Burnham Over Staithe: The Hero Bar and Restaurant

Light, bright walls and polished wooden floors which combine to create an airy and relaxed atmosphere in harmony with the sense of escape that this corner of Norfolk has come to symbolise to so many people.

The day had started badly and threatened worse. A misguided early-morning run had jarred a recent back injury. But sympathy was in short supply. Or so it seemed to me. As I limped indoors, a victim of my own self-inflicted folly, eyes were already focusing on a different kind of gathering gloom.

In that perversely predictable way that's so typical of the English weather, days of unseasonably mild temperatures had given way to a wintry blast of pure Arctic malevolence at precisely the moment we'd planned to make the most of the sunshine.

Somewhere in our mind's-eye was the image of us, a family quartet reunited again for Mother's Day, reliving past outings to the north Norfolk coast with a leisurely meal followed by a stroll across the saltmarshes towards the distant sands and the gently lapping sea beyond.

Some hope. Even as we drove out of the city over a carpet of magnolia blossom, the wind was gathering pace and the sky had turned a darker shade of black. By the time we'd circuited Fakenham, the car was being battered by a full-blown gale laced with squalls of sleet and my back was feeling every contorted twist in the road.

But, in the spirit of explorers of old, we gritted our teeth and pressed gamely on. In any case, our tummies were groaning and just a few, wind-buffeted miles down the road lay Burnham Overy Staithe with its promise of sustenance.

As we scrunched on to the gravel car park, it was hard to imagine The Hero appearing more inviting than it did at that moment, especially after a late detour had unnecessarily added Burnham Deepdale and Brancaster to our itinerary and a few more minutes of agony to my painful journey.

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Not that I was complaining, you understand, as I hobbled, evidently a crotchety figure of some amusement, towards our table. Any feelings of self-pity, however, proved short-lived as the spirit of The Hero acted as a tonic on my aching body.

The restaurant was fairly bustling with activity, its open-planned rooms filled with couples and families all adding to the bistro-like buzz of a place that is enjoying an exuberant new lease of life.

Not so very long ago, The Hero had seemed on its way out, a tired old-fashioned pub trapped in a time-warp, overshadowed by its trendier neighbours.

For all its splendid location, just a short walk away from the wild beauty of the creek-riven saltmarshes that has turned this stretch of coastline into a millionaires' retreat, it had seemed ill-suited to serve the changing scene.

While rivals of the quality of The White Horse at Brancaster, The Lifeboat at Thornham and The Victoria at Holkham, not to mention a host of eateries in nearby Burnham Market and Wells, prospered from the tidal wave of second-homers and visitors, The Hero seemed increasingly cast as a poor relation, out-of-kilter with its altered environment. It was a case of change or die. And change it has.

In the space of little more than two years, the transformation under the joint stewardship of Alison Baxter and Robin Senter has been as extraordinary as it is impressive. Gone are the dark walls and faded décor, replaced by light, bright walls and polished wooden floors which combine to create an airy and relaxed atmosphere in harmony with the sense of escape that this corner of Norfolk has come to symbolise to so many people.

Watercolours portraying a landscape teeming with birdlife share wall space with dreamy photographs by The Hero's resident manager-photographer Catherine Robson that evoke the natural wonder of this incomparable stretch of coastline.

Like the place itself, the cuisine is unpretentious, with the emphasis being on quality home-produced, hearty fare delivered by a young, eager and efficient staff at mid-range prices to satisfy local as well as in-coming pockets. Weekday lunchtime menus offer tempting doorstep sandwiches served with salads at £5.95 as well as the likes of warm chorizo, sweet pepper, olive and new potato salad for £6.95.

But we were pushing the boat out, so to speak, or at least our daughters were. For this Mother's Day treat, we were in more lavish mood.

For starters, my wife, who naturally had the honour of first choice, went for Chorizo, Mozzarella and Roast Tomato Filo Parcel with Mixed Leaves which promised and delivered a delicate and light entrée to the main course. The rest of us plumped for seafood. Neither daughter could resist the Burnham Overy Mussels that more than lived up to expectations with their bowls of creamy white wine sauce and fluffy French bread just asking to be dunked, while I was mightily impressed with my choice of Tiger Prawn Tempura with its neatly constructed wigwam of lightly-battered shellfish set alongside a mixed salad mound and its creamy Basil Aioli relish.

And so to the main event. Having avoided seafood for starters, my wife selected the Fresh Crab Salad with its mouth-watering rainbow-hued accompaniment of roasted tomatoes, green beans, mixed leaf salad and new potatoes that tasted as fresh as it looked. Staying in harmony, both daughters went for the Homemade Fish Pie with Salmon, Smoked Haddock, Coley and Prawns swimming in a Rich Cheese Sauce and with Mixed Leaf Salad, a rustic and indulgent dish of such ample proportions as to defeat even their best intentions.

I, meanwhile, having watched, with a measure of awe, the roasts, with their towering Yorkshire puddings, being delivered to neighbouring tables found it impossible to look beyond the Roast Fore Rib of Beef. And I was not to be disappointed. A generous portion of lean and tender meat was matched by a plentiful helping of seasonal veg, including crisp cabbage, broccoli, tasty carrots and new potatoes, which retained their own distinct flavours.

Having eaten our way through two courses (£15.95) and having drained a bottle of crisp white Chilean Sauvignon Blanc Valle Andino (£12.95), we were flagging somewhat. Tempted though we were by the likes of Treacle Tart, Tia Maria Crème Brulee and Cinnamon Poached Pear with Creamy Rice Pudding, we knew it would be a step too far and settled instead for four filter coffees (total bill £82.30).

All thoughts of a walk across the marshes having been scattered to the winds, we rounded off our coast outing with a short drive down East Harbour Way to find the fast-flowing water lapping the car park.

The wind was still howling and my back still aching as we turned and headed inland, the light beginning to fade on a day when The Hero truly came to the rescue.

t The Hero Bar and Restaurant, Wells Road, Burnham Overy Staithe; 01328 738334.

t Where is it? Wells Road is the main coast road and you'll find The Hero in the centre of Burnham Overy Staithe, about three miles from Burnham Market.

t Any parking? Yes, there's a good-sized car park right alongside which, during summer, is bordered by outdoor tables for drinkers and diners.

t Do I need to book? It's certainly advisable, especially at weekends and most times during the summer.

t Are children welcome? Certainly. There was a real family atmosphere to the place when we visited with people of all ages, from toddlers to grandparents.

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