We’ve looked at cities so far in my Anglotopia magazine articles so this time I wanted to show you something more of the country. East Anglia is the bit that sticks out on the east of England and at the top is Norfolk. I managed to combine a city break with a seaside stay too, which makes it a perfect summer destination.
When you live on an island – Great British has thousands of miles of coastline – we have a lot of ‘seaside’ to choose from. I want to introduce you to north Norfolk and its 45 miles of shore.
Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it’s a wonderful region to be outside. The beaches are only part of the reason to be here although they make an excellent reason on a sunny day. Dog walkers are out all day long, and bird watchers enjoy the rare visiting birds and the nature reserves. And I’m surprised we don’t all know about the seal colonies here too.
A perfect base for exploring north Norfolk is the traditional seaside town of Cromer. Considered to be the ‘Gem of the Norfolk Coast,’ it is 23 miles north of the county city of Norwich and 116 miles north-northeast of London.
Cromer is easy to reach by train. It’s about a 45-minute journey from Norwich and a total of 3 hours from London (with a change at Norwich).
Cromer’s popularity as a summer resort grew in the early nineteenth century. Visitors included the future King Edward VII who played golf here. And Winston Churchill spent his holidays in Cromer in the 1930s
Cromer has a slower pace of life but livens up on a sunny day with families on the beach. There are lots of gift shops, and most shops have bowls of water out for the dogs taken on walks in the town.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Most people who visit Cromer want to see the beach and the late-Victorian pier. Cromer Pier is nearly 500 feet long and is one of only five UK seaside piers with a full working theatre. The Pavilion Theatre has an ‘End of the Pier’ variety show for three months every summer with other shows from late spring through to Christmas.
There’s also the RNLI Lifeboat Station at the end of the pier which welcomes visitors during the summer.
And as crabbing is popular here (the Cromer crab is on all menus), you could join the families trying to catch a crab from the pier. You just need a fishing line baited with bacon and a bucket to put the crabs in.
There are seats along the pier, so get a portion of fish and chips and bring them here to eat. Just be aware that the seagulls like chips too.
RNLI Henry Blogg Museum
There’s a free museum near the pier about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboatmen Henry Blogg who received the RNLI gold medal for heroism three times and the silver medal four times.
The museum has the Cromer Lifeboat H F Bailey III (ON 777) as its centerpiece and illustrates the history of the town’s lifeboats and lifeboatman Henry Blogg’s most famous rescues.
Do stop for a cuppa in the Rocket House Café upstairs as the views are great and there are often surfers to watch. (There’s a webcam here so you can watch from home too.)
In the town center, the Church of St Peter and St Paul dates from the fourteenth century. It has stained glass depicting lifeboat crew, and the window at the east of the south aisle was designed by Edward Burne-Jones and executed by William Morris. After admiring the finely carved hammer-beam roof head up the bell tower for fantastic views. The bell tower is the highest in the country at 160 feet high with 171 steps.
If your legs are wobbly after the climb, I can recommend the Art House Café opposite the church where they serve toasted teacakes and crumpets. Enjoy a pot of tea in the gallery where there are also some excellent, and well-priced, gifts to buy.
Next to the church, at Cromer Museum, you can step inside a cozy Victorian fisherman’s cottage and imagine what it was like to live in Cromer at the end of the nineteenth century. The museum has an impressive archive of historic photographs of the town charting Cromer’s history as a Victorian seaside resort with its fine hotels and scandalous mixed bathing.
And the Norfolk fossils in the Geology Gallery are worth seeing as it includes Britain’s oldest and most complete fossil along with some of the bones of the West Runton mammoth.
I wasn’t expecting to find South American wildlife at this seaside town, but Amazona Zoo is open all year and is just a short walk from the town center.
The tropical animals include jaguars, monkeys, snakes, flamingos, and tapirs, as well as Amazon parrots and macaws. The kids will love the indoor and outdoor play areas too.
Royal Cromer Golf Club
Visitors are always welcome at Royal Cromer and players staying at any local hotel receive a 10% discount for the standard 18 hole rate.
WHERE TO EAT
The flavorsome Cromer crabs became particularly popular in Victorian times, and today the local fishing boats focus entirely on crabs and lobsters so you’ll find both on menus.
The chips from Mary Janes are great. (I took a portion to eat on the pier and didn’t share with the seagulls.) Overlooking the sea, No.1 Cromer has a fish and chip takeaway, and you can eat in downstairs at this classic chippie. Or head up to Upstairs at No.1 for Galton Blackiston’s high-end restaurant.
Many of our seaside pier traditions involve treat food, so make sure you have a soft-whipped ice-cream cone or some brightly-colored candy floss (cotton candy). And the best seaside souvenirs are sticks of rock (hard candy sticks with the name of the town all the way through).
The town has lots of cafes for ‘coffee and cake,’ and I can recommend the well-priced afternoon tea at The Grove Hotel. It took me two hours to get through it all, but I wasn’t going to give up!
WHERE TO STAY
I can wholeheartedly recommend The Grove Hotel (and not just for their amazing afternoon tea). This four-star family-run hotel is in a Georgian country house. There’s an annex with a heated swimming pool and massage huts in the ‘secret garden’ area of the grounds. When you’ve been for a clifftop walk – reachable from the hotel garden – you’ll be glad you booked a relaxing treatment.
I was also grateful for my stunning bedroom, which had a bathroom three times the size of mine at home. I spent a good hour soaking in the freestanding roll-top bath before getting an excellent night’s sleep.
Other recommended places to stay include the seafront Cambridge House guest house, rooms at the Red Lion pub and Virginia Court Hotel (which locals described for me as ‘posh’).
Every year during the third week of August, it’s Cromer Carnival Week. The highlight is the carnival day on Wednesday which includes a display over the sea by the famous Red Arrows (Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team) and a parade of floats through the town center in the evening.
Or come in May for the Crab and Lobster Festival weekend that takes place in Cromer and Sheringham.
If you’re using Cromer as your base, you can easily get to lots more of the north Norfolk coast on the Coasthopper bus.
Sheringham has the North Norfolk Railway, and you can get the steam train to the idyllic historic market town of Holt. Wells-next-the-Sea is a lovely little seaside town with beautiful open sandy beaches and pretty beach huts. The National Trust Holkham Hall is here too.
Take a kite to Holkham as the beach is huge when the tide is out. And Blakeney is a bit further along the coast but is the best place to go on a boat trip to see the seals.
The Muckleburgh Military Collection is the UK’s largest private military museum with working tanks and military vehicles. And another recommended National Trust location is Blicking Hall between Cromer and Norwich.
The Norfolk Broads are in Wroxham where you can hire a boat, feed the ducks, or just enjoy a wander. The Bure Valley Railway has steam trains to the Norfolk Broads from Aylsham or Wroxham.
Norfolk’s county town and only city is Norwich. 110 miles north of London, and only 2-hours away by train, it’s easy to have a stop off here too to enjoy a Norfolk seaside and city break.
Norwich was once second only to London in importance. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the conquerors built a castle and a cathedral and established a new market place which is still in use today.
The layers of history continue as Norwich was the largest walled city in England and is the most complete medieval city in England. But things didn’t stop there as there are beautiful Victorian buildings and contemporary design too. And Norwich has UNESCO City of Literature status, so there’s a lot of culture on offer as well.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Watching over Norwich from a mound in the city center, Norwich Castle is a classic Norman motte and bailey castle with crenellations around the top. A few years older than Norwich Cathedral, the building was started in 1067 and completed by 1121. It became a prison in the thirteenth century and remained so until the nineteenth century. It’s now a museum and art gallery (transformed by Edward Boardman who happens to be a friend’s father).
After exploring the great castle tower (Keep), there are lots of galleries to see. This museum houses all matter of artifacts from Saxon gold hoards and jewelry to a vast collection of teapots and natural history displays. There’s even a 3,000-year-old female mummy in the Egyptian gallery.
The permanent collections on display in the art galleries span from the seventeenth to the twentieth century including artworks by Sir Alfred Munnings, Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, Edward Burne-Jones and members of the Dutch School.
You will need at least 1.5 hours to visit, but if you are pushed for time, there is a ‘twilight ticket’ that is only £2 for entry 1 hour before closing.
Note: The castle Keep will close for a £13 million redevelopment in summer 2019. When it reopens in 2020, it will make the Castle one of the most important medieval castles in Europe.
Built-in the twelfth century, no cathedral in England, save Durham, is so completely a Norman structure. It’s a beautiful 900-year-old Romanesque cathedral. The spire is the second tallest in England, and the surrounding Cathedral Close is one of the largest in Europe.
The white limestone was shipped here from Caen, William the Conqueror’s home city. Do look up to see the roof bosses – there are magnifying mirror tables in the nave on wheels to move around – and step outside into the peaceful cloisters.
Entry is free, and there are free 1 hour guided tours available Monday to Saturday every hour between 11 am and 3 pm.
To get closer to that stunning roof, a 40ft helter-skelter is being installed in the West End of the Nave from 7 to 18 August 2019. And yes, you can slide down! Then in summer 2020, Dippy, the Natural History Museum’s iconic Diplodocus cast, will end his national tour at Norwich Cathedral from 11 July to 31 October 2010.
INSIDER TIP: Norwich actually has two cathedrals, and you can also visit St John the Baptist Cathedral for free too. It is one of the finest examples of great Victorian Gothic Revival architecture in the UK, and there are Tower Tours available on Saturdays. Plantation Garden, Norwich’s Grade II listed secret Victorian garden, is next door.
Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell
This is the place to find out about the city and its people. Norwich was a busy industrial center from textiles and shoes to chocolate and Christmas crackers. And the world-famous Colman’s Mustard, of course.
The canary is the mascot of Norwich City Football Club, and I found out that’s because the Dutch refugees in the 1500s kept canaries. And I discovered that in 1700 Norwich was larger and more prosperous than its medieval counterparts Bristol, York, Newcastle, and Exeter.
It’s an interesting museum with lots of drawers to open to keep everyone entertained. And there’s an amazing complete Victorian chemist shop too.
If you like escape room games, History Mystery is located in the fourteenth-century Undercroft of The Museum of Norwich. All games are based on true Norwich history and have been devised using exhibits from the museum.
This is an unusual attraction as it’s inside Aviva Insurance offices. But visitors are welcome during office hours to see this spectacular piece of Edwardian architecture.
Local architect George Skipper used forty marble columns in the main hall; marble which was originally intended for Westminster Cathedral in London. Fifteen varieties of marble have been used in what is perhaps one of the finest non-ecclesiastical buildings in Britain.
It also contains an ‘air fountain’ for old-fashioned air-conditioning and a chiming skeleton clock made for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
One of Norwich’s oldest and most fascinating buildings, Strangers’ Hall dates back to 1320 when England welcomed religious refugees from Europe. Skilled weavers were encouraged to settle in Norwich, and some stayed here at the hall.
Originally the home of a prosperous fifteenth-century merchant, it comprises a Hall with a lovely oriel window and a fine carved staircase leading to an open gallery which gives access to the bedrooms, etc. Each room is laid out in one particular period and tells the story of both the time and occupant.
There’s some impressive fine art on display here including a seventeenth-century piece that contains the earliest known depiction of a baby walker, and a nearly 8ft wide painting called ‘Ages of Man’ which tells the story of man’s journey from birth to death, complete with seventeenth-century fashions and animal imagery.
Named after the elm trees which stood here during the reign of King Henry VIII, this is the prettiest street in Norwich. The cobbled street is lined with medieval buildings leaning in, and it rarely gets crowded.
All buildings on Elm Hill were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1507 with the exception of The Britons Arms tearoom where you’ll deserve a tea break after climbing up the hill. It’s a Tudor building with floors and ceilings sloping in different directions plus a secret courtyard garden.
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
A short bus ride from the city center, the Sainsbury Centre is located on the campus of the University of East Anglia. Built in the 1970s – it was the first commercial build from Norman Foster – it remains looking as futuristic as ever (which is probably why it got used in the 2018 ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ movie).
Lord and Lady Sainsbury were voracious collectors of art. They supported artists like Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Bacon with financial aid and friendship when the artists themselves were still unknown. Their shared love of ancient, non-western art drew them to look outside Europe and the collection spans over 5,000 years of human history and every populated continent on earth.
This world-renowned collection is worth millions and includes artworks by Picasso and Degas, while the Sculpture Park includes Antony Gormley and Vladimir Tatlin.
Norwich Theatre Royal
This art deco theatre hosts a large range of touring productions, so this can be a chance to see a West End production outside of London. The best place for a pre-theatre meal is at the Assembly House, which is almost next door.
In the heart of the city is Norwich Market with its colorful striped stall awnings. It’s been here since the eleventh century yet it’s still relevant today as it was recently awarded ‘Best Large Outdoor Market in Britain’ by Great British Market Awards 2019. This is England’s largest open-air market and is open six days a week.
The stalls sell fruit, vegetables, flowers, and clothes with lots of street food options for lunchtime too. To really get to know the area you could take a one-hour guided tour in and around Norwich Market celebrating 940 years of buying and selling in Norwich.
Country & Eastern
This is truly not what I was expecting to find. It’s already unusual enough as this shop is in a former Victorian ice skating rink. But Country & Eastern is also The South Asia Collection Museum with incredible oversized artifacts such as shop doorways and traditional furniture from India. While admiring these treasures, you can also buy trinkets, jewelry, textiles, and hand-woven carpets too. A visit is an absolute delight.
Another independent shop is Jarrolds department store which has been in Norwich since 1823. It is still owned by the Jarrold family and has won many awards, but I’m not totally sure what the excitement is about this place although I did enjoy browsing in the huge book department.
The Norwich Lanes
Potter along Pottergate to enjoy the hundreds of small shops in The Norwich Lanes from vintage gems and antiques to jewelry and fashion. There’s plenty of eateries too. Do stop in Wilkinson’s to buy tea and coffee to take home as the range on offer is huge. The Lanes stretch from Upper St Giles Street to the tip of London Street which the first shopping street in the UK to be pedestrianized in 1967.
WHERE TO EAT
A Norwich institution, Waffle House has delicious savory waffles and indulgent sweet desserts too. Grosvenor Fish Bar is a trendy take on fish and chips (don’t worry, it really works!), and Last Pub Standing has great pub food. At the upmarket end of the dining scale is The Ivy Norwich Brasserie, and fine dining is available at Benedicts and Roger Hickman’s Restaurant.
Only open since February 2019, I had dinner at Cosy Club – located in a stunning heritage building (former bank). The decor is gorgeous (Indonesian wallpaper, unique feature light fittings, etc.), and the food is delicious. You may well come for a drink in the bar and end up staying for dinner too.
I can’t go anywhere without having afternoon tea, so my recommendation for Norwich is the Assembly House where the dining room is opulent, and the cake stand is exquisite. You could also try Biddy’s Tea Rooms in the Lanes or Harriet’s Tea Rooms inspired by the English charm and elegance of the Lyon’s Corner Houses in London (popular from the 1920s to ‘70s).
WHERE TO STAY
The Assembly House may only have eleven rooms, but if the other ten are as wonderful as the one I stayed in you’ll be on a winner. The stunning Georgian building has rooms with balconies and private gardens, right in the city center. I loved the spacious bedroom and luxurious bathroom, and I slept well in the sumptuous bed. The Richard Hughes Cookery School is also here so you could take a masterclass for lunch or dinner.
Also in the city center, the Maids Head Hotel is the oldest hotel in the UK, dating back over 800 years. This independent hotel is full of character and has had a multi-million-pound investment.
Thanks to Greater Anglia for providing train tickets and to The Grove Hotel at Cromer and the Assembly House in Norwich who both provided accommodation and afternoon tea. The Assembly House in Norwich is a boutique B&B from £170 per night, and The Grove Hotel in Cromer has bedrooms in the Georgian house plus self-catering cottages and even glamping in the garden in the summer. For more information on things to do all year round as well as places to stay, eat, drink and shop go to www.visitnorthnorfolk.com and www.visitnorwich.co.uk who helped plan this trip. Images credited to Visit Norfolk and used with permission.