Photos: Exploring the best of Norfolk - Part Two

Castle Acre Church. Castle Acre Church.

Friday, April 25, 2014
4:16 PM

From the Golden Mile to the Holy Mile, shell museums to shrines, desecrated saints to angels, Norfolk has endless treasure to discover on a day out. STACIA BRIGGS and her family continued their trip across the county, taking in ruins, historic churches, railway stations and, er, some sausage rolls.

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Gary and Julie Smith outside their B&B Kilbrannan Guest House, Trafalgar Road, Great Yarmouth.Gary and Julie Smith outside their B&B Kilbrannan Guest House, Trafalgar Road, Great Yarmouth.

We’re mid-way through our Grand Tour of Norfolk and after food, funfairs and farmyards, we’re heading for ruination (literally).

• Photos: Our Grand Tour of Norfolk - Part One

Reepham.Reepham.

By the look of Holt’s car parking situation - cars stalking spaces like a lion stalking antelope - it’s a town that can survive without our close attention, even if I did fancy a trip to cheese paradise at Baker and Larner’s food hall and blowing the schedule on a leisurely trip around Holt’s many antique shops.

We are, I tell my passengers, looking off the beaten track. We are looking for a village church whose carillon of 12 bells plays hymn tunes at noon, three, six and nine at night and which overlooks a museum dedicated to shells. Glandford it is, then, although not before a quick trip to the romantic ruins of English Heritage-run Baconsthorpe Castle, a moated and fortified 15th-century manor house that once belonged to the Heydon family.

It’s an imposing sight (and site) and most definitely off the beaten track, or rather down one. We head off to Glandford, a beautiful village close to Letheringsett where in summer you can watch vivid blue and green dragonflies flit above the picturesque ford, where you can hear the church bells playing hymns – or carols – every three hours and where, if you manage to visit after Easter Saturday (we’re three days too early) you can step inside the country’s only shell museum.

The shells were collected by the late Sir Alfred Jodrell of Bayfield Hall and the building was purpose-built to house them, shells of every colour in the rainbow, from every corner of the world and other oddities including jewels, fragments of old pottery, a piece from Pompeii, a sugar bowl used by Elizabeth I, agate ware, a tapestry sewn by a local fisherman and items dug up in the Glandford area, such as an exceptional axehead. It’s quite a spectacle.

The ruins and church at North Elmham.The ruins and church at North Elmham.

Ignoring protests that I have taken my loved ones to a museum that won’t open for three days, I decide it’s time for some spiritual first aid. We head to Walsingham, whose village website brilliantly declares: “Welcoming visitors since 1061!”

Known as England’s Nazareth, Walsingham still attracts hordes of pilgrims and, in medieval times, rivalled Canterbury and the great shrines of Europe as a place of worship, later attracting royalty, from Henry III to Henry VIII. Today, more than 300,000 visitors flock to the village every year to visit its two shrines and walk the Holy Mile.

There’s outstanding architecture, too, from a stunning collection of medieval half-timbered buildings to those with Georgian facades, an 18th-century model prison to a Russian Orthodox church in an old railway station, the region’s first new-build carbon-neutral church to – drum roll – England’s only Grade I listed toilets.

Through rolling countryside ribboned with bright yellow oilseed rape fields we head back towards the coast, past Wells and the rows of green which will be transformed into lavender corduroy at Heacham in the summer months, our route showcasing Norfolk’s famous big skies on a perfect sunny day.

The Shell Museum, in Glandford near Holt.The Shell Museum, in Glandford near Holt.

We consider diverting to King’s Lynn, but there just isn’t time (a shame – Lynn has a lot to offer tourists).

Indeed, with just a day to travel round Norfolk, there are so many places we could visit that it’s hard to choose – the list included so many: Ringstead Downs nature reserve, Foxley Wood (soon to be alive with bluebells), Church Farm rare breeds centre at Stow Bardolph, the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway, Grime’s Graves near Thetford, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail, Cley Marshes, any of the National Trust’s fantastic properties in the county, Hunstanton’s candy-striped cliffs, the Walks in King’s Lynn, Holkham Beach… any of our incredible beaches, in fact.

There’s Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path, the pine forests of Breckland, Pensthorpe Nature reserve, Binham Priory and its stunning ruins, the gothic splendour of Booton church, the eccentric collections at Thursford, the tanks at Muckleburgh, the Broads, How Hill nature reserve, Creake Abbey, Warham Camp, the North Norfolk Railway, Burnham Market, Brancaster… you could travel for a year and never be bored.

Castle Acre, near Swaffham, however, makes the cut. Our visit, however, isn’t to the abbey and priory, one of the largest and best-preserved monastic sites in England that dates back to 1090, but rather to the village’s church, the rather splendid St James’.

There’s plenty to spot inside this huge building, from a wine-glass pulpit to the spectacular font cover (the guidebook maintains this was to prevent witches from stealing the holy water, although this is widely thought to be hysterical claptrap) and a beautiful rood screen where St James’ eyes have been gouged out by Anglican reformers and St Andrew has been sprayed with gun-shot.

From Castle Acre we head off to Downham Market, which houses my favourite shop in the county, REloved furniture, a haven for those of us who like our houses to be filled with stuff you can’t buy on the high street, for a quick visit (no purchase: I have just booked a loft extension – gruel for dinner for the next six months).

Then it’s on to Swaffham, one of Nelson’s favourite haunts and the place where Egyptologist Howard Carter spent much of his childhood before a glittering future that would see him discover the tomb of Tutankhamun.

With its fine Georgian buildings, busy shopping centre, fascinating museum and splendid parish church, Swaffham is a beautiful market town to idle away an hour or two in. And the vegetarian sausage rolls from CoCoes Café Deli next to Strattons are to die for (I hear the meat ones are pretty good, too).

Too full for sausage rolls of any variety, we pull away from Swaffham and towards North Elmham and its ruined chapel, which is definitely in my top 10 list of places to enjoy a picnic in Norfolk. It’s the ruins of a manor house on top of a Saxon cathedral on top of a Norman chapel on top of a timber church, so historically speaking, it’s value for money – especially as it’s free to visit.

In the sunshine, with fields around you, it’s a wonderful place to be. A proper hidden gem.

Not so hidden but just as lovely is nearby Reepham, set between the Wensum and Bure valleys but with a touch of Flemish charm to be seen in the facades of many of its buildings. We just miss the Wednesday market, so head instead for the old railway station and a brief walk along Marriott’s Way, a 21-mile footpath that runs between Hellesdon and Aylsham. Filled with wild flowers and birdsong, it’s the perfect antidote to city life.

I’d have liked to have called in to Booton’s spectacular church designed by the Rev Whitwell Elwin, St Michael and All Angels (where the ladies in the stained glass are said to be “young women to whom Elswin was the affectionate, almost intimate, counsellor…”) and Whitwell and Reepham Railway, which runs steam and diesel engines on its line, but my party was flagging and it was time to head home to Norwich.

Filled with dozens of ideas of where to visit at length in the summer months, our Grand Tour was just grand. Now to persuade my editor to allow me to disappear from the office for months for a proper, in-depth tour of the county…wish me luck.

PS We bought rat poison. Just in case you were panicking.

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