A Day Out With Elspeth On A Bus Named Lady Fermoy

I reprised my trip aboard Norfolk Green and Coasthopper buses, and this time was on one named after Ruth COMMA Lady Fermoy, friend of Queen mum who made her grandchild Princess Diana cry.

I did the bit I couldn’t do with Pocahontas and kept to the north west corner of Norfolk. Shame as she lived in this corner, around Heacham, which I went through, but alas, no sign of the lavender fields I chose a more laborious bus to view, and only the gates of Sandringham and a mere sign to Snettisham park. (If you want these, catch a bus 11 and not a Coasthopper).

Rural buses are funny: a day trip in itself. People don’t sit with their companions; they shout and reach across with sweets and other goodies. Strangers can talk at you, not interested in engaging. An older man with crutches took the seat of another older lady and showed no gratitude that he was let on the bus first: it may be expected, but his lack of manners galled me. Another wheelchair user parked his chair and sat elsewhere; the driver moaned it would fall when the she drove off and made a young woman stand so it could be put away, empty. Thus the wheelchair user took up two spaces whilst depriving someone else of their seat. Neither of those are my definition of being disability positive. And at the speed those buses fly round wyndy country roads, it’s not safe or pleasant to stand and I passionately believe you pay for a seat.

I was equally cross that Norfolk Green do not use big enough buses for times when they know it’ll be busy – early buses on a summer Saturday ought to be full bus sized (not mini coach) and better still, double deckers. As many users are disabled or older people, the need to sit is all the more important. There’s also the fear of not being able to get on – or being so crowded and uncomfy standing that you have to get off, which happened last time. Only by receiving a comp to compensate did I consider using Coasthoppers again.

The bus ride was mostly enjoyable for eavesdropping on other passengers and pleasant rural and sea views. Good, because to reach my main destination, I had to spend most of the day on the bus and had too little time to do what else I’d have chosen. For instance, I drove through the harbour of Wells next the sea, but couldn’t check out whether its shops have gone the way of Cley and Burnham because I’d never have got to Hunstanton and back before the buses stop and I’d get stranded.

I’d like to mention Walsingham, who seems to have accrued more shops since I last saw it, and I still rate it as my favourite Norfolk village, for reasons I share in the Pocahontas and my Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village posts (see left side bar). I also thought East Rudham between Fakenham and King’s Lynn had potential as a specially pretty for Norfolk village, if it only had as many shops as you know where.

North Norfolk2 I went to Burnham Market, which I argued against being the prettiest, because I just had to check and to make sure those shops are as awful as I thought and that its people are as I judge them to be. I didn’t need long in Burnham. It is pretty, and I do secretly like the shops – but its Chelsea on Sea moniker feels less and less apt – is it because London on Sea’s taken? And it’s hardly the King’s Road or especially SW3’s resident’s day out. I tested friendliness of its shops: I found them to be average. One replied graciously to my toy sheep mascot comment. As for capital snootiness: I heard one posh voice talking about champagne for her film crew into her phone, but I heard some Norfolk too, and no City money making boasters, as I had been led to expect.

Some Coasthopper bus timetables miss off several places they do in fact call at. Burnham Deepdale is such a place – with shop chains that have no business in such a setting, and a backpackers’ hostel but barely a village.

Hunstanton was my main destiny. On suddenly realising where I was, I rang the bell, got off, and found myself standing in the old town, beyond my map, with nothing about me to tell me where I was. (There’s no announcement or display telling you where you are on rural buses).

I used my nouse to walk beside the golfcourse carpark towards the beach. There is only one chance to descend onto it and to those famous striped cliffs before they run out about a mile later. I was stuck on the barbed wire top of cliff walk, hearing the sea and people enjoying it, but not being able to glimpse the cliffs. Instead, I read Samaritan signs every few yards which made me sad but also strangely generated ideas that I had no thought of. The wire also meant a kite or lost scarf can’t be retrieved and is very nanny state – and doesn’t deal with the reasons someone might wish to jump.

Warning – the tide comes up far and there’s no prom underneath, just sheer cliffs and rocks. Could I have got stranded on the beach?

Hunstanton’s an odd resort, unlike any other – developed wholesale but without the seaside architecture one would expect – there’s no pier, or old theatre/cinema. It’s more villagey but with soulless modern flats and big developments like the Oasis leisure centre on the seafront, and a tiny bus station. It’s the honeyish carr stone of the area that is most distinct and that makes this corner of Norfolk feel part of the Wash and Fenlands, apart from the rest of the region and even its own county.

The chief final place to comment on is Castle Rising, for Fakenham has little – big church tower, local cinema chain in the old corn exchange, but the town seems evacuated as the shops shut around 530. Happily I needed little time there (unlike my first trip to Walsingham) as the bus changes were tight but I’m told that Norfolk Green (now disappointingly part of the Stagecoach empire) will wait for its own buses. North Norfolk1 North Norfolk North Norfolk - Copy You can see the fortification at Castle Rising – or rather, the earthworks and a flag, as you drive in. It’s hardly Windsor, think more like Norwich – another square Norman lone keep, but with its baileys in tact. How to get into the earthworks was not obvious as a driver or on foot. When I pointed this out to (otherwise very kind) staff, they seemed unimpressed, saying you can see the castle from the bus stop so you don’t need a sign, and didn’t take in the fact that for security reasons, castles only have one entrance and I could have wasted my precious hour wandering the village trying to guess where the visitor entrance actually was. There’s little else in Castle Rising except a pub and joint shop and tearooms called Unique, the former being in a barn and stuffed with hats and fascinators, so I didn’t want to get stuck there; and if I’d missed my bus, it would have meant I’d miss my ongoing connections and have an expensive cross county taxi fare. The castle has reverted to its erstwhile aristocratic owner and fallen out of English Heritage’s portfolio. A semi ruined but gimmick free monument has something – you just enjoy the remains for what they are, and there’s still enough to climb about and imagine what it was like to live in, and no gore tours. Audio guides are another pound, but there’s little in way of display and the ones that are, are half erased.

After a dizzying amount of time aboard buses – Lady Fermoy and all her ancestors – I was glad to come to land as it were.

Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

This is a new strand, a quest which will go round the country – seasides, cities, spa towns….

This first post is about villages.

As I’ve been writing about it most, I start with East Anglia.

As I was denigrating Burnham Market (below), who claims to be Norfolk’s prettiest, I began thinking – where is the prettiest village?

North Norfolk2 - Copy - Copy

I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Norfolk/Pocahontas post than I really meant to be. As with all those gentrifying places, I am ambivalent, and sometimes intrigued. But I do share the resentment of locals who see their communities being taken over by those with Jezebel type eyes…

Politics aside, I find that Burnham Market is not overly pretty in its own right; it appears appealing because there’s an unusual amount of shops and a trend to visit. I’m still intrigued to know why the London influx was on this village, and not others. The coloured rendering and the red brick – common in Norwich but not this part of Norfolk – helps its perception of prettiness; but I still think: there is nothing to visit other than those puffed up shops and a certain inn. Even on its own website, the things to do in Burnham involve facials, or links to further afield.

And Burnham’s hardly fodder for the National Trust, is it?

Unlike Suffolk’s Lavenham, which is where I’ll champion, though there’s some wonderful Essex villages I don’t know well. I’m not alone in thinking, I don’t know much of note in Cambridgeshire other than its cities, and even the brochures and glossies don’t offer any dissent from that. I would defy anywhere in the country to do better than Lavenham, though I am aware of several very lovely villages in those famous counties such as Gloucestershire, but whom get more attention – but not necessarily deservingly – than the rest of the country.

Lavenham1

The whole of Lavenham really does look like this

Lavenham is part of a swathe of lovely Wool Towns who I’m sure I’ll write about as a Day Out, and who ignore the county border and run from south Suffolk into north Essex. Coggeshall might well compete – alas I’ve not visited yet – and Thaxted is a serious contender and contester for prettiest village, though like many others listed here, it was once a town because of having a mayor and market. It has a guildhall, large church, important timbered and brick buildings, a windmill and the homes of a famous composer and infamous highwayman. But I think Thaxted isn’t the best because you can see all these in one well framed view.

Lavenham et al would be impressive even if they were purely residential. Lavenham really does look like…. no I don’t want to say museum piece, time travel, or film set. I expected a single old street, cunningly photographed to appear as many, but it is as well preserved as it appears – and better. It does have several shops and one could meet many needs without ever leaving the village – alpaca products, theatre set curios for three thousand pounds, artwork, chemists, and places to eat and drink. It’s also got a publisher, two museums (none in Burnham Market) and several societies – is this something that Burnham has? – they aren’t on the BM website, which was more welcoming and inclusive sounding than I’d expected (still not sure about those second homers taking over a village). There are individual buildings worth seeing at Lavenham, and not just that church and Guildhall. You need to walk around, not just pass through a single spot. Lavenham’s not revealed all in one postcard, unlike popularly photographed nearby villages such as Kersey or Cavendish.

I also think its undulations help Lavenham’s picturesque quality. Fun to descend on a bike too.

Long Melford2

Long Melford (above) has something Lavenham doesn’t – the green and the two mansions – but I think I still prefer Lavenham for a more compact feel (ie herring shaped town grid round a market rather than one long street). Perhaps I need to do a post on not well known but pleasant villages of the region, for I can think of many who again would be famous by other counties’ standards. Why is Burnham prettier than Hingham, or Woolpit, or Bildeston? Why does Finchingfield get on postcards, but Haughley doesn’t? (Why does my spell checker not know their names but it does Burnham’s?) Clare is very special but I do not know it well enough to argue its case here.

Finchingfield ThaxstedFinchingfield and Thaxted, both in Essex

I still rate Little Walsingham (see previous article) because it’s unusual to have an abbey in the heart of a village built for pilgrims. I like that today (though not medievally), Walsingham’s focus is not on commerce, but on genuine spiritual seeking; and that it’s still a real village. I love its antiquity – rare for North Norfolk, in that it has timbering and flint facades which are contemporary with its parish church.

For me, I want history – that’s pre 1700, timbered buildings, maybe some warm stone and brick; authentic (not manufactured) charm; local but not yokel; something to visit other than just shops, although I like several of those; an outstanding medieval church, something else heritage to visit, and something to do by night. A monthly film club/dramatics club/some quality concerts would be suffice for a village (but not for me, I do need my city). Colour is also important, and a little variety. Lavenham, you’re still winning.

Suggestions for contesters welcome. Or people who want to stick up for Burnham Market – I would gladly be proved wrong.

(More on Burnham in ‘A Day Out With Elspeth on a Bus named Lady Fermoy’)

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