It’s become something of a tradition for my Beloved and I to spend a couple of days between Christmas and New Year up on the wild and rugged North Norfolk coast – although inevitably there was a bit of a hiatus for a couple of years when we lived in South Africa.
But things haven’t half changed there over the years. While a healthy tourist trade always meant that it was never exactly down at heel, the place is now oozing with rich Londoners to the extent that the average asking price for a (second) home in celebrity-strewn Blakeney is over £500,000 and an expansive dwelling in the bird-watching capital of Cley-next-the-Sea (pronounced ‘Cly’ rather than “Clay”) just went for £1.5 million.
Which is all very well, but it means that, like all too many places in areas such as Cornwall and the Lake District, the locals, many of whom have minimum wage jobs, can no longer afford to buy there. So they have to try their luck with council homes or social housing instead.
It also means that these charming little villages with their narrow streets bursting with Dutch-gabled houses and flint-pebble former fishermen’s cottages become the equivalent of ghost towns for much of the year, springing briefly to life only over the summer holidays and at big festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Which doesn’t really seem right to me.
One thing that this influx of wealth is doing for the county though is transforming it into quite a culinary mecca – often with prices to match. In fact, to reflect this phenomenon, a new monthly magazine called Feast has just been published in a bid to tap into foodie interest in the area. Dishing up everything from restaurant reviews, interviews with up-and-coming chefs and a selection of gourmet recipes to try at home, its advent makes sense in a region intent on making the most of what it’s got.
And what this flat and fertile land has most of, apart from tourism, is food and farming, which accounts for more than 20% of local jobs. The biggest arable crops around there are sugar beet, oil seed rape, wheat and barley (for brewing – as well as the more established Woodforde’s, Norfolk now boasts an impressive 25 microbreweries). But you’ll also see lots of plump, pink pigs snuffling around in big, open, muddy fields and generally seeming to enjoy life, which is good to see.
More than one of them though is likely to make a star appearance at the annual, six-week-long Norwich Food and Drink Festival in the Battle of the Bangers competition. Here members of the public vote for their favourite sausage from a selection provided by 10 local butchers.
Norwich, Norfolk’s county town and England’s first Unesco City of Literature (Edinburgh in Scotland sports a similar accolade), has for the last decade been hosting the festival, which also invites local schools to participate in the Tallest Jelly Competition – an event sadly cancelled last year for reasons unknown.
But the whole Festival is all very professional, it seems, jelly setbacks notwithstanding. Run by not-for-profit organisation Norfolk Food and Drink Ltd, the key aim – very sensibly – is to encourage visitors to come to the region at a time, in September and early October, when the whole tourism thing is cooling down after the summer rush.
Conveniently though, it also fits in nicely with game season. So if you’re partial to a bit of pheasant or even the odd teal, which I must confess I’d never eaten before but which my Beloved and I picked up for a song in a local butcher’s in the charming market town of Holt, then treat yourself.
The teal, which is a small freshwater duck with a green-coloured band on its wing, was lovely by the way – not that dissimilar to partridge, and definitely less ‘gamey’ than something like woodpigeon. We indulged on New Year’s Day.
Anyway, scrummy food isn’t the only thing that Norfolk’s developed a reputation for. The other is the largely unspoiled nature of much of its coastline and the nearby wetlands, marshes and lowland meadows. These account for just over half of the 65 habitats listed in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being priorities for conservation and are havens for all kinds of plants and animals.
Cley-next-the-Sea, where we stayed, is in fact an internationally renowned destination site for birders and twitchers, and the adjoining Cley Marshes were even nominated as “Nature Reserve of the Year” in the BBC’s Countryfile Magazine’s awards towards the end of 2015.
But the Marshes have got a bit of history behind them too. After a bunch of friends, under the leadership of one Dr Sydney Long, got together in the George Hotel – which still exists to this day and was, as it happens, where we resided during our trip – for a conflab in 1926, they purchased an initial 400 or so acres of land on today’s site for an impressive £5,160 (around £2 million in today’s money).
The aim of the Norfolk Naturalists Trust as they called themselves, was to create a bird-breeding sanctuary. And the idea proved such a success that the Norfolk Wildlife Trust as it is now known, will celebrate its 90th anniversary this year after having acted as a blueprint for a further 47 such native conservation charities up and down the country.
But the original site also now houses a pristine Visitor Centre, from which you can sit and spot everything from marsh harriers and terns to spoonbills – and where you can even treat yourself to a mean bacon sandwich. Not that we spent the entire break eating, I hasten to add.
But even if we had, a hearty walk along the pounding seashore to visit the seals at Blakeney Point will soon sort that kind of thing out. The colony there is a lovely, honk-y mix of common and grey seals of all ages and persuasions. But about 15 or so years ago, the former were badly hit by an outbreak of distemper, which cut their numbers to as few as 400.
Now though, thankfully, their fortunes have revived and by the start of 2015, Blakeney Point had become the largest seal colony in England. Which also implies that fish stocks must have recovered at least enough to support them too. And that can only be a good thing – on all counts.