Norfolk offers charming stretches of coast, a vibrant cultural scene and pubs and restaurants that take pride in dishing up the finest local produce, making for a hearty and welcoming dining experience.
King’s Lynn & the Wash
West Norfolk gets a raw deal. While near-neighbour north Norfolk lords it over the county with a reputation for glorious beaches, gastronomic delights and an outstanding coastline, the Wash is more likely to be thought of – if it’s thought of at all – as a vast mudflat stretching between Norfolk and Lincolnshire.
Yet this stretch of coast is magical, from the underrated and unsung charms of King’s Lynn and the resort pleasures of Hunstanton (‘sunny Hunny’) on the coast to the delights of gorgeous villages such as Castle Rising on the 46-mile Peddars Way cross-county trail. There’s a huge amount for the visitor willing to forgo metropolitan pleasures for a few days and instead explore a piece of Norfolk that’s as timelessly beautiful as anything the north coast has to offer.
Things to do
Ride the Wash Monster
Taking a trip to Seal Island, the sandbanks or along the coast to the lighthouse and striped cliffs of Old Hunstanton is a great way to appreciate the unique coastline and marine life of the Wash. And doing it on the Wash Monster – a landing craft used by US troops in Vietnam – is enormous fun whether you’re five or 50. It’s just one of the Searles fleet; there’s a wide range of regular tours on various vessels. Searles Sea Tours South Beach, Hunstanton, PE36 5BB (01485 534444, www.seatours.co.uk).ToursMar-Oct 11am-6pm daily. Rates 30mins £7; free-£3.50 reductions. 2hrs £12; free-£6 reductions.
Explore Castle Rising Castle
Hyperbole such as ‘one of the most famous and important 12th-century castles in England’ often sets visitors up for disappointment, but Castle Rising, or Castle D’Albini, really is spectacular. Heading towards the ticket-office-cum-shop, an impressively steep earthwork – in some places 120ft high – and deep (empty) moat surround and conceal a well-kept castle keep, which, when it comes into view, is breathtaking. The main section of the roof is gone, but all the walls and some of the rooms are fully intact, and the sense of medieval life is palpable.
In 2009, chef Kevin Mangeolles gained a Michelin star for the lovely Neptune, an 18th-century coaching inn that replaces traditional olde worlde interiors with a refreshing New England style. Mangeolles sources as much as he can locally, using Thornham oysters and mussels, Brancaster lobsters, lamb from the Little Farming Company, pork from Courtyard Farm and even quinces grown on a neighbouring farm to deliver a menu that’s as inventive and refreshing as the decor. There are six spick and span bedrooms, decorated in the same fresh style (£110-£185 double incl breakfast).
85 Old Hunstanton Road, Old Hunstanton, PE36 6HZ (01485 532122, www.theneptune.co.uk).Lunch served noon-1.30pm Tue-Fri by arrangement; noon-2pm Sun. Dinner served 7-9pm Tue-Sun.
Where to stay
This handsome 18th-century townhouse and former bank in the heart of historic King’s Lynn faces across the Purfleet towards the Custom House on one side and the Ouse on the other. It has an appealing riverside terrace as well as a bar, brasserie and dining room that are intimate without being intimidating, and serve probably the best food in King’s Lynn. Owner Jeanette Goodrich has designed 11 guest rooms with lovely fabrics and old finds that ensure each has its own character; all have very comfortable beds and Wi-Fi.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer scale and spectacular beauty of the 47-mile stretch of coast from Holme-next-the-sea right round to Cromer. Holkham beach is the star in this western half of the coastline, and a lure for location scouts: it’s appeared in (among others) The Eagle Has Landed, Shakespeare in Love and, most recently, the ITV1 drama Kingdom. It’s a knockout even on the dullest and dampest of days, when the palette of colours runs from dove grey to slate and the beach is perfect for long contemplative walks.
But the rest of the coast is no less glorious: sand dunes, saltmarsh and nature reserves teeming with birdlife predominate, and there are plenty of coastal and rural footpaths to explore. Head inland to find equally rewarding landscapes, pretty sights and some excellent eating and drinking– particularly in gorgeous villages such as the Massinghams, or East Rudham and the Creakes, or the six villages that make up the Burnhams, complete with six medieval churches. A couple of grandiose stately homes also demand attention.
Things to do
Visit Holkham Hall
Home to the Earls of Leicester and the Coke family, this extensive, beautifully proportioned Palladian-style stately home was built during the 18th century on the site of a former family home. It’s likely to be familiar to those who saw The Duchess, which was shot almost entirely on location here, and it is hugely impressive, from its jaw-dropping marble entrance hall and terrific collection of paintings to its opulent state rooms and servants’ quarters.
The 3,000-acre deer park in which the hall is set is worth a visit too, and there are extensive walks through it and around the mile-long lake. The estate also houses the Bygones Museum and History of Farming Exhibition, which will delight children who are into tractors, old steam engines and farmyard machinery. New for 2010 are the restored walled gardens that have been closed to the public since 2005. And note that there’s some stylish shopping (pottery, a kitchen store, an Adnams wine shop and more) to be had at the North Gate entrance. Holkham, NR23 1AB (01328 710227, www.holkham.co.uk).OpenHolkham Hall Apr-Oct noon-4pm Mon, Thur, Sun. Bygones Museum Apr-Oct noon-5pm daily. Walled Gardens Apr-Oct 10am-4pm daily. Admission £11; £5.50 reductions; £27 family.
Wander the NWT Holme Dunes
Just at the point where the Wash meets the North Sea lies this exceptional Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, comprising a vast tract of mud flats, foreshore, sand dunes, scrub, pines, marsh and reedbeds. These all combine to make Holme Dunes one of the coast’s most attractive landscapes, with a tangible air of fragility and emptiness. Of course, it’s not empty at all; 320 species of birds have been seen from the three hides overlooking grazing marsh, pools and numerous paths, but even if you don’t spot any of them, it’s a wild and wonderful introduction to Norfolk’s north coast.
Just off the A1149, west of Thornham, this warm, light-filled yurt is a delightful lunch stop, from the wood burning stove at its centre and the wicker rockers and fake fur rugs circling it, to the friendly service and excellent food. Local shellfish and smoked fish feature big on a menu that also lists a range of ploughmans and sandwiches, daily specials and mixed taster plates, and it’s all served from an open kitchen area.
In the endless sea of neutral colours most boutique hotels opt for, the Victoria stands out like a technicolour dream, creating a rare easy-going charm in this small hotel and restaurant. Decor is low-key but stylish, with furniture from Rajasthan mixing with modern TVs and gleaming bathrooms; there’s a big fire in the lounge area, together with squashy, lived-in sofas and a bar.
If you’re looking for something a little private, three estate follies have been pressed into service as two-bedroom ‘lodges’. Meals are served in the ground-floor dining room and in the bar, with both Modern British menus making use of local produce – often very local, such as Holkham steaks, organic chickens from a farm tenant or, in winter, wild game from family shoots.
Where the western half of the north Norfolk coast is a huge empty expanse of sand, dunes and marsh, the eastern half is tamer, tidier and altogether more down to earth. In settlements such as Wells-next-the-Sea, Blakeney and Morston, fishing still plays its part, but as the A149 winds through Salthouse towards the Victorian town of Sheringham, the wide stretches of beach and marsh give way to pebbles and seaside resort pleasures. Inland, the towns of Little Walsingham and Holt are unmissable and offer some great shopping and eating opportunities. Dotted with numerous quaint villages, such as Salle, Reepham, Swannington and privately owned Heydon, as well as hundreds of Norman and Saxon churches, this inland area is great driving and walking terrain, with heath, wood, fen, pasture and even the odd small hill offering something for everyone.
Things to do
Check out Cushing's collection
One of the strangest attractions in Norfolk was begun more than 50 years ago by George Cushing, who collected an eye-popping array of steam-powered and mechanical engines, fairground organs and carousels; look out for the steam-powered Venetian gondola ride, but whatever you do don’t miss the 1931 Wurliitzer organ. Its 1,339 pipes create an astonishing array of sounds and effects, best experienced through daily recitals in the Wurlitzer cinema. Dickensian-style shops and cafés add to the olde worlde theme. Booking is obligatory for the Christmas Spectacular shows: see the website for details.
This wonderful shop won the Daily Telegraph award in 2009 for best independent shop in Britain, and it’s easy to see why. A large, light-filled space houses a whimsical but wonderful range of goods made in Norfolk, from delicate ceramic coasters and stylish stationery to hefty jute beach bags, plus books and toys.
Wise diners take heed: the Modern British food served at this pretty village pub is worth travelling miles for. If the miles clocked up make you feel a tad guilty, you’ll feel decidedly virtuous eating the carefully sourced mutton burgers, steaks and belly pork – the meat is locally reared, and comes via butchers and farmers who practise good animal husbandry. Snacks, Norfolk tapas (otherwise known as ‘iffits’) a piglets’ menu and a decent drinks list complete the dining picture. There’s a dartboard and a bar billiards table too.
This 18th-century windmill stands just outside the village (and away from the main road), and has supreme views of the reed-rustling salt marshes and the distant sea. Choose from five rooms in the circular mill itself or opt for seclusion in the former boat house, located across a small courtyard from the mill, and in two converted outhouses (which can also be let on a self-catering basis).
As the north Norfolk coast curves around to the east, rolling dunes and nature-rich marshes give way to decidedly more traditional seaside views and landscapes, particularly in the once grand Victorian resorts of Sheringham and Cromer. In summer the towns’ sandy beaches are packed, but winter is glorious too for windswept walks scored to the explosion of waves against the sea defences. At high tide, the sand is completely covered and only pebbles remain on view, backed by past-their-best hotels and fisherman’s cottages.
Inland, stately architectural wonders such as Blickling Hall and Felbrigg Hall, numerous round- and square-towered churches of singular design, two fabulous steam railways and the market town of Aylsham mean there’s lots to do when you’ve had your fill of sand, crabs and watery sunsets.
And, finally, the area can lay claim to one very special attribute: the highest point in Norfolk. Take a trip on the Poppy Line or play a round on Sheringham golf course and it becomes clear that the land here is anything but flat, a fact attributable to the rolling nine-mile-long glacial Cromer Ridge that runs beside the coast. The apex of the ridge, Beacon’s Hill, is just a 15-minute walk south from West Runton, and at 338 feet above sea level makes for a rare, knee-flexing Norfolk walk. Bring a picnic and enjoy the terrific views.
Things to do
Explore a historic mansion
Beautifully laid out to present a stunning aspect and approach from the moment it comes into view, this magnificent Jacobean red-brick mansion has numerous pleasures, from the Long Gallery to the glorious plasterwork ceilings and excellent collections of furniture, pictures, tapestries and books – the servants’ library is a real eye-opener. Outside, there are superb formal gardens, including an orangery, and a huge park that features meadows, woods and an artificial lake surrounding the house. At one time the place belonged to the Boleyn family; look out for the ghost (headless, of course) of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s unfortunate second wife.
Blickling, nr Aylsham, NR11 6NF (01263 738030, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blickling).OpenHall mid July-Aug 11am-5pm Mon, Wed-Sun; Mar-mid July, Sept, Oct 11am-5pm Wed-Sun. Garden mid July-Aug 10.15am-5.15pm Mon, Wed-Sun; Mar-mid July, Sept, Oct 10.15am-5.15pm Wed-Sun; Nov-Feb 11am-4pm Thur-Sun. Park Dawn-dusk daily. AdmissionHall & Garden £9.30; £4.60 reductions; £26 family. Garden only £6.30; £3.15 reductions; £18 family. Park free.
Ride the Poppy Line
The utterly enchanting, predominantly steam-driven Poppy Line takes passengers on a 20-minute trip between Sheringham and Holt, with a proper stop at Weybourne and a halt at Kelling Heath. It’s a scenic route, hugging the coast and golf course before heading inland. The vintage carriages and genial staff in spick-and-span uniforms add to the charm, particularly during the various special days, including ‘hands-on’ kids’ trips and Santa Specials in December.
With its pink walls and frilly net curtains, Mary Jane’s dishes up a measure of feminine seemliness alongside its fish and chips. Family photos and landscape prints decorate the walls, and there’s a small bar tucked in a corner (with fizzy keg beer). Queues often form at the adjoining takeaway, and tables in the restaurant are highly prized during the summer rush.
Spacious rooms – 21 in total – stuffed with sumptuous fabrics and impressive oak furniture, alongside stained glass windows and big open fireplaces, make the interior of this Grade II-listed Victorian rectory cosy and luxurious. Outside, in the four acres of gardens, you can take a turn round the Norfolk-shaped pond or indulge in country pursuits such as tennis and croquet.
Despite good links via road and rail, Norwich feels slightly removed from the rest of Britain, and can often give the impression of being somewhere far away, rather than a city less than two hours from London by rail. This sense of isolation gives it a more individual character than many of England’s homogenised civic centres, and means that the inhabitants make much of what they have here, rather than looking to London for entertainment.
The lovely city centre is compact enough for you to really get to know it in a couple of days, though there’s so much packed in that you could easily stay for a week and not run out of things to do. There’s an impressive clutch of historical and cultural attractions, a dizzying array of good pubs and decent eating options, and some very nice places to stay. Shopping is fun here too – there are many interesting independents – and best of all, there’s no need for a car in the centre of town. Rural escape is also hassle-free; there are a number of enjoyable villages and market towns within reach, and fast access to the natural wonders of the Norfolk Broads to the east and the Norfolk coast to the north.
Things to do
Shop in style at the Royal Arcade
This 1988 art nouveau shopping arcade opposite the market, designed by local star George Skipper, is a real beauty, with Doulton tiles, Italian terrazzo stone flooring, decorative pillars and stained glass. And that’s before you check out the cute Colman’s Mustard Shop, Langleys toy shop (nos.12-14, 01603 621959) Penita’s deli/café (no.3, 01603 625757) or Digby’s of Holt chocolate shop (01603 765924). Or blow the budget at fine-leather shop Marrs (no.6, 01603 766299, www.marrsleather.co.uk).
Visit Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Sir Norman Foster’s elegiac building may look like an aircraft hangar dropped into the middle of a rural university campus, but there’s no doubting that it works brilliantly in presenting a collection that resembles a mini version of the British Museum with a bit of Tate thrown in. The focus is very much on the educational, but it’s done in an understated and visually compelling manner – even the school groups seem engaged with the work. Imaginative, beautifully designed temporary exhibitions are held in a basement space that draws the eye to the parkland vistas in unexpected ways. University of East Anglia, Earlham Road, NR4 7TJ (01603 593199, www.scva.org.uk).Open 10am-5pm Tue, Thur-Sun; 10am-8pm Wed. Admission free.
Where to eat
Cinema City Dining Rooms
Three gorgeous medieval spaces paved with huge flagstones make this a great place to eat, and that’s before tasting the excellent Modern British and European food served in the bar and restaurant. The £7.95 soup and sandwich combo is a winner at lunch, but make the most of it by visiting for a weekend dinner and treat yourself to dishes such as bouillabaisse or roast cod with shellfish and veg minestrone.
This recent addition to Norwich’s B&B scene is a real gem, both in terms of its city centre location and its sumptuously appointed rooms. Converted from a derelict printing mill by former builder Jim Clark, with decor by his wife, Glynis, it has eight rooms, some of which face on to a courtyard for alfresco breakfasts or chilling out with a bottle of wine. There’s even a hot-tub should chilling out get a bit chilly. Breakfast is a highlight, featuring plenty of fresh fruit and pastries alongside excellent cooked dishes.
Normally sleepy Norfolk is positively in a coma in this isolated part of the county, which isn’t to say there’s nothing here – though if coastal erosion continues unchecked, there will be considerably less than there is today. Here, erosion not only means the washing away of cliffs but also whole communities, particularly in fast-disappearing Happisburgh and some of the villages around it.
Star attractions in the area include huge sandy beaches at Waxham, Horsey and Winterton-on-Sea, stretching for mile after empty mile and more than a match for the famed beaches of the north Norfolk coast. Handsome (currently) inland villages, such as Trunch and Knapton, and borderline Broads villages such as East Ruston, offer the timeless pleasures of flint cottages, pretty pubs and singular medieval churches. They act as delightful counterpoints to the kiss-me-quick charms of the seaside towns and the isolated beauty of the vast beaches nearby.
Things to do
Walk in a wildflower meadow
The 30 acres of coastal garden here are utterly magical, largely due to the sheer horticultural exuberance created by owners and designers Alan Gray and Graham Robeson. The duo bought the house in the mid 1990s, inheriting what they call a ‘blank canvas’, and have turned it into an imaginative extravaganza taking in everything from a wildflower meadow to formal Dutch gardens and towering ferns to a Californian border of explosive colour. It’s all the more impressive considering the exposed nature of the site. Clever peepholes and topiary bring views of the surrounding area, and a pretty tearoom completes what is surely Norfolk’s best garden.
Located on a small hill, the Hill House is a Grade II-listed, 16th-century inn rightly lauded for its well-kept ales (around six, with occasional visitors) and good pub food, and famous for its one-time guest, Arthur Conan Doyle. The menu includes ploughman’s, local crab and fish dishes, and pile-’em-high meat and three veg options, and there’s an annual Solstice Beer Festival in June. Four rooms (£60 double incl breakfast) are available, one of them housed in a converted 1901 signal box.
North Walsham Road, Happisburgh, NR12 0PW (01692 650004).Open noon-3pm, 7-11.30pm Mon-Wed; noon-11.30pm Thur-Sun. Lunch served noon-3pm, dinner served 7-9.30pm daily.
Where to stay
Sea Marge Hotel
A clifftop location and four acres of gardens and terraced lawns leading down to the foreshore make this elegant Edwardian building a beauty. The 25 bedrooms (all en suite) include original features in contemporary settings. Food is served in the bar and two restaurants; non-residents are welcome. There’s also a lounge with games.
If there’s one Norfolk attraction most people have heard of, it’s the Norfolk Broads, the sprawling network of seven rivers (the Ant, Bure and Thurne in the north and the Yare, Wensum, Waveney and Chet in the south) and 63 shallow inland lakes fringed by reeds, marshland and woodland on which water-bound holidaymakers spend happy weeks. These ancient flooded pits, ranging in width from a few feet to several miles, were created by the large-scale excavation of peat, an important and valuable fuel – first by the Romans, then by local monasteries in the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, rising sea levels and newly formed channels created 117 square miles of wetland that, since their discovery by Victorian sailing enthusiasts looking for the latest thrill, have become one of England’s most popular ‘natural’ wonders.
Things to do
Be enchanted by Bewilderwood
Every child we know who’s been here has loved every minute spent clambering around Bewilderwood’s beautiful, magical treehouses, following its imaginative and inventive trails and marsh walk, crossing its jungle bridges and whizzing down its zipwires. Parents are encouraged to get down and dirty with their offspring, and there are lots of special events throughout the year, making this one of the best days out for families in Norfolk. Even the food is great. Don’t miss it.
Horning Road, nr Horning, NR12 8JW (01603 783900, www.bewilderwood.co.uk).Open Feb half-term, end Mar-Oct 10am-5.30pm daily; closed some Tue, Wed, so phone to check opening times. Admission free-£11.
Check out the Museum of the Broads
This award-winning museum telling the human history of the Broads, from medieval peat diggers to 21st-century holidaymakers via reedcutters, boat builders, thatchers and sailors, manages to engage the imaginations of both children and adults. There’s an excellent programme of activities (among them painting, quizzes and playboat events) and a permanent display that evokes the history of the Broads meticulously and entertainingly.
With its riverside location and lovely garden, this thatched cottage would make a great lunch spot even if the food wasn’t good. Fortunately, it is, thanks to an enterprising use of local produce to create a menu that ranges from breakfast dishes to sandwiches, cakes and full-blown meals.
Fifteen comfortable, contemporary-styled, river-facing rooms, a restaurant serving a traditional menu of burgers, seafood and steaks, and a peaceful but handy location make this a good alternative to a B&B. In summer, the large waterside terrace is a great spot for dinner or a drink.
Off A149, nr Stalham, NR12 9LL (01692 582414, www.maypolehotels.com).Rates £60-£105 double incl breakfast.
Great Yarmouth & Southern Broads
For many people, the Norfolk Broads end at the A47, the horizontal slash of dual-carriageway that bisects the county from Great Yarmouth in the east to King’s Lynn in the west. Virtually the whole of Norfolk’s coastline and all its most popular broads lie north of this road. The handful of broads south of it – Surlingham and Rockland on the western stretch of the River Yare, the villages that line the banks of its eastern stretch and the Chet tributary, and those that border the Waveney into Suffolk’s Oulton Broad – tend to be forgotten, like embarrassing hicksville relatives of the city boy made good. For this reason, the waterways of the southern broads tend to be more tranquil and less touristy than their northern counterparts.
Alternatively, for old-fashioned bucket-and-spade fun, and some surprising pockets of historical character, there’s the brash seaside resort of Great Yarmouth.
Things to do
Visit Time & Tide Museum
This award-winning museum, housed in a restored Victorian herring curing works, features some excellent re-creations of bygone days. There’s a Victorian terrace and fisherman’s home, a 1950s quayside and a seaside holidays gallery that will have older visitors tripping happily down memory lane. The interactive displays will keep children amused, and the Silver Darlings café (open to all, not just museum-goers) serves a nicely fishy selection of snacks, such as kipper paté and marinated herrings, alongside the more usual sandwiches, soups and cakes.
Set in a gorgeous 16th-century thatched and whitewashed house, Lavender House is one of the best places to eat in south Norfolk. Chef Richard Hughes’s ‘Modern Norfolk’ cuisine uses produce sourced almost exclusively from the county, and features the likes of tortellini of smoked eel, Edgefield venison and terrine of local game birds. For a real blow-out, find a bunch of friends and book the Opitz room, where a nine-course tasting menu, plus canapés, cookbook, glass of champagne and memorabilia, costs £385 for six. 39 The Street, Brundall, NR13 5AA (01603 712215, www.thelavenderhouse.co.uk). Food served 6.30-11.30pm Tue-Sat; noon-5pm Sun.
Where to stay
Hall Green Farm
This elegant listed Georgian farmhouse, set in secluded grounds, has three large, nicely decorated rooms – the English country room, the African themed room and the Moroccan room – in a converted former dairy. All are en suite and open on to a private garden.
Norfolk’s undisputed architectural wealth lies in its 800-plus churches, some 700 of them medieval and 124 with round towers; the best examples are found in the southern half of the county, a 50-mile-long swathe of land running the length of the A47 and stretching 20 miles south to the Suffolk border.
But there are other pleasures here too. Market towns and villages such as Diss, Harleston, Attleborough, Wymondham and Hingham are some of the oldest and most charming in Norfolk. The terrain of South Norfolk is varied too, from marshy fens and scrubland in the far west to the broads in the east, in between encompassing river valleys, woodland, forest and grazing meadows, sometimes dotted with Roman remains. It makes for a rich mix of attractions for all manner of visitors, including walkers, fishing fans, church buffs and amateur historians – just don’t expect most children to go crazy for it.
Things to do
Wander around Wymondham Abbey
The story of the two towers (one ruined, one unfinished) of this magnificent Norman abbey, founded in 1107, is one of the most fascinating in its history, involving centuries-long bitter disputes between parishioners and Benedictine monks. But there are plenty of other tales to discover, about the gorgeous angel roofs, the two 18th-century organs, the beautiful nave made of Caen stone, the grisly death of rebel William Kett on the walls of the western tower and the glistening gilded screen built by Sir Ninian Comper as a memorial to the local men killed in World War I. The best way to see it all is on one of the regular guided tours, but you’ll get a huge amount just from looking around the abbey, where various leaflets and church guides are available.
The Wildebeest Arms is one of a handful of pubs in Norfolk to have received a Michelin Bib Gourmand. À la carte prices aren’t cheap, but the set lunch and dinner menus are great value and include an imaginative range of Modern European dishes, such as grilled lemon and thyme smoked mackerel.
Open phone or check website for details. Admission free.82-86 Norwich Road, Stoke Holy Cross, NR14 8QJ (01508 492497, www.thewildebeest.co.uk). Open 11am-4pm, 6-11.30pm Mon-Sat; 11.30am-4.30pm, 6-11.30pm Sun. Lunch served noon-2pm Mon-Sat; 12.30-2.30pm Sun. Dinner served 7-9pm daily.
Where to stay
Three nicely decorated rooms (two en suite, one with a private bathroom) are available in this lovely former dairy three miles outside Wymondham. What makes the place special are the expansive, award-winning gardens, set around a large pond and with plenty of outdoor seating.
There’s a bench in the WWT Welney Wetland Centre in the heart of the Fens that paraphrases a popular local saying: ‘Any fool can appreciate mountains, it takes a discerning eye to appreciate the beauty of the Fens’. And it’s true. As you look out across the flat, featureless terrain broken only by old windmills and new wind turbines, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything here worthy of more than an afternoon’s exploration.
But, gradually, you discover there’s more to the landscape than meets, literally, the eye. Along a quiet road, acres of bright orange pumpkins, looking as if they’ve just landed from space, delight with their vibrant incongruity; a working windmill serves terrific sandwiches made from its own flour in a pretty tearoom; medieval churches and charming villages offer rich pickings for history and architecture fans; and even if you can’t understand their fiendishly complex workings, it’s easy to appreciate the Victorian engineering feats used to tame the tides at Denver. Further west, the marshy peat of the Fens gives way to the sandy heaths, pine forests, farms and Neolithic mines of the Brecks, a vast playground spanning two counties, with 370 square miles that have something for everyone.
Things to do
Discover ancient ruins
Bah, another pile of ancient religious ruins, you might think. You’d be wrong. Castle Acre is one of England’s best preserved monastic sites, with Cluniac decoration that looks way way younger than its 700-plus years. It’s a delight to ramble around, up and down. Don’t miss the prior’s personal quarters, a space that manages (along with the excellent audio guide) to give a very real sense of history and medieval monastic life. Castle Acre PE32 2XD (01760 755394, www.english-heritage.org.uk/castleacrepriory).OpenJuly, Aug 10am-6pm daily. Apr-June, Sept 10am-5pm daily. Oct-Mar 10am-4pm Mon, Thur-Sun. Admission £5; £2.50-£4.30 reductions; £12.50 family.
Enjoy medieval masterpieces
You’ll gasp as you come through the entrance and see the gorgeous proportions and setting of this 15th-century moated house. From the French parterre and impressive medieval brick gatehouse to the house itself, where 16th-century needlework panels created by Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick deservedly draw crowds, Oxburgh Hall is a real winner. Do take a walk along the battlements; the roof and chimneys are masterpieces of craftsmanship, and the views are marvellous. You can also see the priest hole, used to hide Catholic priests during Elizabeth I’s reign.
Oxborough, PE33 9PS. (01366 328258, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburghhall). OpenHouse & Gardens Aug 11am-5pm daily. Mid Mar-July, Sept, Oct 11am-5pm Mon-Wed, Sat, Sun. House Late Feb-mid Mar 11am-5pm Sat, Sun. Gardens Feb-mid Mar, Nov-Jan 11am-4pm Sat, Sun. AdmissionHouse & Gardens £6.75; £3.45 reductions; £17.85 family. Gardens only £3.45; £2 reductions.
Where to eat
In a perfect spot opposite a perfect green in a perfect Norfolk village, the 16th-century Ostrich Inn is a great eating and sleeping spot. New owners arrived in 2009 and have been gradually renovating the five rooms (£90 double incl breakfast) with tasteful touches, such as gilded handmade wallpaper by Jasper Conran. The landscaped garden has an enclosed play area complete with sand pit and beach hut. Inside, it’s all warm woodwork and copper and gold hues, and the food (starters such as potted shrimps and sourdough toast, mains such as fish stew or Houghton Hall venison stew with dumplings) is delicious.
Stocks Green, Castle Acre, PE32 2AE (01760 755398, www.ostrichcastleacre.com).Open 10am-11.30pm daily. Lunch served noon-2.30pm daily. Dinner served 6.30-8.30pm Mon-Sat.
Where to stay
Robert and Jacquie Shrimpton bought the late 18th-century Dial House in 2007 and have turned the former maltsters and academy for young gentlemen into a smart B&B, while keeping many of the original features. The three bedrooms are named after the Mumford sisters who ran the academy, just one clue to the obvious delight the owners take in their new venture.
The definitive guide to two of England's best loved counties, highlighting their contemporary appeal as well as their traditional charms. Cultural events and attractions are covered alongside our favourite pubs, restaurants and hotels. We explore the great outdoors in all it's glory, as well as the best villages and towns; we suggest things to do, and places to visit. Providing information and inspiration, the Time Out Norfolk & Suffolk guide is invaluable, whether you're a resident, a regular visitor or new to the region.