Outdoors: Wild geese and philanthropy

The north Norfolk coast offers varied views, rare bird life - and an English stately home. Emma Haughton takes a walk

This four-mile walk around Holkham, in north Norfolk, offers impressive contrasts in scenery. At one moment you'll be strolling along some of the wildest and most beautiful stretches of beach in the land, then, just minutes later, you'll find yourself walking through the genteel, landscaped grounds of one of England's most impressive stately homes.

Kicking off from the Victoria hotel in the centre of Holkham village, cross over the A149 into Lady Ann's Road, a tree-lined avenue leading past cattle and beet fields directly to the sea.

At the end of the road, turn left on to the earth track through the pines; you're now in the thick of Holkham National Nature Reserve, which covers nearly 4,000 hectares of Norfolk coast between Burnham Norton and Blakeney. The sandy beaches, inter-tidal mudflats and pine woodland that make up the reserve are a haven for a large variety of birds, many with romantic- sounding names such as redshank, bearded reedling, water rail, shelduck and pied flycatcher.

Once you have passed a small lake on your left, take a sharp right up the steep bank of sand dunes and head down towards the sea. Keep your eyes peeled, and you may even see the rare natterjack toad - distinguished by the light yellow stripe down its back - which lives on the dunes and lays its spawn in the nearby shallow pools.

Bear left as you walk along the foreshore. In rough weather Holkham beach has an invigorating, elemental wildness that is guaranteed to blow the cobwebs from your soul; on fine days it transforms itself into the archetypal English beach, with yachts sailing in the bay, paddling children, and endless yellow sand encrusted with sea shells of every size and shape. At low tide the waves dawdle along in lazy ripples, and the water remains so shallow that you can paddle for miles before it even reaches your knees.

Following the line of pines on your left, keep on past the first headland. As you turn the corner, brace yourself for the naturist section, but don't get too excited - just as things get interesting, you cut sharp left into the dunes back towards the pine forest, along the path where a sign politely requests nudists to keep to the beach. The sandy track takes you through the eerie gloom of pine woods, home to countless grey squirrels that strip the cones and leave their remains on the forest floor.

When you come to a crossroads, keep heading south along the footpath, past the bird hide on your left. As you curve round into Bone's Drove, look just above the tree line and you'll see the tower of Holkham church and the tip of the Coke monument in Holkham Park, looking, from this distance, uncannily like a pineapple balanced atop an Apollo rocket.

As you head towards the park, you'll pass through Overy Marshes, in winter an important refuge for wildfowl such as pink-footed geese, brent geese and wigeon.

When you reach the A149 again, cross over and enter Holkham Park through the wrought-iron gates of Church Lodge. Turn almost immediately left through the mature oaks and chestnuts of Church Wood, skirt the tip of the large green lake on your right and head on into Staithe Wood. When you hit a junction, turn sharp right and you'll soon find yourself confronted by Coke monument, an elaborate, 120-ft tribute to Thomas Coke, who inherited the estate in 1776 and was regarded as virtually the patron saint of Norfolk farming. The monument was erected by public subscription: the life-size sculptures of a plough, a sheep, an ox and a seed drill that surround the central column (topped by bulls, leaves and turnips) refer to the revolutionary agricultural reforms Coke introduced in the early 19th century.

From the monument, head straight across the deer and sheep pastures to Holkham Hall, spread before you in all its magisterial splendour. If you've got the time and the energy, you can take a tour inside and round it off with a meal or a snack in the adjacent tea rooms; if you haven't, content yourself with the magnificent Palladian exterior of this historic 18th- century building, home to seven generations of the Earls of Leicester.

When you've had your fill of all this stateliness, bear north towards the Almshouses Gate. Once over the cattle grid, take the left fork and head towards the trees. From the almshouses it's a short, straight walk down through the model village of Holkham, and back to the Victoria Hotel. If you're peckish, try its wide selection of sandwiches, ploughmen's lunches and hot meals, which you can wash down with a pint of Adnam's beer or Addlestone's cider.

Map: Ordnance Survey Pathfinder 819 TF 84/94 (Wells-next-the-Sea and Burnham Market)

English Nature, which manages the nature reserve in conjunction with the Holkham estate, requests that visitors do not attempt this particular walk between November and March, when they risk disturbing the rare birds wintering in the marshes alongside Bone's Drove.