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?
Saturday 23 July 2005
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.
Central Trains (0121 654 2040; www.centraltrains.co.uk).
One (0845 600 7245; www.onerailway.com).
The Neptune Inn, Old Hunstanton Road, Hunstanton, Norfolk (01485 532122; www.neptune-inn.com). B&B from £90.
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).
Hunstanton Tourist Office (01553 763044).
Norfolk Tourism (01603 222846; www.visitnorfolk.co.uk).
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