You know how people go off on holiday and then come back all smug because they’ve found “a hidden gem” of a place? 99% of the time, I don’t believe them. I mean, why would you? If somewhere was actually any good, you’d have heard of it by now because you’re a very well-informed person.
When people say “hidden gem”, it normally means they’re being euphemistic about somewhere – either they mean “eye wateringly expensive”, or they’ve gambled the best part of a couple of grand on somewhere and it’s turned out to be empty … because it’s rubbish.
North Norfolk is neither of those things, but rightfully, and fully, it deserves the title of “hidden gem”.
Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. Surely no one in their right mind goes to Norfolk, right? Norfolk? That place that is the home of Alan Partridge, Coleman’s mustard, endless flat carrot fields and long-abandoned World War 2 airfields?
Cool people don’t go to Norfolk. Cool people go to Dubai. Old people who tow caravans go to North Norfolk. Surely it’s not worth a trip unless you’re really into towing caravans or eating carrots, right? Wrong.
And yet somehow, it came to pass that Mrs B decided one day that we would take a nice family trip to a place called Burnham Market.
“Where?” I said from over the breakfast coffee.
“Burnham Market” repeated Mrs B. “It’s an undiscovered gem.”
Sensing my blank expression, she tried again.
“It’s near Wells-next-the Sea?”
I continued to look blankly at her.
“Norfolk,” she said, exasperated. “We’re going to Norfolk.”
My expression continued to look gormless, although, in my defence, this is my default face setting.
“Right, so we head north and … right, look … I’ll drive”
Later that day, I found myself in the passenger seat of a well-loaded family car, heading for a part of the UK I’d never even heard of, much less consider visiting up to an hour beforehand.
Strapped firmly in the back were one boy child whose worried face indicated concern about the 5G mobile signal in the darkest reaches of rural North Norfolk, and one girl child who was very much looking forward to posing for photos in a new and exciting location.
Mrs B, in a fit of uncharacteristic organisation, had sketched out a very rough itinerary for the weekend to make the most of our time away – a bewildering list of what sounded like made-up place names – and, in an attempt to be helpful, I scrawled “Also: Feed Husband” at the bottom.
The stage was set for a thrilling weekend of discovery, carrots and being stuck behind caravans!
Places to Visit in North Norfolk
Firstly, I’m going to come right out and say it. North Norfolk has some of the most stunning coastlines I’ve ever seen. Put that sceptical face away. I see it. Look, hear me out.
We’ve all hopefully seen the sunset over the Mediterranean and that’s pretty cool, right? The South China Sea from a Vietnamese beach is incredibly pretty and even the Indian Ocean, as viewed from the bottom of a beer glass on a beach in Mombasa is nice, but what do they all have in common? They’re all a bit … flat, right?
Not North Norfolk. The 45-mile-long coastline takes a regular battering from the North Sea, which means it can get pretty grim in winter – the quid pro quo is that on a nice summer’s day, you’re treated to what can only be described as an exceptional coastline. Truly exceptional. It’s listed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an honour I’ve only seen bestowed upon Mrs B in the past.
Now as a pretty laid-back bloke, there are very, very, very few hills I will die on. In fact, there are probably only three real hills:
- 330ml cans are the correct size cans for beer to come in, not 500ml cans (beer gets too warm towards the end of a 500ml can).
- Curry is the best meal in the world (1.33 billion Indians can’t be wrong)
- But hill 3 is the biggest and that is the fact that on a glorious summer’s day, there is nowhere nicer to be than in England.
This is an indisputable fact – the moment that the sun hits this green and pleasant land and the countryside fills with the warmth and sounds and smells of summer, England becomes Eden – a demi-paradise we are truly unworthy of. All of your unpatriotic fantasies of retiring to Spain or Greece vaporise as soon as the sun peeks out for a couple of hours and rightly so.
And the best place to be when this transformation happens is North Norfolk (apart from Cornwall – editor (the Wife)). Golden expanses of farmland stretch before your eyes, before gracefully dipping down into tempting-looking soft sand which in turn, gives way to an azure blue sea. Child-friendly rock pools and reefs poke out at tempting angles, lush forests lure you into cooling shade and just for a little while you think “Yeah. I could live here.”
This is a rather long-winded way of saying you should visit any of the beaches in North Norfolk. Wells-next-the-Sea beach is, allegedly, the best beach in the UK and if pushed, I would have to agree, but there’s also Holkham beach with its famous colourful beach huts and wildly popular with horse riders because of its soft sands, or there’s Blakeney Point beach, abundant with wildlife.
Take your pick – it doesn’t actually matter where; they’re all beautiful, they’re all child friendly and all of them will see you lost in a perpetually dream-like state once the heat and the beauty combine to seduce you. Take your suntan lotion, you’ll be there for hours.
If beaches aren’t your thing – well, firstly, you’re in the wrong place entirely I guess – but even the most relaxed of us could, theoretically, tire of beaches and sunshine.
Wells-next-the-Sea is a small seaside town situated around a harbour and is rightly famous for its iconic harbour and also, the locally caught fresh crabs. To my great delight, the children expressed an interest in crab fishing and with no shortage of shops selling crab fishing kits, we passed a very happy hour dangling line into the water, catching the occasional crab and sucking on seaside rock, much to Mrs B’s upset and much to the delight of, presumably, my dentist’s accountant.
In case you’re wondering, it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea to differentiate it from the other town of Wells, which is *checks map* not next the sea.
If you fancy a spot of seal spotting (although, they didn’t fancy being spotted whilst we were there), head down to Blakeney and Morston where there is plenty to do without the famous seals.
There are also plenty of quaint little villages to visit in and around the beaches and are well worth a visit. Stiffkey (pronounced Stookey and famously has a Farrow & Ball paint named after it), is in An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with traditional Norfolk cottages and the village of Burnham Market is a perfect little 17th century North Norfolk village with plenty of places to dine and shop.
Finally, Holkham Hall is well worth a visit.
Holkham Hall is an impressive 18th-century country house that was built by Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, and is renowned for its magnificent Palladian architecture and stunning landscaped gardens.
Visitors can explore the magnificent state rooms, including the Marble Hall, the Saloon, and the Statue Gallery, which are adorned with fine art, furniture, and decorative objects. The hall also boasts an extensive collection of historic books, manuscripts, and archives.
The surrounding parkland, which stretches over 3,000 acres, offers a range of activities for visitors, from birdwatching and nature walks to cycling and horse riding. The estate is also home to a walled garden, a lake, and a deer park, as well as a range of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Places to stay around the North Norfolk Coast
Mrs B has a nose for good places to stay. Like a sniffer dog hunting for illicit substances at a Thai airport, she is relentless in her pursuit of accommodation excellence, and she had duly booked us a stay at the White House in North Norfolk.
She’s written about it in her Interiors Blog if you want some up close and personal reviews of the décor and style – but from my perspective, it was an exceptional stay.
A beautifully renovated Georgian manor house, it perfectly combines period features with modern comforts – the Boy was quite relieved to note the Wi-Fi was both fast and free, while Mrs B swooned over the full-length, double aspect sash windows on display around the property, so everyone was happy.
From my perspective, the fact that a well-stocked honesty bar was in operation alongside an excellent breakfast service was a big bonus – in my experience, the two complement each other very well, because too much of one will lead to an increased desire for the other.
Like staying in Lyme Regis, North Norfolk is mercifully free of gaudy chain hotels, although I assume the inevitable Travelodge or Premier Inn exists somewhere in Norwich, which is fine if that’s your thing.
But honestly; strike out and try a local independent place to get the best Norfolk hospitality. The Pheasant Hotel near Holt is highly rated by the locals who recommended it to us as a place to get somewhere to eat (it has an AA rosette à la carte restaurant) or The Hoste near Burnham Market was also recommended – it was recently recognised as one of the leading ‘cool hotels’ by The Times.
As always, prices vary, especially at weekends, so if you’re watching the pennies, a break in the week is always better value than a weekend break.
Places to Eat in North Norfolk
It will come as no surprise to hear that in a primarily coastal area, seafood is the thing to try when you visit North Norfolk.
I’m going to confess here – I’m not really a natural seafood enjoyer. I don’t know why – maybe it’s because it’s a bit fiddly to get bones out of fish? Maybe it’s the disproportionate effort you kind of have to put into seafood – mussels have to be prised open with a bewildering array of silverware, lobsters have to be cracked and pinched open, there’s a whole dance you have to do with fingerbowls and shells and knives and, because I’m an idiot, there’s a very real chance I will accidentally stab myself to death with a sharp fish knife.
But you can’t come to such an incredible location and not have a bash at it – you wouldn’t go to Chicago and not try a deep-dish pizza or visit France and not try the onion soup in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
So I duly put my big boy pants on and Googled around for somewhere to eat that could satisfy my desire to try seafood, my children’s desire for anything with chips and my wife’s desire to not be accidentally stabbed by a fish knife-wielding husband trying to get inside a lobster while two glasses of white wine deep.
Lo and behold, our prayers were answered in the shape of Hot Rocks in Cromer. As the name suggests, they serve an array of seafood and also, steaks, on hot volcanic rocks so you can cook them to your liking. The fish is rather uniquely all caught on their own boat. The staff were wonderfully attentive in a kicking atmosphere and, as the food was pre-prepared before being brought out to you, there was none of the dreaded faffing about with sharp knives that I expected.
Everyone remained mercifully unmurdered and managed to get a really decent meal – a win for everyone, especially if you have a family who all want different things. I made a note to put a large tick next to Mrs B’s itinerary. Husband fed. Tick.
If you want something a little more practical, we also dined at The Railway Inn in Docking which served great quality, no-nonsense pub food – classics such as steaks and cottage pie sat alongside their speciality pizzas all at a reasonable price.
Clear plates from my children were a clear sign of approval and even a slight unladylike burp occasionally emitted from Mrs B – another sign that everyone had enjoyed a decent meal after a hard day of exploring beaches.
There are also plenty of cafes dotted around the area so we were well-catered for throughout the day. One of our favourites was The Lookout on Holkham Beach. Here you could watch the wildlife go about its daily business whilst sipping on a cup of tea and waiting for the kids to visit the bathroom for the 27th time that day.
The problem with any weekend away is that weekends … well… they end, so it was with no small sense of horror that we rapidly found ourselves repacking the car for a slow drive back home.
The family all wore contented smiles and judging from the almost comical amounts of sand left in the car boot when we unpacked, the endless beaches had been a hit. I for one immediately vowed to apologise to the residents of Norfolk for thinking their county was little more than mustard growers and Alan Partridge territory but then driving home, I realised that was probably a deliberate ploy on their behalf.
You see, if the secret about how serene – how wonderful – how relaxing – a weekend in North Norfolk could be, ever got out, then the paradise of the area would be spoiled. There really would be queues of angry traffic stuck behind caravans and people spoiling the unspoilt beaches. It really would no longer be an unspoilt gem, but a loud, gaudy tourist trap and it would instantly lose some of its well-deserved majesties.
So… I guess, the best thing to do, is for you to forget you’ve ever read this blog. Don’t go. Try Margate or Brighton or something and if you ever ask me where I’d recommend for a weekend break, I’ll try not to look too shifty when I reply “Definitely not North Norfolk. You’d hate it there”.
If you must go, tread softly on the golden sands, move gently through the towns and slowly enjoy the wonderful local food. Like all gems, just treat it with care, in case you spoil it.