Holkham Hall estate has opened its grounds to cyclists wishing to reach the north Norfolk coast. It's a peaceful detour with stunning views, says Jonathan Sale

The main Route 1 hereabouts is excellent in its own right, passing in a fairly gradient-free way over ideal cycling terrain; it all comes out in the Wash, where even the waves are flat. Now, thanks to the Earl, cyclists can enjoy this detour that goes through Wells-next-the-Sea, past the beach featured in Shakespeare in Love and inland through the grounds of his spectacular Holkham Hall. The trip can be done as a fairly gentle, 10-mile, almost circular route starting at Wells or further south at Wighton. Alternatively, it can be part of a more ambitious 28-mile pedal if you start, as I did, at Fakenham, a small town halfway between King's Lynn and Cromer.

We pick up the start of our route in Fakenham's market square. With the Crown Hotel on the left, keep straight ahead and exit via a narrow street with, fixed to its right-hand corner, the first of many National Cycle Route signs: blue with a red figure 1 and a white bike. After the path alongside the river, turn left to cross the A1065 and A148 and pass through Sculthorpe.

Sadly, there is no time to drop off in Little Snoring and the even more soporific Great Snoring to the east. Instead, slice between West Barsham and East Barsham to reach North Barsham (what happened to South Barsham?) after which you pass on the right the Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady "founded 1061 - refounded 1897". You could slip into the "Slipper Chapel" here but for doctrinal reasons might prefer the Anglican or alternatively Greek Orthodox shrines, both a mile or so further on in Little Walsingham, which also boasts an abbey, sacred spring, theological gift shop and coach parking for pilgrims.

After Great Walsingham, it's on to Wighton, which, if you are only up for the shorter option, is a good place to start. Wighton is the cycling equivalent of the junction of the M1 and M25, although if you blink you will miss it: Route 30, a narrow road that leads to Cromer, joins from the right. Take the track to the left labelled "unsuitable for motor vehicles". (If mud makes it unsuitable for pedalled vehicles, too, follow the road signs to Wells instead.) Then cross the river Stiffkey - please spare a thought for the eccentric Vicar of Stiffkey, who was eaten by a lion - and pass the Wells & Walsingham Light Railway. Puff over the rough surface until you ascend the ominous feature known as Gallow Hill. You will recognise this not by a corpse on a rope but by a lonely house and a choice of three tracks. Take the middle one, heading north to Wells.

You have now left the original Route 1 and are on the new detour. Follow it along the edge of the fields and across a main road into an alleyway leading to the town and a dyke along the side of the small estuary. Cycle along the top of this for a wonderful view over land and sea. The wall stops where the dunes begin. Do a 90-degree turn to your left into the car park, which is another good place to start if you are doing the shorter version. Pick up the blue-and-red symbol in the far left-hand corner by the bike-shop.

The shared cycle and pedestrian path goes for 1.5 miles parallel to the sea, on the inland side of a narrow patch of woodland. Known as Wells Dell, this is considered one of the most famous bird-watching spots in England. An open-air transit lounge for immigrant birds, it offers the first landfall after the hop across the North Sea from the Continent.

If the tide is way out, deviate slightly and, like Gwyneth Paltrow at the end of Shakespeare in Love, wander on to the undulating beach of Holkham Bay where much of the sand is firm enough for cycling. At low tide the sea is scarcely visible on the horizon, which means, of course, that it has a long way to come in. But the waves belt in so fast that a siren is sounded as a warning to tardy paddlers.

Scampering back up the beach, follow the signs that eventually take a right-angle turn inland to the main coastal road. Go straight across to enter a deer park in the classiest stretch of this or indeed any cycling route: Holkham Hall. The Holkham estate was key to the 18th-century agrarian revolution in which crop rotation was developed by Thomas Coke, alias the First Earl of Leicester, and Viscount Townsend, alias "Turnip Townsend".

The house itself is a magnificent edifice whose entrance hall, modelled on a Roman temple of justice, is hailed as the most dramatic in England. The exterior looms over a lake so large that boat trips take 25 minutes. Skirting the house and the lake, you are now puffing up a dead-straight drive leading to a vast obelisk that dominates the horizon ahead of the handlebars. Continue round the tall stone tower and cruise down the final straight, which continues for the best part of a mile on the other side of the hill like an aristocratic ley line.

Turn left out of the park gates. At the crossroads we come to a parting of the ways. Those doing the shorter, circular route turn left again, along "The Belt", which runs by the elegant wall of the park to a T-junction known as Golden Gates. Go straight across on to a track which leads to the lonely house at Gallow Hill, where you turn left, or rather north, and head back to Wells, or if you started at Wighton, take the right fork.

Long-distance pedallers hitting the Fakenham trail also turn left out of the park but then steer in a southerly direction by making a right at the crossroads. Go straight across the next crossroads and then take a left fork in a wood on to a long straight stretch of a Roman road, turning left after Waterden to North Barsham. There turn right on to Route 1 again and retrace your way to Fakenham.


What to do

Wells and Holkham Circuit leaflet is free from local tourist information centres or from Sustrans (0845 113 0065; www.sustrans.org.uk). National Cycle Route 1A map (Hull to Fakenham map ISBN 0-9527106-5-X) costs £2.99 and is also available from Sustrans. Ordnance Survey Landranger 132, North West Norfolk map, £5.99. On Yer Bike Cycle Hire, The Laurels, Nutwood Farm, Wighton (01328 820719; www.norfolkcyclehire.co.uk) offers bike hire from £11 per day. ML Walsingham (01328 710438), 78 Staithe Street, Wells-next-the-Sea also offers cycle hire for £8 per day. Holkham Hall (01328 710 227; www.holkham.co.uk) opens daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 5pm. Admission to the grounds is free. Entry to the house costs £6.50 per adult.

Further information

Norfolk Tourism (01603 611 031; www.visitnorfolk.co.uk).