All marshes, water, wind and bone-chilling cold, the Norfolk coast provided a magical winter interlude for Emily Hatchwell

Cley next the Sea? No, it isn't. From this north Norfolk village, you can't even see the North Sea. Cley (pronounced as in "lie", not "lay") was a prosperous port during the Middle Ages, but it's hard to imagine a scene busy and noisy with ships as you contemplate the silent, silted-up estuary.

Cley next the Sea? No, it isn't. From this north Norfolk village, you can't even see the North Sea. Cley (pronounced as in "lie", not "lay") was a prosperous port during the Middle Ages, but it's hard to imagine a scene busy and noisy with ships as you contemplate the silent, silted-up estuary.

In summer, Cley's dogleg of a High Street is choked with cars and with people traipsing between the goodie-packed deli and the village's landmark windmill. But in winter Cley seems to close in on itself, in response to its exposed position on the edge of the marshes. Tomorrow, when the clocks go back, is the ideal moment to retreat to the village for the winter, as we did last year. We rented a dream cottage in Cley for six months at a bargain, low-season rate. Metropolitan friends thought we were mad. The jokes usually involved some mention of Siberia or the Arctic.

On paper, they weren't far off the mark. Arctic temperatures blow southwards to north Norfolk uninterrupted by land, while the icy east winds blasting in from the Urals are legendary. But feeling fed up with our safe and predictable lives in London, for us the prospect of braving the notorious elements was part of the attraction.

The rest of Norfolk's appeal lay not so much in what it had, as in what it didn't. According to the road atlas, there seemed to be a pleasing lack of civilisation – only a couple of towns along the 40-mile stretch of coast between Hunstanton and Cromer, and with barely an A-road in sight. Nothing but marshes, sand and water.

The flat, apparently featureless expanses of nothingness that stretch for miles along the coast don't sound inviting, but to miss out on the marshes is to miss the point. Walking along the shingle bank that protects the Cley marshes from the relentless pounding of the North Sea was laborious and noisy, not to mention windy, but we relished the vastness of the sky, which enveloped us from all sides. And the marshes that had seemed so desolate from a distance started to come to life. Between September and April, north Norfolk's mudflats and salt marshes attract hundreds of thousands of migratory birds seeking a respite from the even colder climes of the Arctic and Siberia. Cley is one of the top spots in which to observe these winter visitors.

Outside, our attempts at bird identification didn't go too well. "What's that?" "A pigeon." "What about that?" "Another pigeon." Things improved in the hide, however. We joined a couple of twitchers whose telescopes were trained, unmoving, on the scene outside. We dug out our ancient inherited binoculars and newly purchased bird book rather sheepishly. But the ponds outside were teeming with birds, and many of them were large enough to be pleasingly easy to identify; various types of wildfowl and waders, including, most spectacularly, a group of elegant, long-legged avocets.

The last bright sun of the afternoon cast kaleidoscopic patterns on the water and turned the darting movements of a flock of lapwings into a spectacular display as the light caught first their white underbellies and then their dark, glistening topsides as they twisted and turned. Two straggly, squawking arrowheads of geese flew across the burning orange orb of the sun. By the time we emerged from the hide, we no longer cared if our friends teased us for being twitchers; from then on we went nowhere without our binoculars.

Blakeney, an easy hour's walk (wind permitting) from Cley through the marshes, or five minutes by road for the feeble, is less mysterious than its neighbour, with a pretty harbour and mini-waterfront, where people promenade, Mediterranean style (Siberia permitting). You can walk along the narrow, tidal creek that allows boats to venture in this far. At low tide, the boats rest peacefully at angles in the mud, while oystercatchers peck about for food. At high tide, this muddy world is replaced by a magical watery scene. Norfolk's famous sunsets transform the high-tide waters into a little sea of shimmering pink and orange.

From the High Street, which slopes sharply up from the quay, you can look across the marshes to Blakeney Point, more than a mile away. Home to a thriving seal colony, this shingle-and-sand spit is accessible on foot from Cley, but it's a hard slog along the shingle. Most people choose the easy option – a boat trip from Morston, the next village on from Blakeney. Open-topped boats skippered by weather-beaten Captain Birdseye lookalikes take people out all year round. We chose 29 December, which happened to be one of the coldest days of the winter. While we gradually lost all feeling in our feet and bottoms, the seals had what I can only describe as a whale of a time, converted from lumbering beasts on land to swift, sleek movers in the water.

From Blakeney, sands extend west along the coast for 25 miles, divided by creeks into a series of outstanding beaches. Holkham beach starred as a corner of the state of Virginia at the end of the film Shakespeare in Love, but it needs no leg-ups from such celebrity appearances. It is the most amazing beach I've ever seen. You park on Lady Anne's Road, where our old Nissan Micra always looked a little out of place alongside the four-wheel-drives; and without green wellies, Barbours and a Labrador or two, we never had the right accessories either. But at least we had our binoculars. In winter, enormous flocks of geese gathered in the fields on either side of the car park to feed; if disturbed they would take flight like swarms of elegant locusts and then move seamlessly into the characteristic V formation. Holkham beach is vast – three miles wide and half a mile deep at low tide – and in winter it was almost totally empty, with just a few Lowry-sized figures scattered across the sands. The flatness of the land is supreme in such a place, where the sand, sea and sky compete for your visual attention.

Often we would be greeted by a persistent wind, which blew unhindered and did fantastic things with the sand – playing with the driest layer on the top, tossing it up in little tornadoes or sweeping it in streams across the ground, like ghostly spirits. The texture of the beach constantly changed, from smooth and fudge-like to hard, corrugated ripples. A mass of razorfish shells deposited near the high-tide mark looked like the remains of some piscine massacre.

Tufty patches of dune on the beach provide some shelter from the wind, but Holkham is more about walking than sitting. It takes about 90 minutes to walk along the beach and back – or you can return via the woods that stabilise the dunes behind the beach. With vast pine trees towering above humpy knolls and grassy clearings, the woods are silent and magical, particularly after a heavy fall of snow.

We relinquished our cottage in May, just as the pubs and car parks were getting busier. People in Cley thought we were mad to leave just as the summer was arriving, but we knew that warmth would undermine the sheer intensity of our winter experience. Back in our London home, we turn to our painting of oystercatchers on Holkham beach to take us back to that raw, timeless world of Norfolk in winter.