Having finally accepted that it was unlikely that we would get to holiday overseas this year, we decided on a staycation, and opted for The North Norfolk coast, having never been there before …. and West Wales, (having been there before and absolutely loved it). Our trip to Wales is next week… but we are just back from Norfolk, and I highly recommend a visit.
The drive from Southampton, (where we live) to Norfolk is about 4 hours, so we broke it up with a stop at Bury St Edmunds, a historic market, cathedral town and civil parish in Suffolk. The town is most famous for the ruin of the Abbey that stands near to the town centre, surrounded by gardens. The Abbey was built as a shrine to Saint Edmund, Saxon King of the East Engles.
The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was once one of the richest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England. Its remains are still very extensive and include the complete 14th century Great Gate and Norman Tower, as well as the ruins and altered front of the church. It was built in the 11th and 12th centuries, and then much enlarged and rebuilt during the 12th century. It was approximately 500 feet long, and spanning 246 ft across its westerly transept, making it one of the largest churches in the country.
We left Bury and made our way to Castle Rising, an absolutely breathtaking unspoilt tiny village, best known for its’ Castle which dominates the village. On arrival, I was keen to get some refreshment in the pretty Castle Rising Tea Rooms, and it did not disappoint. Highly recommend if you get a chance to visit!
The castle is extremely impressive. Not only does it dominate the skyline with its impregnable fortress shape, but so much of it is still intact. It is, according to the guide, one of the largest, best preserved and most lavishly decorated keeps in England.
Building of the castle began in 1138 by the Norman lord William d’Albini for his new wife, the widow of Henry I. Later, in the 14th century it became the luxurious residence of Queen Isabella, widow (and alleged murderess) of Edward II.
Leaving Castle Rising, we made our way to the seaside town of Hunstanton, which was to be our base for the next 4 nights. As it was still early, we took a wander along the beach and a quick explore around the town before checking into our guest house.
Hunstanton faces west across The Wash, making it one of the few places on the east coast of the U.K. where the sun sets over the sea. More of that later. Hunny, (as it is known locally) caters for seaside holidays for families and is therefore understandably quite tourist oriented, (lots of fish and chips and amusement arcades), but the beaches are spectacular and it has some hidden gems, like The Norfolk Deli which sells the best vegan sandwiches (for takeaway) I have ever tasted.
As we wandered along the cliff tops, we came across Old Hunstanton Lighthouse, and nearby the ruin of St Edmunds’ Chapel. Although the present lighthouse was built in 1840, there has been a lighthouse on the site since the 17th century, (prior to which a light to help sailors may have been displayed from the chapel.)
The now ruined chapel, was built in 1272 in memory of St Edmund who landed at Hunstanton in 855 to be crowned King of East Anglia. He led an army against Viking invaders, but was defeated, captured and beheaded. His supporters wanted to bury his body whole, but the head was missing… only to be found being protected and guarded by a wolf. Edmund became the first patron saint of England and many miracles were attributed to him.a
Next day we were up bright and early as the sun was shining again, and we decided to made our way to Creake Abbey, which is a half an hour drive from Hunstanton. Set in tranquil countryside, the flint-walled ruins of this Augustinian abbey church tells a sad story of monastic disaster. After a devastating 15th-century fire, it was drastically reduced in size, and was just getting on its feet again when the plague struck, killing all the monks. In 1506 it closed for good.
The Abbey was very quiet when we were there, but there is a café, food hall, shops and a farmers market close by, which are open on certain designated days. (Check local information.)
Leaving the abbey, we stopped off briefly at Wells On The Sea and made some enquiries about the Seal Sanctuary Boat tours, but sadly they were all booked up for the period during we were staying, so I recommend booking in advance if you fancy a boat trip out to the Seal Sanctuary. The colony at Blakeney Point, is a nature reserve run by the National Trust since 1912, and is home to Common and Grey seals, and with over 3,000 pups born each year, it makes Blakeney Point the largest colony in England. Maybe next time!
From Wells, we made our way to Binham Priory. Binham Priory was founded in 1091 and was home to a Benedictine community of monks for over 400 years. Its history is one of almost continuous scandal. Many of its priors, (the monks in charge) proved to be rather unscrupulous and irresponsible, and by the time of the priory’s dissolution in 1539, the community had been reduced to half a dozen monks. You would expect a Priory with such a history to house a couple of ghosts, and Binham doesn’t disappoint, with frequent sightings of a black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church. I didn’t see him though!
Thinking it might be a good idea to head to the beach for a dip, we drove to nearby Brancaster Beach. This beach is part of the Brancaster Estate which is owned by the National Trust. This iconic stretch of coast is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and also home to important natural features such as the tidal salt marshes of Scolt Head. What amazed me was how far the tide goes out! Literally out of sight!
There are a few facilities at Brancaster including the Brancaster Beach Kiosk and plenty of parking…. But be careful as the tide rushes back in at quite a pace, and it is very easy to be cut off. The roadway in and car park are also known to be susceptible to tidal flooding …so, you have been warned!
Tuesday morning dawned sunny once again and we set off to the seaside town of Cromer. It’s an hour and a quarter away from Hunstanton along the coast, but well worth the drive. Cromer is quite an old fashioned Victorian seaside resort with 2 very notable attractions: The Pier and the Bagot Goats!
There are records of a pier in Cromer as far back as 1391, although then it was in the form of a jetty. In the 18th century Cromer was ‘discovered’ as a fashionable place to bathe in the sea. A wooden jetty was built but was washed away in 1837 and it was rebuilt and washed away twice more before 1900.
In 1901 a ‘pleasure pier’ was built and is still the one we can see today. Despite the army blowing a hole in it in 1939; (to prevent the pier being used as a landing stage by invading forces,) storm damage wrought by the 1953 flood surges, and a bulk barge slicing through it in 1993, the pier is still here today – a truly great testament to Victorian engineering.
The goats however are my favourite part of Cromer. Clean green, environmental machines, these ‘Bagot’ goats resume their summer occupation of advanced technical grazing every year on the cliffside of Cromer. They carry out an important habitat-management role, meaning they maintain the vegetation growth and encourage the ecological balance of the cliff, without destroying the local fauna through over-consumption, or having to use any petrol guzzling industrial machinery.
Thursday morning arrived being the last day of our holiday, and having done quite a bit of driving up to this point, and it being another beautiful day, we decided to spend our last full day on the beach at Old Hunstanton.
Walking up to Old Hunstanton beach under the cliffs, (lots of warning signs about falling boulders) we spotted an old shipwrecked boat. Fascinating – it really looked like a skeleton!
At the end of the day, we stayed on the beach to sit and watch the sunset ….and it was truly spectacular. Affectionally known as Sunny Hunny, Hunstanton is one of the best places to see the sunset on the east coast, (because the sun goes down over water) …. and you can see why!
Our last day dawned and we set off towards home stopping a few miles down the road to have a look around Castle Acre Priory on the way.
Castle Acre Priory is one of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England dating back to 1090. It was the home of the first Cluniac order of monks to England and the Cluniac monks love of elaborate decoration is reflected everywhere in the extensive ruins.
There is much to see at the priory, including the beautiful west end church gable, prior’s lodging and substantial remains of many of the buildings round the cloister. We took lots of stone detail pictures at this Priory and my favourite is (5 pictures down) where I am standing in one of the rooms, and what looks like a gargoyle of Henry VIII is scowling down at me!
We certainly packed a lot into our five day trip and, being on a UK holiday has really brought it home to me how much there is to do and see on our beautiful Island.
I hope you like my post about our Norfolk Staycation… and we are not quite done yet. Next week we are off to West Wales for 4 days, so will be posting again soon.
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