Sons and luvvies

In the Sixties, it was the holiday destination of choice for Leicester lads like Sean O'Grady. So how did the resort towns of north Norfolk become the hip hangout of Chelsea celebrities?

Although we spent many holidays there, I have very few memories of the resort of Hunstanton, on the north Norfolk coast, next to The Wash. Few photographs from family holidays survive, although the one you see on these pages was taken almost exactly 30 years ago, and suggests that my vacationing then was a little more energetic than nowadays. I was certainly out exploring the area, and I might even have got as far as the Queen's place at Sandringham - quite exciting, that - or Holkham Hall (the other big stately home around there) or the Shrine of our Lady at Walsingham (billed as "England's Nazareth"). I have souvenirs of all of them to this day. The flat countryside and charming lanes of the top end of East Anglia might indeed tempt me back onto two wheels, although for the foreseeable future I suspect that my trips in and around this charming fringe of land will continue to be made in a Toyota.

When my mother and grandmother first took me there in the late 1960s it was as an alternative to Skegness. "Skeggy", as it was known to us Leicester folk, was by far the most popular destination for hard-working East Midlanders in those days. Just as Mancunians headed for Blackpool, Bristolians to Weston-super-Mare and East Enders yearned for Southend, it was the string of resorts along the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coast for us.

Indeed, Hunstanton the resort was "invented" by the local squire in the 1840s to cash in on the boom in travel for the working man and his family. More than a century on, it was still doing well. In the 1960s and 1970s, two weeks' holiday money from the big Leicester employers such as the Pex and Corahs hosiery factories, Walkers Crisps or Imperial Typewriters would be adequate for the coach fare and the rent of a room in a B&B. Or a caravan. They were always Midland Red or Bartons coaches, I recall, and departed from Humberstone Gate at what seemed to me to be an unreasonably early time on their three-hour trek east along the A47.

We'd spent many happy holidays at Skeggy, but every so often we'd vary things a bit and try out smaller spots such as Sheringham, Heacham and Hunstanton, all within a few miles of each other, and on the opposite side of The Wash to Skeg. Hunstanton is tucked away on the eastern edge of The Wash, and is thus the only west-facing resort on the east coast of England. Perhaps we thought these little places would be, relatively, a little more genteel. I have to say that Hunstanton itself, then as now, could not be described as genteel in absolute terms. It has always been a smaller, slightly less raucous version of places like Great Yarmouth, Blackpool and Skegness. A hen party in Hunstanton, say, would end up with fewer arrests.

Returning to Hunstanton after all these years, it felt a little more run-down even than its bigger rivals. The visitors seem older and poorer, more inclined to smoke and a bit heavier than in the more affluent parts of these isles. My worst fears about the town were realised in the Hunstanton tourist centre, which used to be the town hall. Lots of smaller towns and districts have old town halls that have become victims of local government reorganisation and, at a time when "communities" seem to be on the lips of every politician, it seems a pity that these obvious focuses for local pride should neglected. But I digress. Far more depressing than the new use for the building were the words "Hunstanton Regeneration Partnership", which I found on some of the documents in there. When things get so bad that a "regeneration partnership" gets involved, you know the place is going downhill.

Being a class-conscious, but classless, sort of person, I felt at home in Old Hunstanton, however, which really is genteel, and seemingly has as little in common with its namesake, a 10-minute walk away, as the old East and West Berlins had before the Wall came down.

Here, around the lavender fields and flint and cast stone cottages, you will feel the full blast of the gentrification of the north Norfolk coast. Indeed the Neptune Inn, which I stayed in for the weekend, was a perfect example of that, having been recently converted from a conventional pub into a high-class, traditional sort of hotel, with some excellent dining. I'd advise anyone to book a few days there and enjoy proprietor Paul Berriff's warm hospitality, but I always wonder what effect the general influx of upper middle class people has had on property prices in the area. If I were a native first-time buyer, I don't think I'd be so thrilled that Stephen Fry and his luvvy friends had decided to colonise Wells-Next-the-Sea, Brancaster and all the other pretty villages along the coast.

I can see the attraction, though. It really is very beautiful indeed, and rewards the frequent visitor because the landscape is just so vast there is always some bit of the coast or corner of a hamlet or isolated ancient church you'll not have seen before. Or some section of the Peddar's Way or the Norfolk Coast Path you'll not have walked.

On my trip it was the Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, a vast area of muddy valleys, winding creeks and windswept countryside where The Wash runs into the North Sea proper. I'm not into ornithology, but there were plenty of twitchers there, observing the avocets and oyster catchers. According to the guides, there is even a community of Natterjack toads in the reserve, which must prove that it's unspoilt. I didn't hear any croaks, though.

One thing I do remember quite vividly about Hunstanton is that some of the sand dunes were very uncomfortable to sit on, because they had huge, long reeds protruding from them. Only a blanket would make them habitable. There were other things to jog the memory as well. The cliffs still had the same magnificent view. The giant Second World War-era amphibious craft, mechanical veterans of the Normandy landings called "ducks", were still doing their trips around The Wash, as they were when I was a lad. Come to think of it, every time I drive into London I see them going round Westminster full of tourists, but they look a little less incongruous traversing salt flats in The Wash.

You can still get a crab sandwich on the front (£2) as well as Hunstanton rock (when was the last time someone gave you a stick of that?), buckets and spades and imitation dog poo, which for some reason is always stocked in souvenir shops in English seaside towns. The oddest aural aspect to the Hunstanton experience is provided by one of those machines that invites you to use a crane to grab a cuddly toy. Every five minutes or so it would blare out the first few bars - and only the first few bars - of "Magic Fly" by Space, a particularly nasty piece of French synthesiser nonsense that charted, briefly, in the mid-1970s. Despite a lengthy vigil I failed to see a single soul put £1 into the machine for four goes or even 30p for a single chance to try their luck at extracting a pink toy hippo. Now, however, I cannot get the first few bars of "Magic Fly" out of my head - about as irritating as having a not-so-magic real fly buzzing around your head. I don't think it was there before, but there's now a strange pirate-theme crazy golf course nearby. The Sea Life Centre is worth a visit, though, and represents thoroughly good value for money. It's not every day you get to see baby otters, and it almost made up for missing the Natterjack toads at Holme Dunes.

Crucially though, and at the end of the seafront, the caravan park where the young me stayed all those years ago stands firm against the winds of change. The caravans are bigger, and less caravan-like, having sprouted connections to the mains, and grown "static", and much more square and ugly than the ones we stayed in, which were mostly those rounded 1950s designs. These ones must be more roomy and comfortable and indeed would make excellent second homes for those of us worried about crowding local people out of the housing market. Thirty years on, and a caravan in Hunstanton has still got some appeal for me.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Central Trains (0121 654 2040; www.centraltrains.co.uk).

One (0845 600 7245; www.onerailway.com).

STAYING THERE

The Neptune Inn, Old Hunstanton Road, Hunstanton, Norfolk (01485 532122; www.neptune-inn.com). B&B from £90.

VISITING THERE

Sandringham Estate, Norfolk (01553 772675; www.sandringhamestate.co.uk) opens daily from 31 July until 30 October, 11am-5pm; admission £7.50.

Holkham Hall, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk (01328 710227; www.holkham.co.uk) opens daily until 30 September, 1-5pm and until 4.30pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; admission £6.50.

National Shrine of Our Lady, Little Walsingham, Norfolk (01328 820495; www.walsingham.org.uk).

Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, Hunstanton, Norfolk (01603 625540; www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk).

MORE DETAILS

Hunstanton Tourist Office (01553 763044).

Norfolk Tourism (01603 222846; www.visitnorfolk.co.uk).

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence