Norfolk insider’s guide

Norfolk Broads

Messing about in boats on the Broads and the birthplace of Britain’s most famous naval hero, Nelson, Norfolk, is a county of discovery.

Holkham Hall with medieval re-enactors

Ask anyone to picture a quintessentially British landscape and they might well envisage hills and deep dales. But the landscape of East Anglia, and in this case Norfolk, does not fit with such imagination. So famously devoid of elevation is Norfolk, even the playwright Noël Coward was prompted to make a joke of its flatness in his play, Private Lives: “Very flat, Norfolk/ There’s no need to be unpleasant.”

Norfolk may only be 344 feet above sea level at its highest point, but that is no reason to avoid it. Anyone who sees the exquisite medieval streets of Norwich, or the coast’s impossibly wide sandy beaches and intense, panoramic skies, will redefine their idea of beauty. Metaphorically speaking, this county is far from flat.

The name Norfolk derived from the 5th-century Angles who were known as the ‘North Folk’ to the ‘South Folk’ of Suffolk. It is bordered on its north and eastern sides by the North Sea, and to the west by The Wash, a vast estuary system where the mouths of several rivers meet. Pre-Roman activity has been unearthed at Grime’s Graves, where excavations of Neolithic flint mines are open to the public. In 47AD and 60AD, the local Iceni tribe revolted against Roman invasion, and in their second battle were led by Boudicca. Archaeological evidence places Iceni at Cockley Cley, near Swaffham, now home to the Cockley Cley Iceni Village, a reconstruction of the type of village Boudicca’s tribe would have inhabited almost 2,000 years ago.

One of England’s bigger counties, Norfolk’s tranquillity makes walking and cycling easy pastimes. Several long-distance paths criss-cross the county, including a National Trail, the Norfolk Coastal Path.

Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads
Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads

Boating enthusiasts set sail for the Norfolk Broads. Though some sections of the Broads cross the county boundary with Suffolk, they are the jewel in Norfolk’s crown. The Broads is a unique 125-mile network of inland waterways, formed in medieval times when peat was dug for fuel and the ditches later flooded. The Broads were given National Park status in 1989, to help protect the distinctive ecosystem. There are strict speed limits for all watercraft and areas where boats are banned altogether.

There are yacht clubs for the sailing enthusiasts and plenty of companies specialising in holiday hire, so you can stay on the water and enjoy the outdoors. Boats are also available just for the day. Nestled among the reeds, it is easy to forget the wetlands are punctuated by areas of solid ground, with villages, pubs and preserved windmills. Although many of Arthur Ransome’s popular Swallows and Amazons books have a Lake District setting, he also immortalised the Broads in Coot Club and The Big Six.

Children on the beach at Brancaster
Children on the beach at Brancaster

Lesser known but similarly charming are the Fens, to the west of King’s Lynn, on the borders of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This marshland was drained and the water re-routed in order to create land for arable farming. So many acres of East Anglia were given over in this way to the growing of wheat, barley, oats and rye, it led to the region being called the breadbasket of England. This farming was integral to the survival of Norfolk. With no mineral deposits to fall back on, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries largely passed the county by. Here, the towns had made their wealth on the back of the wool trade, primarily in the 14th and 15th centuries. Dororthy L Sayers, Golden Age detective story writer, spent much of her life in Fenland, and set the Peter Wimsey novel, The Nine Tailors, here. She captures the eerie atmosphere of the Fens and its churches beautifully in the book.

South of the Fens and the broads lies Breckland, another unusual natural habitat near the town of Thetford, and the home of Grime’s Graves. This sandy heath, covered with gorse and Scots pines, is the driest place in Britain.

George Vancouver statue at King's Lynn
George Vancouver statue at King’s Lynn

Although parts of Norfolk can seem remote (many rural railway stations were closed in the 1960s) that hasn’t stopped its residents making a mark on the wider world. One of Thetford’s most famous sons was Thomas Paine, a Founding Father of the US. A radical intellectual, Paine’s works on philosophy and free thinking included The Rights of Man, which advocated a written constitution for England and lower taxes for the poor. Another to head for the Americas was King’s Lynn man George Vancouver (1757–1798), a Royal Navy officer who gave his surname to the Canadian west coast city. Seaside resort Great Yarmouth gave the world Anna Sewell, the author of best selling children’s favourite, Black Beauty. Anna was born in 1820, but at the age of 14 a fall left her crippled. She used horse-drawn carriages to get around, which led to the life-long love of animals that prompted Black Beauty. Published when the author was 57, it was to be her only success. She died five months later.

Without doubt, the most famous Norfolk figure is â€Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, the fearless figure of the Royal Navy who led the English to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, where he was killed in 1805. He was born in 1758 in the quiet village of Burnham Thorpe, where his father was rector. The young Horatio was educated at several schools across the county, including King Edward VI School in Norwich. Although he was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, Nelson’s memory lives on in Burnham Thorpe church. The lectern and a cross in the chancel are made from timbers that came from his ship, HMS Victory, and a bust in marble looks down over his father’s tomb.

The market town of Swaffham, just south of the wild Breckland landscapes, was also a favourite of Nelson and Lady Hamilton and they would no doubt approve of the stylish surroundings that today greet you at Strattons. Once home to Howard Carter – the archaeologist who famously discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb – this Queen Anne Palladian villa has been transformed into an award-winning, independent, family-run, boutique hotel.

As well as naval and archaeological connections, Norfolk has had important political links. Some 361 years ago, Great Yarmouth was a Parliamentarian stronghold during the English Civil War. Lore records it was in the Conspiracy Room at the town’s Elizabethan House Museum that Oliver Cromwell’s men hatched their plan to kill King Charles I.

Norfolk has more than 90 miles of coastline, where the golden windswept sands stretch out to sea against a backdrop of fragile cliffs. Although bright and breezy Victorian resorts like Cromer and Sheringham throng with carefree crowds, the authorities have a very serious job on their hands when it comes to preserving this coast. Erosion is a huge problem, and northeast Norfolk is in particular danger, as images of buildings perched uncomfortably close to the cliffs’ edge at Happisburgh attest.

Elsewhere in Norfolk, longshore drift is creating a new landscape. An enormous shingle spit now owned by the National Trust, Blakeney Point is a favourite haunt of seal watchers and twitchers. In fact, birdwatchers flock to the county for RSPB sites such as Strumpshaw Fen where marsh harriers, bitterns, kingfishers and the spectacular swallowtail are spotted.

For a coastal village that typifies Norfolk, one needs look no farther than Blakeney itself. In medieval times, this resort was a thriving port, but the estuary silted up. The landscape became one of marsh, sand hills and mud, threaded through with creeks and channels to the sea. Flint-built cottages line the road downhill to the harbour, and are dotted all about the village. Many are available for holiday hire.

A huge draw in Norfolk is the variety and quality of its fresh produce. The county is particularly well noted for hams and turkeys. Thornham, near Hunstanton, is famous for saltmarsh oysters, and Cromer for its succulent crabs. A favourite summer accompaniment is samphire, often referred to as the asparagus of the sea. Not to be left out are the county’s breweries, which number 31 and there are regular beer festivals.

Norwich is really at the heart of Norfolk, providing the road and rail arteries that give life to the rest of the county. For many years, it was considered the most important city after London, and at the time of the Norman Conquest, was one of the largest, with a population of more than 5,000. Although the city was already well settled by the 11th century, the Normans left two significant impressions in the shape of the castle and cathedral.

From 1096, Bishop Herbert de Losinga masterminded the cathedral, which has the second-highest spire in England after Salisbury. With its many parks and greens, and an exciting maze of cobbled streets little altered in 600 years, you could be forgiven for thinking Norwich has always been 
a genteel destination. But as with anywhere, the city conceals plenty of grisly tales in its walls. In 1272 people rioted when a toll was proposed for animal fairs, while another revolt in 1381 saw the city’s mayor killed. Those who wish to take a piece of Norwich’s past home should pay a visit to Elm Hill, where antiques vie for attention in the crooked windows of its timber-framed shop.

For more on Norfolk see the BRITAIN 2014 Guide, on sale in the UK on 1 May and in the US on 6 June.

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