The old-fashioned seaside resorts of Cromer and Sheringham, Cley (pronounced 'Cly') and Wells, both -next-the-Sea, and the poetically named Burnham Overy Staithe were a summer holiday paradise to Edwardian children and their nannies. Barring the odd car park and hot-dog stall, time has stood still to a remarkable degree along the north Norfolk coast.
The county's most obvious distinguishing feature is the sharp-flint and brick patterning with which most house-fronts are covered. This makes for variegated villages of stippled grey and black and white, alternating with handsome Georgian red brick houses. In their midst stand four-churches with flat-topped towers. At its edges are long mudflats from which, when the tide is out, the sea glints miles away beyond the feeding birds.
Take, for instance, Blakeney Quay. Late in the evening, just after sunset, it was a deserted monochrome landscape, eerily quiet, with the slanting rags of fading pink clouds reflected in oily black mud. The next morning by 10 o'clock it was transformed into a busy scene of boats and gulls, families lugging picnics on board, overlooked by cows and sheep grazing on the reclaimed land.
keep the encroaching North Sea at bay, a huge defensive wall runs for miles along the northern coast from Cley, past Weybourne, and nearly as far as Sheringham. Attached to the end of the present church at Weybourne is a picturesquely ruined earlier church built of smooth-faced flints, through whose arches seagulls swoop while wood pigeons coo in the niches of its tower.
In one corner of the churchyard is a tombstone, 'Sacred to the Memory of Six Sailors washed ashore at Weybourne from the wreck of SS George Royle, 17 January 1915'. Four names follow and below them, incised twice, 'Name Unknown'. From the tree overhead a rook caws jarringly. Leaving the village, the sea glitters beyond a field to the left of the road and the pines are bent landwards by the force of the wind.
The North Norfolk Steam Railway starts from Sheringham - still a gentle, old-fashioned sort of town selling buckets and spades and fresh crab sandwiches. At 11.10 the little train leaves the town, laden with beaming passengers, and puffs along beside the road for a few miles emitting mushrooms of thick grey smoke, pistons racing at a good 25mph, before disappearing beyond a bridge. It is a touchingly archaic sight, and several cars stop to let their occupants jump out and photograph this transport from another era.
In Cley the magnificent perpendicular church of St Margaret's is set away and to one side of the village, well back from the sea. A great fire in 1612 destroyed 117 houses, almost the entire village, and their inhabitants migrated to the other end, leaving the church standing by itself. On the churchyard fence a notice reads: 'The fence is to keep the sheep in and not to keep visitors out - there are gates in the corners.' The sheep keep the grass round the tombstones cropped short. The 18th-century tombs are ornamented with skulls, reflecting a realistic acceptance of death. Angels come in with the 19th century.
Inside, the church is a huge, soaring space. Building began in the 13th century but was halted by the Black Death, after which it was finished more modestly; otherwise it would be like a cathedral. Set into the floor are several fine brasses. One, hardly six inches square, shows six praying priests with pudding-basin haircuts and long, fine hands. An inscribed brass laments the three daughters of Thomas and Ann Price who died within two years of each other:
Mark from this tomb a dolefull sound
Mine Ears Attend this cry
Ye mortals all come view ye Ground
Where you must shortly lie.
The carving on the pews is magnificent, with heavy oak endpieces depicting owls, dogs, cats, saints, a shrouded corpse and many long-dead parishioners.
The shops, the light, the winding main street and the houses of Cley were so beautiful that I found myself fantasising about retiring there - until I decided not to wait for retirement. One of the loveliest houses was a long, low Georgian rectangle set well back from the main street, overlooking the sea from a veranda at first-floor level at the back. It was the 'For Sale' sign that snapped fantasy into reality. A woman was reading in a deck chair in the front garden. How easily she could be me. I approached her.
'I'm sorry to disturb you,' I said, mock-humble (I'm about to astound you by buying your house), 'but could you tell me how much the owner is asking for this house?'
'I'm the owner,' she said crisply. ' pounds 180,000.'
'Ah.' I peered into the interior (slanting light through french windows . . . perfection). 'No. Pity. Right. Thank you so much.'
She returned to her reading, I to real life. I consoled myself by buying freshly smoked fish, crumbly brown bread and a punnet of strawberries for our picnic.
From the many pleasures of beautiful Cley we went light-on to Holkham Hall to find it monumental, frozen, joyless. Inside the great cold rooms there is not one object of wit or charm to enliven the gloomy experience of trudging around its ill-spaces. Vast paintings hung too high depict warriors with breastplates raping virgins without.
Our visit was enlivened only by the comment of one patient Griselda sitting in the entrance hall. 'When was it built?' I asked. 'I think 17th century,' she said and then, consulting the guidebook, 'yes, that's right - 1743.' We escaped thankfully into the fresh air.
On leaving Holkham, if you go straight across the first main road and take Lady Anne's Drive, this will bring you to one of the finest sandy beaches in Britain. It is a huge enclosed sweep of bay sheltered by pine trees on either side, where children may safely play, fathers can - and do - build competitive sand castles, and dogs race and bark, all to their hearts' content. The beach is so big that at low tide it would be half a mile's walk to the sea, so playing needs to have a higher priority than swimming. For families with small children it would be hard to imagine a more perfect place.
Abiding images of the north Norfolk coast will be of high skies, mudflats, the brilliant red of the high summer poppies and the musty scent of lavender; of flint-houses and churches and the bobbing white sails of yachts.
It has a secluded beauty quite unlike that of more popular seaside destinations such as Cornwall or the South Coast. There is nothing else to touch it, except perhaps the Gower Peninsula, but Norfolk's architecture is more beautiful. The sight of Salthouse church rising gaunt and grey from a long sweep of meadows, its white roof and arched windows visible from far out at sea, is one of the seven wonders of England.
Accommodation: Morston Hall, Morston, Holt, Norfolk NR25 7AA (0263 741041): new hotel four to five miles east of Wells-next-the-Sea, two miles west of Blakeney. Food good if a touch pretentious. Set menu. Lunch pounds 12 per head; dinner pounds 19.50; double rooms with bath from pounds 50.
Cley Windmill offers bed & breakfast (0263 740209). Wonderful view across the marshes to the sea beyond.
Restaurant: The Moorings, 6 Freeman Street, Wells-next-the-Sea (0328 710949).
Places to visit: Holkham Hall, open daily 24 May-30 September, 1.30-5pm. Admission: adults pounds 2.70, children pounds 1.20 (0328 710227).
North Norfolk Steam Railway: for timetable ring 0263 822045.
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