Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Holiday next the Sea – Part II

Wednesday, 5 June, 9:47 PM

Yesterday, as promised, the weather cooled and clouds rolled in during the afternoon. But, having already extracted as much sun as we could stand (which precipitated an emergency trip to the pharmacy for lip balm, sun block and After-Burn) we retreated to the car and drove to Cromer.

The coastal route from Wells to Cromer visits some picturesque little villages. Unfortunately, they are so little that driving through them can be tricky, especially when meeting a bus. It did occur to me that it might be nice to explore one or two of these twee little burgs but the road did not encourage stopping and there were no car parks. Also, there wasn’t a lot to see. If we did find a place to stash the car, all we could have done was walk along the very tight roadway while trucks and buses squeezed past us. It was actually better seeing the villages from the car, as we were going about walking speed anyway.

Eventually we came to Cromer, pulled into the municipal car park on the edge of town and had the same debate we always have when we arrive in a new town for sight-seeing purposes: how much time should we put on the meter? One hour would be ludicrous. Two would hardly be enough and three, though probably plenty, might be cutting it close. So we spent £4.80 for four hours worth of parking and returned to the car twenty minutes later.

Sorry, but Cromer just didn't do it for me.
We went to Cromer with no expectations, which was good because they would have been dashed. The first thing I noticed about the town was that the Christmas decorations on the street lights had not yet been taken down and this did not bode well. The town itself looked tired and the pier—one of its main drawing points—was something less than awe-inspiring.

Cromer is billed as “The Gem of the Norfolk Coast,” which is a bit like calling Bayonne, New Jersey the Gem of Eastern Seaboard.

The rest of the day was taken up with a more detailed exploration of Wells, and its quirky, locally owned, shops. It really was refreshing to not have a Boots, Costa Coffee, Next and Marks & Spencer along the main shopping street. For one thing, you wouldn’t have been able to fit them, as the shopping district is about 800 feet long and ten feet wide. But you don’t go to Wells for the shopping, you go for the beach, or to explore the surrounding countryside, which is a good thing, because after an hour of wandering around the shops, we felt as if we had seen all we needed to see so we went back to our holiday rental to eat dinner and catch the latest installment of Springwatch.

Today we were up and out sharpish, for a pilgrimage to Constable Country. This trip took us from the northern coast of East Anglia, to the southern edge of Suffolk. It was a two-hour drive, but well worth it. A bit south of Ipswitch, just beyond the little village of East Bergholt—and with the help of very little signage, I might add—is a road so tiny your wife has to insist several times that you need to drive down it to get to where you want to go. So, with great trepidation and cow parsley brushing both sides of our little car, we eventually made it to Flatford.

Constable Country
Bergholt and Flatford—with its mill, surrounding buildings and canal locks—were home to John Constable (for those of you scratching your heads, Constable was a famous painter) and a surprising number of his paintings depict scenes in and around that small area. It’s easy to see why; it’s a stunningly beautiful place and, since having been restored by the National Trust—including a B&B, RSPB sanctuary, Field Studies Council Centre, art and environmental courses, guided tours, gift shop, restaurant and boat hire—it is also a stunningly lucrative place.

You can rent a boat and row down the idyllic River Stour.
We opted to remain on dry land. 
Don’t let that previous paragraph mislead you; the National Trust is doing a marvellous job of keeping the location tranquil and as true as possible to its origins. All those add-ons do not detract from the atmosphere, but operate in the background to enhance the experience. It’s not like in America, where a flashing neon sign would invite you to ride—if you dare—the terrifying Hay-Wain Flume or the Canal Cyclone, after which you could buy a corn-dog and some cotton candy at the Bridge Cottage Arcade.

What it looked like in Constable's day.
What it looks like now. Notice the addition of a tea room.
We spent several hours there, walking the trails, admiring the viewpoints of the paintings (helpfully marked in the guidebook) and enjoying tea next to the canal. It was a truly marvellous day.

What Constable saw.
What we see today. Not bad, considering that if it hadn't been for the National Trust
and other conservation-minded people, you'd most likely be looking at a high-rise
block of flats or an industrial estate.
Tomorrow we’re going to explore King’s Lynn and on Friday we’re going to Norwich, but unless they have a spectacular Flume ride or a really flashy arcade, they’re going to have a hard time living up to Constable Country.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Holiday next the Sea – Part I

[Before we begin, this is an open letter to holiday cottage proprietors everywhere:

When outfitting the guest bedrooms, it is not wise to use price as the only variable when selecting the mattress.

Skimp on the carpets, buy cheap furniture, purchase the lamps at the charity shop and no one is going to care, but force your guests to sleep on a bargain basement mattress and they will grow to resent you a little bit more during each long and restless night until, by week’s end, even though they are waving a cheery “goodbye” and wishing you well, they are thinking, “You cheap bastards! I bet YOU slept comfortably last night!”

I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business, but avoiding this undercurrent of ill-will might be worth a few extra quid. Just sayin’]

Monday, 3 June, 10 PM:

This week, we’re in Norfolk, at a sleepy coastal community that seems to be stuck somewhere in the 1950s, due to the fact that there is nary a McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King nor Tesco in sight, and that there is, apparently, some unexploded WWII ordinance lying about on the beaches.

Ah, the good old days, when the beaches were deadly.
This, of course, is why we came (for the peace and quiet, not the unexploded bombs), so don’t think I am complaining; you forget how cluttered the world is with all that modern junk until you manage to find a place that has not yet been corrupted by it.

The sea front at Wells
The town is called Wells-next-the-Sea and, no, I did not leave out a word, that is the actual name of the town. This strikes me a just a bit lazy. I mean, it’s only two extra letters; what’s wrong with Wells-next-to-the-Sea? And if they were that concerned about the number of letters in the name, perhaps they should have called it Wells-on-the-Sea, or followed the lead of Weston-super-Mare, which is Latin for The Western Town on the Great Big Female Horse, or something like that.

I had proposed to come armed with black markers so I could amend all the signs that I came across (as a favour to them, you understand) but eventually I bought into the theory that “Wells-next-the-Sea” it isn’t lazy syntax, but irregular punctuation. I decided that the real name of the town is sort of a description for travellers who approach the village and ask locals where they are heading. The answer, of course, would be: “Wells. Next, the sea.”

And so I left my markers at home.

...but sometimes, I simply couldn't resist.
Wells is known for its beaches, which—unlike the shingle beaches around Brighton that I am familiar with—are covered in soft, powdery sand. They are quite wide (and much wider still when the tide goes out) and miles long, so you are not sitting cheek by jowl with other families but can, with just a bit of effort, find a spot that affords you nearly complete isolation.

Wells is also known for its collection of gaily colored beach huts. There are hundreds of them, all sitting in a line at the top of the beach. For people drawn to the sea as the British are, a beach hut is a prime piece of real estate. They are eagerly sought after (we saw one on sale for £69,000 – just over a hundred grand in US dollars), carefully preserved and, in many cases, handed down through the family. And they are very, very useful because a day at the beach in Britain requires as much planning and materials as the Normandy invasion.

The famous Wells Beach Huts
We went to the beach yesterday, a stunningly sunny day in June, but the wind whipping in from the North Sea meant that families trudged through the sand carrying deck chairs, wind breaks and/or beach tents, buckets, spades, towels, food, drinks and other essential paraphernalia, while pushing baby carriages and wearing sandals, shorts and a parka.

Typical UK beach attire: shorts and a parka.
Saying something is as easy as “a walk on the beach” does not have the same connotation here as it does in America.

We, however, were not staying on the beach; we were merely passing through on the Norfolk Coastal Path, which happily ran along the beach so we could get a good view of the beach huts and develop a first class case of wind-burn.

After leaving the beach behind, we entered a stretch of woodland where, out of the wind, we found that it was actually a very warm day. Then the path left the trees and entered an area of grassy sand dunes where, back in the wind, we found it was freezing.

And then things got weird.

We noticed a few people wandering the path ahead of us carrying beach accoutrements, on their way into the dunes, far from the “normal” beach. Then we saw this sign:

And sure enough, that stretch of the coastal path ran right along the edge of a nudist beach. Now, I can certainly take things in stride, and I was grateful for the sign (though it was the only one and easily missed) but I should think the Ordinance Survey map would have had something on it to warn unsuspecting (or interested) walkers. Case and point: we actually did run across another couple who were exchanging worried looks with one another and who, upon seeing us, displayed obvious relief at meeting another, fully-clothed couple.

On the other hand, one must take their hat off (but nothing else, thank you) to these naturists; I was wearing a winter jacket and I was cold. British naturists must be a hardy bunch.

The Naturist Beach altered for family viewing.
(Incidentally, I know nothing about naturists or their demographics, but the only confirmed—and unintentional, I might add—sightings we had were of middle aged or older men.)

Without further adventure, we made it to Burham Overy, a town ever smaller than Wells with a single restaurant called The Hero where we were snubbed by a bevy of teenage waitresses for not following proper protocol. Being thirsty from our walk, we ordered drinks at the bar and then sat at a table instead of sitting down and waiting for the waitress to come and take our order. And so, for our sins, we were placed in waitress purgatory. If there had been any other place in the village to eat, I would have walked out, but they were the only game in town so, after half an hour, I hunted down a waitress so we could order some food. Even so, people who came in after we did got their meals before us, and when the bill arrived, it include a jaw-dropping amount for two glasses of water that we had not ordered. So I made them remove the items we didn’t order, paid in cash for the most expensive lunch I have ever had outside of London and did not leave a tip.

Today we went to Morston, a village even smaller than Burnham Overy. It was really little more than a car par and a pub but it provided a destination and gave us an excuse to walk the Coastal Path for six miles in the other direction. And the view couldn’t have been more different.

Walking to Burnham, looking out to sea (okay, the horses weren't always there, but still...).
Walking to Morston.
Instead of expansive beaches with powdery sand, the land to the west of Wells is dedicated pretty much to salt marshes, a unique habitat of boggy grassland, meandering waterways and tidal mud flats. It is home to a great number of bird species and is, therefore, a bird watcher’s wet dream. Fortunately, the path does not go through the marsh, but hugs the edge, affording spectacular views of the wetlands and the distant ocean on one side, and a vista of green and pleasant England on the other.

England, green and pleasant, no matter where you walked.
Today became startlingly hot, with a mild breeze and relentless sun. We later learned that we had unwittingly walked into the first truly summer-like day in eighteen months, a fact that might have been welcome had I not been caught by it out on flat land without a hat, sun block or a shade tree in sight. And I wasn’t even able to work on my farmer tan because I was wearing a winter jacket, so I had to settle for a forehead the color of maraschino cherries and a nose that would turn Rudolf green with envy. I think tonight I might glow in the dark.

Tomorrow, I think we’ll give the path a miss. No more 16 mile hikes; it’s time to get back in the car and travel further afield.