I recently visited an area of England that I have never been to, Norfolk. This low-lying, predominantly rural county is located in eastern England. It is about four to five hours from west London by car, depending on traffic, but it is light years away from the cosmopolitan aura and frenzy of central London; it is unique. Many believe that Norfolk’s untouched, rugged coastline mixed with its ancient landscape that stretches from the fens to the royal coast defines it, but others believe that its vast, dramatic skies and distinctive medieval-era market towns and picture-perfect villages draw people back time and time again. I, my husband Jim, and my labs Sam and Tom could very easily live there. Sam and Tom would particularly enjoy its cool summer temperatures, its proximity to the sea, and its welcoming acceptance of dogs in pubs and most shops.
Norfolk is a glorious place with so many fascinating elements. In Noel Coward’s 1930s comedy of manners Private Lives, he said a bit pejoratively, “… we met in Norfolk. Very flat Norfolk.” It is this flat, coastal topography and undulating inland geography that make the Norfolk area an ideal place for exploring.
Norfolk is a largely rural county with one-thirtieth the population density of central London. It was settled in pre-Roman times and, as it is situated on the east coast, was vulnerable to invasion from Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Many forts were built along the coastline to defend against the Angles and Saxons. During the high and late Middle Ages, the county developed arable agriculture and woolen industries. In the twentieth century, the county developed a role in aviation. The flat geography was ideal for airfields. During World War II, the American USAAF 8th Air Force operated from many Norfolk locations. Today, agriculture is a very important part of the economy of the region. Much of the produce offered at local pubs, restaurants, grocers, and farm stands are locally and organically grown. “Farm-to-table” is more than a buzzword in Norfolk. The farmers, be they a lord of the manor with thousands of hectares, a one-man strawberry and asparagus stand, an oyster caravan, or an owner of a seafood shack, all support the tenets of sustainable agriculture. This philosophy of the protection of the environment is evident throughout the Norfolk area.
In Norfolk, my daughter and I stayed for a four-day weekend at the Cartshed Cottages in Sharrington. They are located on the Sharrington Hall Estate, an E-plan sixteenth-century country house. The four cottages, decorated in a mixture of vintage and contemporary furniture, oak floors, and wood-burning stoves, were originally the storage area for the farm’s horse carts.
It is easy to tour the many interesting villages in the north Norfolk area. The roads are not too twisty and winding, and you only see a few horses trotting on the road, but you still have to be alert, as the Brits drive “on the wrong side of the road.” There are many interesting places to visit, many of them dating from the Middle Ages. They are fairly close together in distance, so you can cover a lot of ground in one or two days. The towns of Burnham, Holt, Walsingham, Wells-next-the-Sea, Swaffham, Cromer, and Fakenham are delightful and interesting. Norfolk’s unspoiled beaches, with ninety-three miles of coastline, are extraordinarily beautiful and wild. You first come to the salt marsh tidal areas dotted with rough grasses and the delicious seaweed samphire (on a walk I gathered up several large bundles of it and sautéed it for dinner). The waters of the North Sea begin about a half a mile out. It is paradise for dogs, windsurfers, bird-watchers, and shell collectors.
I have visited many areas of England, but this coastal region stands out in my mind as a special place. The next time you are in England, consider visiting Norfolk. It is a step back in time to a slower-paced lifestyle. Maybe that need comes with age, but it is good for the soul of all of us.