Norfolk Breaks

Two Days in Norfolk 2004

‘Exquisite Villages’

Norfolk is the northerly county of East Anglia which is a large, blunt bit of England pointing into the North Sea. Oundle to Norwich is about 140 minutes driving and mid-week in February was a good time to travel, even so, the commuter traffic on to and off the Peterborough orbital was thick and depressing in the early morning mist.

An interim stop, still in Cambridgeshire, was at Thorney, a town much encumbered with this traffic aggressively moving its dirty and noisy way through the main street. Signs by activists everywhere exhorted ‘Bypass Now!’. We stopped there because the guidebook noted that Huguenots, who fled from France in 1574, were buried in the churchyard. Mum’s ancestors were asylum-seeking Huguenots from the Revocation of The Edict of Nantes in 1685, so I have a sort of affinity for them. Unfortunately, the church door was locked against vandals and there were no recognisable 16th century headstones in the large churchyard, which was carpeted with snowdrops and early yellow and white crocuses.

The country soon turned from the urban to the famous Fen: flat, cultivated fields stretching to long horizons, the road raised many feet above the flood lines. This was welcome, because our last visit to the Fen, to Ely some thirty miles to the south, had been in thick ground fog. Soon, close to Norwich, the Broads showed themselves, rumps of windmills, canals and rivers threading the countryside under a watery sun.

Norwich is beautiful, with a handsome cathedral whose spire is higher than Winchester’s and whose mediaeval vault-bosses are wondrously individually carved and varied and can be viewed from the floor of the church through magnifying mirrors. Outside, within the Upper and Lower Closes, are lovely riverside walks and narrow lanes harbouring the wealthy housing of the established church’s overseers. A stop at the Red Lion delivered Woodeford ales and a cheese and ale pie with a crust to melt the sternest mouth. The city is built a lot from the flint which is ubiquitous in Norfolk, its unsuitability to smooth-knapping requiring the importing of building stone from all over England. Much of the stone for the cathedral (begun in 1174) came from Caen, a reminder again of William the Conk, whose good works we had seen a lot in Normandy the previous week.

In the late afternoon we beat up the east Norfolk coast through tiny, exquisite fishing villages, trying to avoid the oncoming darkness before searching for accommodation in Cromer. We managing to secure a B & B with two rooms, not so easy because many were closed for the season and the likeliest prospect, a hotel looking out from the high cliffs over the beach, had had electrical problems that past weekend.

A night out in Cromer at this time of the year can only be described as variable. Some pubs had decent beer and some did not, and it was only with the help of the town drunk that we found two which would not have been obvious to the visitor: The Dolphin, overlooking a cantankerous sea, and another Red Lion; the former rather tacky and the latter, right posh. That night’s cuisine was a heady series of curry dishes at one of the two Indians in Cromer. For once, the Good Beer Guide did not come through because its only recommendation was a flea-bitten hotel bar full of short-haired young men with tattoos and drinking lager. They did not seem a bit like the long- and golden-haired Norsemen who had pillaged that part of England in the Dark Ages. Come to think of it, except for the lager, times have not changed all that much.

The next day was spent furthering the discovery of villages, some of which sent you drooling with delight. At Burnam Thorpe, Nelson’s dad had been the rector and his church has many flags from Her Majesty’s ships, the lectern made of timber from the Victory. At the next village, I had to spend an hour at a pub table correcting a distant Korean’s English; I don’t think Ms Kate L–– of Seoul will ever know where her piece on teacher education was dealt with, and that Chris Yates spent over an hour in a pub, drinking coffee.

At another fishing village we walked to the beach a mile away; many of the fishing villages are this distance because of natural changes to the coastline. Alongside the track, surprisingly full of walkers, were fascinating open-air aviaries enclosing varieties of duck, water fowl, swans and other water birds. Their cackling and honking were a jangling accompaniment to the distant crash of waves on shingle.

Now, the intention had been to finish off Norfolk and its rare beauties overnight in King’s Lynn, about which the guidebook extolled as having Dickensian architecture so good that Martin Chuzzlewit was filmed there instead of London. Well, the town did have an old bit of sorts but covering the entire old market square was a dirty great gaudy fun-fair setting up, and already the throb of inane beat music was competing with the deep humming of its own generators. So, KL was not the go.

Back to Oundle prematurely and a dissatisfying and slightly acrimonious dinner at the Talbot Hotel, relieved by the close attention given – we were the only people in the restaurant – by the chatty young French waiter from the island of Réunion who wanted to go to the Gold Coast to surf. Why does everyone in England, including foreigners, want to go to Australia? He hardly blinked, when, on informing me that the chef had told him that my highly anticipated sardines were ‘off’, I responded, ‘F***.’

Norfolk has its own quiet charm, I think, because it is off the motorway routes, free from their dulling of serendipity. In my childhood, two days was about the maximum for which my family ever went on holiday together and it got me thinking how little I know of my own country and how much I shall never see.

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I wrote that when house-exchanging between Australia and the UK. Sixteen years later, our 2020 Germany and France exchanges put off because of Covid-19, once lockdown restrictions permitted we forayed again to East Anglia on an intra-England house-exchange.

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Three Days in Norfolk 2020

‘Sticking it Out’

Late September, we arrive in the village of Ashwellthorpe for our third exchange at this house; because of Covid-19 the car is laden with bedding and towels in addition to the usual Aussie Esky and Waitrose bags of food and drink. It’s pouring, torrentially, and winds for the next few days are forecast up to 55 m.p.h. Lovely. We have four nights here.

Thursday morning (see featured image from my bedroom), the first of three full days, we go to Wymondham, a small town nearby, decant Suzanne for a 10 o’clock mass and afterwards have a look around the town. That we did, but the abbey was closed not for Covid but for repairs. After a couple of walks up and down the High Street past the same shops, with rain imminent we scuttled back to the exchange house  for lunch. In the afternoon, to the seaside! We tried unsuccessfully to find seals, but did get to the Broads, Suzanne eating an ice cream while we gazed upon the big motor boats moored at Ranworth, on the River Bure. The beach at Sea Palling got us a brief, chilly, windswept walk. Again, a rush home to beat the wind and rain, where we found the awning ripped off the exchange partners’ gazebo, and rain dripping down the chimney onto the hearth, threatening the carpet. Out with their towels.

Bondi Beach, where are you?

Friday, truly the worst of the weather but we have booked for the Art Nouveau exhibition at the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre. For eight quid, it is the gem of the exchange, works by Francis Bacon, Picasso, Modigliani, Degas, Lafitte, Jisö Bosatsu. And we are going to have lunch in the café … no we’re not, it’s closed. Never mind, we got out of the house for about 90 minutes – a memorable visit, thank you UEA

Léon Solon ‘Resting’ 1896 Porcelain

Saturday. What a mess, setting out on 47 miles to Wells-next-Sea, cross-fingers the rain and wind was less than yesterday’ unholy Friday of the day before. We struggled up a couple of streets of winter-clad, all-white Brits (no foreign tongues here, you know). Jeans soaked within minutes, and your Tilley doesn’t stay on unless you wear the chinstrap which makes you look like an old, bearded Scoutmaster. Let’s get back to the car, along the quayside described in the 1971 Illustrated Guide to Britain as ‘gay’. We’ve had enough, but S wants to buy takeaway coffee, to which she adds a sausage roll (later she names ‘horrible’) and we push into the wind and rain to get back to the cocoon of the Prius in the car park, where I recover from my white-hot anger that almost threw the spilling, frothing coffee into the sodding road. Why the hell don’t we have a flask of coffee in the car? Instead of a planned coastal journey to Cromer we point the car back to Ashwellthorpe, where she plies me with a bacon sandwich and HP sauce on white bread – succulent and delicious (the sandwich). Another early afternoon of book-reading begins, me calming as I finish Sarah Moss’s finely written The Tidal Zone, chuckling my way to her bright and hopeful end.

Our exchangers (who are enjoying settled sunny weather, good luck to ’em), email us, offering to foreshorten the exchange but no, sticking it out is nobler than limping home.

The next day it’s home, to be enfolded by armchairs and Sunday martinis.

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These bedraggled five days got me thinking about the passing of the in-between years, how much about ‘my [unvisited] country’ I now need not lament. Within ten months after that first visit to East Anglia in 2004, in order to chase after the grandchildren, we had leased out the Sydney house and moved to England, ostensibly for ‘two years’, giving it a try as it were. As the two years have multiplied, through 20 house-exchanges we have seen a great deal of the British Isles in addition to France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands, so that reasons to lament have gone. Any regrets about leaving the faraway country in which I spent 35 years, however, are a different kettle of fish. More on those at another time – regrets, not fish.

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