Norfolk, nestled in the East Anglian region of England does not jump to mind when thinking about the UK’s top tourist destinations. Although with only 100 miles separating it from London, Norfolk offers the visitor a rich and surprising blend of history and incredible natural beauty. Check out what we learnt about the area after our visit during Easter 2019.
Norfolk countryside – a few surprises
During a trip to UK’s easterly edge to celebrate a friend’s Birthday, we were about to experience something pretty unusual for us; excitement and anticipation for an English excursion. Don’t get me wrong we will always be British and in good weather England is a very special place to visit. Although since we hit the road three years ago, our draw to European shores has distanced us from Britain’s best bits. And so it was lovely to have this reconnection with our homeland.
Apart from a work trip to Norwich, neither of us have dipped our toes into this region of the UK. Norfolk was a stranger to us and we were looking forward to getting to know it better, all be it only for four days. We have learnt though, that sometimes a brief visit is all you need to whet your appetite and spark a desire to return.
Whilst our visit to the county of Norfolk really piqued our curiosity, our passage towards Norwich didn’t inspire us. We had been warned that Norfolk was flat and boring – would our experience be different? We hoped so. We arrived at a campsite in Salhouse, just outside Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads and checked out the map. There certainly seemed to be plenty to do in the area. So with bikes at the ready, we headed into the countryside.
Our first surprise was how quaint the Norfolk villages are. With images being conjured up of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, thatched houses were aplenty creating something that was quite literally ‘far from the madding crowd’. Traditional village pubs, quintessential churches and the odd Brewery thrown in for good measure, all combined to make this a world far removed from the smoke-filled skies of London.
With quiet and flat roads for exploring by bike and walks through the many Broads that speckle this area, it is a joy to wander through what feels like a timeless part of the world. Woodbastwick is a delightful traditional English village, Salhouse with its thatched church and Horning set in the heart of the Bure Marshes Nature Reserve carry you away from the commerciality that so often pollutes our lives.
Check out our gallery by clicking the image below.
The Broads National Park – for messing about on the river
Norfolk’s most famous landmark is its Broads – 125 miles of navigable waterways that although are man-made have a really unique feel to them. The Norfolk Broads are incredibly special as, unlike their canal cousins in the beating heart of UK’s industrial heritage, they have no locks. Just twisting water courses that wind their way through old peat bogs that have been reclaimed by man’s farming and rising sea levels. Although it is worth pointing out that they were not a recent creation. This reclamation took place in medieval times, so these are seriously ancient waterways.
The now classified Broads National Park is the only park in the UK that has a city in its midst, making it quite unique. It has an area of 117 square miles covering both Suffolk and Norfolk, and within its boundaries it has 7 rivers and 63 Broads, of which 13 are navigable. Tourism has flourished in the area as yacht racing and boating holidays have almost swamped the Park. Speed restrictions are now in place on craft using these incredible waterways and police regularly patrol the Broads – now there’s a job to have.
To create a visual image of the Norfolk Broads, let me paint you a picture. Imagine golden reed beds fringing the rivers and lakes, gently crafted by the winds that blow in from The Wash. Chocolate-box cottages border the riverside with not a garage in sight. Just boat sheds that perch on stilts housing every shape and size of vessel you can imagine. Watery cul-de-sacs have been shaped to create what many call mini Venice. Although for me it’s more like The Netherlands both with their rivers, windmills and landscape being so iconic.
And then there’s the boat-watching. The pleasure cruisers, sailing boats and paddle-steamers all call this place home, chugging up and down the rivers looking for a slice of tranquility. And yet, even in April the river was buzzing as busily as a bee-hive coming out of hibernation making people’s antics quite a source of entertainment as they tried to hone their navigation skills.
And how could I forget the wildlife that the Broads have in abundance? Herons stand erect like something out of Jurassic Park, waiting to catch their prey. Canada and Grey-lag geese fight for their territory and, if you are lucky maybe you will see an otter as it stealthily glides between the reed beds. Buzzards soar above you and swallows skim the water in front of boat’s bows mesmerising your gaze. They all contribute to making a magic potion that once consumed allows you to seriously lose yourself.
We stayed at Salhouse Lodge, a small and basic campsite just a 15 minute cycle or 7 minute taxi drive away from Wroxham. It is here that you can hire day-boats from £20 for 1 hour in low season to £80 for 4 hours in high season. From here you can also stay or have lunch at the riverside Wroxham Hotel, take a train inland into Norwich or out to Cromer on the east coast. Wroxham is a great central place to explore the Norfolk Broads and if you go, you must check out Roy’s at least once!
Have a look at our gallery of the Norfolk Broads below.
Norfolk’s capital Norwich
Norfolk’s draw may well be of the watery kind, although don’t underestimate Norwich. Having been a couple of decades ago for work, I have no lasting memories of the city other than the incredibly long drive to get there from Cheltenham. Still a revisit with our friends gave us an opportunity to explore its landmarks and Saxon and Norman influences. In our three years of full-time travel, we have learnt to keep our minds open and curious as this is how treasures can be found. And this mindset served us well for our short visit to Norwich.
Heading out on the hourly train from Wroxham, for a mere £6.50 return per person we were soon hurtling towards this cathedral city. My research told me that there was a castle to explore, The Lanes, a river and of course the Cathedral. With my pinned map of highlights we set off for a walking tour so we could, at the very least, get a flavour of this East Anglian city.
Once the second most important city after London thanks, in part to its lucrative wool trade, Norfolk’s Norwich packs an historical punch. With Anglo-Saxon heritage followed by a strong Viking influence and Norman conquests, its colourful past has shadows and treachery fringing its edges. Jews once settled here and then were subsequently massacred after their suspected involvement in the murder of a Norwich boy. Norwich, it seems, created itself as a centre for strangers, welcoming French, Dutch and Flemish amongst others, each nation bringing their own skills to add to Norwich’s tapestry. Of particular significance were the Flemish pet canaries, that they began to breed locally in 16th century. Interestingly their legacy continues today as we see Norwich adopting the canary as their mascot and their football club has the canary as their emblem. Isn’t it great to know the source of such traditions?
In addition to Norwich being the only city in England to be contained within the boundaries of a National Park, it also:
- is the most complete medieval city in England
- has the most medieval churches of any western European city, north of the Alps
- has the largest permanent undercover market in Europe
- has the second largest cathedral spire in England and Europe
- was voted the happiest place to work in 2016; and in 2018 the best place to live in England.
Now that’s some boasting.
So if we have enticed you just a little, you’ll not be disappointed by our Top 7 recommendations to add to your Norwich visit;
- The 12th century Norman Castle, which is now a museum (52.628773, 1.296308)
- The Cathedral and its grounds (52.631761, 1.301027)
- The undercover market and old town gaol (52.628515, 1.293226)
- The Lanes, a series of pedestrian alleys with cobbled streets and artisan shops (52.629103, 1.293279)
- Elm Hill, the most famous street in Norwich – a cobbled street dating back to Tudor times (52.631309, 1.296643)
- The Halls, the best and most complete example of a Friary complex in England (52.630973, 1.295577)
- The river walk which is easily accessed from the train station.
Have a look at our gallery of Norwich below.
Check out our video footage, giving you a glimpse of our four day visit to Norfolk.
Closing thoughts on Norfolk
Ok, so we recognise that we didn’t see a great deal of Norfolk, although our introduction to this region was surprisingly positive. When looking to explore the vastness of English beauties, it’s easy to be swayed by perspectives that consider Norfolk to be flat, boring and too far to drive. Although after our four days in the Norfolk Broads area, we have been so impressed and really want to challenge the ‘backwater’ reputation that East Anglia has had to suffer in the past.
We have come to appreciate flat in our three years of full-time travel, as every landscape has something to offer. And with flatness comes a whole unique perspective like no other. And the Broads themselves, well they are just a water maze of intrigue and natural beauty akin to the Netherlands. Norwich we have seriously underestimated and with its rich tapestry of history and evolution, this city has so much more than just a shopping experience.
And that is before you have even begun to explore the coast, which will be our next journey – another time. For now, we will look back at our Norfolk exploration with fondness and step forward with a desire to promote it as a place to visit.
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