Down the years, I have spent many a pleasant week visiting friends in Norfolk. At over two hours from London by fastest train, it is mercifully still relatively unspoiled by the explosion of building, crowds and traffic that is London and its commuter belt. But, until this month, I had not spent more than the odd day in North Norfolk, the bucolic quilt of farm and village, forest and field that rolls over fifty miles between Norwich and The Wash.
The first thing to strike you is how ageless it seems. A myriad of small villages each have their own quirky character in flint brick and tile roof as they cluster around village churches mostly built by Normans and Angles and straggling down Street patterns that date from the Doomsday Book. But partly because this was once the richest Dukedom in England and partly because the royal retreat on Sandringham is slap in the middle of it, the villages are interspersed with sprawling country estates like Holkham and Houghton and up market villages like Great Wasingham that are almost Chelsea, grafted onto a rural setting.
The only town of any size is Fakeham, which provides the local supermarlet but barely reaches 7,000 population. Spreading out from there in a bewildering spider’s web of narrow and unsignposted back roads that are a joy to explore. You might come across Lord Nelson’s home hamlet of Burnham Thorpe or the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway, or the church at South Creake whose ‘new; cei doling was painted to celebrate Agincourt.
But my favourite part is that coast—unlike the rocky coast here in East Lothian and even the straight shingle and low cliffs all the rest Of Norfolk, this shore is more of a puzzle then the web of black roads. Beaches can be huge, as at Holkham. Wells-Next-The-Sea and Cleys-Next-The-Sea are ports, but misleading misnomers, for the lie over a mile from open water, up tortuous channels that need to be dredged to keep then open. In between are endless expenses of salt marsh, crisscrossed my tidal channels, navigation is documented only in local folklore.
For the less adventurous, the truth of such folklore are available fresh in the local restaurants. You can even pick up a deliciously fresh dressed Wells crab for as little as £4 on the quayside there. And if you should get talking to people there on the pier, whose business take them there every day, don’t be deceived by their slow accent and think of them as bucolic throwbacks. Watch instead the steady eyes; feel the firm handshake; sense the ready warmth and humour. At the market, in the pub or working the fields, these people are as deeply and organically rooted in this placeas their churches and their houses. They are still the yeomen bedrock on which England was built.