Published on November 7th, 2019 | by James Drew0
Voyage to Norfolk for great food and great culture
It may be hard to imagine now but Norfolk, on the east coast of England, used to be joined to the Continent, writes Martin Banks.
The relationship began with fish but flourished in the 13th century when wool was exported through the Norfolk Broads to the weavers of Flanders.
It was only the final thawing of the last Ice Age around 5000 BC that separated Flanders and Norfolk but during the past few millennia there has been constant traffic between Norfolk shores and those of Europe.
Some have been invaders, pillagers or colonialists but, today, tourists from this side of the channel are starting to discover the undisputed charms of this very pleasant part of England.
Norfolk used to boast the second city of England (Norwich) and, while that has long ceased to be the case, the county still has bundles to offer those looking for a short (or longer) break in Blighty, be they couples or families.
This is a region renowned for its spectacular coastline, beautiful hinterland and fantastic wildlife so it makes for the perfect destination if you’re looking for an autumnal break before the long, dark nights of winter set in.
An excellent base for a peaceful, away-from-it-all “detox” and/or exploring the whole area is Woodland Holiday Park, nestled just off the coast road in Trimingham. It has a small selection of comfortable wooden lodges and cabins, plus a couple of cottages, all set in delightful woodland.
Each of these cosy and well-maintained properties comes complete with all the home comforts plus – and here’s a real treat at this time of year – its very own hot tub.
The park, also well located for Great Yarmouth and the Norfolk Broads, has an eatery in case you don’t want to slave over the stove, activities such as nature trails, table tennis and a tennis court as well as a well-equipped gym (used in the past by the England football team and partly financed by EU Agricultural Regional Development funding) and pool. Work is currently taking place to add a sauna/steam room to the fitness area early in 2020.
It’s all a far cry from the early 1970s when the park first opened. Back then, it comprised of a handful of slightly dilapidated caravans and little else. A reminder of its past can be seen from a couple of framed photos displayed in the main reception area.
The privately-owned park, now spread over 70 acres and employing nearly 50, has come a very long way since those days and is now hugely popular throughout the year (it closes only from the start of January until mid-February). A sign of its success is that over 40 per cent of its lodge and cabin renters re-book for a return visit. Even the park manager lives on site! You may struggle to get a phone signal but, hey, that’s all part of the charm and one of the aims of such a getaway.
A bracing walk taking in the refreshing North Sea air can be had very close by and if, after that, you’ve worked up an appetite, there’s no shortage of places to sate your hunger.
Any visit to the UK should probably include that great British culinary staple, fish and chips, and this surely doesn’t come any better than at No 1 Cromer, an award-winning fish and chip restaurant (it also does takeaways) overlooking the lovely pier at Cromer, just up the road from Woodland.
The food, and very friendly service, is great and shows that, while some British traditions may be on the wane, this is certainly not one of them. While in Cromer, visit the local museum and learn about how the world’s biggest mammoth skeleton was found nearby.
Discovering the Deep History Coast/project is also fascinating,particularly at this time of year when the beaches are less busy to hunt for fossils and walk the discovery trail.
If fine dining is your thing, then you really should head up the coast to the classy restaurant at Blakeney Hotel which dates to 1922 and has stunning panoramic views over the estuary and Blakeney Point,an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and what must be one of Norfolk’s prettiest villages.
The lovely food is fresh, seasonal and locally sourced. You can choose from a light lunch or a la carte and the daily changing menus are available for non-residents too. To accompany any meal, there’s also an equally great choice of very good wines.
In recognition of the quality of its cuisine, the hotel has rightly been awarded an AA rosette for over ten consecutive years. Top tip: arrive early if you want one of the coveted window tables!
If you travel by car the area is very easily accessible and there’s no shortage of stimulating places to see and keep you occupied.
One such place is the National Trust-owned Blickling Estate which offers a bit of something for everyone, including cycle hire (arguably the best way to see the sprawling site). It boasts a nationally important book collection with some 12,500 volumes no less. Centrepiece of it all, though, is the estate’s imposing, red brick Jacobean mansion, built in 1616 that can be explored any day of the week.
Covering 55 acres, the gardens are a delight – especially in spring and summer – and, with over 4,600 acres of parkland to explore, this is somewhere you can easily spend a full day.
However, you should also make a beeline for Pensthorpe natural park, which has hosted the popular BBC SpringWatch programme and is owned by Bill Jordan, a founder of Jordans Cereals.
This is a lovely, 700-acre nature reserve, just 11miles inland from the north Norfolk coast and a real showcase for British wildlife. You’ll come across everything from flamingos to red squirrels (fast becoming an endangered species in the UK) while, for the kids, there’s a couple of good indoor adventure play areas.
While in the area, you should also check out the Banningham Crown, which prides itself on being a bit out of the way and also the quality of its cooking,including its signature dish (steak/kidney pud).
With its cosy log fires in winter, this traditional, 17th century timbered inn, converted to its present form in the 1980s, puts you in the mood for a hearty meal and, if you visit at the right time, you can also join in another great British tradition: the pub’s monthly pub quiz.
You can also partake of one other delightful English classic – afternoon tea – at the Grade 2-listed Byfords at nearby Holt, said to be the town’s oldest building and one of Norfolk’s landmark locations. This is served daily, in the cosy surroundings of its snug or by the fire in the restaurant.
Like much of Belgium, Norfolk is very flat so easy to get around. Having previously been heavily settled by those who had come over the North Sea from the Low Countries it has close historical ties to Belgium. Although the Walloon ‘Strangers’ invited to Norwich in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I are the best-known of the Low Countries immigrants, the first Flemings were invited to Norfolk back in 1338.
In the past, refugee Flemish weavers fleeing the Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands brought with them their now-famous Canaries, remembered today in the nickname of Norwich City Football Club.
In those days, visitors from these parts were mostly escaping religious persecution but, today, they can enjoy Norfolk’s wonderful charms.Tourism is,in fact, now big business in these parts, accounting for about 31% (£1bn pa) of GDP in North Norfolk alone.
Getting to North Norfolk from Brussels and the rest of Belgium couldn’t be easier with the leading ferry operator DFDS a popular choice for travellers from here and mainland Europe.
Northern Europe’s largest shipping and logistics company, DFDS is an award winner (a former winner of the world’s leading ferry operator in the World Travel Awards) and has enjoyed a huge rise in freight traffic and passenger volumes on the Dover-Calais and Dover-Dunkirk routes.
DFDS offer daily cross channel ferry services and operates 30 daily sailings from Dover to Calais all year round and 24 a day from Dover to Dunkirk. For a small extra charge you can upgrade to enjoy the delightful and peaceful on-board lounge and the very useful priority boarding
The Norfolk coast is just about as close to the Belgium coast as it is to London and in medieval times it only took a day to sail to Antwerp but four days to travel to London. At that time Norfolk was isolated by muddy marshland and dense forest in what is now known as “Doggerland.”
With the crowds now departed, autumn and the season’s beautiful changing colours mean this is, arguably, the best time to explore the region.
But, with what is said to be the best overall climate in the entire UK, there really is no bad time to pay a visit – whatever time of the year.