Norfolk, England’s regal backwater
Norfolk doesn’t get the hype and tourist publicity of the West Country, the Lake District or Scotland but it’s a very special corner of England. Maybe that’s because it’s not on-route to anywhere – except Norfolk, so nobody stops off, on-route to somewhere else.
But it does have a very loyal following of regular visitors and many of them are glad that Norfolk keeps a relatively low profile, which has enabled it to keep the charm and character that many other over-commercialised places have lost.
It has attracted a string if illustrious residents – The Queen always spends Christmas in Norfolk, England’s first Prime Minster Sir Robert Walpole, Admiral Nelson and even Pocahontas (really) were residents.
Dozens of novelists have chosen Norfolk as their ideal murder mystery or romance location – Len Deighton, Anthony Horowitz, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain and Stephen Fry have all written novels based in the county. My favourite are the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh novels of PD James’s and of course Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, some of which are set on the Norfolk Broads.
You might think that Walmington-on-Sea is a south coast town, but it’s not, it’s actually Thetford and dozens of Dad’s Army film locations can be spotted around town; there’s even a statue of Captain Mainwaring in the town centre. If you want to discover more about the filming of the series, visit the Dad’s Army Museum in the Old Fire Station, Thetford.
It’s a fascinating as well as a beautiful place, so I was glad to be back in Norfolk again.
Norfolk’s quiet lanes, brick and flint houses, windmills, sandy or mysterious coastline, unusual round-tower churches and a countryside of colourful hedgerows are just a couple of hours by car or train from the bedlam of London and it could almost be another country.
We don’t really like holiday hotels so decided to rent a cottage with Norfolk Country Cottages (www.norfolkcottages.co.uk). Approaching our cottage in the tiny hamlet of Little Thornage the roads get smaller and smaller until only a single track leads us to the little group of a dozen cottages.
Our country hideaway is Honeysuckle cottage and Little Thornage could easily have been used for the film set of Larkrise to Candleford. The cottage was originally a pair of two-up and two-down farm labourer’s cottages before it was cleverly converted into a smart country home with all modern amenities.
The cottage was clean and well maintained with everything you might have at home including central heating, logs for the log burner and a welcome basket of tea, coffee, milk and biscuits.
Most importantly it was just a ten-minute walk to the King’s Head, a great country pub that other people drive miles to get to. Surrounded by fields, it’s the gastro-pub reputation that attracts customers but it still serves a suite of great local beers like Woodfordes, Wherry and Adnams.
A 15 minute drive and we’re on the north coast and settling down to a plate of Cromer crab in the faded Victorian grandeur of Cromer. Although small Cromer’s crabs are full of plump white meat that is the sweetest of any crab. They’re the same species as found elsewhere in Britain but there’s something about the local waters and what they feed on that makes them exceptional.
Cromer’s other highlight, besides the beach, is the last pier with a working theatre at the end, currently featuring Gerry and the Pacemakers and a Roy Orbison tribute act.
Further west along the coast, sand gives way to marsh, reed beds and beautiful villages like Cley-next-the-Sea (a bird watchers paradise) and stylish Georgian towns like Burnham Market (a shoppers paradise). The nearby village of Burnham Thorpe is the birthplace of Admiral Nelson and the pub named after him still has the chair he supposedly always sat in for a pint.
Continuing west, past the Provence-like lavender fields of Heacham, which sadly were not in flower, but across the field we spied Heacham Hall, where in 1616 Pocahontas lived with her husband John Rolfe.
Sandringham is in the northwest corner of the county, one of the Queen’s many homes and where she entertains the Royal family for Christmas dinner before they all settle down to watch her afternoon broadcast to the nation.
Sandringham’s architectural style has been uncharitably described as a grandiose Victorian seaside hotel rather than a royal residence. However, inside it has a homely Edwardian style that’s cosier than a formal palace, which is probably why it’s said to be the Queen’s favourite home.
The gardens are immaculate and the grounds and woodland sprawl over 600 acres, much of it is the publicly accessible Country Park. An extra treat for visitors is the private museum of cars, curios and royal gifts, which is a fascinating collection of royal memorabilia. The house, museum, gardens and tearoom are generally open to the public from May to October.
After the beautiful countryside and coastline, Norfolk’s other glittering gems are the Broads. They’re Britain’s largest protected wetlands spanning Norfolk and Suffolk, and made up from a network of seven rivers and 63 broads. This boater’s haven extends over 117 square miles of lakes, rivers, dykes and marshes, with 125 miles of lock free navigable water.
It was not until the 1960s that archaeologists discovered that the Broads are not a natural landscape. They were accidentally created by extensive peat excavation and the lakes or broads are flooded peat pits that people began excavating a thousand years ago. Windmill pumps and dykes were built to try and drain the flooded landscape but they all failed. Making the most of what must have been a medieval eco-disaster, the flooded landscape was extended with channels and it developed into an important transport network, before there were roads. As a by-product the extensive reed beds became invaluable for thatching local houses.
The network of waterways make it tortuous to explore the Broads by car – sailing, cruising, canoeing, cycling or hiking are the only practical options. So I parked the car and took to the water in the village of Wroxham, the centre for motor cruiser hire.
Norfolk Broads Direct (www.broads.co.uk) build their own boats and have cruisers from 2 to 8 berths and rent day boats by the hour. My 40-foot cruiser was a 6-berth Fair Sovereign design, somewhat intimidating at first but a real treat once you get the feel of it.
Emerging from the boatyard the riverside is lined with thatched cottages, which have boathouses instead of garages and water for parking spaces. But within 15 minutes the houses are replaced by open countryside and tree lined banks as I turn into Wroxham Broad. What seems like a sudden vast expanse of open water is a haven for yachts tacking back and forth so I have to creep around the edge to avoid the many hapless learners before rejoining the river.
Further down the River Bure, feathery reed beds creep into the river and would clog it if it were not routinely dredged. Leading off the river, dykes meander into marshland that is a constant chatter of birds. Waterfowl are everywhere, on the river, on the banks and in the air – swans, grebe, mallard, geese, heron, but I’m envious of the canoeists that paddle up the tiny backwaters inaccessible to motor crafts. They silently disappear into the reeds and I heard tales of people discovering secretive Otters and Bittern.
Smart cruisers aside, there’s a cosy old world feel about the Broads that is quaintly captured in the Swallows & Amazon series of children’s books, by Arthur Ransome. The Coot Club is evocatively set on the River Bure in the 1930s and is the perfect onboard read.
Its impossible to miss the windmills that are scattered across the Broads and they give a traditional pastoral look to the landscape, although most were used to pump water rather than grind wheat.
After joining the river Thurne we cruise on down to the village of Acle and moor next to the Bridge Inn. If we carried on down river we would arrive at Great Yarmouth on the east coast. Instead we picnic on the boat and toast the beautiful evening sunset with a few gin and tonics, which somehow seems more in keeping than a pint of beer.
Norfolk: slow travel by Laurence Mitchell, Bradt Travel Guides, 2014
Norfolk Country Cottages – www.norfolkcottages.co.uk
Norfolk Broads Direct – www.broads.co.uk
Sandringham – www.sandringhamestate.co.uk
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