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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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…