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

Practical Caravan - - Contents - CLAU­DIA DOWELL is fea­tures editor of Prac­ti­cal Car­a­van; she loves dis­cov­er­ing great des­ti­na­tions

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).

Lake­side camp­site

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.

Her­itage rail­way

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.

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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

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