Just Back From… Penzance

October may seem an odd time of year to visit Cornwall – notorious for its ‘mizzle’ (mist and drizzle) and when the nights are drawing in. No late evening walks along the promenade at sunset for us then. October is, however, my birth month and this year marked a special anniversary too – ten years of marriage and a BIG birthday. The one where you used to get a free bus pass and a state pension – no longer though. So where to go and celebrate these two milestone events?

I thought about romantic Florence, I considered the northern lights of Reykjavik, I mused about South Africa and my beloved Cape Town, but on the other hand we still hadn’t found a house to buy and until we settled I felt that I was in limbo. I needed to get on with the rest of my life and my heart was still set on being near the coast so what better place to return to than Cornwall. Continue reading Just Back From… Penzance

Just Back From… North Norfolk

We managed a little getaway break in the windmill at Cley-next-the-sea back in January just as the snow arrived across the country. Literally snowed in we could only venture a little way along the windswept, wild north coast so promised ourselves a return in less inclement weather. The upside was that the coast was practically deserted apart from a few hardy twitchers, and we saw lots of wild geese flying overhead in formation.

We returned for two weeks in mid-August, not the period I had visualised because I feared the north coast would be over-run with families during the school holidays, but life conspired against me to sort anything out in June. At least it would give us a fair impression of what life is like there in the hustle and bustle of the summer. With the temperature and humidity soaring, sun shining and the big, blue skies you associate with Norfolk it felt like the driest county in the UK, though rivals have sprung up to dispute this. Whatever, it was dry enough whilst we were there other than one day of persistently heavy showers.

Landscapes

What is so special about North Norfolk? Well it has to be the sheer openness of the countryside – the peace and solitude found away from the major arterial roads – where you can stop and observe cornfields and church towers poking up into the wide sky. The landscapes and the seascapes are calming and you feel as though you have space to breathe under that big Norfolk sky.

Driving along those narrow roads and single lanes is not for the faint-hearted though as some idiot usually in a huge 4WD is likely to come flying around a blind bend in the middle of the road and scowl at you as if you have no right to be there. Several times I was thankful that I had practically crawled around such a bend because at least one of us could hit the brakes and stop before a collision. My rather low-slung VW Jetta however, is not really built for the off-roading that she was forced to do on so many occasions and has returned slightly worse for wear.

History

From a historical viewpoint, North Norfolk has it in spades, from lovely old stone-built churches with square or round towers to ruinous abbeys and priories torn down by the infamous Henry VIII. Don’t just admire the churches from the roadside though, step inside and you will find surprising light and airy spaces, imposing windows, interesting fonts and carved Poppy Head pews.

I will write separate blogs on some of these places that we visited as they each deserve more space than I can give them here. Staying in the countryside only a few miles from the north coast meant that we passed through several small villages each time we went out. One of them, Walsingham, is an unusual village with a long history of pilgrimage, but Little and Great Walsingham together offer much more to explore from medieval hostelries, an original Georgian courtroom at the Shirehall and a prison – the Bridewell or House of Correction dating from the 16th century to the barns at Great Walsingham where you can visit the Barns Café famous for ‘pies, puds and tarts’ and have a light lunch or afternoon tea and browse amongst some lovely galleries. Walsingham is also the start of a Narrow Gauge Railway to Wells.

Grand Homes

There are many gorgeous stately homes in the area too, the most famous of all being Sandringham which is Queen Elizabeth’s country estate. We didn’t make it to Sandringham, but Holkham Hall has lovely park walks and deer, Fellbrigg Hall has a wonderful walled garden, Blickling estate also has lovely gardens and a very interesting interior and a little further south you can find Oxburgh Hall one of the few houses with a complete moat and again a very interesting interior. We actually stayed in a cottage in the grounds of another house with a moat, Hindringham Hall, which has to be in one of the quietest spots in the county and which was originally built with some of the stone from the destruction of nearby Binham Priory. (the links will take you to separate posts about each place)

The Coast

The north coast is what struck me the most about our visit in January. Of course then we had the advantage of seeing migrant birds over-wintering on the marshes, but naturally I was drawn back to it in the summer. The coastal path from Cley to Blakeney is a lovely stroll along the flood wall with views across the Blakeney Freshes. The footpath now runs alongside the new route of the River Glaven, which was moved inland in 2006 to prevent flooding. The areas that were fresh water marsh and the old footpath route are now exposed to saltwater and tides and are quickly turning into saltmarsh.

For several centuries, Blakeney was a busy commercial port exporting corn and wool and importing a variety of goods, including coal and timber. Today, the quay is mainly used for recreational activities, such as sailing, bird-watching and walking and youngsters sitting on the quay, quietly ‘crabbbing’.

To walk along the shingle spit to Blakeney Point where you can see grey seals you need to start from Cley Eye. This is a long and challenging walk along the shingle. Though if you time it right at low tide there is a chance of sand to make it easier. Allow around 5 hours for the return walk from the car-park. Norfolk may not have hills, but just try walking on shingle! The shingle ridge runs for 8 miles (13km) from Weybourne cliffs to the end of Blakeney Point. It’s constantly being reshaped by the sea, and is growing westwards and moving inland over time. Alternatively you can take a boat from Morston Quay out to the point to view the seals.

One nice thing about the Norfolk Coastal Path is that you can do it in stages as there is a regular Coasthopper bus which will take you back to your starting point. The downside is that these buses stop running early in the evening so don’t rely on it to take you to a coastal pub and back.

The best walk has to be from Holkham beach ‘where the sky meets the sea’ over the sand-dunes and along to Wells beach where the 122 colourful beach-huts snuggle beneath the tall pines and then walk back alongside the pine woodlands to the car-park on Lady Anne’s Drive. Warning though, it gets very busy at either end of this walk on a sunny day.

Another lovely walk is within Sheringham Park – head up to the Gazebo where you get a 360º view of the surrounding landscape, including the coast. There are 192 steps to reach that position though, so it can be a bit hard on the old knees.

The Broads

One further highlight was popping over to the Norfolk Broads which are on the east coast and quite some distance from where we were staying. However, we decided to continue over there after visiting Blickling Hall as it was quite an easy route into the north broads. We stopped for an early evening meal at the Fur and Feathers in Woodbastwick, adjacent to the Woodforde Brewery, where we enjoyed local fish and chips washed down with a half pint of Bure Gold, a classic aromatic golden ale with a citrusy flavour. Afterwards we parked outside the church at Ranworth and walked down the lane to the start of a boardwalk through tall reeds and marshland out to the private Ranworth Broads, where we sat after a minor shower, to watch great-crested grebes and Egyptian geese paddle and dive in front of us and terns and swifts fly overhead as the late evening sun slithered towards the horizon. It was sublime.

Lowlights have to include the sound pollution of the RAF / USAF jets screeching overhead during the daytime – but at least they have the decency to observe Monday – Friday hours. I also wish I’d known how impossible it would be to eat out at any of the coastal pubs. Even in the middle of the week all tables are firmly reserved. But the Farm Shops at Walsingham came to the rescue with superb cuts of steak, juicy burgers and home-made pies and tarts. In truth if it wasn’t for the fact that Walsingham is just a wee bit too pious for me, I’d happily live there (and I do have the name for it). Great fish and chips from the Riddle too.

Finally I have to confess that there is something about the architecture of North Norfolk, with its square towered churches, ruins, windmills, flint and brick walls, steep pitched roofs and Dutch gable ends that appeals to me. That and the space and the country lanes criss-crossing through endless fields of corn and wheat and the big blue sky

Just Back From… Ledbury

Last week on a rare day of sunshine and warmth we decided to go for a drive into our neighbouring shires of Hereford and Worcester getting off the usual roads we take when going south to get onto a motorway and slowly exploring a few of the many B roads in the counties to admire the most wonderful countryside and views. Continue reading Just Back From… Ledbury

Just Back From… the Cotswolds

the old post officeWhen you think of the Cotswolds it is the warm honey-coloured limestone and cute thatched cottages inviting romance and tranquillity that spring to mind and where market towns (formerly centres of the wool trade) have wide squares and streets and are the centres of activity. Brooks and rivers bridged by tiny stone arches  meander through the hidden villages in the rolling hills and farmland where country pubs have flagstone floors, beamed ceilings and inglenook fireplaces with log fires.

You may also think of crowds of tourists and visitors from London up for the day, often on large touring coaches, ancient churches and manor houses, picture-book tea-rooms, expensive antique, retro and vintage shops. You’d be right about all of these things, but there is another side to the Cotswolds to be explored.

The Cotswolds district is mainly in the counties of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire with parts of Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Somerset at the edge. It is an area filled with hundreds of small towns and villages that don’t appear on the calendars and book covers or hog the limelight, but are equally attractive. Discover them by driving along the plethora of narrow, winding roads which often provide the most amazing views over the Wolds and the valleys. There are public footpaths, national trails and bridleways galore. Find yourself in a charming and unspoilt village away from the main tourist spots and walk around listening to the birdsong and admiring the chocolate box cottages and striking parish church. In the late spring sunshine, with so many shades of green it is impossible to count, you may stumble across a woodland carpeted with bluebells.

adlestrop laneIn the north of the region take a romantic circular drive from Moreton-in-Marsh to Stow-on-the-Wold stopping at Broadway Tower and Country Park for a picnic with a view, Broadway village with its wide main street , Snowshill Manor with its collection by the eccentric Charles Paget Wade, Snowshill Lavender farm in the summer, and Hailes Cistercian Abbey ruins, a most peaceful spot on the Cotswolds Way. Continue through Guiting Power with the ‘Hollow Bottom Inn’ and the picturesque Lower Slaughter with the tiny River Eye running through it.

There are dozens of lovely homes and gardens for you to visit, some owned by the National Trust, others in private ownership. Some are large estates such as Sezincote or Hidcote and attract the coach parties, others are smaller and often quieter. All are worth a visit.

sezincote

The Cotswolds is a vast region and requires several days to explore it thoroughly. We only touched on a small part in four days; there is a lot more to discover.