A sense of Norfolk

I’m certainly no expert on Norfolk, but having spent four days there over the Easter weekend, it’s amazing how much I’ve taken away. Just a few short days, yet I now feel a real connection to the place.

Stellaria holostea (greater stitchwort) growing wild in the Norfolk hedgerows

I think, in part, this is due to the ‘untouched’ nature of the region. Clearly, the agricultural fields did not appear by themselves, but everything feels a bit more established, a bit less build-up, a bit less changed in the usual piecemeal fashion.

Paul in the very spring-like ‘Natural Surroundings’ nature reserve

In other words, it has a sense of place. After a couple of days, I was noticing patterns of features typical to the locality. Features that pop up over and over again. Features that make you think of Norfolk. Features that add character and interest and connect you to a region.

Can barbed wire be beautiful? When it looks so in place along an English public footpath…I think so!

Vegetation was an important part of this sense of place, but strong character permeated broadly across the landscape. I’ve pinpointed five features that for me, made North Norfolk, North Norfolk.

1. Water

A walk along the Norfolk Broads at Coltishall

Norfolk is known for its beautiful coastline of sandy beaches and the waterways of the Broads. But everywhere you go, there seems to be water, despite the east of England having a much drier climate than the west. Little streams, lakes and marshland, you didn’t need to go far before water appeared. And with the sunnier climate on this side of England, the water was frequently lit up, reflections mirroring the surrounds and bringing the place to life.

2. Animals

Being brave with the cows along a public footpath near Coltishall

Water wasn’t the only thing to bring life to the countryside. Everywhere you looked there were animals. Pheasants were one of our favourites, their deep red heads, spotted plumage and elegant tails appearing in unbelievable numbers. But we also saw many cows, and tiny calves, we saw deer as we walked and rabbits’ tails bobbing under hedgerows and we stayed in Barn Owl Cottage, where we were assured – unfortunately incorrectly – we’d see its namesake.

3. Churches

A Norfolk church in a field of oilseed rape

I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen so many churches in one area. All of a similar style and era, these gorgeous stone structures throw their towers high above the trees, almost one in every village we passed. They were built on the back of the wool trade, when Norwich was the second English city to London. We visited many large estates, also funded during this period, some of which are still family-owned farms today and others which were gifted to the National Trust when inheritance tax became prohibitive. But many of the old, red brick cottages built in more prosperous times still house the community today, the limestone leaching adding depth and patina to their character. There is a certain style to the built environment across North Norfolk, linking back to its time of economic boom, yet happily it is a rich history, rather than sorry decline, that remains and can be felt today.

4. The colour Blue

Blue metal work and clock face at Felbrigg Hall

I’m not sure if blue is a ‘thing’ in Norfolk or not, but I noticed a similar shade cropping up many times. Googling ‘Norfolk blue’ produced a restaurant on Norfolk Island: clearly my computer hasn’t quite caught up with my move across the world as yet. But there is something grounding about seeing a distinctive colour repeated, something that suggests there is a community who actually talk to each other and perhaps local craftsmen bringing commonality to bear.

5. Hedgerows

“STOP!”: the hedgerows were extraordinarily beautiful – here a pheasant scurries away from the road

And finally, my favourite. We might have only been travelling ten miles but it would take us hours to get there. Traversing the narrow, single country lanes lined with hedgerows on both sides, we’d be stopping every few metres to examine flora or fauna which was too eye-catching to pass by. A little cluster of unusual flowers here, a species of bird we hadn’t yet seen, a luminous field of oilseed rape stretching to the horizon with only a church piercing its flowers.

Wildflowers along the coastal path at Happisburgh

Alexanders (Smyrnium alusatrum; above left) were a very familiar sight, their solid structure, rounded flower heads and lime-green colour giving a very definite feel to the margins of country lanes and incredible ridge and furrow ploughed fields.

This gave the word ‘wallflower’ a whole new meaning!

But all of this made me realise the importance of a sense of time, as well as a sense of place. People often speak of a sense of time but it was something I had given little more than lip service to, until this weekend. In Norfolk, the seasons and history were so pronounced, so part of life all around you, it made me realise time was a major contributor to the sense of place we’d experienced.

A beautiful bridge across the Broads at Coltishall

Had we arrived in late summer, or autumn or winter, we would not have seen the ridge and furrow, the yellow oilseed rape or the fresh, limey alexanders. Norfolk’s character, as I’d seen it, was wrapped up in this particular season; in another, the character would be quite different.

The stunning Dutch architecture of Blickling Hall – and these were the servants’ quarters

And a tour of Blickling Hall, built in the Jacobean era (1616), but added to and changed every century since, provided some continuity, some realism, a connection between then and now. A 400-year evolving history was undoubtably vital to the sense of place Blickling evoked; the element of time – and change over time – clearly visible, added so much to the experience.

Smyrnium alusatrum (alexanders) at Wells-next-the-Sea

Itteringham Community Shop, a good one minute walk from our National Trust cottage, pretty much summed up all that I loved about North Norfolk. Despite incorporating a cafe in one corner, it was the smallest village shop I had ever seen, yet seemed to sell everything you could think of and serve the most delicious food. A bunch of wildflowers sat in the centre of both tables; a more tasteful April posey could not be had. And a letter on the noticeboard thanked the community for the funds they had raised to support local refugees that had recently arrived, buying simple items like clothes airers to make their new lives more manageable.

Somebody has bothered to plant all these colourful flowers in the tinniest strip of land between their house and the road…so much pride and effort seems to be made in these naturally beautiful surroundings, as if one strengthens the other

In most parts of London, no-one would notice if a refugee family moved in next door and would, in any case, be far too busy to stop and ask if there was anything they needed. I was so moved by the community spirit in Itteringham and the welcome we received as strangers to the village; it’s such a very much nicer way of life. The shop is actually the fourth oldest shop in England, dating back to 1637; clearly centuries of owners and volunteers have put their heart and soul into making this heart of the village a success. It has a sense of both time and place, just as North Norfolk has on a broader scale.

With no water in sight, you are still drawn to the coast by this magical framing of Happisburgh lighthouse from East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden – absolutely spectacular (much, much more to come on this garden!)

Somewhat surprisingly, this trip reminded me of our visit to New York. In many ways the two places couldn’t be more different, but both had that strong sense of place that means you connect with it at a deep level. I think it’s mostly about having a strong identity: once you can put your finger on what makes Norfolk, Norfolk, or New York, New York, you can engage with it, relate to it and connect with it far more. It is identity which makes a place special, draws us to it and creates a place in our hearts. It’s tricky to feel that about a nondescript, vanilla, motorway service station; we need identity to provide something tangible and distinctive to connect with.

Happisburgh beach (a local delighted in enlightening me as to the correct pronunciation: more like ‘Hayesbrough’)

So now, having practised on Norfolk, I’m very much hoping we will soon be able to find the unique sense of time and place that Oxfordshire has and build on its very own identity, as we create our new home there. I’m certainly looking forward to looking for it!

A view out from the eighteenth century Holkham Hall, a current home and working farm covering thousands of hectares

16 thoughts on “A sense of Norfolk

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    I have problems with this notion of ‘sense of place’ mainly because it does seem to be bandied about so much these days – that it is in danger of becoming just another cliche. Many times I have sat and thought “what does it actually mean”? You finally made ‘sense’ of it for me Janna: “It is identity which makes a place special, draws us to it and creates a place in our hearts. It’s tricky to feel that about a nondescript, vanilla, motorway service station; we need identity to provide something tangible and distinctive to connect with”. That does say it all.
    Norfolk blue? Perhaps the Dutch connection is deeper than one might think – the architecture, a local version of ‘delft blue’ and those flat lands? To me it reminded me of pictures of some parts of Holland – though I can’t remember it in reality, as I was too young when we left. Lovely wild flowers and pretty countryside – but lacking rolling hills which to me ‘set off’ a landscape.I have seen many pictures of East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden so I am looking forward to reading more about that later Janna.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Funnily enough, I had a major breakthrough with my dissertation last night, around the definition of sense of place. It wasn’t anything directly related to Norfolk, but I can’t help thinking subconsciously the trip helped something click into place. It just had such a strong identity.
      I wonder if the blue is the Dutch connection? I always think of orange for The Netherlands, but another google does remind me of their beautiful blue pottery. There certainly is quite a Dutch influence in these low-lying eastern counties. I agree with you on rolling hills, although there was enough undulation to provide interest for me here. As we got the train back to London through Cambridgeshire that reminded us how flat a place can be. Cambridgeshire also seems to have vast open fields which become a little monotonous; the pretty hedgerows breaking up the Norfolk countryside were such a gorgeous feature.
      Will write up East Ruston soon. It really was a fabulous garden. I’m already getting behind though and it’s only mid April…I have one more for Houston and then Rousham to do, too!

  2. David Marsden says:

    Beautiful post, Janna about a beautiful part of the world and one of my favourites counties. I’ve spent about two weeks there in total, over the years, and wish it was longer. I hadn’t noticed the Norfolk Blue particularly but now that you mention it …..

    Abigail asks a pertinent question. You must be exhausted. D

    • jannaschreier says:

      Ah, thanks David. Clearly, I’m not that well-travelled as it was my first time in Norfolk! I’d really love to go back though; what a very special part of the world. Have you ever posted on it?

        • jannaschreier says:

          Gorgeous. What a location for a house! And you’re clearly far posher than we are. The taxi driver on the way to the station told us we should have gone to Blakeney (we visited Sheringham and Wells on either side of it but Blakeney passed us by entirely). He told us Blakeney was more up-market, although he wasn’t impressed with the Jenga-stacked chips “which hadn’t even been peeled” that accompanied his fish there. I had to giggle!

        • David Marsden says:

          I like Wells a lot – it’s refreshingly old-school with kids fishing for crabs on the quayside, candy floss and shops full of tat. I suppose Blakeney is more up market but it is very small and with not a lot to see – other than a boat trip to the seal colony. I missed the Jenga chips completely! Sadly (for us) the holiday house has now been sold, so no more free hols 😦

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