Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Lavender and Luvvies

The coastal road from Cromer to Hunstanton takes in some beautiful scenery and a string of pearl-like villages - Cley, Blakeney, Wells-next-the-Sea, Holkham, the Burnhams (all seven of them), Brancaster...

The well documented gentrification of these coastal resorts is very much in evidence - expensive and tantalising organic butchers, delis and antiques shops line the winding route and at the weekends, the village greens and pub car parks are gridlocked with Chelsea tractors.

Understandably, local people have been less than thrilled with the luvvie influx which has driven house prices through the roof, but this area remains a charming and now rather hip corner of East Anglia.

It's at this stage of my journey that the GPS pubs and inns guide kicks into overdrive and I’m totally spoilt for choice with numerous lovely pubs serving up a bevy of local delicacies: Brancaster mussels, Thornham oysters, Blakeney crab, Holkham game and samphire harvested from the marshes.

This being Lord Nelson’s birthplace, you can sup on a pint of Nelson’s Revenge at the Carpenter’s Arms in Wells or head to the Lord Nelson pub in Burnham Thorpe, where a tot of Nelson's Blood awaits you (according to the guide ‘a devilish concoction of 100% proof rum and spices’).

My favourite though is the Hoste Arms in beautiful Burnham Market where I happily whiled away a few rainy hours this week in one of their sumptuous leather sofas.

Just beyond Hunstanton, heading south on the Lynn Road is Heacham, the home of Norfolk Lavender – another Norfolk icon. Caley Mill, an old watermill which dates back to 1087, is the Norfolk Lavender HQ, and is surrounded by 100 acres of lavender fields.

I wish I could tell you about the heady scent and spectacular purple haze of those fields but unfortunately, I mistimed my visit as the lavender isn’t due to come in to full bloom until early July. Drat! But the gardens surrounding the mill are beautiful and there’s an incredible array of lavender themed goodies in the tea room and shop – from cosmetics and oils to lavender infused ice cream, fudge – even mustard. I couldn't resist the blueberry and lavender jam which I intend to spread liberally over hot toast at breakfast tomorrow.

Here's what I imagine those fields will look like in about a month's time...

The Hoste Arms
The Green
Burnham Market
PE31 8HD

Tel: 01328 738777

Norfolk Lavender
Caley Mill

PE31 7JE

Tel: 01485 570384

Monday, 19 May 2008

Norfolk's Other Seafaring Hero

The accolade of Norfolk's local hero recently went to a man of incredible courage and leadership who made his name at sea.

On this occasion however, Lord Admiral Nelson didn't quite cut the (Colman's?) mustard. In the BBC poll, Norfolk's local hero was named as a humble crab boat fisherman from Cromer called Henry Blogg.

Born in 1876, Blogg joined the lifeboat crew at the age of 18 and during an incredible seafaring career lasting 53 years, he saved 873 lives.

In the days before motorised boats, the crew of the cromer lifeboat (whose average age was over 50!) would be summonded to duty by a maroon, and regularly put their own lives in peril, relying on old fashioned manpower and courage to get the job done.

I've spent time in Cromer in all weathers and in the icy wind and rain it can feel like an epic task just popping out to Budgens for a loaf of bread - let alone taking to the roaring seas in a wooden rowing boat.

Due to his heroics as Coxwain of the Cromer lifeboat, Henry Blogg has become surely the world's most famous lifeboatman. The famously humble Norfolk man won the George Cross, a British Empire medal and many other awards for bravery.

On top of the cliffs, a bronze bust of Blogg gazes intently out across the vast North Sea panorama which he conquered on many occasions - in spite of the fact that he never learnt to swim!

The RNLI Henry Blogg Museum
The Rocket House
The Gangway
Norfolk NR27 8ET

Tel: 01263 511294

(P.S. The Rocket House Cafe is a great place to get a coffee or a light lunch with fantastic views over Cromer beach...)

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Wild weather in Cromer

I've come to the conclusion that, despite having a general hatred for dull, dank British weather, I actually prefer English seaside resorts in winter-time. I'm spending a few days on the North Norfolk coast - currently in Cromer - and the weather's been pretty mixed - today was wild though and so atmospheric which seemed to bring out the David Bailey in me...

Monday, 12 May 2008

A Fine City indeed

I know Norwich quite well as I have family here but I confess its incredible heritage has been dulled a bit by familiarity over the years.

In the 19th century, the Norfolk-born writer George Borrow described Norwich as ‘a fine old city’ – a proud refrain which the city borrowed for its road signs.

Its graceful Norman cathedral and castle dominate the city skyline, and the crumbling ruins of its ancient city walls and labyrinth of medieval backstreets and winding alleys still echo with its long and distinguished history.

For several hundred years, from the Norman Conquest onwards, Norwich was England’s second city and it is well known for having over 50 churches during medieval times – more than any other western European city.

Around 30 remain, and many have carved out a new vocation in these more secular times such as St James’s and St Michael’s which are now a puppet theatre and interactive science exhibition respectively.

Elm Hill remains my favourite spot in Norwich. Tucked away from the thousands of shoppers who throng to the city’s numerous shopping areas, this cobbled street, lined with timber-framed Tudor houses and antique shops is the perfect place to take a breather.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Elm Hill was an important commercial thoroughfare due to its position by the river. Weavers, goldsmiths, saddlemakers and other skilled craftsmen set up shop here and the area became a hub of workshops and wealthy merchant’s houses.

In 1507, a terrible fire destroyed 700 houses and its thought that only one building in Elm Hill survived – today, the attractive 15th century thatched building called the Britons Arms is a popular coffee house.

A visit to Elm Hill with my Auntie Sarah this afternoon confirmed my view that one of the best bits about Elm Hill is the tiny terrace garden at the Briton’s Arms. It’s an overgrown but completely secluded suntrap - the perfect spot on a sunny afternoon for tea and cake.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A drop of Suffolk ale

Today I meandered from Southwold to Norwich and came across a boozy little gem called St Peter's Hall which lies just outside the picturesque little town of Bungay (still in Suffolk).

It's an interesting place, a 13th century moated manor comprising many fine ecclesiastical pieces which were salvaged following the dissolution of nearby Flixton Priory.

In 1996, the hall was bought by John Murphy who has turned it into a brewery like no other - certainly a world away from my local brewery on the far-from-picturesque Wandsworth one-way system, adjacent to which I must have spent many a tedious hour stuck in traffic.

The main restaurant is a lofty banqueting hall complete with 17th century tapestries and fine stone fireplaces - a little on the grand side for my pit-stop lunch. Next door there's the more cosy Library Bar, but on a glorious sunny day like today I opted for the beautiful pub garden.

I'm not the world's biggest ale fan but it seemed rude not to partake - if only to get my hands on one of the brewery's quirky receptacles - as you can see, they are more medicine bottle than beer bottle. And I have to say that Suffolk ham and eggs washed down with this mild brew was a rather refreshing combination.

St Peter's Hall
St Peter South Elham
Suffolk NR35 1NQ

Tel: 01986 782288

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Life's a candy-coloured beach

Often described as the 'jewel' in the crown of the Suffolk coastline, Southwold is a firm favourite with this particular treasure hunter. And while this coastal treasure trove is hardly 'hidden' (it made Coast Magazine's Top 10 British Coastal Towns this week), in my humble opinion no trip to Suffolk is complete without a trip to Southwold.

Apparently, one of Southwold's famous beach huts is for sale in the popular Gun Hill area of the town and it looks like it might fetch £80,000. In fact, the local media has gone into a bit of a frenzy about this smart blue and white beach hut named 'Reverie' which appears to be bucking the current sloping trend in property prices.

Of course, this seems like an outrageous price to pay for a few square metres of shed on the beach (and remember we're talking British beach - where it rains most of the time). But if I had a spare £80,000 lying around, I'd love to buy a beach hut here. I can't think of anything that evokes childhood holiday nostalgia more.

I have a wonderfully flamboyant uncle - chef and housekeeper, flower arranger and party organiser extraordinaire - who used to entertain from his bijou beach hut at Herne Bay in Kent when we were children. My memories are like a scene from Country Living magazine - the only trouble was that the colour co-ordinated plastic buckets and spades which hung on the wall were ornamental.

Beach huts were first introduced to British seaside resorts in the Edwardian and post-first world war era, when it finally became acceptable for men and women to 'bathe' in public together. Councils provided beach huts and tents on the beach so that people could change into their swimming costumes out of view.

Before this, men and women bathed on separate beaches and changed in bathing 'machines' which were towed to the shoreline in an elaborate attempt to keep everyone's dignity in tact. Oh my, how times have changed!

To wrap up the childhood nostalgia theme, there's an old fashioned sweet shop in Southwold - Number One St James' Green - which is chock full of childhood favourites: a mind-boggling array of traditional boiled sweets, handmade fudge and locally sourced lavender honey.

So I end the day eating sweets on the beach next to a candy-coloured string of beach huts in the sunshine - can't get much better really.

Number One St James' Green,
Suffolk IP6 6JL
Tel: 01502 726039

For more information about the history and renting of beach huts click here