PADDLING along the north Norfolk coast path with the rain seeping through the shoulders of my waterproof, I was thinking about Konrad Lorenz. He was the man who duped trusting batches of newly hatched goslings into thinking he was their mother.

Does 'imprinting', as he called it, work in other ways, too, I wondered? Because I was born among mountains in the west of the country, was I doomed for ever to be a misfit in the flat marshlands of the east? Here I was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, an EC Special Protection Area and the earth was not moving for me one millimetre.

Cliffs and edges are what I was brought up on, in endless childhood summers in Pembrokeshire. Here, the land and the water twisted round each other like a nest of snakes. No edges. No cliffs. The sea was round a long corner from a harbour, or over the other side of sand dunes, or swallowed up in acres of salty reed beds.

I wanted to be awed by north Norfolk: the loneliness, the skies, the calls of geese flying low over the marshes. But the noise of the traffic on the coast road, the A149, was always more insistent than any bird cries. And with endless notice- boards, caravan sites, car-parks, carefully laid boardwalks, it seemed a pretty tame wilderness to me. About as lonely as Shoreham-by-Sea.

'What brought you to these parts?' I asked a man in a pub, desperately searching for a good reason for being there. 'It's the only place in this country,' he said, 'where you can see the sun both rise and set over the sea.'

That was certainly a good reason, but we missed out on the sun. The rain continued inexorably the whole weekend. Tea shops had never looked more tempting, pub fires were never more difficult to leave.

But we tried. On Saturday morning we set off from the Lifeboat Inn at Thornham to find the sea. A dead straight lane led down to the remains of a harbour, one of many that once existed along this coast, now beached as the sea drifts further and further to the north. Now Wells is the only working harbour left and that wouldn't be there without the dredger, pitted in an unequal struggle against the endlessly shifting sand.

Marshes lie to the east of the muddy Thornham creek. The coastal footpath skirts that area, so you have to go west, first along the top of a dyke that follows the edge of sunken fields, and then out into dunes. Beyond is a vast sweep of sand which turns the corner on the bump of Norfolk to face west across the Wash.

It was low water and the battered posts of an old groyne stood out blackly against the sand. 'That groyne,' said a man fishing from the shore for dab, 'has not been seen in living memory until now.'

It had appeared after a particularly bad storm, which also licked 15 yards off the front of the dunes. Three feet of sand had been scoured off the beach, revealing not only the groyne but, out at the water's edge, shelves of dark peat, embedded with shells.

Until about 7000BC, Norfolk was joined on to mainland Europe by a North Sea landscape of forest, swamp and brackish pools. The sea, rising in level, eventually drowned this land bridge, but here were its remains. You could make out the shape of roots and whole trees, lying where they had fallen, pickled now to a dark, crumbly softness.

Impermanence makes an uneasy landscape. In close-up, though, the beach was riveting. The currents were complex, explained the fisherman, who caught four dabs every day for his tea. When the fish came in on the tide, they crossed in front of him, parallel with the shore. The water then swirled to the side and cut round the back of a higher bank of sand. On an incoming tide, you could suddenly find your beach had turned to an island.

The sand was patterned with the marks of this swirling, capricious movement. Some areas of the beach were as smooth as veneer, others as frenetic as ruched curtains. In places, the sand was mounded in gritty slopes, thick with shells: mussels, oysters, finely fluted piddocks and clams.

The same richness of texture shows in the buildings, too. At Holme next the Sea (which isn't next at all) you see cottages built of crumbly stone the colour of raisin bread. Some are built of melting blocks of chalk. Most are made of combinations of brick and flint. There is very little stone in Norfolk and what there is (carstone) does not stretch far inland from this western edge.

The flints, either knapped and used shiny edge out, or embedded whole, make intricately patterned frontages. In one house, small fragments of brick had been set like cherries in the lines of mortar between the flints. Smaller round pebbles were used, too, embedded in the same way in mortar, to make garden walls or to pattern gable ends.

The pub, when we got back, was heaving. All five fires had been lit and people were still eating lunch, while outside the darkness that had been hovering all day finally collapsed on the flat marshes.

The pub was an unusual place - very warm, very welcoming, very cleverly stage-managed. It was dressed with tools: reed cutters, rick knives, spokeshaves. Like the peat beds, they were remnants of a civilisation now vanished.

Originally the pub had been a farmhouse, and it is still a warren of small rooms, lit in part with oil lamps. This is a kind light when you have been out in the rain all day. I picked the pub from the new Good Pub Guide. So, I guessed, had many other people there. There was not that sense of an interrupted programme that you get when you walk into a local that is not your own.

It was a pub that was on its way to becoming a hotel, with a big extension now built off the original dining room and extra bedrooms above, a dozen in all. Their mussels, bred just along the coast at Brancaster (at least until an EC directive shuts the place down) were excellent. So was the treacle tart.

Treacle tart always leaves you feeling as though you shouldn't have, which is why we planned an early start for Sunday, to walk as much of the coast as possible. The expedition started well at Burnham Deepdale, where we had noticed a church with an extraordinary round tower. Anglo-Saxon, says the indispensable Pevsner.

Inside was a square Norman font with sinuous lions winding round the rim. Underneath, a series of vignettes made a calendar of the seasons. March showed a man goose-stepping with a spade. In November he was slaughtering a pig. There was more: medieval stained glass in the window of the tower and fragments of rich cobalt blue gathered into a stunning little window behind the pulpit.

Listening to the rain beating down, it was tempting to draw out indefinitely the business of reading the wall tombstones. We might even have got around to those arcane bits of the prayerbook, about whom you can't marry, that I used to study during sermons.

It may have been a more uplifting way to spend the day, but I still felt that somewhere along this coast there was going to be a moment when it suddenly grabbed the soul. I wanted it to. I was ripe for conversion, but it never came.

Our hopeful road to Damascus lay first inland along a straight, straight lane (you can always see too far ahead in Norfolk), up a hill to a dizzy 70ft on Barrow Common where, on a clear day, there might have been a good view of the sea. The path over the common had a tired air of too many feet upon it and the signs - Private, No Entry, No Through Road to the Sea - spoke of an area overburdened with tourists. Coming down again, we padded through the barbed-wire footpaths of Brancaster and emerged by the mussel pits of the marsh side.

That was good. The place had purpose and the pleasant litter of patched buildings that you get on the best sort of allotments. After that it was downhill all the way along the foreshore back to Burnham Deepdale. The narrow boardwalk made you feel as though you were toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. The path led between piles of garden rubbish put out by the householders who live all along the shore. Even the sound of the curlews couldn't make up for the unremittingly lowering nature of this walk.

'Wells might be fun,' I suggested later, desperately. It might be, but not on that wet Sunday afternoon when only amusement arcades leered out of the greyness. We pushed on east. Stiffkey had its back to the sea, which seemed sensible, and was shielded by a slight rise in the ground. It made all the difference.

I also liked the sound of the Rev Harold Davidson, rector of Stiffkey in the Thirties. He spent most of his time, proselytising, he said, among the prostitutes of Soho, and was defrocked for his pains. He devoted the rest of his life to trying to clear his name, but he did it in a very odd way. He sat in a barrel on Blackpool's Golden Mile and then in a lion's cage at Skegness. There, the lions ate him, which was not the vindication he was looking for (see panel, below).

The highlight of the day came when we fetched up, drippingly, at the door of Morston Hall, Morston, a small village which lies between Blakeney and Stiffkey. The hall was warm, logs spluttered in the grate, the bedroom was quiet, the bath deep, the walnut loaf that arrived with tea absolute magic.

Dinner was the best thing I have eaten all year, cooked by Galton Blackiston, who worked previously at Miller Howe at Windermere. Mr Blackiston, his wife and their co-owner Justin Fraser, all of whom look as if they might get on the school bus in the morning, opened at Morston this spring. They served a stripy mousse of salmon and sole wrapped in leaves of spinach. Then there was roast pheasant with succulent baby turnips and a nutmeggy puree of cauliflower.

At last, here was a brilliant reason not to have stayed at home. We left at 6.30 the next morning. The keys to the outside door were wrapped in a note. 'Sorry you missed the porridge', it said. So were we.

(Photograph omitted)

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