Sorry for disappearing for a while there, but I’ve been in Norfolk! My best friend from university recently moved back to her parents’ 16th century farmhouse in a tiny hamlet on the outskirts of Norwich, and missing her dreadfully, I decided to jump in my car and go and drive up to stay for a few days. As you know, there’s nothing I love better than exploring the British countryside, and Norfolk certainly has much to offer on that front. It’s a largely rural county, and known for being remarkably flat. This is because much of the land is marshy and can’t be built on, which gives the dual benefit of uninterrupted, stunning views across the landscape and a real atmosphere of timelessness. Looking across the fields and marshes, with the tall towers of flint churches and the wooden sails of old windmills occasionally rising from the swaying corn, you can well imagine that what you can see is the same as what someone standing in the same position one hundred, two hundred, even three hundred years ago would have seen. It’s quite a spine tingling experience.
My first stop was Norwich, which was a hugely important medieval city, second only to London, and is today the bustling county town of Norfolk. Thankfully it escaped bombing during the war, and as such is probably amongst the best preserved of our ancient cities. It has particular significance for me, as my granddad grew up there and his family lived in Norwich for generations. I have wanted to see the city of my ancestors for years, and I wasn’t disappointed by what I found. There are streets and streets of higgledy-piggedly beamed and flint cottages, some painted in lovely pastel shades; over thirty beautiful churches, many dating back to the Medieval period; a 900 year old cathedral and an 800 year old castle dominating the skyline; a stunningly beautiful Art Nouveau shopping arcade and some fantastic Art Deco municipal buildings. There are also plenty of modern atrocities, but these blend into the background of what is an absolutely gorgeous city with a wealth of independent industries and a lovely, warm atmosphere. I so enjoyed my visit, even though it was a bit of a whistlestop tour, and for anyone who wants a city break that gives a slice of the ‘real’ England, I couldn’t recommend Norwich enough.
After a wander around Norwich, I met my friend at her office, and we drove through lots of lovely countryside to get to her parents’ amazing (non working) farm, which has been in the family for nearly 200 years. It really is in the middle of nowhere, and the peace and quiet was startling. She took me straight for a walk in the wood next to the house (named after her!), where there are some air raid shelters left behind from when this area was used as an RAF camp; we crept inside one and it really gave me the shivers – I’d hate to have been stuck down there for hours on end, listening to the drones of planes overhead. After lots of food and sleep, the next day we headed off to the nearby medieval market town of Wymondham (pronounced Wind-um), which is very pretty and has an impressive half ruined Abbey surrounded by open fields, with sheep wandering amongst the gravestones! The streets are filled with gorgeous chocolate box cottages and lovely little shops – including the most eccentric second hand bookshop I have ever seen, which operates out of the owner’s front room! In the centre is a 17th century market cross, which was used to mark the site of a market in medieval times. It still operates as a focal point for the town, though mainly seems to be used by teenagers to congregate rather than for a market, unfortunately!
After we had looked round Wymondham, we headed off to Holkham on the North Norfolk coast. Holkham Beach is apparently the most beautiful beach in the UK, and was where the final scene of Shakespeare in Love was filmed. Unfortunately it was pouring down when we arrived, but that didn’t stop us from running into the sea and enjoying the stunning views of the soft sand, waving heather and grassy sand dunes. It really is an impressive beach, but I think it would probably be slightly more impressive in sunshine. Soggy and sandy, we squelched off to the the little estate village by the entrance to Holkham Hall, (the owners of which also own the beach as well as much of the surrounding area) which has a delicious cafe where we warmed up with tea and chocolate cake. Unfortunately we had left it too late in the day to visit the Hall – maybe on another trip.
The next day, the sun came out just long enough for us to risk another attempt at the seaside; this time to Winterton on Sea, which is on the East Norfolk coast. This is a much more dramatic coastline than the calmer, sandier North Norfolk coast, and the beach here was breathtakingly beautiful. We enjoyed sandwiches and cake from the truly excellent beach cafe, sat and chatted on the sand dunes, and had a paddle in the sea before the heavens opened and we had to run back to the car. Winterton is part of the Norfolk Broads; flat marshland criss-crossed by a canal network, and we were keen to take a look at the nearest canal once the sun came back out. Just down the road from the beach is Horsey Windpump, an old wind pump now owned by the National Trust on the bank of a pretty canal. We climbed to the top, gasped at the impressive, far flung views across the marshland, and then had a lovely walk along the canal, peeking in at the boats moored on the bank. It really is a beautiful part of the world and again, completely timeless. Just as we were going back to the car, I spotted a church tower in the distance. Old churches have amazing graveyards; I can’t resist a graveyard, so we swung by the church to take a look. It turned out to be a unique example of a thatched Saxon church, set amidst a peaceful dell of ancient trees. Inside there was the most unusual piece of stained glass I have ever seen; a portrait of the woman it commemorated, dressed in Victorian garb. It reminded me of the stained glass portraits I saw in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and it was quite touching to think of her beauty continuing to illuminate the church where she once worshipped.
It was a busy few days, with much to take in and to enjoy; I absolutely loved my trip and was once again amazed at how diverse and fascinating our tiny little island is. Norfolk is such a lovely county with so much history and a gorgeous coastline; I know I’ll be back again soon. On my way home, I took a detour through Suffolk and went to beautiful Aldeburgh; but that was so eventful that it deserves a post all of its own – coming soon!