Today there’s Stephen Fry, James Buchan, Raffaella Barker, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Bill Bryson and the doyenne of British cooking, Delia Smith, to name just six. As the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury (a 20th century Norfolk import) observed, where Yorkshire is boastful about its literary legacy, forever promoting Brontë Country and Herriott Country as tourist attractions, Norfolk – insular and reserved – does not. This is the haunting landscape – “the low and liquid world” – that formed the backdrop to Graham Swift’s Great British novel, Waterland.
Norfolk’s market towns are not to be missed either. True, you would be struggling to find 32 of them, as Barclay’s A Complete and Universal English Dictionary listed in 1842, but those that survive demonstrate the enduring continuity of country life in this corner of England. The 18th century town of Swaffham is one of Norfolk’s prettiest and Aylsham, North Walsham, Fakenham, and Dereham are all thriving local hubs.
Farther south Diss, just across the River Waveney, was immortalised by the late poet laureate John Betjeman, who thrilled to “the soaring majesty of Norfolk” in A Mind’s Journey to Diss. In 1972 he and Mary Wilson, wife of the then Labour Prime Minister, chugged by train through Essex and Suffolk,
“Till in the dimmest place of all
The train slows down into a crawl
And stops in silence... Where is this?
Dear Mary Wilson, this is Diss.”
Then there’s Burnham Market, also known as Chelsea-on-Sea to the large numbers of plutocratic Londoners who have bought expensive homes here, and the Georgian market town of Holt, home to Gresham’s School, founded in 1555 and one of the oldest in the country. The English poets and old Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden both despised the place – Auden called it a “fascist state” – but the school remains a cherished feature on Norfolk’s social landscape.
“The food in Norfolk is truly great, which is why we decided to start a food business to celebrate it”
These days you can eat like a king – or prince – in Norfolk, whether you done out at, say, The Dabbling Duck at Great Massingham (a Prince William favourite; drop in for a pint of Wherry, a Supreme Champion Beer of Britain) or eat in. High-quality, locally produced food is in abundance, such as the meat, fruit and vegetables in the Walsingham Farms Shop, a gastronomic attraction for the thousands of pilgrims who visit the medieval shrine village known as “England’s Nazareth” every year.
“The food in Norfolk is truly great, which is why we decided to start a food business to celebrate it,” says Elizabeth Meath Baker of the Farms Shop partnership, which also supplies the excellent Norfolk Riddle restaurant nearby, complete with French chef and game specialist. “Great fresh food from the land and from the sea and the seashore. Norfolk is the coolest, smartest county, obviously, with lots of clever and creative people living here so we don’t lack for company in the long, cold, dark winters. Everything’s in reasonable reach if you want it, from cinema multiplex to mall shopping if you’re desperate, but it’s remote enough, not on the way anywhere, so it’s got that whiff to exclusivity without it being too difficult to get to.”
One of my favourite Norfolk shops, based in Holt, is Old Town, stocking handmade tweed, serge, corduroy, linen, denim and drill clothing. Also in Holt for those who like expensive, sparkly things is Webb’s County Jewellers, where, alongside beautiful antique pieces, you can find collections from the Norfolk jeweller Monica Vinader. Don’t miss Richard Scott Antiques for exquisitive and unusual glassware and china. Over in Burnham Market, the gilded youth make tracks for Jack Wills, while their long-suffering partners plan dinner parties with some of the freshest fish and seafood from Gurney’s Fish Shop, lubricated with fine wines from Satchells. And when all that’s done they can pootle about in Birdie Fortescue (home ware), Gun Hill (clothing) or Pentney House, one of the country’s largest milliners, before a well-deserved drink in The Hoste.
Those who love Norfolk fret about how long it can retain its distinct character and its otherworldly isolation. Having no motorways helps (or hinders if you are a business desperate for better communications, not to mention faster-than-snail-pace broadband). It’s worth recalling the words of Billa Harrod: “It still just manages to be different, as it has always been proud to be”, she wrote in 1982. “This difference cannot last much longer, so let us enjoy it while we can.”
More than 30 years later, I am delighted to report, Norfolk is still going strong. America, you can keep The Hamptons (and the Kardashians). We’re staying here.