Best short breaks near London: North Norfolk
Get out of London for the weekend: North Norfolk, with its vast beaches, gorgeous towns and wild, wild heart, makes for one of the best holidays in UK.
Norfolk is a wilder, weirder land than its East Anglian neighbour Suffolk; it has stranger legends, and older ruins. It also has a deeper bond with the sea, and its beaches are, for many, its main draw: sweeps of sand so vast that, even in high season, you'll find the perfect spot. There's a great deal of birdwatching to be done as well as sailing, riding and golfing. The coastal walks are some of the best in the country. But sometimes, the nicest days are simply spent ferried out to an island, with a picnic, a flask of coffee, a bottle of wine and all the family.
Inland, there's plenty to occupy indoorsy types, too, with lovely villages, galleries, fine food markets, shopping, fine-dining and grand estates. Norfolk is lovely at any time of year, though we adore it in autumn, just after high season, when the sea is still warm and the leaves are about to turn.
Yes, it is flat. But that just means bigger sunsets.
Norfolk Oysters: Gurneys, Burnham Market
WHAT TO DO IN NORTH NORFOLK
Start of at the small village of Holkham, where you'll find the opulent Holkham Hall, an eighteenth Century Palladian estate designed by William Kent and still occupied by the Coke family who commissioned it in 17 xxxIt's classical architecture, supported by towering alabaster columns, make it one of the most impressive buildings in England. The Walled Gardens are worth a visit and stop it at the estate's own Victoria Inn, where you can sample beef and venison from the estate, as well as local samphire and shellfish.
Until 30 October 2015, you can catch an photography exhibition at Holkham. 'Behind Closed Doors: A Year in the Life of a Working Estate' is Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins' project, documenting every aspect of life at the Hall.
Holkham's real draw, however, is its beach. Time and time again, it is voted the best beach in Britain. Walk through the wood (taking advantage of the great climbing trees) watch one of Britain's most beautiful, unspoilt beaches reveals itself through the pines. The beach is vast, especially at low tide, and you can walk uninterrupted to Wells or Burnham Overy Staithe over the rippled sand. It is also something of a screen sensation, having appeared in countless films and television programmes; most famously, the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.
It's often called Chelsea-On-Sea, but whether that a turn-off or turn-on, there's a lot more to Burnham Market than the well-heeled crowd and their Land-Rovers. (Ignore the much-reviled Jack Wills outlet.) Ten minute's drive from the coast, this small market town makes a perfect pit-stop.
Make sure you pop in to the well-known, award-winning Humble Pie deli for picnic supplies -on no account miss the chocolate biscuit cake. Gurney's fish shop is known throughout the land as one of the best places to buy seafood. Every self-respecting fridge in Norfolk has a stack of Gurney's smoked fish pates. Stock up on wine at the impossibly friendly Satchells Wine Merchant.
At the heart of Burnham Market is Hoste Arms; a pub and boutique hotel loved by locals and second-homers alike. Stop in for a pint of local wherry.
If you really must shop, then Anna is a gorgeous boutique and Ruby and Tallulah stocks brands such as Isabel Marant, Golden Goose, Humanoid. Vintage Deli is expensive, but gorgeous. So you can revivify your London wardrobe on the coast.
By far and away our favourite feature of Burnham Market, though, is Brazen Head Bookshop: an Aladdin's Cave of antiquarian and collectible books. Give yourself at least an hour to wander round its higgeldy-piggeldy shelves; you never know what you'll find.
On a Friday or Saturday evening, head a couple of miles in-land to Sir Robert Walpole's 1720 Palladian manor, where something rather remarkable is happening.
In a perfect marriage of classic and contemporary, American artist James Turrell's light pieces have transformed the house into a hallucination. Turrell is lit up the entire facade with a series of LED lights, making this staid country pile nothing short of psychedelic. Lord Cholmondeley, Houghton's owner, is a huge Turrell fan, and the rest of the exhibition comprises of his personal collection of light installations.
Critics have loved it and The Guardian's notoriously cross Jonathan Jones gave it 5 stars.
BEST NORFOLK RESTAURANTS: CULTURE WHISPER EDIT
The Guardian wrote "it's as close to earthly paradise as a British hotel-restaurant will transport you". The Independent have raved about it twice. The Sunday Telegraph Magazine gushed “There is so much about Morston Hall, it’s so perfect it’s hard to know where to begin. Michel Roux called it "a slice of heaven"
With the only Michelin star on the coast, Norfolk dining doesn't get finer than at Morston. The hotel itself is a proper English affair, immaculately presented if a touch old-fashioned. But the food. Ah, the food. Chef Galton Blackiston has been at Morston for twenty years, and his dishes are technical, beautiful and in love with the land they come from.
There is one sitting for dinner; 7 30 til 8. The six-course tasting menu changes daily, but you can expect classics done beautifully - things like lobster claws, cured in salt and sugar and then poached in butter, or rabbit loin, with camomile poached carrots, or pan-fried North Sea turbot with raspberry vinegar jus, ot rib of Aberdeen Angus with smoked potatoes,
The Orange Tree
Good gastropub meals in Norfolk aren't hard to come by.The best of the bunch, however, comes courtesy of Thornham's Orange Tree. The pub is picturesquely set, comfortable and utterly welcoming.
The real draw, though, is the food: the pub has won a host of awards for its gorgeous, rich food. The menu changes daily, but think smoked mackerel, crispy gnocchi and vanilla pickled kohlrabi, or slow roasted pork belly with a seared pork loin, smoked potato pie, wild mushrooms and poached egg.
Mains start at £15 and there's a menu for doggies, and for kiddies too.
Where to stay in North Norfolk
The Hoste Arms
Burnham Market's luxury Hoste Arms is a country inn with a snazzy flourish or two. The recently updated rooms are large and feminine: boudoir velveteen curtains, chandeliers, full length mirrors.
The restaurant downstairs, separate from the pub, is very good The dining room is attractive, the young staff are friendly. You won't find better mussels in all of Norfolk: huge steaming, rattling vats, bathing in white wine and butter. Even the most squeamish will be tempted.
Relax by the pub's fireside after dinner, drinking whiskey and listening to the fisherman discuss the day's catches.
Morston is proper, grown-up hotel that attracts proper, grown-up people: smart, polished and in the best of taste. The rooms are just lovely: large and traditional, and the beds are enormous. You wouldn't want to be anywhere else after a long day at the beach.
The main draw, though, is the food. See above for details.