Great Escape: North Norfolk
Centuries of silting up have altered Norfolk’s coastline, leaving it with an extraordinary landscape that’s ideal for migratory visitors, including a lesser-spotted Claudia Dowell
This region’s silted-up coastline has extraordinary landscapes that are a haven for wildlife, as features editor Claudia Dowell discovered
It was one of those Homer Simpson, forehead-slapping, ‘Doh!’ moments. How could I visit North Norfolk and not remember to bring my binoculars? I could visualise them on the kitchen table, but sadly, there they remained. North Norfolk is renowned as one of the best places for birdwatching, but unless the distant winged-ones were goose-sized, I was going to miss most of them. This is an area rich in nature reserves and salt marshes, a haven for wildlife and birds, but fortunately there was plenty more that I would be able to see – with just my specs for visual enhancement. It had been a while since my previous visit, when I had learned all about Nelson’s connections with the county – he grew up here. This time, I planned to concentrate on Norfolk’s beautiful scenery and learn a little more about its heritage. My Practical Caravan colleague Peter would be joining me for the tour and we were meeting at Breckland Meadows campsite near Swaffham, before moving on to Top 100 Sites Regional Winner Old Brick Kilns the following day.
Life in a new forest
My journey along the A11 in our fleet’s fabulously comfortable and assured Volvo V90 Cross Country – do you get the feeling I liked it? – towing our Coachman VIP 570 was unremarkable, until it became the A134 and I found myself driving through the verdant and peaceful Thetford Forest (this was before the summer heatwave). I began to get more of an idea of what this county has to offer. Thetford Forest was established after the First World War as a commercial forest, with the first parcels of land bought for planting in 1922. Most of the forest was planted in the first 20 years with fast-growing conifers. Today, this is the largest lowland pine forest in Britain and has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest, providing a habitat for many species of wildlife, including red deer, roe deer and the diminutive muntjac. Sadly, these tiny deer appear to have very little road sense – it was their bodies I kept seeing along the roadside, although at one point, a live one did manage to cross my path safely.
Let the sightseeing begin
Adults-only Breckland Meadows, a small site on the outskirts of the market town of Swaffham, is easily accessed from the A47. I made a brew while waiting for Peter and got a dinner recommendation from campsite owner Andy. It’s less than a mile into town, so it can be walked, or you can park in the marketplace. Peter and I ate in the George Hotel and made plans for the next morning’s sightseeing. Cockley Cley, a reconstructed medieval village, had been on our agenda, but the museum had shut, reckoned Andy, three years ago. Nearby Oxburgh Hall, according to the National Trust website, was also closed, temporarily, because of falling masonry. So we settled for a morning at the village of Castle Acre, five miles away, where there is a Cluniac Priory and a castle.
One village, many attributes
This very pretty village is accessed through the arch of the early 13th-century Bailey Gate. A road sign warns that this is just 6ft 6in wide. It looked wider and – oh, the folly of proving a point – 6ft 6in-tall Peter laid down in the middle of the road, and found there was definitely width to spare. But I wouldn’t like to put that to the test in a large vehicle. The village was a picture, with ancient flint-faced buildings topped by terracottatiled roofs facing each other across a green. The 16th-century coaching inn with carriage entrance bore the curious name The Ostrich; all was peace and tranquillity, and that seemed to be because the few shops and tearooms were not open until Wednesday. This was Tuesday, and we were far too early for a pint in the only place that seemed to be receiving customers. But if you are thinking of stopping for lunch here, there is a car park at the back of the inn if you can’t find a spot around the green. It’s about a five-minute walk to the ruined castle, which dates back more than 900 years to the time of William the Conqueror. What really astonishes here are the convoluted earthworks and ditches around the castle. Without the aid of the bridges now used to cross from one ridge to the other, it would have made attacking the castle rather complicated, which, of course, was the whole point. Apparently, this was never just a military fortress, it was designed as more of a showoff country house for the well-rewarded
William de Warenne. There is a surprising amount of the building left, too, and the information boards dotted around help you to visualise what was going on when this was an important manor. We walked back into the village and stopped at St James the Great church, which is large – so large that at first we thought it might be the priory, but quickly realised our mistake. This charming church dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. Its simple stone font has an impressively ornate cover, operated by a 600-year-old lifting mechanism. I also loved the dog and lion carvings on the ends of the pews.
In praise of beauty
Five minutes’ walk from St James is the Cluniac Priory, now under the care of English Heritage. William de Warenne had the priory built within the grounds of his castle – it’s an off-shoot of the Cluniac Priory at Lewes in East Sussex. William’s son, also called William, moved the priory to its present, much larger, site at the beginning of the 12th century. The Cluniac monks (the order was established in Cluny, in Burgundy) believed in worshipping in magnificent surroundings, and the ruins of the priory certainly took my breath away. Despite Henry VIII’S best demolition efforts, you can envisage the splendour just by looking at the church entrance, and by going inside the prior’s lodging – it’s amazing how much of the building is still standing. This was clearly a wealthy order; it even had a separate two-storey building for the latrine – the best-preserved in England, according to one very informative notice that I read. Now it also has the modern convenience of a car park. Part of its charm is the well-tended herb garden, where I was able to buy a variety of mint plants (including a strawberry one – it really does smell of strawberries).
In the afternoon, we moved on to Old Brick Kilns at Barney, near Fakenham, passing signs to the rather amusingly named villages of Little Snoring, where there is apparently an airfield, and Great Snoring. You cannot arrive at this site before 1.30pm, because of the 0.75-mile narrow access lane. Passing spots are few, but we managed without incident. This is an attractive site, with a lake at its heart. It also has a restaurant and a bar, which is handy if you fancy a drink with dinner, but can’t face the mile-long walk to the nearest bar-restaurant, the Crawfish Thai in Fakenham, which is very good, incidentally. Unfortunately, the site’s restaurant was unavoidably closed during our visit, but it is popular with the locals. Instead, we had dinner that evening about seven miles away, at The Kings Head in Letheringsett, recommended by the site owners. There is a good-sized car park at this comfortable pub, which serves locally produced food – Peter really enjoyed his liver and bacon – at gastropub prices. The house wine was good, too.
Trouble at mill
We noted there was a working watermill just around the corner, still milling flour, and we decided to begin our explorations there the next morning. But wouldn’t you know it? The early 19th-century, red-brick, four-storey mill wasn’t working when we visited the following day, and the chap trying to fix it couldn’t hear our friendly questions for the sound of gushing water. It was very interesting to see the workings, nonetheless, and to learn that the mill still grinds locally produced wheat and spelt between huge millstones. We left clutching bags of flour – mine was a golden corn mix, which is good for making pastry, apparently.
Bypassing Holt – a pretty town with quirky shops that I had thoroughly enjoyed on my previous visit – we went to Weybourne. If you’re lucky, you can find yourself driving under an ancient steam engine as it passes over the road en route to Sheringham. This is the North Norfolk Railway, known as the Poppy Line, which runs steam and diesel locomotives pulling beautifully restored wooden carriages between Holt and Sheringham. If you happen to stay at Kelling Heath campsite, which the train passes, you can flag it down to go to Sheringham, but not the other way, because the engine can’t cope with restarting on the gradient – to find out more, go to www.nnrailway.co.uk. At Weybourne we chanced upon the Muckleburgh Military Collection, an interesting museum built on the grounds of a former Royal Artillery Anti-aircraft training camp. You need to allow a couple of hours to appreciate this fascinating place; there is much to read as well as see. The young girl chatting to me about the museum turned out to be the founder’s granddaughter. The collection, started by Mr C Berry Savory and his son Michael, began with just one vehicle being minded by Savory because he had some room on his land. One vehicle became 30, and the museum
opened to the public in 1988. Display cases of gas masks, knives and guns precede the barns containing the vehicles – they are all, apparently, still in working order. It was interesting to read about Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the rifle that became standard issue for the Soviet Army. One information notice has a quote from him in 2002. It reads: “I am proud of my invention, but sad it is used by terrorists. I would prefer to have invented a machine that would help farmers with their work – for example, a lawnmower.” But he didn’t. He died in 2013, aged 94. What I found most staggering was the scale of these vehicles. Tanks, transporters and artillery are all huge, much bigger than they appear on film or in photographs. It makes you wonder how people got inside these goliaths and withstood the discomfort. It also raises the question, how were the vehicles accumulated for the museum? It is all a bit overwhelming, but you can at least have a reviving cuppa in the café.
A day at the beach
Driving along the coast road, there is a lot of grass between you and the sea; it is all marshland much loved by geese, but there are many little roads (often called Beach Road) that you can take to reach a car park by the beach. We chose the one at Cley next the Sea. Cley Marshes is celebrated as a spot for birdwatching. This is Norfolk’s oldest nature reserve, and is where Norfolk Wildlife Trust opened an all-year visitor centre and car park in 2007. Understandably, dogs are not permitted on the reserve, but you can take them down Beach Road. You can download a useful leaflet and map from https://bit.ly/2i6g4d2 to find out about where dogs are allowed. Cley is narrow, and parking in the village can be a challenge. We continued on to Blakeney, passing the Wiveton Hall Café, where you can pick your own strawberries and raspberries, and a farm and gift shop. (Some readers may remember Normal for Norfolk, a series aired on BBC2 in 2016, depicting the fortunes of Wiveton Hall and its manager, Desmond. A second series ran in summer 2017.) The National Trust manages Blakeney Point, renowned as a spot for viewing seals, and there’s a useful car park on the Quay, which is free for NT members. We bought crayfish sandwiches and a pot of cockles from a shack in the car park and ate them overlooking the quay. Blakeney is a beautiful little place, with fishing boats moored along the quay, but it could be difficult to live here – we came
across flood-level plaques showing that the height can reach way above my head. I had birthday presents and cards to buy, so we explored a few shops selling gifts and crafts and then popped into the Guildhall. This extraordinary 15th-century arched basement once formed part of a prosperous local merchant’s house. We decided to call it a day, so headed back to Old Brick Kilns and dined at the Crawfish Thai. It really was very good.
Beside the seaside
Next day, the sun was shining, so we headed off to Wells-next-the-sea and drove along its quayside under the high gantry that hangs off the enormous granary building there. This imposing building has been turned into apartments and I wondered if the gantry was also being lived in. If so, what a unique living space and what views! Parking on the quayside is limited and costs £5 a day, but just beyond the town is a sign for coach parking, where there is a huge car park (£2 for two hours) and then it’s an easy walk back into town. The quayside is packed with working fishing boats, and there are spots for children to go crabbing. We bought crab sandwiches for lunch and ate them on a bench near the lifeboat station. Alongside is a road that takes you past a campsite to a roundabout and a large car park, where you can park all day for £8 if you want to spend the day on the stunning beach here. Pine woods screen the car park from the beach, which is lined with colourful beach huts on stilts. The glorious beach must be packed in summer, but we had it to ourselves. Be mindful that some areas are closed to dogs. We continued on, past Holkham Hall and the Burnhams – Burnham Market, of Nelson fame, Burnham Overy, Burnham Norton, Burnham Deepdale – to Thornham, where we turned off to Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve.
Heading for home
This is a hotspot for migrating birds, but without my binoculars, I was a bit stuck. This beautiful place had an old fishing boat marooned on the beach, and a shack (a former café perhaps?), with its shutters banging, might have made it look rather desolate and lonely if there hadn’t been quite a few people about. I dropped Peter back at the site. It was time to head for home. I really enjoyed Norfolk – tranquil and peaceful, rustic and charming. There is still more to explore and next time, I might head for the Broads and the east coast.
FROM TOP The busy quayside at Wells-next-the-sea. Enjoying crab sandwiches, a local speciality, by the harbour there. Take a stroll along the sands at Wells and you can see the many colourful beach huts
FROM TOP Blakeney is famous for crab and seals, which also appear on a lot of local souvenirs. The flood-tide mark above Claudia’s head near the Blakeney Hotel. Seafood stalls are common on this stretch of coast