Saturday, 22 August 2015

North Norfolk

There’s an old Chris de Burgh song that starts: “The cafĂ©’s are all deserted/The streets are all wet again/There’s nothing quite like an out of season/Holiday town in the rain.”   It ran through my head wandering around Hunstanton in Norfolk last week.

Not that it was raining.  It was actually quite a nice day – sunny, mid 20s and a nice sea breeze (as opposed to a howling wind).  But Sunny Hunny struck me as being the sort of archetypal English seaside resort that de Burgh was singing about.

There is the bandstand, on the cliff-top just across from what passes as the town centre (the cliff is only about 30 feet high there, but big enough to die if you fall over it I suppose).  It’s surrounded by manicured lawns and flower beds, but there was no sign of any musicians.  There is the promenade, a concrete walkway about 5 feet above the beach that stretches maybe a mile northward towards Heacham and King’s Lynn.  Every 20 yards or so the breakwaters, limpet and seaweed festooned, crawl up from the sea as a primitive sea defence.  The beach itself is a grubby greyish-yellow sand scattered with shingle, pebbles and rocks.  The sea, gunmetal grey that day rather than blue or green, looked cold and uninviting, and there were very few bathers – a handful of kids on one beach, a couple of elderly adult paddlers dipping their toes on another.

Along the prom were a succession of mobile fish ‘n’ chip wagons and sandwich and shell-fish bars, and coffee trucks and ice cream vans.  They were all much of a muchness, with little difference in either menu or price to attract customers away from rivals.  We chose one at random and had cod and chips, and it was actually surprisingly good: lovely tender flaky fish, a light batter and a good portion of proper chips (chunks of potato not paste-y spud gunk shaped like a chip), all deep fried properly but not swimming in oil in the Styrofoam containers (no newspaper here).  

Behind the prom there was a bingo hall, open fronted so the bored-sounding caller’s “banter” (such as it was) was clearly heard, droning away apathetically.  “Wibberly wobberly – three and three – 33.  Key of the door – two and one – 21.  Old enough to vote – 18.  On its own – blind 7.  We have a winner.  Well done, madam.”  Dear God.  I have never been able to understand the attraction of bingo as an Entertainment, and nearly an hour listening to that crap left me no closer to cracking the riddle.  It’s not as if I could walk out of earshot – you could hear it beyond the beach and back into the shopping street of the town (and faintly from the Tesco car park getting on for a mile away on the way out).

The place wasn’t crowded, despite the pleasant weather.  Most of the people wandering aimlessly around, up and down the prom, were considerably overweight.  A high proportion had strong northerly accents, sunburn and a variety of (mostly hideous) tattoos.  Almost as many were Indian or Pakistani with Black Country accents.  Then there were the adults……
Shops?  Well, there are a few, mostly selling the kind of cheap tat you find anywhere else, in Brighton or Hastings, Penzance or Blackpool.  A selection of different hats, like fake sailor’s caps, floppy sun hats, straw fedoras, flowery big-brimmed ladies sunhats so popular on postcards back in the 60s.  Inflatable arm bands, rings and fish to take into the sea if you’re brave enough.  Small foam body-boards with Hawaiian motifs.  Millions of postcards featuring crudely drawn maps of the local coast, pictures of Sunny Hunny and its neighbouring coastal villages.   “Welcome to Hunstanton” was one popular card featuring a trio of improbably tanned naked beauties (back view of course) kneeling side by side on an impossibly golden sand beach beside an extraordinarily blue sea and sky without a cloud in sight.  I’ve seen the same card, slightly differently captioned, in towns across Britain, the Baltic Coast and Spain (where it at least looks authentic). 

There are half a dozen coffee and cake shops along the High Street, an Asian-run supermarket doubling for a Post Office, a couple of gift shops, and a clothes shop whose range looked at least 30 years out of date.  And two banks and a building society, none of whom were prepared to exchange my wallet full of Euros to Pounds Sterling unless I had an account with them (something the Post Office was quite happy to do).  And banks wonder why they are no longer popular and respectable?
About the only thing missing from Hunstanton is a Victorian cast-iron pier.  But there is one thirty odd miles along the coast, at Cromer.  So we drove there.

Cromer is Hunstanton writ large.  The same type of shops and visitors.  The same chip shops.  The beaches (at least the ones in town) have less sand and many more stones.  The seafront bingo halls are as depressingly boring.  The ice cream though was super – a good old Mr.Whippy Double 99 (two chocolate Flakes): the first I’d had for years, triggering childhood memories of the Mr.Whippy van that used to come to my street every day.  I wonder if they still exist (and why in this age of political correctness the company is allowed to continue trading under that name….).  The pier was there, and apparently won the Pier of The Year Award in 2013.  God knows what the competition must have been like, for it is small and appeared singularly lacking in entertainment.  The admission price (I think £6….) seemed excessive to say the least.  We gave it a miss.

But the coast road between the two fading Victorian resorts is very pleasant.  It winds along cliff tops and into little valleys, through lovely little villages and towns like Sheringham and Wells-next-Sea (the best fish and chips I’ve found in the entire county) and Weybourne and Blakeney and (my personal favourite) Holkham with its huge wide sandy beach used to exercise horses (the Household Cavalry use it for three weeks every July) and in the closing scenes of the movie Shakespeare in Love, where a shipwrecked Gwyneth Paltrow walks up the beach and into North Carolina. 

In some of the villages there are no footpaths, the road winds through them with houses either side of the road opening straight onto it and speeds limited (officially) to a frankly excessive 20.  Here the houses are small and quaint and largely built with local stone apparently picked up from the local beach, and mostly a couple of hundred years old.  There is always a small pub next to a big (and equally ancient) parish church, and next to no parking areas anywhere.  That is part of their charm and exclusivity: unless you know where to park or own something there, you have no option but to pass through and go elsewhere.  Much as I would love to live somewhere like Cley or Salthouse, the property costs nowadays ensure it ain’t going to happen.  Way out of my price range.

Most house sales there nowadays seem to be to the Celebrity Set and City executives who want a weekend retreat.   So the narrow streets and lanes are awash with Porsches and Range Rovers, Bentleys and Jaguars, none happy to give way to either locals in their Fiestas and tractors, or occasional vehicles like me in Avis hire cars.

The road between Hunstanton and Cromer, and the villages and townships along it, is much more representative of North Norfolk than the old-fashioned resorts at either end of it.  

The popular image of the county is that it is flat.  Certainly, around the Broads between Norwich and the North Sea coast that is true, and the waterways there with their fleets of barges and boats carrying holiday makers sedately from pub to pub have a charm all of their own.  But once you get beyond Norwich, either heading north towards Cromer or north west towards King’s Lynn, the nature of the countryside changes and there are rolling hills criss-crossed by narrow country lanes and dotted with villages as picturesque as any on my coast road.  

The county, indeed the East Anglian region as a whole, is out on a bit of limb, starved of government funding in areas such as health care and transport and relying on a seasonal influx of tourists to maintain its economy.  There are far more country lanes and far fewer wide roads and dual carriageways than any other region except perhaps Cornwall.  There are also correspondingly fewer cars and lorries on them, which is a distinct advantage when I arrive, as is typical travelling as I do from overseas, late in the day.  Even at peak hours, apart from bottlenecks around Norwich and the port of King’s Lynn, the traffic is much lighter and moving much more freely than elsewhere.  I’ve driven from Brandon on the Suffolk border, close to the massive RAF base at Lakenheath, to my sister’s house on the coast, a distance of perhaps 50 miles, without seeing more than a dozen cars in both directions – at 9 in the evening, quite early.

There aren’t too many big towns on the route.  Fakenham, the market town with its racecourse, is the biggest, about 7 miles from my destination.  I’ve only once been in the town centre and that was 40-odd years ago, when I travelled with a mate of mine, a lorry driver, delivering something (I can’t remember what) to a store on the High Street.  Parking our 3 ton Bedford flatbed lorry outside the shop while we unloaded on a narrow street caused traffic chaos for a couple of hours.  It was great fun.  Nowadays, I skirt round the outside of town on the bypass (it didn’t exist back then) but I assume the character of the place hasn’t changed that much. 

Fifteen or so miles further south lies Swaffham, another market town, where my sister and her husband lived briefly when they first moved to Norfolk 20 years ago.  It can be a bit of a traffic bottleneck, especially on market days, but is a pleasant place.
On a different route I can pass by Downham Market and the port of King’s Lynn.  I usually avoid that route, as on the outskirts of Lynn there is a huge roundabout where the roads strike out easterly towards Norwich, Cromer and Great Yarmouth, westerly towards Peterborough and the Lincolnshire flats and thence northward towards York or south towards London, or north towards Hunstanton.  There is always heavy traffic here, and delays and truck drivers carving across lanes and caravans lost en-route to somewhere.  I’ve been to King’s Lynn a few times and it’s a fairly typical port town, not unlike Dover or somewhere.   Which is to say a confusing one-way system, a pretty church or two, an industrial zone and lots of cheap shops like Poundstretcher and Primark.  It also has a seemingly high population of elderly residents, many of whom are unleashed on the town on mobility scooters.   Now I’m all for them, but I do wish their riders had a bit more training before being let loose on the narrow footpaths – several times I’ve been forced to jump out into the road traffic to avoid being hit by an old dear who isn’t going to stop for anyone, come hell or high water.  So far drivers have been able to avoid flattening me - I can only assume they are used to the problem.  But I’m warming to King’s Lynn – despite everything, to me it has a kind of bizarre charm that Hunstanton and Cromer completely lack.

The road up to Hunstanton is pleasant enough, running up the easterly edge of The Wash.  About half way lies the Sandringham Estate, the Queen’s winter residence.  The house of course is closed to the public, but in much of the surrounding parkland you can wander around quite happily and picnic.  If you’re lucky you might even spot a Range Rover swing out of the main gate heading for London with one of the Royal Family at the wheel and a posse of detectives following at a discreet distance.

My sister lives in Docking, a small village a couple of miles inshore from Titchwell on the coast road and seven from Hunstanton, and I’ve visited the area many times with my families.  It’s always nice to go back there for the fresh air and peace and quiet, and the abundance of wildlife in the garden she and her late husband lovingly built over the past 20 odd years.  I can re-charge my batteries, stay offline (the high-speed internet services offered by BT and others is still snail’s pace here), wander down to the bird-watching sanctuary at Titchwell or further afield to Holkham beach and just relax, forget about work and all the problems in my life (in fairness, they are few).  It’s idyllic, really, and I like North Norfolk very much.

But I can leave Sunny Hunny.  And Cromer.  Quite happily.