‘A peaceful corner of England, rather nice’
Far from being flat and uninteresting, Norfolk has plenty to delight, finds Rupert Uloth
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