Flights to Venice or Barcelona may cost only 75p one way, but all the best things can still be found at home. They are not, however, always that easy to find, and I have encountered bedraggled half-term families cursing the news-paper travel section that brought them to Norfolk confident of finding a combination of the Hamp- tons and the Camargue. Shivering in the rain, they are suffering from the fact that Norfolk hides its light behind a particularly obscuring bushel (like many of the best parts of Britain).
Cornwall is really up for it and this is not a condemnation, do not worry. Arrive at Polzeath and it is all there, with all the blushing shyness of Jordan (the celebrity, of course). You can hire the wetsuit, get the lessons, eat the pasty, and roar off into the Atlantic, and all without consulting a guidebook. And you can eat. Not only has Rick Stein opened so many restaurants that everybody can have some, but every ex-Stein chef has followed suit. In fact, every sea bass in northern Europe seems eventually to be sucked into that vortex of Cornish seaside eating.
Norfolk holds back. Beneath the much advertised wide skies, the barely undulating country is undramatic. Except for its occasional hugeness, its treats are not all that easy to find. Despite the ubiquitous brown directional signs, most visitors leave with only the sketchiest idea of what might be on offer, such as the market towns as unspoiled as any in France or Italy, or the stirring beauty of the Fens with their towering perpendicular churches Norfolk has more medieval churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. There are also the marshes, the 40-mile-long untouched coastline (another fact: this is the longest stretch of undeveloped coast in western Europe) and, make what you will of this, Norfolk has the darkest night skies in southern Britain.
The skies are dark and the landscape is relatively undeveloped entirely because Norfolk is so horribly slow to get to. The A11 winds through Cambridgeshire and Suffolk before Norfolk’s approach is heralded at Elveden by Clyde Scott’s Elveden War Memorial. This rather clumsily detailed giant column, built as a First World War memorial, now also serves as a huge milestone, marker of the last phase of the trek from London. It appears rising from a particularly beautiful group of Scots pines that twist in an Oriental way from the rabbit-cropped turf of the Breckland. But it is a little further north or north-west that the countryside starts to really lift the spirits, particularly at the approaches to coastal Norfolk.
The coastline is severely beautiful from Horsey in the south-east to King’s Lynn and its hinterlands. The Halvergate Marshes and the Broads have a special charm, particularly in winter. Walking in the great National Trust estates of Blickling, Felbrigg and Sheringham yields many treats all the year round. The towns of Aylsham, Holt and Fakenham have markets, auctions and left-behind ‘Ginger and Pickles’ type little shops. The marshes and beaches of Cley, Morston and Blakeney are perfect for picnicking and crabbing. The vast palace of Holkham and the smaller, but still imperially grand, Houghton Hall are the great Norfolk glories. Then there are the more homely pleasures of Cromer Pier and Sheringham Beach for kite flying; crab salads at Cookies Crab Shop in Salthouse; and fish and chips among the Wells amusement arcades.
Wherever you drive, all the time there will be an unvisitable number of flint medieval churches (unvisitable because there are just too many). Most of them are open, or with key holders close to hand. They are remnants of the county’s medieval greatness. Now they are the embodiment of Norfolk’s history, with brasses and monuments testifying to F’Further north or north-west, the countryside starts to really lift the spirits, particularly at the approaches to coastal Norfolk’ former glories, painted screens fairly undamaged by the Taliban-like activities of the Reformation or the Civil War, and many interiors watched over by winged wooden angels in the rafters. Here is a list of some of the best places in Norfolk to enjoy. Just trying to hunt out these treats will show you a lot of this occasionally secretive county, the most unspoiled in southern Britain.
From Yarmouth to Hunstanton, Norfolk’s beaches stretch for 40 miles. Windblown Winterton and Waxham in the east have sandy beaches, backed by a Normandy Beach like concrete wall behind which spread dunes perfect for every adventure game imaginable. Further along is the shingle of Salthouse and Cley, where the water shelves steeply away to make adult swimming much easier, with the added excitement of the birdlife that has made the county’s coastal marshes world famous. Westwards, Holkham beach stretches for four miles of empty sand. The farther away from the car park you walk, the more uninhabited the beach becomes. Again, there is a backdrop of sand dunes and pinewoods (at the very far end, these occasionally are home to gentle mannered, but alarming nudists who probably are best avoided).
HARBOURS & SEALS
Children and adults cannot help but love the seals at Blakeney Point or Morston (Beans Boat Trips: 01263 740038, www.beansboattrips.co.uk; Temples Seal Trips: (01263 740791)www.sealtrips.easternengland.co.ukor Bishop’s Boats: (01263 740753)www.norfolksealtrips.co.ukNot only are they enchanting (unless you are a mackerel, sea trout or fisherman), but the whole maritime experience of the boat trip across the spit is great fun?Morston’s harbour is pleasingly picturesque. Older teenagers will steer towards the fleshpots of Brancaster and Burnham Market where they will be able to recognise countless braying friends from school heading for lunch at the famous Hoste Arms (01328 738777)www.hostearms.co.ukand will mill about happily on the pretty green. It also has stylish shops.
The Blakeney Point Sailing School located in Glandford (01263 740704)www.blakeneypointsailing.co.ukwill take children out into the relative calm of the harbour for lessons at all levels. There is less chance of dangerous waters if you opt for the Broads. This chain of often-connected waterways consists of the rivers Ant, Bure and Thurne, and a series of shallow lakes that are an environment unique in Britain. Resulting from the digging of peat for fuel in the Middle Ages, the Broads are England’s answer to Florida’s Everglades, or the bayous of Louisiana or south Texas, but they are mercifully free of alligators.
Clouds of wildfowl, ducks, geese, grebes and rarities such as the bittern, marsh harriers and the enchanting bearded tit summer or winter in the backwaters, as flocks of holidaymakers from the Midlands also migrate to the Broads cruisers for fun afloat. However, it is easy to escape the crowds, either by visiting out of high season, or by taking an evening trip when the cruising masses have moored up. You may get a treat and observe swimming otters and barn owls hunting, or glimpse the all but extinct swallowtail butterfly in its last English stronghold.
You can hire boats at Wroxham (Faircraft Loynes: 01603 782280, www.waterscape.com; or Connoisseur Cruisers: (08707 749933)www.connossieurafloat.comCharlie Ward (07771 597985)www.charlieward-trad-boats.co.uktakes his Thames barge Juno from Morston to Wells, but only on a charter basis.
Norfolk’s two great towns Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn are both worth a visit. Great Yarmouth, once a bustling place whose herring- salting industry supported a noisy population of gutters, filleters and packers, is now the land of the helter-skelter and ghost train. Despite heavy bombingduring the Second World War, there are still architectural pleasures to be rooted out in the Rows, a set of alleys going inland, and at the Naval Hospital, now converted into houses and flats. Most excitingly, the Hippodrome (01493 844172)www.hippodromecircus.co.uka grand Victorian barn of an indoor circus, has a watery surprise that makes the show unmissable. King’s Lynn is more Picturesque, with the grandly curving Queen Street leading from the Saturday to the Tuesday markets.
The two great squares, alleys and yards lead to the quay off which the gem like Customs House (built in 1683) is among dozens of architectural treats.The smaller towns of Aylsham and Holt are picture-perfect market towns. Aylsham still has the remnants of a Monday market and a particularly good butcher called G. F. White (01263 732264). Be sure to check out their home-cured and smoked bacon. Also, there is an antiques auctioneer, G. A. Key (01263 733195), that is worth a visit. Holt, rebuilt after an 18th-century fire, is the shopping hub of Norfolk, the best option being Richard Scott’s matchless antique-china shop in the market place, where £5 will buy you something chipped, but very lovely, from the 18th century. Do not miss Old Town (01263 710001), the idiosyncratic clothiers, either. CHURCHES
There are far too many unbelievably beautiful medieval churches in Norfolk to mention anything but a smattering. Visit the website of the Norfolk Churches Trust for more informationwww.norfolk-churches.co.ukBut a few suggestions include Salle, isolated and grand in the fields of mid Norfolk; St Mary in Worstead, a towering church with Georgian box pews; Cawston, for its angelic roof; Hales, for its Norman simplicity; and Little Witchingham, for unbeatable charm.
HOUSES & GARDENS
These have already been mentioned, but perhaps Holkham (01328 710227)www.holkham.co.ukoffers the best day out with the 1st Earl of Leicester’s Palladian masterpiece, as well as a huge park, food shops, pottery and a very good restaurant, The Victoria at Holkham (01328 711008).
In rather less good condition, but no less impressive, are the ruins of Castle Acre, monastic and fortified. Other ancient structures to visit might include Castle Rising, just outside King’s Lynn, or the tiny, but lyrically moated remnants of Baconsthorpe Castle near Holt. Two utterly different gardens are found at opposite ends of the county.
The East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden (01692 650432)www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk, near Stalham, is a wild romp of bright colour, bold design and probably has more new garden building than anywhere in the country. The other garden is the revamped walled garden at Houghton Hall (01485 528569)www.houghtonhall.com. Here, the stylish designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman have transformed the former kitchen garden into a series of rooms frothing over with thoughtful plantings and with views to an oak temple with its pediment filled with antlers that look like a sylvan Elgin marbles.
PUBS & PLACES TO BUY PICNICS
Norfolk is full of pubs, most of which alarm with their globetrotting cook-from-frozen menus. However, there are some exceptions. Try The Saracen’s Head at Wolterton, near Ayslham (01263 768909)www.saracenshead-norfolk.co.uk, whose chef cooks delicious Morston mussels with cider and cream, and local Gunton Park venison, or check out the Walpole Arms at Itteringham (01263 587258)www.thewalpolearms.co.uk. But often, packing a picnic is your best bet.
The Cley Smokehouse (01263 740282) makes delicious potted shrimps and taramasalata, and further along the coast road, strawberries, raspberries and asparagus can be bought at Wiveton Hall in Wiveton.Cromer retains a faded, but stylish Regency charm that only improves with buying a bag of fish and chips from Mary Jane’s and taking it onto the pier, but Sheringham has a more kiss-me-quick appeal, as does Hunstanton. An alternative fishy outing is a trip to the popular and charming Cookies Crab Shop at Salthouse (01263 740352).
This shack of a restaurant produces crab or lobster salad or crab sandwiches that are cheap and delicious. The food is preferably eaten among the retired boats in their garden, and the restaurant seems to be open almost all the time. Take a bottle of wine along, or have a drink first at the Dun Cow Public House (01263 740467) across the green.