Norfolk originally became my favourite English beach destination due to the ease of travelling there from our previous home in north London. The lack of major motorways means that the journey is a pleasant one, through attractive villages and swathes of forest. We used to hop in the car on a Friday night once we were certain the weather would be fine and then stay in a B&B or campsite before hitting the beach the next day. By contrast, this May half term trip, our first summer holiday since being tied to school terms, was six months in the planning. If your family holiday requirements involve packing a bag for more than a night during the school holidays I have discovered (already) that it pays to be organised.
So I had never been on a beach holiday in Norfolk in poor weather before. Although I enjoy a brisk coastal walk in a bracing wind when I’m in the right mood, this type of weather isn’t ideal when one’s two year old has a bucket and spade he is keen to put to good use. But, as with most British seaside destinations there is plenty to do off the beach in Norfolk and not all of it involves being stuck in a cramped and expensive tourist attraction with other people’s children.
Our home for the week was a traditional little cottage in Wells next the Sea, booked through Kett Country Cottages,with a view of the playground and fields; we could even see the train line from the back window. The cottage had a small garden (rare for the town centre) and spacious rooms. We had no mobile phone reception and there was no WIFI, which I see as both a bonus and sadly at times a slight inconvenience. Everything was close at hand (shops, eateries, playground and beach) and had the weather been better we probably wouldn’t have got back in our car until the end of the holiday.
On our first day the weather was still pretty good allowing us to explore Wells and its lovely selection of shops, many of which hint at the rather moneyed clientele who frequent the coastal towns of Norfolk and Suffolk; clothing boutiques, art galleries and upmarket gift shops rubbing shoulders with the more down to earth and traditional seaside shops selling fishing nets and beach balls.
Wells next the Sea benefits from a little train which runs alongside the walkway to the beach. This excursion followed by digging in the sand is probably all my children would have needed from their week’s holiday, such is their current obsession with both pastimes. Indeed, that’s all I was after when I booked our trip. However, the weather was so grim for the rest of the week that this first day was the only proper one we spent at the beach.
On a good day I think the stretch of Norfolk coast from Wells along to Holkham is some of the best the country, the continent or indeed the world has to offer. I know that’s rather a dramatic statement but it’s not an exaggeration, as I’m sure those in the know would agree. The sand, backed by dunes and pine forest goes on for miles in all directions, particularly when the tide is out, so even on a perfect hot August day you can find an empty stretch to enjoy. I have many fond memories pre-kids (and I hope to have plenty more in the future) of days spent wandering along the beach from Wells; first past families who stay close to the entrance (where there are toilets, car park and a good café) and then past groups of people flying kites, playing bat and ball, football, cricket, until finally the visitors thin out and you’re eventually left with this wonderful wide open space dotted with figures and the sea sparkling in the distance.
Back to the present, and our second day in Wells. The weather had turned but as I was to discover as the week progressed, my children are still too young to realise that inclement temperatures and high winds every day of the holiday are reasons to be disappointed. When children are little you don’t need to impress them with big hitters. Crabbing at the harbour; flying a kite on a windy beach; climbing up the rigging of the pirate ship in the excellent playground; tea and cake at the beachside café with unexpected entertainment by the Kings Lynn Ukelele Club fill a day quite easily and surprisingly satisfyingly.
The weather steadily worsened as the week went on so our holiday became an exploration of what Norfolk has to offer away from the beaches. We drove along the coast to Sheringham for a ride on the North Norfolk Railway, or Poppy Line. It was bank holiday Monday so we were not alone in this decision but there was still plenty of space on the train and we enjoyed a leisurely trip down to Holt. The journey is scenic with views of the coast, woods and farmland. And there was an incredibly convincing recreation of Dad’s Army taking place at Weybourne station which even the children enjoyed even if they didn’t quite understand the background to it.
My four year old has been obsessed with the Octonauts for some time so I’d had my eye on Hunstanton Sealife Sanctuary even before I read the weather forecast. This surprisingly good aquarium (it had a major facelift in 2014) is hidden somewhat by funfair rides but the wind pretty much blew us from the car park to the front door. Predictably, it was packed, but still enjoyable. There’s a decent sized tank full of large fish including sharks, rays and turtles plus plenty of smaller tanks housing sea horses, crabs, snakes and so on. The boys particularly liked the glass domes which you can stand in to give the effect that you are in the tank with the fish. I thought the medals given to them, and every other child, for “touching a starfish” was a bit unnecessary, surely touching the creature is reward itself (for the child anyway)? And the rather bleak little rehabilitation units for injured seals brought to mind what solitary confinement must be like but with the added torture of a terrifying audience of overexcited toddlers peering in at you. Aside from this, the trip was a success and we avoided trudging around in the pouring rain looking for a lunchtime eatery by chancing upon The Lodge in Old Hunstanton, a short drive out from the town centre, serving pizzas and offering a welcoming log fire (who’d have thought it in June…)
My husband and I managed to enjoy an evening out in Wells while our parents (who joined us for a couple of nights in a nearby B&B) looked after the boys. We discovered that most of the pubs and restaurants are fairly pricey with our choice, the Golden Fleece, offering a menu and price on a par with the more upmarket gastro pubs dotted through the town. The bar area looks inviting, particularly on a rainy evening but the upstairs dining room, although with a good view of the quay had rather tired décor and felt a bit cavernous by comparison. However, the food and wine were good, I had a delicious fillet of sea bream while my husband had a particularly tasty monkfish curry. Following dinner, we decided to do a spot of research and visited first the Globe and then the Crown for a drink. Both offer accommodation and I was particularly taken by some of the suites at the Crown, for which I am determined to find a special occasion to warrant the rather hefty price tag (by our standards anyway).
Keen to avoid too many cramped indoor visitor attractions with fellow damp holidaymakers, we decided to visit the nearby Holkham Hall Estate on our final day. We loved the new Field to Fork exhibition. My two year old son has yet to appreciate the joy of television as he is incapable of sitting still, however he was transfixed by the ten minute ‘Holkham Year’ film at the exhibition, packed as it was with tractors and other heavy farming machinery (a clip is shown on the Estate’s website). There is no commentary, just some subtitles, which means parents can describe the story to their kids, although the video is so good it pretty much tells the viewer everything with the images. My four year old watched it three times. The rest of the exhibition is very well put together with plenty of hands-on exhibits including a stone for grinding grain into flour. The Estate also offers wide open spaces for walking, running and biking (cycle hire is available). There’s also a great adventure playground and the lovely beach is close by.
One of the other great aspects of trips to Norfolk is the variety of attractions to visit on route. Whilst our drive up there only involved a stop at Swaffham for dinner, our return took in the small ruins at Creake Abbey just south of pretty Burnham Market followed by the truly amazing remains at Castle Acre where children can run around and climb on top of the remains of quite a sizeable Norman castle. The boys would happily have stayed there all day had it not been for the parents’ desire to retreat from the cold weather. We also stopped at the Green Britain Centre, also near Swaffham, where those over 120cm can climb the wind turbine, something we’ll definitely do as soon as the kids are tall enough.
I have to admit that, in spite of a week of exceptionally bad weather, I felt rather melancholy to be back at home after our little trip. In fact, I have already planned (mostly in my head) our return visit later this summer, weather permitting.
If you’re driving in the UK, check out my post about the best family-friendly places to stop just off the motorway, including picnic spots, country parks and castles.