North Norfolk

I originally wrote about North Norfolk (mainly the area around Burnham Market) as an addendum to my post on King’s Lynn, but I’ve been back and it probably deserves a post of its own.

May 2018 – From King’s Lynn it’s not far (a couple of hours by bike, an hour and 20 minutes by the twice-hourly Coasthopper bus) to Burnham Market, centre of a group of villages on the North Norfolk coast that are all associated with the childhood of Admiral Lord Nelson, and all have pubs named after him (the Nelson, the Hero) or one of his protegés, such as William Hoste. Burnham Market has become known as Chelsea-on-Sea (though it’s not actually on the coast) and is totally clogged with visiting SUVs in summer; the other Burnhams (Thorpe, Overy etc) are as lovely but don’t have the Humble Pie deli, the Tuscan Farm Shop, Gun Hill Clothing Co. or Gurney’s fish shop. Fortunately, a new 186-space village car park was opened in 2016, which should help. At the attractive little (largely 14th-century) church of St Mary the Virgin I found that Nelson’s daughter Horatia, who lived here with her widowed uncle, was engaged to one curate but ended up marrying his replacement in this church in 1822 – so Jane Austen wasn’t making this stuff up!

 The coastal wetlands are very popular with birdwatchers and others who like bracing walks to welcoming pubs, but this area always reminds me of one of my favourite films, Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the equally fab original novel, studied creative writing at UEA in Norwich, and it’s to Cromer that they go on a day trip (though it’s Clevedon pier in the film). At the end the doomed lovers go to a stranded boat, which is on Holkham beach, rather more famous for the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.

June 2021 – Burnham Market is still cluttered with footway-blocking SUVs, and as most of Norfolk’s lanes are wide enough for a bike and a car to pass, but not a bike and a SUV, it’s easy to get very fed up with them. However, the lanes are actually very quiet, and immediately east of the Burnhams is Holkham Hall, where pedestrians and cyclists have free access to enjoy the estate (you can rent bikes there too). Holkham is also known for its sustainable approach to farming (information panels by the fields mention a long-term contract to supply barley to Adnams, mentioned in my previous post), and for its classy catering – I’ve eaten at both the Victoria Inn (outside the North Gates) and at the Courtyard Café, and both are great.

 The progressive attitude to farming is appropriate, as ‘Coke of Norfolk’ (Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who inherited Holkham in 1776) was a great agricultural improver, following in the footsteps of the legendary ‘Turnip Townsend’, who devised the Norfolk four-course system, involving rotation of turnips, barley, clover, and wheat crops, on his estate just to the south near Great Massingham.

 I cycled a bit beyond the park, to Walsingham (site of strange Anglo-Catholic – and Roman Catholic – shrines and nowadays Russian Orthodox chapels too) and Binham Priory, far more religiously straightforward and absolutely lovely inside, with three storeys of Romanesque arches. If you can’t get in (it’s open for about five hours a day at the moment), the western façade is very important to architectural historians as possibly the first use of bar tracery in Britain (it also appeared at Westminster Abbey, Lincoln and Windsor in the early 1240s), but the window is largely bricked up now so it’s not very attractive.

Binham Priory (interior)
Binham Priory (exterior)








I returned via Creake Abbey, near Burnham Market, which is ruined but still attractive, and always open. When I left I cycled down the Peddars Way, a dead-straight (well, the surviving parts, anyway) track which probably dates from Roman times, though it seems similar to far older routes such as the Icknield Way. On the way from King’s Lynn to Burnham Market I had passed through Castle Rising, on the Peddars Way I passed through Castle Acre. Both have the remains of relatively small twelfth-century castles with splendid earthworks; Castle Rising has not reopened after lockdown, but Castle Acre (or Castle 0.4 Hectare, as my metric friend calls it) is free and always open – it boasts the biggest bailey in England. There’s a fine church, and the ruins of Castle Acre Priory are  also worth a visit, although you do have to pay.