A Day Out With Elspeth on A Bus Named Pochahontas

-Which is a Coasthopper Bus, which are all named after Norfolk locals (the Native American visited). And therefore, this post is about North Norfolk, and Norfolk in general.

Coasthopper named Pocahontas

Norfolk in particular – Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Thetford – all have or will have their own entries.

Norfolk is wetlands and desolation, and that’s not necessarily a derogatory remark. Many places’ character and pleasure is the isolation and quiet they offer. Despite being one of Britain’s most populous counties in medieval times, Norfolk has the impression of spacious, uncluttered, unpeopledness. It’s also quite wild, even eerie.

Windmill Without Sails

Windmill Without Sails by me

Apart from the above listed towns, there’s not many places to especially pick out about Norfolk; what’s considered special here would be mediocre by other counties’ standards. The postcode changes from NR for Norwich to PEterborough in the west and IPswich in the south reflect a character change too – PE is like the Wash: fenland flat with a sort of dirty dark honey stone, a little more Midlands; and IP has prettier, older towns and exposed timbers, and is more like Suffolk.

I like a capital to resemble its provinces, but it seems one has to choose between charming county or city. Suffolk and Essex are prettier than Norfolk, but have no outstanding city (the same is true of Gloucestershire and Somerset); Norwich is one of Britain and Ireland’s most special historic cities (certain locals say it features on a European level), but, sorry Nelson County, this top slice of the Pig’s Bum of England (I think a map of Britain looks like a chicken riding a pig) is not one of our nation’s strongest.

Norwich’s looks are seen more in north Suffolk; there’s flashes of it in North Walsham, perhaps even certain angles of Holt. But there’s only one village that looks how I’d hoped Norfolk might, having known its county town – and that’s

Me at Walsingham

Little Walsingham. Pilgrims come, but it seems, tourists do not so much, and there’s little to do if you’re not in one of the three Christian shrines or the snowdrop ridden original abbey and holy site – the Catholic one being a LONG walk out of the village. Architecturally, it’s a very interesting village (and former small town), one of the few with a museum. I had expected a kind of Lavenham, plenty of shops and places to eat; though I was really hopeful for an eastern Glastonbury, and wondered if alternative spirituality was also present here (no hippies but occasional Hindus). But there’s only two each of local shop, tearoom, pub, shrine shop. If you’re on the steam train, beware there’s not much of a station of around it (the original’s now an Orthodox shrine). And if you go by bus, you have a long wait till the next one – and risk being stranded, for you’re many miles from alternative transport, so plan carefully if you’re using it, for the service ends late afternoon.

Perhaps I should state here, for anyone unfamiliar – RURAL BRITAIN STOPS EARLY. Shops are shut by 530pm – perhaps even 4, they are closed often on Sundays and Bank Holidays, and transport is reduced. More anon on this re the Coasthopper.

These comments can sum up much of the county: infrequent, early stopping buses and closing shops (sometimes seasonal too); in the North, some perhaps incongruous posh shops and eateries among little to do, espicially by night (a film society if you’re lucky, but little arts outside the larger towns).

Holt is over-egged and is not the Londoner’s bijou that brochures make out; it’s very country Norfolk, but there’s no activity here except the little old fashioned shops – colourful and quaint, but no buildings of individual interest, and nothing to visit or do by night – and the steam train station is A LONG way out of the centre.

I am not sure of the attraction of Burnham Market, whose billing as the land of the second homes squad of a certain kind of affluent is mostly a repellent to me (‘Chelsea on sea’ is overused and I quite like Chelsea). Burnham’s got some much needed colour (amidst the swathes of grey flint round there) and a village green, but the houses which would have been artisan are now expensive… why? And you can get everything Burnham offers in Norwich, plus all the things it hasn’t got. Burnham calls itself Norfolk’s prettiest village, but if it’s true, it says something about Norfolk – I refer you to my para under my painting above.

I shall post separately about best villages.

There’s the slice of Norfolk’s pie that seems to get less attention, in terms of transport and tourism – the Mundesley (Munds-ly)/Happisburgh (Hays- bra) chunk. Lighthouse, woods, beach hut, quiet.

The rest of this is more about North Norfolk, between Cromer and Hunstanton.

Cromer pier

Cromer pier by me

People have a preference over Sheringham or Cromer – both fishing villages turned seaside resort, but Sheringham feels closer to fishing village still. It begins as a Holt-like local high street (from the stations – the Poppyline heritage one is Sheringham’s best bit) and becomes tourist seaside with a bit of tack, but if you turn towards the church, you find books, gallery and two smart restaurants. The concrete sea fighting wall is now adorned with pictures, which takes off some of the grey. It does have a Little Theatre and this includes a behind release but interesting and quite arty film programme.

You could walk to Cromer over the Bump! but the official (acorn signed) path takes you inland further than you might expect and it also takes longer – with erosion and snotty caravan parks, the direct coastal route isn’t possible; if you go along the beach, beware: tides come in quickly and right up the shore.

Beeston Bump

Cromer’s tall church tower is easily seen from Beeston Bump, and it’s evidence that this was a place of importance before railways and daytrippers. Its central streets are still tight and evoke a medievally feel – Jetty Street and Hans Place, looking from the old style cinema to the great church tower, are a couple of my favourites. Neither town is large, but both have sufficient amenities, and Cromer is one of the seasides few to still have an end of pier show. That pier and the only remaining grand hotel give it more presence than Sheringham. Both have easily accessible clifftop walks and other nature, and two museums each.

There’s no other real resorts until the very western edge of the county at Hunstanton. I’d hoped to visit to report here, but couldn’t stand the two hours of Coasthopper bus – one of the few ways to reach Hunstanton without a car. There was a problem and the popular little coach was filled at capacity from its first stop. Many of us got off at the first viable place, which changed my day plan from riding the whole of the coast to exploring a small section. I think I’ve learned that despite a very good value ranger ticket (which also allows you on some of the trains – called a Bittern line ranger), that you can’t be too ambitious. Many of the walks or attractions (eg Blakeney Point, seal trips) take a couple of hours and the early stopping of the buses again makes stranding a real possibility. Coasthopper also say sometimes they can’t guarantee everyone getting on – not funny if you’ve an hour’s wait, let alone if it’s the last bus of the day.

Cley (Cly – below) and Stiffkey (Stoo-ky?) can be summarised by my above comments – with the addition of how shocked I was by the busyness of the coast road, a tiny single lane going through the heart of the villages with NO PAVEMENT. Many drivers in over large vehicles were selfish ones and it didn’t make for pleasant wandering.

Cley windmill from marshes

However, I did something not in the tourist maps – I walked to Binham, which must be about 3 miles as it took an hour along the road. Mostly you can do so safely and get on a verge, but there were a few trickier points nearer Stiffkey. Binham’s as pretty (or not) as any of the other villages that way, it has a pub (not cheap or over friendly) and a wonderful priory.

Binham priory across fields

The priory is across fields, and is under half the length of what it was with no towers, but there are several reconstruction drawings to help you imagine it. Frustratingly, the different ownerships of the ruins and church mean that guides do not refer to the whole. Beware, there’s a sort of maze/dead end among the ruins where you have to take a little jump. I thought Binham’s interior looked poky in photos, but there is a strikingly… I have tried several times to put the atmosphere into words… spiritual, peaceful, a place to linger and pleasant to be… lighter inside than I’d expected for a place with most of its windows sealed up. It had more of an effect than Cley church which I also visited – though I’d like to commend both churches for allowing visitors to enter each day and trusting us to do so without a warden to harass us (take note, Wymondham Abbey!) And Binham has nice new loos.

Binham Priory inside

You probably can’t see, but there are pleasing mouldings on the furthest bottom arches.

I’ve been to all the towns in Norfolk bar 3, but the only other place I’d like to single out today is Holkham. The hall is too plain and Palladian for my liking, but the beach is special. However, I’m not going to join the boast that it’s the country’s best, though it is one of the best in the county – but then, most of Norfolk’s beaches are loved because of that natural, grassy duny untouched feel. You walk to Holkham’s down boardwalks and there’s no facilities after the hall. I personally prefer some cliffs too, but this has the backdrop of pines. I will close with an old picture of me impersonating Ms Paltrow at the end of Shakespeare in Love, filmed here. I like the symbolism of walking to fresh new worlds.

Me on Holkham beach being Gwyneth