It isn’t surprising that I like guidebooks. On our trip around Suffolk and Norfolk we had the pleasure of being accompanied by a pair of tattered 1940s Penguin guides. These dated companions steered us through East Anglia, pointing out the must-see sights of 80 years ago. So much has changed since the post-war period I felt like a time traveller but when we pulled up at Burgh Castle I was also confused as this featured in our Suffolk guidebook but is now in Norfolk.
Whichever county it is in, the scale of the Roman ruins at Burgh Castle are the big story. The rough stone walls and round corner tower soar to over 4m high and I wondered why this building hasn’t been on my wish list for some years. It was only chance that I had chosen it from the out-of-date guidebook. And it is free to visit! I have paid £££s to visit Roman ruins that are pretty much just an ankle-height floor plan in stone, Burgh Castle has scale and presence.
After wandering around the large site I walked down to the banks of the nearby River Yare. The East Anglian coastline has changed in the last 2,000 years and the ruins would originally have guarded a ‘Great Estuary’ that flowed over the rooftops of Great Yarmouth. In those days ships would have docked below the castle.
According to our 1940s guide Great Yarmouth, ‘is sometimes called the Venice of East Anglia.’ I don’t know if anyone still makes that particular comparison! The short stretch of town walls are a reminder of an older Great Yarmouth but I was more interested in the modern Banksy painted on a brick gable end. The artist has cleverly positioned a couple so that they appear to be dancing on the roof of an adjacent bus shelter while an accordion player sits casually on the corner. Later we walked along the prom and gave ourselves a sugar rush with donuts and ice-cream.
We have visited some of the Norfolk coast before but the Norfolk Broads were new territory. From the Caravan and Motorhome Club site we caught the bus to Wroxham and Hoveton on a drizzly day. These two villages merge around a bridge over the River Bure that funnels the never-ending stream of trafic. Cars were less in your face in the 1940s but the local institution, Roys, was already here. Known as the biggest village shop, there are actually many shops; a Roys department store; a food hall; a garden centre and a DIY shop; this isn’t quite a one-shop village but they give it a good try.
Despite the abundant motorcars, the villages are dedicated to boating. This is the place to hire boats, visit boat yards and do other boating things. On the bus we fell into conversation with a man who described himself as a ‘water gypsy.’ No one else would talk to him so he told us he had received no schooling from nine years old, his mum had studied psychology at Hull University and he described his life on the move from 24-hour mooring to 24-hour mooring.
From the campsite we walked along a grassy dike that meandered through reed beds, the chugging of boats on the River Ant in the distance. A marsh harrier flew by, a fish dropped from the talons of a herring gull and was lost in the reeds and a flock of teal rose from a pool in a shudder of wing beats and circled overhead. Approaching a windmill, cormorants perched along the wooden sails, their wings spread out to catch the weak September sun.
I was keen to experience the watery nature of the broads and we were booked on the morning electric boat trip from Toad Hole Cottage. Waiting for our guide we sat drinking coffee on a bench, lazily watching a sailor polishing the already gleaming wood on a handsome wooden wherry.
It turned out we were the only people who wanted to explore the Broads in a quiet electric boat that morning and we had the luxury of spreading out on the small craft. After a short distance on the main river we turned left into a channel where the reeds leaned in against the boat. As the thrum of the river boats melted away I found myself in the backwater world of Swallows and Amazons.
Later we had our lunch in a hide, thrilled to see a kingfisher fly back and forth. We explored How Hill House’s verdant and dripping secret garden before taking the paths to the village of Ludham and joining the river again by the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey.
In Cromer I led Anthony along the beach to find another Banksy on the sea wall. ‘Luxury Rentals Only,’ a comment on our broken housing market, is out in all weathers and fading. I liked Cromer with its prom and pier, its beach dotted with colourful pebbles and tall breakwaters crossed by metal steps dripping with black seaweed. Our 1940s guidebook ignores the pier but was right about the ‘excellent beach.’
Another showery September day was ideal for taking the train to Norwich. Here we visited the cathedral and I walked round and round the font that is made from two polished copper bowls. These were given to the Cathedral when the Rowntree Mackintosh Norwich chocolate factory closed in 1994. Colourful modern stained glass gave a vibrant glow to otherwise gloomy corners of the cathedral and the cloisters radiated peace and light. We did wander some of Norwich’s pretty streets but, as the rain got heavier, we lost the desire to explore and probably didn’t do it justice.
Sitting outside at the Priory Maze café near Sheringham the waitress moved between the tables gathering up all the sachets of mayonnaise. ‘The rooks take them away and eat the contents,’ she told us, leaving the salad cream which apparently is less appealing to these connoisseur rooks! From the campsite we had hiked to the top of Norfolk (if there is a hill we will find it). Cromer Ridge is just inland and reaches the dizzy heights of 102m so it wasn’t a tough ascent! Our route passed a village green with a pebble-built house before climbing through woodland where we stepped carefully over tree roots. We descended through heathland and skirted the fields of a horse sanctuary before reaching Priory Maze and Gardens.
Copper beech and hornbeam have been planted using the layout of the ruined priory as the basis for the maze. We began in a disciplined way, alternating who chose which direction to turn to find a way to the centre. Very soon we were lost and our choices became random and haphazard and it was only luck that eventually led us to the central viewing platform.
The maze and gardens were fun but couldn’t beat the walk along the beach from Sheringham to East Runton. The soft sandy cliffs that are basically a giant sandcastle erode easily and attempts have been made to protect these from the sea. The futile remains of wooden revetments littered the beach and we wound our way around vertical posts and under buttresses of grey weathered wood studded with rust-red nails.
I had been looking forward to Blakeney Point and it was a memorable day but not for the reasons I was expecting. Our Penguin guide noted that this four-mile long shingle ridge backed with salt marshes was given to the National Trust in 1912. We parked at Cley Beach and turning to make coffee in the back of the ‘van I was floored by a hot pain that shot from my spine to the back of my legs. I assumed it would wear off and, after drinks, carefully put on my waterproofs.
The squally wind and the deep pebbles along the ridge made walking agony and I shuffled down the slope to meander on the sand by the crashing waves, where the going was a little easier. At the old Watch House or Halfway House we scrambled back to the shingle bank to look over the salt marshes and the remote building. Exhausted, I sat down and as we ate our picnic lunch we made the decision to head back. Walking was easier with a tailwind. We collected a few bits of litter and admired some of the multitude of shells. Seals popped their heads above the waves and a group of Brent geese flapped low over the sea.
Dosed up on ibuprofen I could manage to walk around Wells-next-the-Sea for the next couple of days. The sun returned and watching it set from the beach was as idyllic as I could have hoped. Waking up to the joyful honking of geese as they flew over our campervan was special too. Our 1940s guide doesn’t mention the beach huts that are now a Wells-next-the-Sea icon and also doesn’t firmly place the town on the coast, it is just called Wells.
Striding out to Holkham Hall it seemed that I was okay walking upright. I just needed to avoid bending, easier said than done in a small campervan! Our guidebook told us that visitors were welcomed at Holkham Hall 80 years ago and they still are. We took paths and tracks around the house and through the estate and ate our lunch on a bench overlooking Well’s harbour. Our guide told us that in 1940s Wells ‘… you will find no piers or funfairs …’ but ’if you are in search of ‘local colour’ drop in at the Shipwrights’ Arms one evening.’ Unfortunately, this pub is now closed so we sought out local colour in the many quaint corners.
Opening the blinds on our final day in Norfolk it was a pleasure to see blue sky. We arrived at Titchwell RSPB reserve as the staff were holding an outdoor team meeting and we spent a fabulous hour walking by the pools to the dunes and the sandy beach. The blue sea met the blue sky on the horizon and the space felt phenomenal.
By the time we reached Castle Rising the weather had changed to misty and chilly autumnal weather. The castle has a circular ditch or moat to cross to the gatehouse and a well-preserved stone keep. We climbed up to the different floors finding details that have survived the centuries.
After sitting for even an hour in the ‘van I would unravel myself from the seat in a shambles of bent and staggering bones. This acute pain lasted just a short time and once everything had loosened up I could stand and walk normally. I was grateful we weren’t making the long journey back to Lancashire in one run and had Derbyshire friends to stay with on the way.
The Suffolk half of our trip is in a previous post.
Footnote on the pain I was experiencing. This became sciatic pain in my right leg. I had lots of physio through October and November 2022 and eventually visited my GP and started taking amitriptyline which meant I could sleep peacefully all night. By January 2023 I was more or less pain free.
Where we stayed
We used two Caravan and Motorhome Club Sites, Norfolk Broads and Seacroft near Cromer. We liked the former, it was a well-run site with a bus service into Norwich and a walk along the River Ant and to St Benet’s Abbey from the site. Seacroft is an excellent location for Cromer and Sheringham but is in need of an upgrade.
We also stayed at Pinewoods at Wells-next-the-Sea, an expensive site with a fantastic location. For the money I would have liked heating in the facilities at the end of September but our pitch in the reeds was heavenly.