‘A peace­ful cor­ner of Eng­land, rather nice’

Far from be­ing flat and un­in­ter­est­ing, Nor­folk has plenty to de­light, finds Ru­pert Uloth

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Very flat, Nor­folk,’ says a char­ac­ter in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. If this was meant to be a pe­jo­ra­tive term, how mis­placed was their prej­u­dice—it is the very lev­el­ness of the north Nor­folk coast that de­liv­ers its sweep­ing grandeur.

I first ap­pre­ci­ated its lack of con­tour when gal­lop­ing the Cav­alry blacks in the sea there 25 years ago. re­turn­ing this year for a county tour, I trav­elled the coast road, im­pressed at the ex­tent of this sin­gu­lar land­scape to which thou­sands are drawn each sum­mer. Such is its pop­u­lar­ity with week­enders from Lon­don that Burn­ham Mar­ket has earned the moniker Chelsea-on-Sea: a de­light­ful con­fec­tion of food shops, gal­leries and even a splen­did and ex­ten­sive ladies’ hat shop.

Blak­eney, Cromer, Hap­pis­burgh and Bran­caster are places for sim­ple sea­side-hol­i­day plea­sures. In his novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishig­uro de­scribes Nor­folk as ‘stuck out here on the east, on this hump jut­ting into the sea, it’s not on the way to any­where. Peo­ple go­ing north and south, they by­pass it al­to­gether. For that rea­son, it’s a peace­ful cor­ner of eng­land, rather nice’. The fifth­largest cer­e­mo­nial county, at fewer than one mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, it’s also one of the least pop­u­lated, has no mo­tor­ways and there­fore re­tains its ru­ral char­ac­ter.

This ‘hump’ can be di­vided broadly into four quar­ters. As well as the north Nor­folk coast­line, the gorse-strewn sandy heaths of the Breck­lands and the 47,000-plus acres of Thet­ford For­est dom­i­nate the south, the se­cre­tive wa­ters of the Broads spread delta-like into the east and the wa­tery fens creep into the west. Sprin­kled over this en­chant­ing con­fec­tion is what many con­sider to be this east Anglian county’s glory, its me­dieval churches.

I stayed with mem­bers of the Ca­tor fam­ily near Wood­bast­wick on the edge of the Broads. There are at least six Mrs Ca­tors liv­ing within the vicin­ity (nor­mal for Nor­folk, as the formerly su­per­cil­ious but now af­fec­tion­ate say­ing goes).

Nearby, mind­ing its own business, is ran­worth church. Im­pos­ing, an­cient, wellkept but dis­creet, it’s a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of the 659 me­dieval churches left stand­ing of the 1,000 orig­i­nally built. Built by do­na­tions

‘It is the very lev­el­ness of Nor­folk that de­liv­ers its sweep­ing grandeur’

from wealthy mer­chants, they’re still known as wool churches.

Af­ter gain­ing the roof via a nar­row spiral stone stair­case, we could just dis­cern the net­work of reed-lined wa­ter­ways and rivers that give the Broads their char­ac­ter and on which we had en­joyed pot­ter­ing along in a small boat. Many of the churches also house lit­tle-pub­li­cised but ex­quis­ite trea­sures —in the case of Ran­worth, a beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated an­tiphoner, the name given to a me­dieval book of ser­vices, each page a sheep­skin.

More famed for shoot­ing than fish­ing or hunt­ing, most of the landed es­tates that help wild pheas­ant and par­tridge to flour­ish have been owned by the same fam­i­lies for cen­turies.

The Royal Fam­ily con­sid­ers San­dring­ham near King’s Lynn as their home from home in the win­ter, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have set­tled into An­mer Hall, their own house on the es­tate, and Prince Harry has also been look­ing to find a place there.

Houghton Hall was built for Bri­tain’s first Prime Min­is­ter, Sir Robert Walpole, and is still lived in by his de­scen­dants, the Chol­monde­leys. Wals­ing­ham Abbey is renowned for its car­pets of snow­drops first planted by the monks. Now­days, an im­pres­sive 74 gar­dens open un­der the NGS in the county each year.

As well as the more es­tab­lished fam­i­lies, such as the Gur­neys, Bux­tons, Bar­clays and Cokes, new­com­ers are join­ing the landown­er­ship game: the sculp­tor Sir Antony Gorm­ley has bought a mag­nif­i­cent house at West Acre, Stephen Fry lived in the county un­til re­cently and art dealer Ivor Braka sur­veys life from a tall tower at Gunton. Some have in­tro­duced new ways to make their land work, such as Bewil­der­wood, a chil­dren’s fan­tasy for­est over 50 acres of tree­houses, zip wires, jun­gle bridges, marsh walks and ‘crockle bogs’ con­ceived by Tom Blofeld.

A more tra­di­tional trip out to see the seals at Blak­eney Point also held us en­thralled: their num­bers are im­pres­sive, their puppy eyes and be­seech­ing ex­pres­sions irresistible.

Pen­sthorpe Nat­u­ral Park is a great place to see wildfowl up close. Cre­ated from a se­ries of lakes left over from gravel ex­trac­tion and sit­ting in the River Wen­sum val­ley, its res­i­dent and migrant pop­u­la­tion in­cludes flocks of pochard, red­shank, tufted ducks and chatty sand­pipers. Our friends told us that Hootz House there, its cathe­dral­like wooden play area, will keep chil­dren happy for hours

Cul­ture is well served by smaller the­atres such as West Acre and buzzing King’s Lynn has a flour­ish­ing arts fes­ti­val, as well as won­der­ful mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing one for train en­thu­si­asts at the Wolfer­ton Royal Sta­tion and the Norwich Cas­tle Mu­seum & Art Gallery, which of­ten has block­buster ex­hi­bi­tions.

An­cient, ru­ral, coastal, his­toric and self­con­tained, Nor­folk grabs the heart­strings and pulls you back for re­peat vis­its like the tens of thou­sands of pink-footed geese that mi­grate here from Ice­land and Green­land each year.

Time­less: a serene evening on the River Thurne on the Nror­folk Broads

Above: The Queen spends Christ­mas at San­dring­ham each year. Be­low: A red-breasted goose at Pen­sthorpe Nat­u­ral Park

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