Who needs The Hamptons when you have Norfolk on your doorstep?
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Who needs The Hamptons when you have Norfolk on your doorstep? You want miles of sandy beaches? Shortly before my wife and I moved to Norfolk in 2001, Vanity Fair proclaimed Holkham one of the top 10 beaches in the world. A frolicking Leonardo DiCaprio lent it hip appeal in The Beach, even though it was supposed to be in Thailand. And then there was the 1998 Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, in which Gwyneth Paltrow stole the closing scene, striding towards the pines across the streaming sands.

And that’s just one Norfolk beach to be going on with. Plenty more at Thornham, Wells-next-the-Sea, Burnham Overy Staithe, Stiffkey, Morston, Blakeney Point, Cley, Cromer, Mundesley, Happisburgh...choose from sand, shingle and saltmarsh, muddy creeks, crumbling cliffs and shifting sandbanks. Unlike The Hamptons, you don’t have to worry about getting caught in crowds. The county, which in medieval times was the most heavily populated in England, now ranks amongst the lowest-density populations in the UK. A few days ago I walked along the majestic stretch of coastline from Weybourne and only saw two other walkers during the six-mile round trip.

If architecture and heritage are your thing, don’t give The Hamptons another thought. Leave it to the holidaying presidents, singers, Hollywood types, hangers-on and wannabes in their ghastly new builds. Among its many highlights, Norfolk has the highest number of medieval churches in the world. And for restrained royal style, what can beat Sandringham, the 19th century country retreat of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip – once described as “the most comfortable house in England” – and open to the public.

So much for the royals. A step down from the summit of British society come the Old Families and Big Houses of Norfolk. First amongst them is Houghton Hall, built by England’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in the 1730s and now the seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley and his collection of white deer and 20,000 model soldiers. A Page of Honour then Lord Great Chamberlain to the monarch, when the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, it was with Cholomondeley – her Norfolk neighbour – at her elbow.

But Norfolk isn’t just about royalty and aristocracy. It’s also about Londoners (I jest slightly). What The Hamptons is to affluent New Yorkers, so Norfolk is to boho-chic Londoners.

The greatest English wilderness south of Yorkshire”, there’s nothing twee about Norfolk. This curious bulge of eastern England, voluptuously shaped like a Kardashian buttock minus the Champagne glass"

There are times, walking along this mesmerising coastline, when I found myself giving thanks to Noël Coward for his famously dismissive line in Private Lives: “Very flat, Norfolk”. Lots of people believe that nonsense. Coward did his bit to propagate the myth that the county is as featureless as it is unexciting. I leave it to the late Lady Wilhelmine ‘Billa’ Harrod, founder of what became the Norfolk Churches Trust, to put the record straight in the 1958 Shell Guide to the county: “Norfolk is not flat, a fact that surprises countless visitors who believe the whole county to be a continuation of The Fens.” That said, we shouldn’t make any claims of significant altitude in Norfolk. A glance at the Ordinance Survey map reveals its highest point above sea level to be around 300 feet – not quite enough to knock the Himalayas off their perch. Yet the gently undulating landscape provides endless space and variety. Often described as “the greatest English wilderness south of Yorkshire”, there’s nothing twee about Norfolk. This curious bulge of eastern England, voluptuously shaped like a Kardashian buttock minus the Champagne glass, is a land of sky-wide horizons and scouring winds, of ancient church towers looming from the level, of thick forests and straggling footpaths.

Like its south-western counterpart Cornwall, Norfolk is on the road to nowhere. You can never pass through Norfolk, goes the saying, you only ever arrive. That’s a huge part of its charm; remote from all other counties, turned in on itself both by geography and inclination, and possessing some of the country’s most undisturbed landscapes.

Writers and artists have drawn inspiration from Norfolk for generations. The literary heritage is even richer than the Londoners who have made Norfolk their home. Isolated to the north and east by the sea, to the south and west by the poor communications (to this day it is a motorway-free zone, the subject of fierce debate between modernisers who want a motorway to link and “drawbridge brigade” who most definitely do not), the county has long kindled the imaginations of authors, home-grown and imported: Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Woodhouse, L.P. Hartley and Rider Haggard.

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. 

More Things To Do In Norwich

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