he fell in a near faint into the house, while his host slammed the door shut just as the dog's "great black body" seemed to leap at them, and hit the ground with a resounding thud.

Christopher Marlowe: 'People and Places in Marshland' (Palmer, 1927), p.198, 200-203


Stiffkey RectorView in OS Map | View in Google Map

The Village of Stiffkey is probably most famous for it's former vicar, the Reverend Harold Davidson who was defrocked in 1932 for allegedly courting prostitutes in London. The Hampshire-born extrovert was born into a family of clerics, attended Oxford and worked as a curate in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London before being made the Rector of the parishes of Stiffkey-with-Morston in 1906. At Stiffkey he raised a family of four children with his wife Moyra.

Things started to change during the first world war when Harold served as a naval chaplain in the Middle East. Whilst away his wife became pregnant by a visiting soldier and Harold became temporarily estranged from Moyra heading off to India to tutor the Maharajah of Jaipur's son. Eventually, in 1920, Harold returned to Stiffkey though now gripped in a crusade that was to be his downfall. He devoted himself to rescuing girls of the night. He asked the Bishop of Norwich's permission to pursue a ministry around the theatres of London's West End which became his battleground.

Every week, for 12 years, he would leave the rectory in the small hours, take the first train from Wells-next-the-Sea to London, returning to Stiffkey late on the Saturday night, arriving in time to give a sermon from the pulpit of his church, St John the Baptist. In London, he would spend every waking hour in the streets around Waterloo or Soho, looking for girls immured in vice whom he would try to put in touch with their parents, or find them decent work in shops or clothing factories.

Then, in November 1930, Harold missed his train and failed to attend the Armistice Day service in Stiffkey. A local named Major Hammond, complained to the Bishop of Norwich and accused the rector of "immorality" because of his habit of inviting some of his London girls home to Stiffkey Rectory. The church had to take notice of this accusation and after employing provate detectives charged Harold under the 1892 Clergy Discipline Act. The trial began at Church House, Westminster on 29 March 1932 and lasted many months before he was eventually found guilty on 8th July and subsequently defrocked.

With the celebrity status that had come with the coverage of the trial by the media, he took up offers of work to speak at concert halls, and give monologue recitals at fairgrounds. His end came when narrating the bible story of Danial in the lions den from within the lions cage at Skegness Amusement Park. Although the lion was drugged, after giving his recital he stood backwards and stepped on the lions tail which subsequently mauled him. Still alive, he was wrongly administered insulin which sent him into a coma and he died two days later.

A campaign to clear his name has been carried out by his granddaughter, Karilyn Collier and he is still held in high regard by those who knew him.

Guitar Hedge
Guitar Hedge


Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2018-11-27

2013-07-31 : initial publication
2018-11-27 : General updates and reworking


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