Why Norfolk is a county full of surprises and delights

PUBLISHED: 08:59 23 June 2018

A Norfolk Day poster by Hunstanton's striped cliffs. Picture: Ian Burt

A Norfolk Day poster by Hunstanton's striped cliffs. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

As we prepare for Norfolk Day on July 27, author David Howe reflects on the delights of the county

The thought first occurred to me as the train rattled towards Cromer. I had been gazing out of the window. The medieval churches of Southrepps and Northrepps had slipped in, and then out of view. The track rolled on, cutting through the glacial debris of the Cromer Ridge and its shady woods. Then back into bright sunlight. On the sky-line I caught a glimpse of the grey-blue sea.

It probably helped that it was late spring and the day was sparkling. And I thought, wherever you go in Norfolk there’s a story to tell; invisible threads linking people and places, past and present. It’s a county full of surprises and delights.

From Cromer I crunched along the flint-pebbled beach towards Sheringham. Flint from the Chalk that lies beneath most of Norfolk. Flint that sharpens the spirits of the county’s men and women, its heroes and heroines. Nelson, of course. Boudica too, warrior Queen of the Iceni, attacking the Romans to avenge the abuse of her daughters. Edith Cavell; brave, caring Nurse Cavell, shot dead in 1915 by a German firing squad. And Thetford’s own radical son, Tom Paine, friend of revolutionaries and presidents; champion of the ‘rights of man’.

Norfolk has so many dreamy places where one thought drifts into another. Here are three more.

Norwich’s busy Gentlemen’s Walk where you see a bronze statue of Sir Thomas Browne, and behind him the magnificent church of St Peter Mancroft where the good doctor lies buried. Browne’s writings inspired the novelist W G Sebald, just one of many, many literary folk who have flourished under Norfolk’s big skies – Julian of Norwich; the larger-than-life, six-foot-three, George Borrow who could speak 20 languages, drink any man under the table and – so he claimed – walk to London in a single day; Amelia Opie; the indomitable Harriett Martineau; Malcolm Bradbury; Rose Tremain and the dozens of alumni

of UEA’s groundbreaking MA in Creative Writing. No surprise, then, that in 2012 Norwich was named the country’s very first Unesco City of Literature.

Hunstanton. On a summer’s evening. As the west-facing cliffs catch the evening sun, the visitor is treated to one of nature’s marvels. A glowing band of rich, rust-brown rock is overlain by a thin layer of warm, pink-hued chalk which in turn is capped by yet more chalk, but this time coloured a brilliant white.

These chalky cliffs were laid down around 100 million years ago in a tropical sea. Norfolk, along with the rest of the British Isles lay a thousand miles to the south of where we find ourselves today. And in that chalk lie the bands of flint, prized and mined by our Stone Age ancestors at Grime’s Graves which today greets the visitor as a cratered, grassy-green world evoking times long-ago. Flint to build churches. Churches to flaunt the wool-based wealth of medieval lords. Wealth and power to enrage Norfolk’s downtrodden peasants and fire their revolt of 1381. Property and privilege to anger Wymondham’s Robert Kett and his 1549 rebellion. Norfolk people, independent with a strong sense of fair play and justice.

The Norfolk Broads, now a National Park. Watery, wonderful. A haven for birds and butterflies. For twenty-five years at the beginning of the last century, Emma Turner, the pioneering bird photographer, lived on a house-boat on Hickling Broad. Let’s end with a quote from Emma as she conjures the Broads and their power to enchant:

“Just what it is in the marshlands that grips the imagination and casts a spell over its lovers I do not know… It is a land of wide, windswept spaces and far flung horizons, of mystic nights and great silences. In the daytime it is a shifting kaleidoscope of colour. Every hour of the day and every day in the year brings its own quota of light, colour and sound…”

Who could resist?

David Howe is the author of the 2017 East Anglian Book Awards-shortlisted title Wandering in Norfolk: Time Lines and Crossing Places, published by Mousehold Press.

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