Norfolk

We can see Norwich cathedral from our hotel bedroom window.  Actually, I’m being a little generous.  If we stand by the window and peer sideways we can see the spire over a brick wall and a building or two.  We normally stay in one of the budget hotel chains but, invariably, find ourselves fronting a busy main road, next to a fast food outlet so that we have the aroma of fried food drifting into the hotel.  In a fit of reckless extravagance we had booked into a four star hotel in the centre of Norwich.   It was ideally situated, a stone’s throw from the entrance to the cathedral on the edge of the historic Elm Hill district and had good reviews.

Our room door was sealed with a small sticker: ”This room has been hygienically cleaned using an Electro Static Cleaning System.  It has been sealed for your peace of mind.”   It reminded me of cheap USA motels where there is often a paper strip over the toilet stating that it has been “Sanitized for your protection,”  which means, if you were lucky, it had a squirt of toilet cleaner and a quick wipe of the seat.  I imagined that the Electro Static Cleaning System would be much better and involve a large impressive machine full of whirring cogs and flashing lights.  Bolts of high-voltage electricity would shoot out in all directions bathing the room, and possibly several adjacent buildings,  in an ethereal light.  A reassuring beep and maybe even a synthetic voice would announce that the room was now devoid of all life forms, microscopic or otherwise. I pulled aside the sticker and opened the door.  The room was certainly clean but I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t detect any residual static charges on the furniture.

We were tired after a long drive and I looked on Trip Advisor for a nearby restaurant. Is the site getting harder to use or am I just getting crankier in my old age? I trolled through lists of hotels and tours, some in distant towns, searching for somewhere local to eat. I finally found a link to recommended restaurants but its top suggestion was eight miles away and closed.

“Let’s just go next door” I said.

Next door, of course, was a Wetherspoons.

We recently declared that we would never set foot in a Wetherspoons again following Tim Martin’s vocal support for Brexit.  Sometimes it is too hard to argue with convenience and a bill half the price of other establishments.

To their credit they had done a good job of making the place Covid safe.  Plastic screens separated the tables and there was no milling around the bar.  Everything was clean and the staff were all wearing masks.  You can’t fault beer at £1.99 a pint and, either I was very hungry, or the food has improved.  I’m still annoyed about Brexit though.

The exit from the pub was directly opposite Elm Hill, a delightful cobbled lane with many buildings dating back to the Tudor period.  During the 15th and 16th centuries Elm Hill was an important commercial thoroughfare. Many wealthy merchants had their houses facing Elm Hill with their factories and workshops at the rear. With the decline of Norwich as a centre of the weaving industry in the 19th century, Elm Hill lost its importance and slowly degenerated into a slum area.  In 1926, the Norwich Corporation wanted to demolish the houses on the north side of the street and build a swimming pool.  Luckily sense prevailed and the building were restored and preserved.  

We walked slowly up the hill, hopping from cobble to cobble, towards St Peter’s church.

Medieval Norwich boasted either fifty-seven or fifty-eight churches within the city walls, depending on which source you believe.  Thirty-one of these still exist but only a handful are actually used for worship.  Many of the others are derelict and deserted with a few repurposed as shops or artist’s studios.  The Norwich district still has an impressive seventy-three churches, a ratio of one church to every 1,942 people. Locals will tell you that there is a church for every week of the year and a pub for every day of the week. I didn’t count the pubs but there did seem to be a church on every street.

We were standing outside of St Peter’s when Madam said “There’s a keyboard in the pavement!”

I thought this unlikely but indeed there was what looked like a fossilised computer keyboard.  We looked at it from all angles and it still looked like a keyboard.

I later looked on the internet and learned that there were many rumours including that a keyboard had fallen off a lorry in the 1980’s when the pavement was resurfaced or that it was an 19th century typewriter.  It was finally revealed in 2020 as an art project placed there in the 1990’s by a student at Norwich University of the Arts.  She had made a mould of an old Amstrad keyboard and done some clever things using porcelain that made it appear like an ancient fossil.  Chancing on some wet concrete one day, she had pressed it into the surface where it remains to this day.

We walked a little further, up another hill and down a couple of side streets.  Don’t let anybody tell you Norwich is flat.  It isn’t.

“Which way is the hotel?” I asked Madam, hoping it was all downhill.

“That way!” she said decisively, pointing up another hill.  She though for a while and added with less certainty “or maybe that way,” pointing in a different direction.

“No, I think it’s that way,” I said pointing in a third direction.  I didn’t really have a clue as I have zero sense of direction, but it was downhill and my legs were tired.

Luckily, we turned a corner and spotted the cathedral spire and used it as a beacon to guide our way back to the hotel, delayed only by a brief and diverting short cut through the cathedral grounds which turned out to be a dead end.

An early night for tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

———

Madam had booked us into breakfast at 7:30. 

“Isn’t that a bit early?” I asked.

“We have a lot to do!” she replied.

I was going to point out that we didn’t have anything to do until 10:00 but I let it pass.

Breakfast at the hotel had once been a buffet but after Covid they had installed a plastic screen over the food and a member of staff serves you.  It was a bit like school dinners but with more choice.  I thought breakfast was a bit disappointing for a four star hotel.  Most items had obviously been sitting for a while and the food wasn’t particularly warm.  The staff were pleasant but seemed to be struggling with the new Covid restrictions.

This was the only drawback with the hotel, everything else was wonderful.  The staff were friendly and attentive, the room large and the bed comfortable.  Even the toilet paper was soft.  Some small luxuries in life brook no compromise.  I later worked out that it was costing us £30 more than the budget chain for the entire stay.   Worth every penny.

One of the perks of the hotel was a free tour of the city in a 1963 Bentley S3 and we presented ourselves at reception on the dot at 10:00 am.  I don’t know much about cars.  In fact, you could fit my entire knowledge on the back of a postcard and still leave room for the address.  But I did know that it looked expensive.  Very expensive.

I sank into the soft beige leather seat.  It wasn’t as much support as having your bottom gently caressed in a not disagreeable manner.  A member of the hotel staff was driving.

“Aren’t you nervous driving a £165,000 car?” asked Madam of the young man.

“Not really, you get used to it after a while,” he replied as he steered us into the traffic on a narrow lane.

Unfortunately it had started raining and the windows quickly became rain splattered and misted so we didn’t see much of Norwich, but I was happy to sink into the seat and imagine a life where I was conveyed in a chauffeur driven car for the next 30 minutes while Madam chatted to the driver.

When we got back to the hotel, an email from one of the charities I support popped into my inbox.  I learnt a long time ago that if you give them a donation, many charities will then send you begging letters every month for the rest of your life, and quite possible beyond that. I worked out that if you send them money every month for tickets in their lottery they never bother you.  Probably something to do with gambling rules. The chances are winning are so low I just view it as a donation.

The email read:

Congratulations!  I’m delighted to let you know that you have won in our weekly lottery!

You don’t have to do anything to claim your prize money, we’ll just transfer it directly into your bank account – while you sit back and think about what you’re going to spend it on!  Congratulations again!

I sat back and thought for a long time how I would spend my winnings and eventually decided that I would treat Madam to a cup of tea later with my £5.

The forecast was for rain all day so we donned our raincoats and headed to the cathedral.   I’m always amazed at the skill that went into building English cathedrals.  Norwich was completed in the 12th century using only manual labour and hand tools under conditions that would cause the most lax of health and safety managers apoplexy. The process invariably took half a century or more and it’s unlikely that the original planners would ever witness its completion.  Windows and arches are often at the limit of engineering tolerances pointing to a skill that is now rare without computer-aided design.   And yet, build them they did.  Forty two still exist in Britain, most dating from the medieval period.

Norwich Cathedral have implemented a one way system with a single entrance.  We joined a small queue and, on presenting ourselves at the door,  were given strict instructions that we had to keep two metres away from anybody that we weren’t in regular intimate contact with, wear a mask at all times, apply hand sanitiser liberally and scan a QR with our phones. Madam was provided with a map of the cathedral.  I wasn’t allowed one as I always get confused with the lack of a large red ‘You Are Here’ arrow on maps and end up getting even more lost.

We found our way into the nave where Madam found someone to talk to so I wandered round and took a few photographs.  There seems to have been only one design for all cathedrals in England.  Either there was only ever one set of plans passed from one set of builders to the next or maybe one original cathedral was copied over and over again.  No doubt the builders would have told you it was all divine inspiration.

Norwich cathedral was nicely done with flower displays and a few up to date memorials including one to the 2063 Covid victims (so far) in Norfolk. Personally, I would have been more impressed if God had spared 2063 lives but you can’t have everything.

Edith Cavell is buried just outside of the walls of the cathedral. She was a British nurse celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and for helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War for which she was arrested. She was accused of treason by the Germans, found guilty by a court-martial and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad.

One wall of the cathedral has an unusual art display ‘The Passion of Edith Cavell’ and there is a large memorial outside of the cathedral gates.

It was still raining when we left the cathedral two hours later so we headed to the shopping mall, more to keep out of the rain than any desire to shop.  I can save you a special trip.  It was much the same as every other mall and had all the same shops.  We did stop in Greggs bakery on the way back to the hotel.  We’ve been wanting to try their vegan sausage roll for years after it had rave reviews, even from meat-eaters.  I can confirm that it was delicious.  You should go there and buy one immediately.

———-

When we were planning to downsize three years ago and told friends that we intended to spend our time travelling one of the first questions was “where are you going first?”

In reality we hadn’t got that far in the planning process so I always replied “Great Yarmouth!”  I’d never been there and only vaguely knew that it was somewhere on the Norfolk coast.  

They would always look confused, expecting something like Tahiti or Thailand.  One of them even said “Great Yarmouth?  It isn’t very nice there.”

We had certainly planned trips further afield than Norfolk but Covid got in the way, so we are visiting a few new areas of Britain while restrictions last.  We couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Great Yarmouth although it was a drizzly, grey morning.  We loaded a car park postcode into our SatNav, turned on the windscreen wipers and headed towards the coast.

The car park was almost empty, graffiti covered nearby walls.  “This looks a bit grim,” said Madam.

“Maybe we could drive along the seafront,” I said, “there’s an area further along on the map marked Pleasure Beach.”

We found the seafront, driving past industrial buildings, a power station and docks and found a free parking place on a side street near the pier.  It was still damp and misty but I can never resist a seaside pier.  The only entrance seemed to be through an amusement arcade, so we dodged through the slot machines to the end of the pier and I looked over the edge to see… sand.   Am I being a bit picky when I expect that some section of a structure that calls itself a pier should make some effort to be over water?

I later discovered that this was the Wellington Pier.  Great Yarmouth has two piers, the Britannia Pier being the other.  Neither of them are over the sea.  

The rain stopped, so we walked further along the seafront but it seemed to be mostly a string of amusement arcades and fish and chip shops.  We passed the almost derelict Winter Gardens which must have been a wonderful in its heyday.   Hoarding surrounded the gardens.  I walked all round and couldn’t find any indication whether it was going to be refurbished or demolished.  Looking on the borough website, the council are planning on restoring thisGrade II* listed, last surviving Victorian seaside cast iron and glass winter garden.  They need almost ten million pounds to repair and bring it to sustainable use.  Needless to say, they don’t have the money yet but are hoping for a grant from the lottery fund.  Does anybody else see a problem with this?  We can squander £130 billion on the economic hit of Brexit or £98 billion on an unpopular railway line to speed up a journey from London to Birmingham by 20 minutes, but a council has to go cap-in-hand to a charitable fund to save our last remaining Victorian seaside winter gardens.  And don’t get me started on the billions spent on test and trace.

But enough of my ranting.  

Great Yarmouth wasn’t so bad.  It has a fine sandy beach, a wide promenade with a land train, a Sea Life, a model village and fairground rides.  It was a bit heavy on the amusement arcades, most of them named after Las Vegas casinos, but they seemed to be busy and thriving.  Nowadays I prefer a few more flower beds and a lot more benches but it’s probably a great day out for families.

“We could go and see the horsey seals,” said Madam.

I was confused.  “There are seals that look like horses?” I asked.

“No, not horsey seals, seals at Horsey,” she replied.

Our SatNav took us down an unmade road leading into a large rough car park.  They wanted £3 for two hours parking. “They certainly know how to milk those seals,” I told Madam but she was already heading to the beach.  We climbed over a high sand dune – not easy when you slide back a foot for every step you make – until we reached the shoreline.  

There was a brisk north easterly onshore wind, the sea was rough and waves were crashing onto the beach.  I saw a lot of people walking up and down the beach but no sign of any seals.  I was rather hoping there would be a colony on the beach that would come up and sniff my hand like a friendly dog.

Madam walked down to the water while I tried to find a spot to sit down out of the wind.

“There! Look!” she shouted pointing out to sea.

There was the faintest bob of a grey head above the water fifty yards out to sea.  Within seconds it had disappeared.  We waited on the beach for another thirty minutes and saw a few more seals come up for air but that was about all.  

“Let’s go to Cromer,” I said.

After a diverting journey through a confusing one-way system we managed to find a car park up a steep hill above the cliffs.  It was charging an ambitious £6 for four hours.  

“Do we need four hours here?” I asked Madam.

“Absolutely! At that price it must be a really nice place.  We can get dinner here later.” 

I pulled out all my spare clothes from the back of the car and put them on.  I was wearing four layers and I was still cold.  It was the third week of June.  One of the waitresses at the hotel had told us it was thirty degrees last week, “you should have come then!” she said brightly.  We had tried to book for the previous week but the hotel was full.  In a fit of optimism over experience I had packed mostly shorts and t-shirts.  A winter coat would have been more useful.

We stopped for a nice cup of tea at Hatters Tea Shop, proper loose leaf tea in a teapot, then headed into the town centre. Unless we missed something, Cromer seemed to consist mostly of charity shops plus a handful of the usual chain stores and a few cafes. We walked towards the promenade pulling up our coat collars. It was pleasant enough, a nice garden or two, but not a lot else to do apart from walking up and down the promenade which seems to be what the crowds were doing. It had an attractive pier but it was some way below the town, down a long and steep winding ramp. I could get down easily enough but I wasn’t confident of getting back up to the car without needing a piggy-back so we gave it a miss.

“Did you see anywhere for dinner?” I asked Madam.

She shook her head.

“Back to Norwich then?”

She nodded.

I was a little sad as there was nearly two hours left on the parking.

———-

We had booked our visit to Sandringham two weeks ago.  Even then there were a limited number of tickets available but Madam managed to secure two tickets for entry at 10:30am.

Sandringham House is the private home of Queen Elizabeth II whose father, George VI, and grandfather, George V, both died there. The house stands in a 20,000-acre estate in the Norfolk Coast Are of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The house is listed as Grade II* and the landscaped gardens, park and woodlands are on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

Madam was concerned that we might be invited to tea with the queen so she insisted on trying on several outfits and we ended up not leaving until 9:30.  We loaded the postcode into the SatNav and it declared that the journey would take 67 minutes.  Our tickets insisted that we had to be there on time or we might be refused entry.

“We’re going to be late, they might turn us away,” I told Madam.

“We’ll be fine.”

“No, really, the tickets are quite clear.”

“We’ll be fine.”

By the time we had parked the car and reached the ticket office we were 20 minutes late and I was starting to panic.

“We’ll be fine,” said Madam.

“We’re a bit late I’m afraid,” I said to the woman in the ticket office.

“Oh, you’re fine,” she replied with a smile.

Our tickets were free as we were members of Historic Houses.  Well, technically not free as we pay them £89 a year, but it saved us £40 on this one visit alone.  By the time you add in the other properties we visit in a year it’s great value.

“You will have to pay for parking,” said the ticket woman.

“That’s okay,” I said, “I’m sure the Queen needs the money.”

She gave me a frosty look and said “All money received is for the upkeep of the property.”

Madam gently pulled me away before I said anything else.

We reached the entrance of the house after a further ten minute walk. The guide welcomed us and told us that this was the entrance that the Queen used when she visited at Christmas.

“Does the Queen have the kettle on?” asked Madam.

There were only half a dozen or so rooms open to the public and we were led through them by an audio commentary on our headphones.  

‘This is where the Queen eats her lunch… this is where the Queen does jigsaws… this is where the Queen watches television..’  Well, you get the idea.  The commentary did say a lot more but I didn’t make notes so I don’t remember most of it.  They often mentioned how the royal families of Europe were all interconnected, either genetically or by marriage.  I was going to ask the guide if that was the same as inbreeding but I didn’t want to get into trouble again.

They wouldn’t let me take any photographs of the inside of the building but there are a few of the outside and the gardens on the Travel Photos link at the top of the blog.

On the journey back from Sandringham there was a sudden ping from the dashboard of the car.  

“What does that orange light mean?” I asked Madam.

“Tyre pressure,” was her succinct reply.

We had that come on a couple of times before after a long journey but there was never any evidence of tyre problems so we ignored it. We found the last space in the hotel car park.

“I’ll just check the tyre pressures,” I said.

One of the front tyres was 22 lbs.  It was supposed to be 33 lbs.   I had a small electric pump in the car, connected it to the offending tyre and pressed start.  Twenty minutes later the pressure was 24 lbs.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” I said.

“We’ll be fine,” said Madam, “we’ll deal with it in the morning.”

———

Rather than struggle with my weedy electric pump in the morning we called out the AA who were there in fifty minutes.  The mechanic looked all round the tyre and couldn’t see any obvious problem, so he pumped it up to a little over normal pressure and Madam drove it to Havers Tyres on a recommendation from a friend.  They did something to do with resealing and pumped up the other three tyres to their correct pressure all for a very reasonable £10.  

We had planned on looking round the rest of Norwich, including the market,  on our last full day in Norfolk, but after dealing with the tyre, we didn’t get to market until after 1pm.  The market is often mentioned as one of the main attractions of Norwich.  It claims to be one of the oldest and largest outdoor markets in the country with 189 stalls.  I don’t know if it was the day of the week, the time of day or simply Covid issues but half of the stalls were closed with no indication of when they might open.  Most of the open stalls were selling food.  

“See anything you want to eat?” I asked Madam.

She thought for a while and said “there’s a Greggs over there.”

We bought another couple of vegan sausage rolls and wandered around a few shops, eventually finding our way down to the river walk.  We walked along the River Wensum for a mile or two and had it almost to ourselves.  We stopped at a pub thinking we might have an early dinner there.  

“We close at 6pm, people don’t come out in the evening.” said the barman.

What a strange county I thought.  Piers that stop short of the sea and pubs that close at 6pm.

“Time to go home I think,” I said.

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