But hearing a Swedish-Canadian pronounce Norfolk place names is something to savour.
Norfolk is not as flat as I imaged. Not quite soaring peaks, but some respectable bumps that know not to out-do those famous big skies and far-off horizons. I had been openly mocked for going there for a long weekend; why not the ever-popular Lakes, Cotswolds or Cornwall? With support like that, what chance does any destination have against this group of heavy-weights bullies?
So not a favourite with the masses it seems, but discovered Norfolk certainly is: by well-heeled ‘Boden families’ in shiny 4×4’s who make their presence felt with smart restaurants, snappy country gear and gift shops staffed with some very plummy accents. Surely this is not the real Norfolk?
Norfolk feels remote and everywhere else far away. Tucked away in a region mysteriously called East Anglia, it conjures up images of a windswept coast, desolation and empty landscapes with the powerful north sea pounding at the beaches. Was Norfolk that place on the way to somewhere, or an escape from somewhere more vibrant? However, I have no doubt the people living and working there recognise the location’s magnificent landscape qualities, character and local distinctiveness, including a fantastic food offer, wildlife, walks, and water sports.
Perceptions of the countryside are however, shaped by familiarity with star-filled skies, cab journeys to the pub at high speed down dark country lanes and how quickly your lunch is served.
I was there to celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday and in the interests of privacy, I won’t say which milestone – but it was important enough for friends to get together from Sweden, Austria, London and the Chilterns, with apologies from Canada.
We had rented a converted barn – how Boden* is that? – that had won a design award, perhaps for the sunlight steaming through architectural features (that would have once been called windows) that illuminated thick cobwebs that showed at least three seasons of their own architectural and arachnid design skills. Being an opinionated bunch, quickly picked holes in their endeavours however, not least of all the floor which to our untrained eye’s looked like pebble-dash covered in resin. “What a devil to keep clean!” came the retort – when a few years ago we would have all agreed how funky it looked.
We couldn’t fail to notice a farmer and his new blue tractor as he steamed up and down the field at the back of the house as we took tea on the terrace. We wondered if it was part of the big Norfolk welcome, or was he just showing off and would leave crop circles in the field?
Maybe it’s because most of us work in travel and tourism, is why we had failed to plan any sightseeing and so skimmed through local websites brimming with unappealing photo’s of lumpy people nervously astride bicycles inviting you to go on a walk scheduled for 2004.
It was therefore with amazement that we timed our visit to Blackeney Point as if we were old sea-dogs ourselves. Closed at certain times of the year so as to not disturb ground nesting birds or new-born grey seal pubs, this beautiful four-mile-long National Trust sand and shingle spit with sand dunes that have formed over hundreds of years onto the shingle ridge, form a rare habitat for unusual plants and animals. Keeping our eyes ‘pealed for the seals’ our tub-load of tourists headed out on a sightseeing trip across a windy estuary with the expectation we were going to get wet. But we hadn’t estimated on Eric; aboard his boat that was delightfully free of life-jackets, safety-announcements or restrictions on smoking and full of tales of the sea. Well, his adventures really in far-flung corners of the ocean, interrupted only by his skilful lighting of a roll-up in the wind.
Awoken in the small hours by determined gnawing somewhere inside the walls of my bedroom, I was now awake and able to plan on how best to dodge the bootcamp-like exercise regimes targeting those parts of the body that were falling apart, bowls of breakfast muesli and discussions on the benefits of flaxseed going on across the barn each morning. What would the response be if I whipped out a frying pan and started cooking a full English? A slow painful death I concluded.
Hearing a Swedish-Canadian pronounce Norfolk place names is something to savour: ‘Norr-vitch” must be Norwich? “Blingling’ must be Blickling Estate? English is a nightmare! Even for the natives. Did you know that Garboldisham is pronounced Garblessum? And Fulmodeston is pronounced Feltum? Of course you did!
What an unexpected delight Norr-vitch turned out to be. On the way, we were trying to think of what it is famous for; Colman’s mustard, Delia Smith and that football team….but could add nothing more to the pitifully short list. What we found was a rich heritage of flint churches, an amazing cathedral that embraced the ancient with the modern and deserves an architectural award, a walkable and pleasant medieval city centre, Tombland and Caley’s Horatio milk chocolates – celebrated in the medieval guildhall over a coffee with friendly staff giving a good twist to the local story of Norwich. We call it ‘capsule sightseeing’ and it’s highly recommended.
Will we go back? Hell yes! When a destination cocks a snoot at the rest of the world, they have to be admired for doing things their way.
* For overseas readers, Boden is a clothing supplier who dresses most of middle-England.