Eyebrows were raised when we announced that we were planning spend a couple of weeks sampling the delights of Norfolk and Suffolk. Comments were made on the lines of, “Isn’t that a bit flat?” and by implication, a bit boring too.
Well, there were a number of reasons for the choice. We hadn’t been to this part of England for several decades and in the case of Suffolk, not at all discounting the Harwich ferry. It sits semi-detached at the side of the weather map on telly every night, looking slightly neglected and sorry for itself. Surely it had something to offer? Unless we tried, we’d never find out.
Secondly it boasts its fair share of National Trust properties and our membership card is usually neglected and under-used; East Anglia seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to maximise its value for a change. And thirdly, the region is surprisingly accessible. An 07.59 train from Belper with a change at Nottingham deposited us, with bikes and panniers, in Ely, the start of our journey, just after 11.15. All this for the princely sum of just £6.50 in my case, thanks to the wonders of the Senior Rail Card.
Ely to Downham Market
For each day, I’d planned an itinerary and plotted a route on Ride With GPS, but before embarking, we couldn’t ignore Ely itself. Ely meant only one thing to me before our trip: the cathedral, the ‘Ship of the Fens’, so it seemed only right that we should head there straight away, particularly as the skies chose that particular moment to dump substantial buckets of water on us, a process which continued for most of the day.
The cathedral is dedicated to St Etheldreda who, on her wedding night, told her husband that she had taken a vow of virginity which must have come as a bit of a disappointment to him.
On arrival, we discovered that like most places in Ely, the cathedral is open to the visitor – but at a cost, in this case 9 quid. Unable to justify this for a fleeting visit we took it in turns to gaze upon the wonder of its vast and intricate ceiling, well worth the money we didn’t pay to see it. As I swapped places with Val, I saw two ecclesiastical gentlemen just outside the entrance gazing at a lump of stone on the paving. It became rapidly obvious that this was a chunk of masonry, the size of a fist, which had fallen from the tower stretching above us. The conundrum was from whence it had come and what to do about it. The problem with a structure dating several centuries is that it is liable to surrender bits of itself to gravity at any given moment, and whilst the obvious solution was to shut the whole place down as a safety hazard, those £9.00’s are necessary to shore up what remains. I left them to grapple with this moral dilemma and met Val who told me that she’d been only feet away when the stonework landed. If it hadn’t have been raining, her tour might have ended before it began and I would have had to go on alone.
Next up was the Tourist Information Office which happily shared its accommodation with the house where Oliver Cromwell lived in the 1630’s. Unhappily this was a further £5.20 each so we forewent the opportunity of experiencing life in the 17th century, very much like Heanor in the 21st I imagine, as we did visits to the Stained Glass Museum (£4.50), The Old Gaol (£4.50) and, reluctantly given its tantalising title, the Museum of Fenland Drainage, featuring a Mirrless 5-cylinder blast injection engine (£3.00).
Our ultimate destination was Oxburgh Hall, an NT Elizabethan country house, but having wandered around the streets of Ely, we were behind schedule already, a delay exacerbated by driving rain, headwinds and the discovery that our Garmin 810 still had a USA road chip left inside it from our last trip. Thus for the next fortnight all we had to follow was an unwavering blue line but no background map against which to make sense of it. It’s a wonder we made it out of Cambridgeshire.
The low-lying fields, bordered by drainage ditches and punctured by the odd windmill, plus the abysmal weather, reminded me very much of the Netherlands. As if to complete the picture, we came across a cycling Dutchman whom we had met earlier, sheltering in the cathedral. He was on his way from ferry to ferry, Harwich to Hull, one of only two tourers that we met in the whole of our two weeks. We sent him on his way with firm instructions to avoid Scunthorpe at all costs.
By now we were feeling pretty miserable, a predicament made worse by my discovery that I’d left behind my trusty waterproof socks and could feel my shoes slowly filling up inside. Then, quite by accident, we came across the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre at Welney. We gratefully accepted its sanctuary and heated toilets, but were disheartened to find that, thanks to the rain, the only birds visible through the viewing window were no more exotic than a tufted duck. The list of birds allegedly spotted earlier in the day numbered around 40 and including a widgeon, a gadwall, a garganey, a Cetti’s Warbler and a turnstone. I couldn’t help wonder if they weren’t making some of these up but the warden was very excited about a bar-tailed godwit, which is apparently similar to a whimbrel. I tried to humour him but eventually gave it up as a bad job; my heart simply wasn’t in it.
When we discovered that, thanks to the absence of Garmin road maps, we were travelling in the opposite direction to Oxburgh Hall, leaving us only ten minutes before it closed, we decided to accept our fate and head for the night’s campsite. I never book a campsite in advance, finding that, by and large, no campsite will turn a cyclist away, but it is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to find actual campsites not given over exclusively to caravans and motorhomes whose owners are prepared to pay more, and with supplements for electricity. Despite the name, the Grange Park Touring Park no longer accepts tourers of any description, but fortunately the sight of two bedraggled cyclists was enough to melt the heart of even the stoniest caravan store owner and so it was that we spent the night as the only campers on a virtually deserted site for the most expensive fee of the trip, a frankly extortionate price of £22.00 plus 50p each for a shower! Irked by the pettiness of the shower charge and the provision of one toilet key between us, I did find the hand-dryers made excellent warmers for saturated shoes, and the disabled toilets, being centrally-heated, ensured our clothes were both dry and warm by the morning. Maybe we did get our money’s worth after all.
Downham Market to Burnham Market
Having failed to make it to Oxburgh Hall, we added it as the next item on the agenda , but like most NT properties, it doesn’t open till 10.30, putting pressure on an already crowded schedule. Oxburgh Hall is a 15thC moated manor house built thanks to a ‘licence to crenellate’. This turned out to be a sort of mediaeval planning consent; no-one in the 15thC was allowed to fortify their property without specific permission of the king lest they be suspected of ambitions above their status.
Chief attractions of Oxburgh Hall included tapestries woven by Mary Q of S and our very own Bess of Hardwick plus a priest-hole, a hiding place for when Henry VIII’s heavies came a-calling (in the middle above). This one was open to exploration by anyone gullible and stupid enough to try the experience. As I lowered myself into it, I couldn’t help but recall the single occasion on which I had sampled caving and vowed never to repeat the ordeal again. The bottom of the hole led to an exit above so the whole thing resembled a U-bend, though quite what that made me in this analogy I’m not quite sure. The priest-hole at the other end was the size of a portaloo which it resembled in having no windows but so far as I could see no portaloo either. In fact without access to light or Radio 4, I doubted the priest’s capacity to remain there very long. I found the undignified experience of trying to return to the land of the living more contorted and humiliating than the original journey.
We made it as far as Swaffham by lunch and proceeded northwards on the Peddars Way, said to be on the route of a Roman road leading all the way north to Hunstanton. Although billed as a cycling route, it displayed an alarming tendency to revert to its pre-Roman existence as a dirt track and was quickly abandoned.
We diverted to Castle Acre, a former Norman fortified town, boasting not only one of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England dating back to 1090, but also one of the most extensive examples of a motte and bailey castle I’ve ever seen, quite a combination. The monastery was a Cluniac (Benedictine) priory which I was interested to note had included amongst its one-time relics the left arm of Saint Philip. Whether Saint Philip realised the priory was holding his left arm was not explained. St Philip is the patron saint of hatters; I have no idea why.
The castle extended over many acres (hence the name presumably) and, despite being English Heritage, was free. We explored at length but found no trace of any other bits of Saint Philip. I would thoroughly recommend Castle Acre to any Norfolk tourist; you will not be disappointed.
The day had not yet run out of marvels to delight us. Again quite by chance, we stumbled across the church of St Lawrence at Harpley. St Lawrence was unusually born in Valencia and became the archdeacon of Pope Sixtus the Second (it might have been Pope Secundus the Sixth) put to death by Emperor Valerian. He is the one who, legend has it, being roasted on a gridiron over hot coals, requested to be turned over as he was ‘done on this side’. What a card he must have been, always ready with the merry quip. He is the patron saint of cooks and stand-up comics for obvious reasons.
The villages of North Norfolk are many and numerous and each of them features at least one church. To find an open church to explore in Derbyshire is a rarity but in Norfolk, nearly every one is unlocked and welcoming to the public. It is reassuring that even in these calamitous times, there is a part of England where this is still possible. There are over 650 Norfolk churches, more than any other county, nearly all built according to the same Norman model, cruciform with a square tower at one end, but each is uniquely individual, which makes them such a joy to investigate.
Harpley is one of the highest villages in Norfolk, which is admittedly not saying a lot, and its church is noted for its wooden ceiling studded with carvings of angels and pews adorned with carvings of creatures, actual and mythical. One half of the church was having its floor renewed, its predecessor having succumbed to centuries of rot. Sadly some of the centuries-old pews, having been ripped out, were literally irreplaceable. St Lawrence was, it seems, a particularly benighted church because we were told that it had suffered no fewer than four lead thefts from its roof in recent times.
I couldn’t help reflecting on the cost of all this and where the money was coming from to pay for it, which led to questions of whether it was worth it, given the sparseness (I’m guessing) of the congregation attending the services. Being an old romantic at heart – or maybe just old – I hope such monuments to history can survive for the essence of the English countryside must surely include the distant glimpse of its church spires and towers.
Our campsite at Market Downham was one of the best of the trip. Purpose-built quite recently, the complex has had a lot spent on it. The office served as a tourist centre with books and maps for purchase and adjoined a hostel. The showers were the most sumptuous we have encountered, being a series of rooms either side of a centrally-heated corridor, each containing its own toilet, wash basin and wet room shower.
Market Burnham to Sheringham
Having reached the north coast, we adopted an easterly direction, but our departure was (un)avoidably delayed by one of us (clue: it wasn’t me) losing the key to the bike lock. This was potentially a serious matter, since we’d left the bolt cutters behind. A frantic search of our meagre belongings failed to unearth the key so I was dispatched to the pub where we’d had a meal the previous evening in a possible quest to retrieve it. Normally I would be only too eager to visit a pub but this one was over a mile away. It was with a heavy heart that I started to trudge pubward, only thankfully to be recalled by a yell of triumph as the key turned up in the pocket of the tent rolled up and ready to go. Oh how I laughed.
Nor far from Market Burnham is Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of Horatio Nelson, the archetypal British (English) hero. However the vicarage where he was born has long been torn down and all that remains to mark the event is a plaque. We didn’t stray but did pass through the floridly-monickered Burnham Overy Staithe where Nelson learned to row. He was only five foot five inches – Napoleon at five foot six was actually taller – and lived at one time at 7 Savile Row on the roof of which the Beatles gave their final concert, though not at the same time.
I have frequently been struck by how many famous people have been the offspring of clergy, usually Protestant for obvious but not exclusive reasons: Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, Joan Baez, Robert Baden-Powell, John Logie Baird, Ingmar Bergman, the Bronte sisters, Gordon Brown, John Buchan, Lewis Carroll, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Alice Cooper – and that’s just the first three letters of the alphabet.
Stately Home of the Day was not in fact an NT property. It was Holkham Hall, home to this day of the Earl of Leicester. This was frankly a bit of a disappointment, the house itself rather grey and drab despite being built in Italian Renaissance style after the first Earl of Leicester came back from his holidays. However we were allowed to cycle through the sweeping estate free of charge so I won’t be too harsh. We reached one of two 24 metre high obelisks standing at either end of the grounds.
On the opposite side of the road to the Hall was our first proper Norfolk beach, Holkham Bay where Gwyneth Paltrow wandered during Shakespeare in Love before selflessly devoting her life to Gloop. I confess that I don’t actually remember that bit of the film and therefore why she was awandering.
Holkham Beach is NT but since it’s free to all, I felt a bit cheated. What’s the point of me shelling out every year if they allow everybody? It is undeniably stunning as the boardwalk path leads you through pine woods before suddenly before opening out upon acres of pure, untrammelled mud. In desperate search of something a bit more, well, sandy, I set off on my bike towards the distant tide-line and was rewarded with sweeping, unspoilt golden sands to either side. It was almost worth getting bogged down in the mud and having to clean sand out of unknown crevices of my bike for days afterwards.
A few miles down the coast was Wells-Next-the-Sea. It being well past lunchtime (three o’clock actually), we explored the high street to find that many of the shops at Wells are owned by the same man, Arthur Howell. Although less well celebrated are Arthur Howell’s Abattoir and Arthur Howell’s Gun Shop, the Arthur Howell empire includes his Delicatessen, his Butcher’s, his Fishmongery and, best of all, Arthur Howell’s Bakery. This had an extraordinary range of cakes of the sort close to every cyclist’s heart at very reasonable prices. We kept ourselves going for three days on chocolate-coated flapjack, chocolate-coated millionaire’s shortbread and chocolate-coated oaties. I think you’ve probably worked out the secret of Arthur’s success by now.
On our way to Blakeney and Sheringham, we saw in the distance the church of Stiffkey. Time (and the fact that a hill separated us) prevented a visit but it is worth mentioning this church not because of anything noteworthy about the building, but because of a former rector, Rev Harold Davidson who had a remarkable career. Firstly he suffered the ignominy of being defrocked by the Bishop of Norwich having dedicated himself to saving fallen women a little too conscientiously, adopting a hands-on approach. As any disgraced clergyman would, he then resumed an earlier career as a showman in Blackpool where his act included freezing himself in a refrigerated chamber for which he was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for attempted suicide. He met an untimely end when, appearing in a fairground lion’s cage, he stood on a lion’s tail and failed to survive the subsequent mauling. Let that be a lesson to us all.
Our accommodation plans envisaged two nights camping followed by a night under a roof of some sort, partly out of necessity, i.e. the need to recharge various electronic devices; between us we needed to maintain two mobile phones, two Garmin watches, a Garmin bike computer, not to mention front and rear lights. Campsites simply do not cater for these needs. Fortunately Sheringham does have one of three Youth Hostels remaining in the county, largely reminiscent of the by-gone age of youth hostels. Replete after a YHA evening meal, we wandered down to the shore to find, as often with North Norfolk towns, an apparently thriving high street largely devoid of chain shops and therefore still retaining its individuality. Much of it seemed still stuck in the sixties but somehow this was in keeping with the atmosphere of the place.
Sheringham to Norwich
Our itinerary took an idiosyncratic swerve here as we headed due south to Norwich. This was partly because neither of us had actually visited the city and it was an omission we wanted to correct, but partly because Blickling Hall, yes, you’ve guessed it a National Trust property, lay on the route.
Blickling Hall is one of the putative birthplaces of Anne Boleyn whose ghost is said to wander the place – although, according to Stanley Holloway, it is the Tower of London that she wanders ‘with her head tucked underneath her arm’. Perhaps it’s a job-share arrangement. The building itself is a magnificent Jacobean affair and all rooms are overseen by volunteers without whose unstinting efforts the NT would not survive. Each of them is allocated a room and is only too keen to impart their nuggets of wisdom. The problem is that you can end up politely listening to the same story you heard in the previous room and trying to extricate yourself without offending. Val and I spent getting on for ten minutes listening to an enthusiastic description of another property from one guide despite the fact that we had no intention of visiting it. How very British. Still I did learn from a man dressed as a butler that the word butler derives from the French for bottle, which I have to confess had never occurred to me before. Obvious now it’s pointed out.
We were hoping to enter Norwich by another bike trail, Marriott’s Way, but before we found the start of it, we visited Reepham (‘Reefam’) which, apart from featuring a network of 18th century buildings, streets and alleys, is remarkable for having three churches sharing the same churchyard, all in different parishes. The only remaining evidence of All Saints, Hackford, said to have suffered a fire in 1546, is a wall, but St Mary’s, Reepham and St Michael’s, Whitwell still stand as operational churches to this day and, having been built alongside each other, are now connected.
As we approached the church, we were assailed by the sound of a choir but not a choir singing the usual selection of hymns; this one was singing Rock around the Clock. Inside we were treated – and I think the performance merited that description – to various songs that had some fleeting religious connection: Say A Little Prayer, I’m A Believer, you get the drift. You can probably think of some more when the conversation lags after the Queen’s Speech next Christmas.
Marriott’s Way runs nearly 25 miles being named after the chief engineer of the Midland and Great Northern Railway which ran the two railway lines forming the route of the trail before their closure in 1959.
Starting at Reepham station, the path surface varied from earth through compacted gravel to tarmac, noticeably improving as Norwich approached. This was probably the most enjoyable cycling day of the tour. Earlier in the day, we had cycled along minor roads barely wide enough to accommodate a single car of which there was thankfully little evidence, through small villages and fields of wheat, barley and potatoes. East Anglia produces two-thirds of England’s sugar beet, one third of its potatoes and enough wheat for over 5 billion loaves. That’s a lot of toast.
Incidentally if you thought from these photos that we were basking in the warmth of the springtime Norfolk sunshine, you are mistaken. There is a jarring inconsistency between the blue skies in these photos and the layers of clothing we are wearing, because when the rain stopped it was replaced by a week’s worth of bitingly cold wind, usually coming from the direction we were cycling into, making every day a three-layer day at least.
Until perhaps a mile from Norwich’s centre we were still cycling though the green of the countryside and it was almost a surprise when Marriott’s Way suddenly ended and we found ourselves disgorged into the city centre. As usual, we were so far behind schedule that there was time only to seek out the nearest campsite. Strangely enough I thought I’d found one in the centre itself, a short distance from the cathedral, but, although both Google and Ride with GPS assured me of its existence, it was nowhere to be found; in fact, the location was supposedly on a cobbled street which seemed less than likely. Fortunately there was another site only a few miles outside the centre, at Whitlingham Broad, where we were perhaps one of half a dozen campers occupying a flat site the size of several football pitches ringed by unoccupied yurts.
Norwich to Cromer
Having travelled so far south to Norwich, it seemed perverse to return to a point only a few miles east of where we’d started the previous day, but that’s the beauty of organising your own tour: you can go where you like when you like and there’s no-one to tell you otherwise.
We didn’t really do justice to Norwich; time allowed only for a cursory view of the cathedral and its mediaeval surroundings before we had to set off on a circuitous route to Cromer. Our intention was to ‘do’ the Broads, passing through Wroxham, the so-called Capital of the Broads, but first we cycled through the otherwise unremarkable village of Ranworth and made the discovery of the trip, the superlative ‘Cathedral of the Broads’, the church dedicated to St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine.
The exterior of the church is striking enough, and maintained the extraordinarily high standard throughout Norfolk in villages often able to support grandiose churches far beyond what would be expected of a small community thanks to wealth once generated by the wool trade. However the true treasures of St Helen’s were to be found inside. The enormous tower allowed the intrepid visitor to climb its 89 steep, narrow steps to the top; the proportions of the staircase meant I had to yell up before starting your ascent because there was only room for one climber at a time. Even before the top, I had to clamber past the bells up two rickety ladders and push open a trapdoor but was rewarded with an incomparable view encompassing miles of lush Norfolk countryside spread out below like a baize table-cloth, interspersed with broads dotted with small boats and yachts.
On my return to terra firma, I examined a mediaeval Antiphoner, a sort of book of service dating from the 15th century or earlier. Its 285 vellum sheets contained prayers and music for psalms, each superbly illustrated and decorated with ornamental Latin script (see below). The book had to be kept in a humidity-controlled box beneath bullet-proof glass covered with a cloth to prevent fading.
As if these were not riches enough, the screen in front of the chancel is said to be the finest painted example in England. It is divided into panels devoted to various saints, each of whose faces had been rubbed out by people touching them repeatedly over the centuries. These saints included Saint Margaret of Antioch, one of my favourites. She was persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th Century because she refused to renounce her Christianity. Amongst the trials she underwent was to be fed to Satan in the form of a dragon who spat her out when he choked on the cross she was carrying. Despite having survived being devoured by a dragon, Margaret was eventually beheaded, but went on to achieve success as one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc. Her left hand is displayed on her saint’s day by the church of Saint Mary in Cairo – what is it with these appendages of saints? She is the patron saint of pregnant women.
If this was the sublime, it did not take us long to encounter the ridiculous in the form of Wroxham. The queues of traffic both in and out of the place told their own story. If Ranworth was the Cathedral of the Broads, Wroxham must be its Blackpool as evidenced by a succession of tacky shops full of tourist tat thronged with multitudinous hordes all eager for the ‘shopping experience’ on offer. Give me Satan in the form of a dragon any day.
We made enquiries at a campsite outside Cromer. The prospect of a night under canvas seemed unlikely as I made my way up the garden path to the rather genteel B&B at Shrublands Farm, Northrepps, but I was directed to take the road opposite, and half a mile later appeared two fields with not a single, solitary tent in them. Only the toilet block confirmed that this was to be our night’s resting place, and all for just £14.00. This was our ideal campsite where the risk of disturbance from night-time revellers and noisome children was completely absent (Sartre may have defined Hell as being other people but I think it’s actually other people’s children).
The spot that we chose was halfway up a long field leading to a wood through which the morning sun streamed. We were loath to leave the next day.
Before we crawled in for the night, we paid a visit to Cromer, out of curiosity and hunger. Compensation for the meagre choice of eateries on offer lay in the form of the pier (Pier of the Year 2015! – rather less celebrated than Kym Marsh and Daniel Radcliffe(?) who won Rear of the Year 2015) and a series of striking murals on the sea-front from which I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle came to Cromer on a golfing holiday and supposedly based Baskerville Hall on Cromer Hall. A less likely resident was Oscar Wilde who lived at the Hotel de Paris in Cromer in the early 1890’s; I like to think that somewhere in Paris there stands a Hotel de Cromer, but I somehow doubt it.
(To be continued…..)