Slow Guide to Norfolk
If there’s one thing this year has taught us, it’s to appreciate home and what we have around us. We’re quick to hop on a plane, but Norfolk made us realise that what we have here in the UK is just as spectacular. The county has been labelled “Cotswolds on sea” and while we could understand the name, there was much that defied comparison.
We found pretty villages lined with Georgian houses and buildings, great pubs, a fierce independence, rugged landscapes, wild, empty beaches, and incredible wildlife. It was so good, we crowned it “the best place for an autumn staycation”.
Our trip began in Norwich, which we’d had recommended to us for its literary heritage and sense of living history. The city is instantly charming, with the biggest open-air market in the country and the cobbled streets of The Lanes giving a lively bustle to the centre. We wandered stalls and alleys, finding boutique shops, retro cafés and, as you’d expect from the UNESCO City of Literature, plenty of books. Following a local tip, we arrived at The Book Hive, tucked away in The Lanes. In the surrounds of this brilliant bookshop we chatted to the owner about the incredible number of authors who studied at the University of East Anglia, many of whom now teach courses there. There is still a prodigious output of talent too, which we were told is put down to the inspiring breadth of the skies and starscapes by local legend.
As we carried on through the cobbled streets, staring at the sky and busily planning our breakthrough novels, we happened across the cathedral. We stepped out onto the huge square surrounded by the most gorgeous Georgian houses and felt like we’d stumbled into an idyllic country village that was miles away from a city. It was easy to imagine the town as it once was, with just a cluster of buildings around the looming tower. Inside, it was just as breathtaking and we listened to our footsteps echoing up to the vaulted ceiling before heading back out and down to Elm Hill, the city’s Medieval area. Like The Lanes, this was a pocket of preserved history, with wonky houses and shops specialising in everything from teddy bears to antiques and stamps.
On another local recommendation, we left the historic centre and made the short walk to the beautiful Plantation Garden, a three-acre Grade II listed Georgian garden established over 100 years ago in an abandoned chalk quarry. The wooded site is a haven for wildlife, which flits and skitters among the trees around the immaculate flower beds and the huge gothic fountain below the criss cross steps of an Italianate terrace. If we’d been visiting on a Sunday we would have been able to enjoy tea and cake on the lawn, but instead we strolled over to The Green Grocers, a community café and shop serving locally sourced food and eco-conscious produce. It makes a perfect stop for hungry urban explorers or picnickers stocking up for a trip to the coast.
The county’s most famous feature just has to be on your list when you visit. The Broads are a National Park, with over 125 miles of navigable, lock-free waterways set in beautiful countryside studded with charming and picturesque towns and villages. Without a doubt, the best way to discover the Broads is by boat. So much of it cannot be reached by road that hiring a boat for the day will enable you to explore all of its hidden places, discover the best fishing spots and experience the wildlife from the water.
We stopped at the NWT nature reserve in Hickling, the ancient village of Horning for lunch of local crab and were extremely taken with Ranworth Village. Here, a great walking trail starts near the water’s edge and follows a route towards South Walsham Broad and on to the famous church, with stunning views rewarding those who climb the tower. There’s also a lovely pub to wash down a day of walking. The thing that struck us most about The Broads was how it reaches right through the county. While you could make a trip out of just boating on the waterways, we discovered that The Broads meet you at different spots around the county, so you can dip in and out, combining wetland walks and wildlife with windmills, seaside towns and historic cities.
Horsey Gap, Winterton and Waxham
No trip to Norfolk can be complete without a sighting of the seals. In fact, Norfolk is home to the largest colony of Grey and Common seals in the country, and has record numbers of pups being born each year. The vast majority of them like to reside on Blakeney Point, but you can see a huge group of them on the south-east coast from Waxham to Winterton. They have been placed here as part of a programme by the Friends of Horsey Seals. The project aims to protect the grey seals at Horsey and Winterton, particularly during the late autumn and winter, when they come ashore to give birth and mate. Walking over the brow of the dunes, we were met with the spectacle of thousands of seals both on the beach and in the water. You can do a brilliant walk to Horsey Gap from Horsey Mill – park here to see the windmill and broads littered with wooden boats and trek across the field following the footpath. The 3-mile return walk to the beach follows grassy paths and tracks, encompassing low-lying grazing marshes with sand dunes.
Just down the coastline is Winterton Beach, known for its sandy beach stretching into the distance. Overlooked by the white blades of the Bloodhills Wind Farm to one side and low sand dunes to the other, this is a great beach where you can escape from it all, with not an amusement arcade in sight. Alongside the beach is the Winterton Dunes National Nature Reserve which is managed by English Nature and is home to the rare Natterjack Toad which breeds in the shallow pools behind the main dune ridge. A wide range of both breeding and overwintering birds can be seen, including the little terns on the foreshore.
To the north is Waxham, which is set just down the road from the little village, so the beach is firmly off the beaten track. This stretch of relatively unspoilt coast falls within the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As with neighbouring Horsey, Waxham beach is a great spot for seal spotting. Unfortunately, the bad weather meant we couldn’t get to watch the sun set at Happisburgh beach and lighthouse, but a local told us that the spot at the top of the cliffs is brilliant for seeing in the end of a day.
Holme, Titchwell and Brancaster
The next day blessed us with equally bad weather, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying a walk at Holme Dunes. The rain only seemed to accentuate the sense of quiet wildness. Holme Dunes, at Norfolk’s north west corner where The Wash meets the North Sea, is a 192-hectare nature reserve superbly located to attract migrating birds. You can park up and set off into the dunes for a walk with the beach one side, untouched and wild with only dog walkers on a rainy day, and marshland with birds, dragonflies and butterflies on the other.
Eager to learn more about the wildlife, we headed for Titchwell RSPB nature reserve. The reserve was set up to preserve 4 main bird species, but the Park Ranger informed us that there are now over 200 species of birds residing here. “As an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” she told us, “it is important that everyone along the coast works together to protect the landscapes and wildlife that make Norfolk so special”. The reserve offers numerous walks with hides to spot birds, as well as a lovely 20-minute route to a private and protected beach. This path is the only way to access the beach, and when we arrived we had never in our lives seen so many birds. The Park Ranger told us that while Brancaster Beach – to the right of Titchwell – is more popular with beach goers, the salt water creek that separates the two means this is a totally protected area and a safe haven for the birds.
Peckish after a morning of walking, we set off to Brancaster Beach and discovered a small, modest crab shack that’s a hit with the locals. The Crab Hut serves only the freshest seafood – locally caught – at a very modest price. So naturally, we picked up a smoked salmon roll.
Holkham, Titchwell, Brancaster
You know a place is pretty when it looks good even in the pouring rain. With a Cotswolds feel, Burnham Market is lined with red brick and flint Georgian houses that have been converted into shops and cafés. We’d been told to look out for Gurney’s Fish Shop – an institution in Norfolk – and we happily made our way there. Downstairs is locally caught seafood – including crab, salmon, cod, sea bass which you can pick up to cook at home, while upstairs is a deli serving local cheese and meats. After sampling and savouring a little, we moved on to Norfolk Living, known across the county for its beautiful homewares, and two independent book shops which amply proved that the area’s literary leaning extended well outside of Norwich.
Delighting once more in the ease with which you can go from urban to rural surroundings in Norfolk, we decided to take on some of the coastal path. The full route provides 84 miles of walking from Hunstanton to Hopton-on-Sea, through the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), but a local recommended a quieter section from Burnham Overy Staithe to Holkham Beach. We parked up at the Hero Pub at Staithe, and followed the signposts around the harbour and up to the dunes. The first half of the walk contrasts the boats and sand dunes on one side, with the rugged water marshes and hills on the other. We were greeted with copious “hellos” as we passed fellow walkers, adding friendliness to the lists of reasons we love Norfolk. The final stretch of the walk, along Holkham Beach, had to be one of our favourite parts of the whole trip. The sand is brimming with sea life: starfish, crabs and hermit crabs, and on one side you have the crashing ocean, whilst on the other you have a forest. The walk ended at Holkham Hall – a beautiful, grand estate that was brimming with welly wearers, dog-walkers and even horse riders. You can stop for lunch at the café and wander around the walled garden and house, or walk through the Estate and the deer park, continuing all the way to Wells-next-the-Sea. The lovely town has a great mix of traditional and contemporary shops on the beautiful Staithe Street, as well as a fabulous horse sculpture and colourful huts along the shore.
Blakeney and Cley-next-the-Sea
Even in a county so well stocked with nature reserves that make for great birding, Cley Marshes is special. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s oldest and best known nature reserve was expanded by 57 Hectares in 2012, linking the two NWT reserves at Cley and Salthouse together in a single coastal site of more than 300 hectares. Today, Cley and Salthouse Marshes is one of the country’s most popular birdwatching sites, with six hides that give fantastic views across pools and scrapes that are specially managed to attract breeding and passage birds.
The nearby village of Cley-next-the-Sea is another Georgian delight, and we were told to visit here for the Smokehouse and Cley Windmill, neither of which disappointed. For sunset, we headed to Morston Quay to explore Blakeney Nature Reserve a different way – on the water. We booked onto an hour’s boat trip, heading out to Blakeney Point to find more seals. A large storm had spooked the seals off the point, but we were fortunate enough to see them bobbing up and down in the ocean. It was spectacular to end the day this way – the sun setting on the water, seals around us, drifting back to the coast past the beautiful old wooden fishing and sailing boats, thinking “this is the life, eh?”
Holt’s wonderful antique shops, unique shopping yards and charming Georgian history have been on our radar for a long time, but before we headed to the town, we dropped in on our friends at Hindringham Hall. Now this really is a hidden gem, open only to the public on Weds (10-1) and Sunday (2-5). It offers visitors the chance to walk around the impressive garden of a 15th century Tudor house, where an old medieval moat meets beautiful gardens. It has even been shortlisted for the prestigious Historic Houses 2020 Garden of the Year award, which is a huge honour for a small place like this to be in the company of previous winners such as Blenheim Palace and Houghton Hall. We were able to visit on a beautiful, sunny day (at last) – admiring the moat, lawns, walled garden, peaceful lakes and the stunning house itself.
The afternoon saw us exploring Holt’s colourful town centre, where we particularly loved Mews Antique Emporium and its bric-a-brac. The Holt Owl Trail is a brilliant way to discover the town’s Georgian buildings and hidden shopping yards. Each yard contains four or five pretty independent shops and cafés – our favourites included Hopper Yard and Apple Yard, where it felt like walking into an enchanted garden. The historic Byfords is also not to be missed – with delicious pastries, cakes and coffee to be enjoyed inside or outdoors on a sunny day.
Norfolk is simply bursting with local produce and crafts, so when a local tipped us off to a farm shop just outside Holt, we made a beeline for it. Back to the Garden is a brilliant farm shop, delicatessen, café and restaurant. Found in a converted barn, it sells wonderful local ingredients, cheeses, meat, wine, oils and vegetables. The café cooks with all their produce too, as well as the local seafood, so we found room for a delicious crab sandwich and the fabulous flavours were on our mind for days after.
Even on our way home we stopped at another farm shop, proving once more that you’ll never go hungry in Norfolk. Walsingham farm shop celebrates all things Norfolk, and we were able to pick up some last minute goodies before we hit the road. We couldn’t leave, however, without finding out a little more about Peddar Way and the intriguingly named Great Eastern Pingo Pond Trail in The Brecks. Peddar Way is another great walking trail in Norfolk and follows the route of an old Roman road for 49 miles, from Holme-next-the-Sea into Suffolk. The Pingos turned out to be small pools formed during the last ice age, which give the land a speckled look and make superb wildlife habitats. We weren’t able to do either walk, but headed to the nearby Thetford Forest and Lynford Arboretum to find out a little more about The Brecks and this part of the county.
Beneath the trees at Thetford Forest are prehistoric flint mines and Bronze Age burial mounds. Many of the houses in Norfolk were made from flint, it’s an inescapable and indelible part of Norfolk’s history and landscape that you’ll see everywhere. There are also ample walks to enjoy around the forest – run and owned by The Forestry Commision – but it was lovely to simply walk around the arboretum. We had dashed around the county over a delicious and inspiring few days and would definitely recommend taking more time. There is so much to see, from the coast to the countryside, that it’s worth going slow and letting this very special place sink in as you wander the waterways, dunes and cobbles.
Where to stay…
Norfolk holiday cottages
Discover over 40 special places to stay in Norfolk, from traditional flint cottages to seaside beach houses and buzzing foodie hotels.
Interiors are sleek, modern and comfortable and breakfasts home-cooked and delicious. We were even treated to the view of a deer wandering around the garden on a fresh autumnal morning – bliss.
The Lifeboat Inn
This friendly, warm and welcoming inn was in prime location for us to explore much of Norfolk’s north coast. Food was fresh and locally sourced whenever possible, as was the ale!