Norfolk narrative and a little Zipadee-doo-da

Off to the land of the ‘Nor’ Folk’, as Anglo-Saxon a place as I’ve ever been, place names familiar from architectural studies years ago when Bannister Fletcher’s anthology of English architectural styles sat on my bed-side table.  I remember too the ‘rotten boroughs’ of the early C19th which seemed to be mostly responsible for the domination of the Tories and somehow had a role in the repeal of the Corn Laws.  Corn dominated my first few days in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire but it gradually gave way to wooded valleys and some pastures as I headed east toward the next camping station.

Sun on ripening Corn in Cambridgeshire

Dark skies accentuate the sunshine on ripening cornfields which stretch to the horizon in the flatlands of the fen edge.

I’m not sure now what I had expected of the county of the ‘north folk’, it was not as flat or monotonous as I had imagined.  I knew Norfolk as the birthplace of much of the improvements which turned British agriculture  into one of the most successful food production systems in the post-medieval world.  Names like Tusser and Coke and the great inventors like Tull and Townsend and the ‘Norfolk four course’ system of crop rotation.  In a sentence, I was not disappointed.

One of the best indicators of wealth achievable from farming in an area in the medieval period is the size of monastic houses.  Huge land owners and innovative farmer-monks often reflected the bounty of their land in the grandeur of their houses, abbeys dotted the landscape.  Most of the orders sought quiet places to establish their monastic dynasties and noble-men vied with each other to secure the establishment of such monastic settlements upon their lands, the better to ensure their entry through the Pearly Gates.  Such a place, albeit a ruin following the Dissolution unleashed upon the Catholic monasteries by a vengeful King in the 1500s, is Castle Priory, one of Norfolk’s finest ruins.

Benedictine Abbey in Norfolk

The massive size of the Castle Priory ruins leaves no doubt as to its wealth and importance, this house of the Benedictines is quite outstanding.

The existence of it was not known to me prior to the arrival of a couple of books I had purchased on the area some weeks previously, it was the cover photograph on one of them.  It was a coincidence that I happened to be passing close-by and made a slight detour to find the most extra-ordinary backwater of tranquility.  A quiet village with chocolate-box houses and a pub still open – an increasingly rare thing in my part these days – and then, a half a mile or so from the village square, the Priory sits in a small valley, it appears suddenly as one turns a corner and see the immense church and cloisters spread out before.

The village also has a rather fine Norman motte and bailey castle with an impressive ditch defence.  Resisting the temptation for a lunch time visit to the very beckoning ale house, I pushed on to the next halt, a lovely site near the village of Marsham.  I liked the farm setting of the site and the tent field was away from the caravans and hue.  I can highly recommend Top Farm campsite.  Best of all was the presence each evening of a pair of Barn Owls which hunted over the uncut hay field on the lower slope of the camping field.

Summer evening Barn Owl

I hope you can just make-out the ghostly outline of the Barn Owl which enthralled me every evening, the pair nested in the old barn of Top Farm.

Anticipating this holiday I took the decision – about as right-wing a move as I’ve ever made ! – of  joining the National Trust as in that part of the world there are some seriously interesting Trust holdings.  The first was the old wind-mill pumping station at Horsey near the coast in Broad country.  For some reason I thought it would be a quiet deserted place, silly me.  It was busy, oh yes, but still well worth the visit.  The old pump and wind-mill have been restored and it is possible to climb the ever-so narrow steps of the pumping house (nice to see that health and safety stupidity has not yet reached this part of the world) to see the inner workings and the extensive view out over the waters of Horsey Mere (a Mere is the name given to an individual ‘Broad’ or sheet of water) and the flat, below-sea level countryside.

Horsey pumping house, National Trust

Not a wind-mill as such but a wind powered pumping house to keep the land drained.

I was struck by the magnitude of the task of raising the great beams of timbers and giant iron rings and cogs on which the turning mechanism depended which allows the sails to rotate into the wind.  I still cannot work-out how it was accomplished.

Cog gearing in old wind driven pumping house

The main cog which the sails turn and which provides the motion for the pump.

The coast was nearby and so I set off for my first-ever view of the North sea (I’m pretty sure it was my first ever view which is quite an admission I’m afraid).

The coastline is mostly a long wind-swept shingle and sand strip, just the sort of wildlife place I like.  The sea-wall is quite astounding and is a fairly recent construction, presumably in readiness for the rising of sea-levels or the dreaded North sea surge which has a doomsday scenario about it.  It was a ‘Norfolk half-mile’ which seemed very much longer than the equivalent ‘Welsh half-mile’, to the beach from the pumping station.  It was a long forty minute walk across flat fields to reach the sea-wall, through a small gap I glimpsed the North sea.

Gap in the sea-wall on the Norfolk coast

A sea wall which supposedly will do a 'Canute' and hold back the North-sea.

The shingle and sand were unspoilt and very few people had made the long haul, it would be no fun carrying all the paraphenalia required for a day-out with sand-castle building, frizbee throwing, voracious sandwich eating children.  One or two had ventured into the cold grey water and as I sat on the sand and looked seaward I thought I saw several heads bobbing a little farther out.  Indeed I had except I soon realised they were not human heads but grey seals bobbing in the swell.  As I got used to spotting them it became apparent that there were over a dozen swimming around and some quite near the shore line.   I wandered to the edge of the water and could see the large round black eyes and the whiskers as they stared back at me.  For a while I wondered which of us were the more fascinated.

Sea Lions off the Norfolk Coast

The size of these bulls was astonishing and they came quite close-in; close to where a lady dressed in a similarly blackish grey wet suit was splashing around.....

I found the place relaxing and sat and watched the seals and a pair of Marsh Harriers hunting the dunes, for a long time before heading back the long walk to the pumping house.

I headed back towards the camp-site but was diverted by a sign for Hickling Broad.  The name has a strong resonance for me from my early teen years as the place where an angling legend used to catch the biggest of pike.  Dennis Pye was a favourite read of mine and I so wanted to come to the Broads, Hickling in particular, and emanate the great man’s achievements in landing such huge fish surrounded by the peace and tranquility of the waving reed beds at the margins of the mere.

The next port of call was another National Trust property with historic connections of great importance.  Ann Boleyn (if you haven’t yet seen ‘The other Boleyn girl’ you should) was of course instrumental in the whole massive upheaval which took place in the political / religious rule of Britain during Henry VIII’s reign.  Her family home was at Blickling near Aylsham and some home it was.  I’m not generally given to wandering the portals and gardens of immaculately preserved historic grand houses, but this one disabused me of any lingering prejudice, and then some.

Ann Boleyn's home of Blickling Hall in Norfolk

What can I possibly add..... Blickling Hall

The building dates back into the C15th with later Tudor additions.  I liked the way that the Trust had focussed in on the last period of occupancy, the 1930s, and had recorded the memories of the house staff from that period which they had then turned into a ‘living history’ type tour with ‘actors’ dressed in the attire of butlers and house-maids, cooks and gardeners, who told the stories of the actual staff from that period.  I was taken with the notion that the poor young girls charged with lighting, daily, the 72 fires throughout the house were strictly limited in the number of kindling sticks they were allowed for each fire – if only my present fire-lighting house guest could be equally frugal….

View of the formal gardens through the library window of Blickling Hall

I have a similar view from my bedroom window....

The gardens and grounds, particularly the fabulous aboretum, are quite magnificent and I spent a long time wandering therein.  Another amusing but informative piece of re-enactment between ‘Madam’ and the head gardener revealed the age old battle between new ideas of the Mistress and the reticence of the staff to embrace anything which suggested extra work; fortunately on this occasion – 1750s – the Mistress prevailed, giving us the beautiful formal layout which has been restored to its original glory.

I could write on endlessly about Blickling and its grand furniture and fittings, the quite incredible and nationally important library (it houses the largest collection of all National Trust properties and has a number of unique medieval books), the kitchens, the grounds, the place in general, I will just say ‘go see it for yourself’.

Gardens and house at Blickling

A view of ther formal gardens and the southern facade of the house.

Without doubt, Blickling Hall was one of the highlights of my trip, a quite outstanding example of how the wealthy in our society, from the middle ages to the 1930s, lived.  My only other visit was to the coast and the infamous sea-side town of Cromer.  a greater contrast could not be imagined, Cromer is all that holiday sea-side towns should be – naff, definately, curious, of course, full of silly shops selling silly un-necessary trinkets of your visit, but oh so essential to us all.  Fish ‘n’ chips, sea-food in polystyrene beakers, even ‘rock’ – I hadn’t realised that was still made – and of course beer by the bucketfu,l in horrid plastic glasses.  All the accents you could imagine from all over England (and some other lands !) and certainly as many shapes and sizes of folk as could ever have been bred.  Not my type of place but it brought a smile, maybe even a slight reminiscence of days long gone.  I resisted the temptation of getting the ‘I’ve been to Cromer’ sticker for my landie, not quite the thing you know…

The Pier at Cromer in Norfolk

The Pier at Cromer, well what else would a sea-side town have !

My trip lasted just a week, I find that to be plenty to recharge batteries and in any case another trips was already on the horizon.  I, as much as anyone I suppose, can handle the comfort and hedonism of a smart hotel but my real pleasure comes from a quiet, un-pressured way of taking a break, camping.  Not everyone’s cup of tea I know, but I’ve always done it and hopefully will do so for a while yet.  However there is a necessary change, a technological revolution which is urgently needed in the world of sleeping under canvas (of course it’s not canvas these days but some form of man-made polyester fibre – excellent in its way).  One mostly finds that folk of similar ilk have a set of un-written rules which surround camp-site living, particularly regarding noise after hours and cleanliness.  Once in a while – twice lately for me actually – you will come across the odd imbecile who carries on regardless of everyone else (tent walls leave nothing unheard !) but by-and-large it’s a quiet peaceful environment, providing you choose the right sites.  There is one menace that overcomes all sense of propriety, TENT ZIPS.  I cannot believe that in the 21st century modern tents are still sealed with such noisy bloody zips !!!!!!!!  A lady next to me  -100 yds or so away – each evening would go in – zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip – close up – zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, open the inner sleeping compartment, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, go in and close it, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, get changed (I presume that’s what she did) open up, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, come out of the bedroom area and close up (why ?) zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, open the outer doorway, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, step out, close it, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, go off to clean her teeth or whatever ladies take an hour to do, come back and repeat the whole bloody process,  zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip times 4 !!!!  This routine of zipping open, then zipping closed, open, close, close, open, go for a pee (3 in the morning), forget your torch, open, close, close open, on and on and on.  Surely somebody can invent the Silent Zip ! Zipadee-doo-da ! What’s that TV programme where people invent stupid things and try to get the panel to fund them ?  Do it someone, please !  Mind you, it still wouldn’t solve the problem of total prats like the idiot I encountered in a North Wales campsite recently who, at 6 am, shouted constant instructions to his ‘oh so’ beleagured wife and two sons as to which item of camping equipment should next be brought to him so he could pack them precisely into his camping trailer.  They then had to chant the number of tent pegs they pulled as they surrounded the collapsing (huge Bedouin type) tent.  He was still shouting orders when I walked past at 8.30 on the way to the shower block;  he had the cheek to say ‘good morning’ !!  My one-word reply cannot be printed here, prat indeed.

Finally, my journey to the land of the barely understandable Nor’ folk had one more surprise for me.  In the small market town of Aylsham I happened on yet another charming medieval church – which I am programmed to have to visit – but to my utter amazement a large tombstone announced the resting place of the very garden designer who had so rejuventaed Blickling and was responsible for many of the great formal gardens of the era, including I believe, our very own Dyffryn Gardens near Cardiff which is being restored under the direction of a former university colleague of mine Ms. Grainger.  Humphrey Repton is renowned amongst the great designers and to find his stone in that lovely churchyard and his house close-by was a real addition to my trip ‘out east’

The tomb of the garden designer, Humphrey Repton

A great stone for a great man, the tablet dedicated to Humphrey Repton in the churchyard at Aylsham.

Finally the weather turned against me and my move to what was to be the last couple of nights of the holiday was abandoned.  I headed the long winding road back to the land of Welshwaller, walls need building, tractors need starting and guests need feeding, a hectic few weeks until the end of summer.  But, a little trip to the Great Dorset Steam Fair awaits, now that will be something to ‘blog’ about !!

So's I don't get too homesick - a Land rover and a dry stone wall go with me......... sad, I know.


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