A guide to A-road Britain: A149
Pouring rain one minute, vast blue skies the next, that's normal for Norfolk. Margareta Pagano travels from Great Yarmouth to King's Lynn, passing some of her favourite places in the world
Sunday 22 August 2010
Charles Dickens would be devastated if he came back today to Great Yarmouth.
The place he called the finest in the universe and where he set Peggotty's home in David Copperfield on the long, golden beaches is more like a scene from Great Expectations. The wind is howling, the big skies are a furious smoky black and the rain is tipping down as only it can in mid-August. Holidaymakers are wrapped up tight in their anoraks and woollies as they hide from the cold in the amusement arcades along the promenade.
So it's not a great morning to drive the A149, a road that starts at King's Lynn and ends in Yarmouth, but which in between snakes around the coast of the belly of Britain and which takes you to some of my favourite places in the world. I'm starting back to front, at the roundabout in Yarmouth, where it meets the A47 and A12 from the south. The road follows the River Bure, through the town's 1950s-style suburbs, and up north past the racecourse, the banger racing track and the heliport. Today it's packed as the visitors seek their escape from the rain but finally the traffic clears on the Caister bypass, past the castle, its car museum and the California beach – worth a detour for the Beach Road Chippy alone – and then up to the lush greenness of the broads.
This is a long, and dangerous stretch of road – renowned for its fatalities – which skirts the broads at Ormesby, Rollesby, Potter Heigham, and then to Stalham where you can catch a glimpse of the waterborne fighting the rain on their long boats.
From here the road swings sharply right, up back towards the coast and through the villages of North Walsham, Antingham, and across the deer park at Gunton Park and into Thorpe Market.
And, as always in Norfolk, when the weather changes it does so quickly and dramatically. The clouds are now breaking and the sun shines golden on the fields where the hay bales have just been made. It's around here that the sea first appears; but you have to be quick to catch it as the road dips down sharply and then rises as Cromer and its wonderful pier beckon.
Once again, though, it's a trip back to an era of former splendour as the road passes the once-grand Victorian hotels so badly in need of a lick of paint and new clientele.
Now the sea view across the cliffs is dramatic and, if you close your eyes to the row upon row of mobile homes, the white horses of the waves glisten in the distance. The road follows the coast along until you zip past Sheringham – worth a stop at the steam trains on North Norfolk Railway. Then it's a gentle cruise past the pretty flint cottages in Kelling and Weybourne, and along to marshes and the pebble beaches of Salthouse and Cley. Tucked away on the side of the road, birdwatchers have their own CleySpy viewing room from where to watch the birds dipping and weaving across this nature reserve and then its through the tiny street of Cley village – a car at a time – to a beautiful stretch of road across the Glaven Valley into Blakeney, famous for its crab races.
But the next bit is the best of all; hiding some of the most spectacular beaches in Britain. Through lovely Morston with its seal trips, to Stiffkey, past the salt marshes, circling round the back of Wells next the Sea – home to the best fish and chips on the coast – and views across the seas to die for. Then the road, still really narrow, weaves its way past the pine-cladded sand dunes of one of the most splendid of England's shores at Holkham Bay, where Shakespeare in Love was filmed, and through Burnham Overy Staithe. It bypasses Burnham Market, nicknamed Chelsea-on- Sea, where the Hoste Arms is a favourite for celebs like Stephen Fry and Hugh Grant, and worth a stopover lunch even in busy August.
Then its across the marshes again through Brancaster, Thornham, Holme next the Sea – all with glorious beaches – to Hunstanton. This is best avoided in mid – August, when the Chelsea-on-Sea mothers in their 4x4s turn into Judy Murray for a week as they push their prodigy in to watch the famous tennis week.
Now the road leaves the coast to swing down south, down to Heacham and the so-called Lavender junction next to the gorgeous violet carpet of the Norfolk lavender fields and past Snettisham and the Queen's country estate at Sandringham, and then down through the deserted village of Babingley and the ruins of St Felix church.
From here it should be a straight run home down to the Hardwick roundabout in King's Lynn where the road ends, meeting the A47 from Norwich.
But now the skies are filling up black again and the road is packed with tractors and combine harvesters crawling their way back home in the rain. But you know there's a silver lining to these black clouds – that within hours, if not minutes, the weather will break and the sun will be out in skies so big they seem almost to swallow you up.
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