Flashback Friday #36

This post was written in 2013 after a lovely holiday in Norfolk. We did actually consider moving to Norfolk as we really enjoyed our time there, but soon realised that the part we loved the most (north coast) was prohibitively expensive. Hard to believe this was 8 years ago!


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


This post is a contribution to Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Have you got a post you wrote in the past on this particular day? The world might be glad to see it – either for the first time – or again if they’re long-time loyal readers.

Just Back From… 1066

It seemed fitting for my 100th post on this blog to write about an historical event, one with far more importance though…

It is a date that every English child will know sooner or later. The year 1066, when King Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow and died on the battlefields at Hastings.  The most famous battle  fought on English soil  and the last successful invasion of this country. Continue reading Just Back From… 1066

Hindringham Hall

Hindringham Hall is privately owned, but the gardens are open to the public each Wednesday during the summer season and four times a year there is a tour of the house itself. We booked one of the two holiday cottages for a fortnight in the North Norfolk countryside, though I was worried that being four miles from the wild north coast, to which I am strangely drawn, would be too far. I should not have fretted, as it was an ideal location. Far enough away from the madding crowds, but close enough to visit regularly enough. And entering the five-barred gate, driving down the long gravel driveway and crossing the moat bridge leading to the hall was a lovely experience – for two weeks we could pretend to be Lord and Lady of the Manor 😉

The village of Hindringham is typical of many small villages in the countryside today (not only in Norfolk) where there are few, if any, amenities. There is no village store or post office, no butcher or baker or indeed a candlestick maker, and the only pub is a bar in the cricket pavilion – aptly called The Pavilion – which is run by the community and only open on a Friday evening! Oddly enough though there is a Primary School, a large village hall and the church so you might have expected a shop at least.

Parts of Hindringham Hall were probably built from some of the stone torn down from the nearby Binham Priory, but it has been extended over the generations. It is now a handsome stepped-gabled building with a complete moat and a characterful history. There are not many fully moated houses remaining in the county; Oxburgh Hall (which has historical connections with this hall) is another.

The gardens are in several different sections, some outside the moat and the more private areas within the same plot as the house and bordered by the moat. In late summer they were probably not showing at their best, but there is still enough of interest to spend an hour or two drifting around them and finishing with a nice cuppa on the lawn. The walled kitchen garden was impressive for its well-stocked soft fruit bushes, salads, potatoes, beans and fragrant herbs mingling with the sweet scent of the colourful jewel-like sweet-peas. The buddleias alongside the moat opposite our cottage were smothered in butterflies the whole time – Large Whites, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Commas and a profusion of Peacocks. Within the private, walled, west lawn to the side of the house various clematis clung to the walls or pergolas, stone urns frothed with Pelargoniums and beautiful Romneyas stole the show, their egg yolk centres gleaming within the startling white, crêpe petals.

Roses and clematis wound their way around the thick rope-hung poles bordering the gravel driveway near to the front of the house and vibrant blue African Lilies provided splashes of intense colour. The roses were already ‘gone over’ by the time of our visit, but I am sure they would have been lovely.

I needn’t have worried being away from the coast. Sitting, relaxing in the sunny, private garden of the cottage lazily watching the bright blue damselflies and red dragonflies flitting around, spotting the heron fishing in the moat, listening to the ducks and solitary black swan calling, seeing a sky streaked with oranges and lemons and stars shining from an inky background and drifting off to sleep with echoes of the soft hoot of a tawny owl is really what a holiday is all about.

The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross, Binham

The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross, Binham was only a mile or so away from where we were staying so the first historical place we visited. The ruins of the 11th century Benedictine monastery are impressive, especially the nave which is now the parish church. The Reformation in 1539 saw the closure of the monastery and the buildings were dismantled. In fact the original building of Hindringham Hall where we stayed (in a cottage, not the actual hall) was built from stone from the monastery!

The most striking feature of the church at Binham Priory is the oddly blocked-up west front and windows which were bricked up between 1738 and 1780. It is an impressive building due to its size and the contrasting brick and stone work. It is also important from a historical aspect as an example of Early English gothic architecture in the 13th century. The west window (top) is thought to be an early example of ‘bar tracery’ in England. It certainly is very beautiful. In the spandrels and heads of the arches a variety of patterns are pierced into the stonework: quatrefoils, cinquefoils, trefoils and sexfoils,  culminating in the octofoil at the head of the west window.

Foil = Lobe or leaf shape formed by joining of curved shapes in tracery: trefoil  (three), quatrefoil (four), cinquefoil (five), sexfoil (six),  octofoil (eight)

Inside the church is light and bright. The font is perpendicular – 15th century – and has eight sides. It is known as a Seven Sacrament font because of the carvings around the bowl, each one of which illustrates one of the sacraments of the church. This is a particularly East Anglian design and none are known elsewhere; there are 16 in Norfolk and 12 in Suffolk remaining. It would have been brightly painted.

The Poppy Head Pews are another interesting feature of this church. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the benchends became more elaborately carved, with panelling and figures of people or animals, often humorous and frequently decidedly secular. Not all benches had backs to them (as in Cawston Church, Norfolk) and those which did had simple designs, some of which were added at a later date.

There are two misericord benches at the east end of the church decorated with a bearded head and foliage and the remains of the former rood screen which was painted over after the Reformation. The original medieval painted saints are now showing through.

In a beautiful quiet corner of the North Norfolk countryside, only a few miles from the coast, this former priory and church are well worth a visit and I was very impressed by the small museum inside and the information panels.

Norfolk: Castle Acre Priory and Castle

The village of Castle Acre lies further south of the county, only 4 miles north  of Swaffham and 15 miles east of King’s Lynn. It is well worth the drive to see such a lovely medieval planned settlement with the broad tree-lined Stocks Green where you can find a café and a pub. The town was entered in the 12th century by the Bailey Gate, now the only remaining gate of the town. Many of the houses in the town have been built from blocks of stone from the priory.

We stopped here on our way to Oxburgh Hall which is south of Swaffham mainly to see the Priory, but we were quite taken by the charming village and the castle too.

Castle Acre Priory, which is under the care of English Heritage, is a beautiful and peaceful place with some of the most intact Cluniac priory buildings in England. For 450 years it was the home and workplace of monks and their servants, a refuge for pilgrims and a stopping point for royalty, clergy and nobility. While rooted in the economy and society of Norfolk it was also part of a vast monastic network centred on the great abbey of Cluny in France. Walking around this site you get a feeling of the size and serenity of this place and if you use the audio tour provided then you can listen to the monks tales and walk in their footsteps.

Whilst in Castle Acre we also visited the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle which was abandoned in the middle ages, and although what little of the building left is in ruins, there are impressive earthworks.

A great day out except for the weather which was a little damp!