The queen of quaint
The North Norfolk coast is the U.K.'s greatest holiday secret – home to stately piles, empty beaches and delightfully quirky townspeople
"Singing cockles and mussels, alive, alive, ohhh!"
The girls are on our shoulders, the sea breeze is in our hair and we're chanting our favourite folk song like soldiers marching to battle. Except we're marching toward seafood: same determination, happier outcome.
Set back from the sea by a mile of dead-flat marshland, Cookie's Crab Shop is a stone shack with a modest counter crammed with ice and a team of matter-of-fact shopkeepers. It has been this way for more than five decades. What's grown is the clientele, who swarm outside to perch on mismatched bistro chairs – more people come each year. They are why we're legging it to arrive before the lunch rush. At 11:59, we snag the last available table on the courtyard.
This has been our ritual in coastal Norfolk since my husband and I began coming here more than a decade ago. In those days, I'd ride the two-plus hours northeast from London on the back of his motorcycle and we'd pull over for the night in a farmer's field outside the crab town of Cromer, a makeshift campground sagging with camper vans during the summer boom. But we'd soon discover, whizzing past spongy green cliffs, marshland osprey and otherwise bald beaches tufted with wild grass, that between clusters of human activity, long, unpeopled stretches in Norfolk are the norm.
"Why is that?" we've asked ourselves on epic coastal walks, where the end game is an 18th-century windmill or a church that dates back to the Domesday Book. Genteel Cornwall, officially Britain's favourite seaside holiday spot, benefits from the Gulf Stream and Michelin-star restaurants. But who's counting stars on a country break from London? Why make the five-hour trip for overpriced hotels and cramped beaches when there's Norfolk, reaching out to Holland with a wide, sandy embrace?
In Norfolk, at least, we're moving up in the world. This year, we've taken temporary ownership of the West Wing at Wiveton Hall, a Jacobean mansion with hedged gardens and acres of wildflower fields. There are four bedrooms upstairs – two for friends who've come from Amsterdam to meet us here – and, downstairs, an inglenook fireplace big enough for the kids to stand in.
Between the Aga oven in the open kitchen, the 10-seat dining table and the antique grand piano, we could act out all our Lord of the Manor fantasies. A home-cooked banquet is on the menu for that evening, with fresh sole and produce from the tidy town of Burnham Market nearby. As our first day plays out, though, those plans get away from us. We spend the morning scaling the spongy grass cliffs toward Sheringham, tracing the path of a Victorian steam train until it trundles off south. Arriving at a deserted pebble beach in the village of Weybourne, we pull off our footwear and tiptoe into the surf then skip backward as the tide creeps in.
After lunch at the crab shop, we drive into the village of Blakeney, cute as a button, and alight onto the coastal footpath. With precarious marshland up to the horizon, there is little in the way of civilization around us – where would it anchor? A few spoonbills pass overhead, trailing a small touring craft putt-puttering toward the seal colonies at Blakeney Point. The reedy landscape is so saturated with water, the colours blend together into a misty green-blue so calming as to sweep our minds of all ambitions in the way of shopping, chopping and cooking.
We're lucky. The owner of Wiveton Hall has cheerfully revamped a disused building on a forested portion of his farmland into a pretty, produce-oriented café. The place is knocked through with tall windows, strung with bunting and so farm-to-table, there's no printed menu, lest the fresh artichokes disappoint or the tomatoes succumb to hungry deer. Nor is there a takeaway system, or even set opening hours. So we're beyond delighted when the men, 30 minutes after detouring to scope it out, meet us back at the kitchen with a tower of the café's pizza boxes (and a couple of half-drunk beers). We procure more bottles from the fridge, tucked into a pantry as big as my kitchen at home, and dive into the floppy, ham-sprinkled pizzas like deer in tomatoes. When we google the café later, we learn it's a favourite of Delia Smith, England's queen of cookery. "One of the best restaurants in Britain," she writes.
The following morning, the kids are chasing one another around the sculpted hedge garden when said owner emerges from the main hall, looking very much like the keeper of a 17th-century mansion. Desmond MacCarthy is a vision in a flat cap, tweeds, waxed jacket and wellies, trailing, for good measure, a pair of sniffy beagles.
"I hope we didn't keep you up last night," he says. Friends arrived, he explains, bottles of whisky procured, many barbs merrily exchanged – despite the presence, in a room upstairs, of Desmond's 99-year-old mother. We can't imagine how we could have heard them, being a couple of dozen rooms away.
We trudge alongside him around the garden for a while and he fills us in on statelier homes to visit, farther west. This crescent of coastline on the English Channel may not be an obvious refuge for moneyed folk, but there are some posh parts. Burnham Market, a village of antique shops and gentleman butchers, is nicknamed Chelsea-on-Sea, after the affluent London neighbourhood whose residents decamp to second properties there. Just past Little Snoring is Houghton Hall, residence of the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, with a collection of art on site by James Turrell and Rachel Whiteread. The Queen's second home Sandringham is within galloping distance.
Otherwise, citizens have a reputation as oddballs, and inbreeding has, occasionally, been blamed. "Normal for Norfolk" is a phrase doctors are said to have once written in their notes to diagnose a patient who was healthy, just not … all there. Desmond is not one of these, yet with his ominous laugh and eyebrows that might sprout wings and fly away, he is eccentric enough to have been cast in a reality show called, naturally, Normal for Norfolk, airing now on the BBC. In it, he bumbles through the management of this swath of land and all the crumbling masonry and errant foxes that come with it.
By this measure, Holkham Hall, to which we drive between towering hedgerows, is fairly atypical (though nobody could promise the total absence of inbreeding among nobility). An airy Palladian palace built by the 1st Earl of Leicester more than 250 years ago, it unfurls over an almost 9,000-hectare estate that recalls the fictional parish of Downton Abbey. Only Holkham has literally miles of smooth sand beach backed by grassy dunes and salt marshes. After sprinting into the misty deer park, we climb back into the car and reverse back to the parking lot for the enthusiastic hike to shore.
Twenty minutes later and slightly less enthusiastic, we're still walking. The raised boardwalk has yielded to a sandy path and then the beach itself, which extends practically to the horizon, even at high tide. But we make it there and burrow our bottoms into the warm strand. In summer the sea is just warm enough for a brisk swim, and though the kids squeal as it hits their thighs, they eventually topple in, one by one, thrown off balance by their stone-skimming.
They've got their second wind now – enough power for the long trek back to the car and one beach over to Wells-next-the-Sea. That's where the good fish and chips are.
We take ours in paper cones by the marina with other weekenders, some of whom dangle fishing lines weighted with leftover bacon to catch brown crab.
From here, we watch parents towing sun shades and dozing children back up the walking trail from a beach laced with colourful huts. Wiser folk than them have bought $5 tickets for the miniature Wells Harbour Railway, which putters between dunes and harbour in five minutes, saving weary legs and sanity.
We earmark that for another day, crumple up the slippery remains of our dinner and head toward home, away from the setting sun. The pubs along our route are sucking in stragglers for Saturday night, but we'd rather play house with a bottle of gin by the fire as the children practice their own version upstairs.
If this is normal for Norfolk, I could certainly get used to it.
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Bang in Wells
This sunny bijou B&B has a jolly Victorian facade, antique-strewn rooms and a modern bistro downstairs. At a reasonable £100 ($185) and bang in one of the best towns, as advertised, it's a hole in one. 2 Staithe St., Wells-next-the-Sea;banginwells.co.uk
At the posh end of Norfolk, the Hoste is gilded and tasselled, with four-poster beds and deep baths. The spa and homey wainscoted restaurant are godsends on wet afternoons. You can stay in a renovated railway carriage on site for barely £140 ($260) a night. The Green, Burnham Market; thehoste.com
WHERE TO EAT
Cookies Crab Shop
Take a number at the deli counter and order heaping platters of crayfish, crab, cockles and bright pink lobster claws. Then devour them at tottering bistro tables by the village square. The Green, Salthouse; salthouse.org.uk
Wiveton Hall Café
This jaunty greenhouse restaurant does garden-fresh halloumi-tomato sandwiches, asparagus risotto and thin-crust pizza. In summer, you can pick your own berries on the surrounding farm. 1 Marsh Lane, Wiveton; wivetonhall.co.uk/cafe
The Kings Head
A few miles inland, this Georgian cottage attracts an upmarket pub crowd with wood fires, a children's playhouse in the garden and a menu of homemade gelato. Holt Road, Letheringsett; kingsheadnorfolk.co.uk