December 5 2013 Latest news:
Friday, August 23, 2013
Compared to the symbolic crown jewels of Norfolk’s tourism industry, the unique appeal of the county’s central heartland is, perhaps, more difficult to define.
And while surrounded by the familiar landmarks and landscapes of the Broads, the northern coast, the city of Norwich and the Brecks, the more subtle charms of Mid Norfolk can often be overlooked.
But visitors prepared to look beyond the well-trodden tourist trails will be rewarded with discovering an area which encapsulates the very essence of what makes the county special – a place whose character can be defined through its rich heritage – both natural and social.
Here, many attractions focus on a fascinating history of architecture, art and industry, the farming legacy which still dominates the region’s identity and the diverse wildlife of the Wensum valley.
Combined, it all offers a quintessential cross-section of the landscape on which Norfolk’s prosperity was built, and the towns and villages which help it to thrive.
Even looking beyond the proliferation of medieval churches overlooking picture-perfect villages, heritage buildings include the National Trust’s stunning moated manor house at Oxburgh Hall and the majestic Houghton Hall – the former home of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
And the theme continues with historic collections like those at Swaffham Museum, explaining the town’s links to Howard Carter’s ground-breaking discoveries in Egypt, and Bishop Bonner’s Cottage in Dereham, which celebrates its 50th anniversary as a museum this year, highlighting the collection of the town’s Antiquarian Society.
Robin Hanley is western area manager for the Norfolk Museums Service and manager at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, which attracts around 70,000 visitors a year to its rural life exhibits and events outside Dereham.
“I think there is more for people to discover in the centre of Norfolk, and people might be surprised by what they find here,” he said. “It is much less obvious than what you would find at the north Norfolk coast, but the heritage of the centre of Norfolk is equally rich. People have to be guided to it, but I think there is more to discover and it is more rewarding for it.
“There is a story strand here and it is very much integrated within the heritage landscape. The rural landscape has very much shaped the development of the heritage of the area and a lot of the attractions here share that common theme.
“Places like Dereham Windmill [which is re-opening to the public in September after a £75,000 renovation] are there because of the history of people’s roles within that landscape and Gressenhall is part of that story as well, in the way this rural landscape has shaped the life of Norfolk, and continues to do so.
“You also have all the idiosyncrasies and charm of the towns and villages, and the heritage that is preserved there.
“The Mid Norfolk offering is all based around the strong identities of its market towns. Dereham and Swaffham have a different feel and there are lovely independent museums in those towns which reflect these variations.
“They are all sitting within a historic rural landscape, so whatever they do is going to be shaped by t hat.”
Other bygones which have been revived for tourism include the regular steam galas on the Mid Norfolk Railway, operating on the restored line between Dereham and Wymondham, and the Iceni Village at Cockley Cley.
And visitors looking for something a but more pacy can always enjoy a day at Fakenham Races or the high-octane thrills of banger racing at Swaffham Raceway.
But one of the central attractions to Mid Norfolk is its natural wealth, including the wildlife of the meandering River Wensum – an internationally-important biodiversity hot-spot.
The waters flow through Pensthorpe Wildlife and Gardens, near Fakenham, which attracts thousands of visitors every year for bird-watching trips and wildlife tours through wildflower meadows, farmland and woodland.
Last month, the reserve added to its family appeal with the opening of its £1m WildRootz outdoor activity area, designed to re-connect children with the natural world.
Deb Jordan, one of the owners of the reserve, said both heritage and education were what attracted people to Pensthorpe, as well as many other attractions in central Norfolk.
“Obviously Norfolk has the wonders of the coast, but inland what we have here is very diverse,” she said.
“We have got the woodland and the wildflower meadows and three magnificent gardens, we have got the lakes and the wildlife and we have got the farm.
“When you think of a visitor day out I feel that Pensthorpe has got a lot to offer and what I am very proud of is that, hopefully, when people go home they have learned a bit about the Norfolk countryside.
“It is the history that’s exciting. When you look at the history and heritage of what was here, and the links through the river and farming and the railways it all becomes a very interesting story.
“If I was visiting this area for a week I cannot imagine having a enough time to explore everything.”
• TOP 10 ATTRACTIONS
Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum Dating back to 1502, this timber-framed, thatched building survived Dereham’s fires of 1581 and 1679, and is now the town’s museum of local history and archaeology.
Dereham Windmill Rescued from neglect by a band of trustees and volunteers, the 19th-century mill is due to re-open to the public on September 7 as an education and exhibition venue, following a £75,000 restoration project.
Fakenham Racecourse The thrill of National Hunt racing draws excited crowds to Fakenham Racecourse, which prides itself on its friendly, accessible atmosphere.
Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Norfolk’s rural life museum at Gressenhall includes a historic workhouse, exhibits exploring agricultural life in past decades, and a traditional farm with rare breed animals.
Iceni Village The Iceni Village is a reconstruction of the type of village occupied by the Iceni tribe in East Anglia, shortly before the Roman occupation-about 2,000 years ago. It is in Cockley Cley and is open from April to October.
Mid-Norfolk Railway The volunteer-run Mid Norfolk Railway operates the restored line between Dereham and Wymondham. It runs regular passenger services on its fleet of heritage diesel engines, and its galas attract nationally-renowned steam locomotives.
Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) A romantic, moated manor house, built by the Bedingfeld family in the 15th century, who have lived here ever since. Inside, the family’s Catholic history is revealed, complete with a secret priest’s hole.
Pensthorpe Wildlife and Gardens Set in the heart of the Norfolk countryside, in the beautiful and tranquil Wensum Valley, Pensthorpe is an award-winning mix of meandering nature trails and beguiling woodland walks, and a showcase for wildlife and nature conservation.
Swaffham Museum This social history museum features annual exhibitions plus displays from the Stone Age to the 20th century. Local heroes include the archaeologist Howard Carter, who grew up in Swaffham before going on to find the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922.
Swaffham Raceway For lovers of speed and vehicular carnage, Swaffham Raceway is Mid Norfolk’s venue for stock car and banger racing.
Share your photos using the #Norfolkis hashtag on Twitter or at www.iwitness24.co.uk, with ‘Norfolk is...’ in the headline.