They say that the east of England is crumbling into the sea, which would only be the latest in a series of trials, stretching from giant prehistoric beasts (the UK’s biggest mammoth skeleton was found in West Runton) to economic obsolescence via incursions of murderous Vikings and, yes, flooding. The Norfolk Broads only exist because the peat channels dug by 12th– and 13th-century peasants started filling with water. Norwich Cathedral, and any number of large and pretty churches, are testament to medieval wealth – but that was before Columbus inconsiderately discovered America in the other direction.
I have been coming to this part of England all my life, and while some things haven’t changed – the houses with their distinctive flint façades, fish and chips on the seafront and the impossibility of winning anything in Sheringham Arcade – others have. This autumn, I have stayed at a luxury hotel newly fashioned from a former glassblowing factory and glamped in a swooningly romantic structure that started life as a horsebox.
I could have put up at a ten-room hotel, restaurant and bar, run by the makers of North42 gin, but my sister’s sweet Garden Room Airbnb is round the corner, and free to those with the same DNA. And local produce, from Cromer crabs to Norfolk venison, can now be found in a selection of restaurants, some of which – The White Horse in Brancaster, The Orange Tree in Thornham – also offer Cobble Hill wine from Norfolk terroir. If England’s eastern haunch, like Nero’s Rome, is really being destroyed before our eyes, the denizens would appear to be doing their own hospitable version of fiddling.
My October trip was a birthday surprise. Get Away Hide Away, otherwise known as Douglas, is a 1967 horsebox converted into a charming den with kitchen, woodburning stove and a firepit in the wildflower patch outside. In nearby Dereham, we bought Cromer crab and monkfish cheeks from the market for a firepit paella – then nearly left the expensive bag of seafood at St Nicholas Church, so distracted were we by its standalone 16th-century church tower, carved porch and font (both 15th-century), and St Withburga’s Well, a spring that supposedly sprang up in the spot where the local saint was buried when her remains were filched by the Abbot of Ely. Perhaps an offering would have been appropriate – but I was not about to make a gift of my birthday dinner.
We began with the 159th edition of Krug’s Grande Cuvée which dates, give or take a great many reserve wines, from the unseasonably hot vintage of 2003; if getting older means Champagne as good as this, perfumed with brioche and almond, savoury and elegant, then I’m all for it. With the paella, we drank Domaine de la Taille aux Loups Les Hauts de Husseau 2016, Jacky Blot’s magnificent Chenin Blanc from Montlouis, across the Loire from Vouvray. Long ago, I spent another memorable birthday in the troglodyte caves there, helping the sculptor Michel Audiard and his friends cork and label his bottles with a hand-pulled corking contraption and a hairdryer. I was recompensed in glasses of Chenin Blanc: a fair exchange.
A place like North Norfolk offers a chance to pause and contemplate the play of fading winter light on the patient sea
Chenin, both the Loire and the South African versions, deserves to be so much better known: so versatile that it can be sweet, off-dry or dry and with acidity high enough to make it, in our warming world, a grape with a future. In Norfolk, great Chenin paired with a bowlful of species likely to be Douglas’s future inhabitants felt like the right combination of optimism and catastrophising for a birthday dinner.
On this last trip, I’d hoped to visit a whisky distillery; instead, I found myself in a gin palace. The English Distillery, set up in 2006 by James Nelstrop (a pioneer of centre pivot crop irrigation, a way of getting water from where it is to where it needs to be), was the country’s first registered whisky producer in a century, but it was a little too far south for us to get to. Burlington Berties is run by Sally Davis and Joanna Betts, former restaurateurs in Leicester who had recently launched their own North42 Rhubarb and Blood Orange gin, and promptly seen it listed by Selfridges, when the pandemic hit.
Their restaurant closed by lockdowns and their gins (they also make a Valencia Orange and Passionfruit version) returned unsold by shops forbidden to open, they came up with a different kind of pivot, selling 42%-proof care packages online. But pivoting can strain more than tendons and they have now swapped Leicester for Sheringham. In November, the gin garden out front was closed, so we sipped cocktails on banquettes so comfortable we almost forgot to stop drinking, despite measures you would never see in any city. Never mind worries about the crumbling coastline: a person could drown in one of these coupes.
The Harper, a boutique hotel near Holt, serves its Champagne in coupes, which I think is a waste of aromas and bubbles, although I have to admit it looks nice. As does everything in this former glassblowing factory, from the giant floor-standing elbow lamps to the airy, well-upholstered upstairs lounge and the stained-glass windows in the classic flint-faced walls. It’s a safe bet the glassblowers didn’t have this pool and jacuzzi, which guests reserve for private use (‘we started this during Covid and people liked it, so we have kept it’), excellent massages or a restaurant, Stanley’s, showcasing local produce and a really good wine list. I ordered a glass of Susana Balbo’s Malbec to accompany my sirloin and both were unimpeachable, with no inappropriate stemware in sight. The facilities are all for residents only, even the restaurant, which seems uneconomical but probably makes the place even more tranquil.
It is so hard to stay still in the modern world – even coastlines cannot manage it. I spend a lot of my time thinking about more potable liquids, their rise and fall, their past and future. But a place like North Norfolk offers a chance to pause and contemplate the play of fading winter light on the patient sea, then take shelter behind a flint-hard wall or within a whimsically repurposed vehicle that will never move again. If this is a backwater, I’ll take it.