The many affluent villages of the Norfolk coast are among some of the prettiest and daintiest in all of England, with the only possible exception of those thatch-roofed Hobbitesque cottages in Surrey and Wight; they are all built in red and white stone, sandstone and chalk or flint, in various patterns and combinations. Those colours reflect Norfolk’s geology, best visible in the famous Hunstanton cliffs – which, in the shape of a Polish flag, are painted in two strips of red and white: the red is actually subtly divided into two shades, one of sandstone, one of red chalk; the white is your plain blackboard chalk. The cliffs also house a great colony of fulmars in summer, filling the air with the noise of their screeching and the foul smell of their stomach-oil.
The birds rule this coast, where once Romans had – the Norfolk being the location of the northernmost forts of the Litus Saxonicum, Saxon Shore, defending Britannia from the Germanic pirates, the remains of which still linger around villages like Brancaster and Burgh; the abundance of rare wading birds and proximity to Victorian London meant that Norfolk and Suffolk played a major part in the creation and evolution of RSPB. Its most popular reserves are still here – from Titchwell Marsh near Brancaster to Minsmere near Dunwich, filled with flocks of graceful pied avocets, the symbol of the Society.
With so much to see and do, in fine late autumn weather, the first day is a slow paced one, and we barely reach Cromer by the afternoon. Cromer, the “gem of Norfolk” is a seaside resort renowned for its crabs and other seafood; unexpectedly, it also has a good surfing beach – and even in the middle of the week there are still surfers here, struggling with the September swell.
After weeks spent in the barren wastelands, brown heaths and sheep pastures of the North, it is a strange experience to find oneself in the midst of a land so fertile and intensively farmed. Fields spread everywhere, and the farm shop displays heave with autumn produce – heads of sweetcorn, apples, plums, cabbages, potatoes, all freshly harvested from the land we drive through. There’s even lavender, grown in the Norfolk Lavender centre, to flavour honeys, beers and cosmetics. Further in Suffolk, the vegetable patches make place for pig pastures, acres upon acres of sties, where the bacon-givers roam freely in the muck.
The Norfolk Broads that we enter on the second day are another reach of a reclaimed land; now a quasi-National Park, the network of long, deep lakes, winding rivers and canals among the reed-beds and marshes is now one of the favourite holiday destinations from London, and even in late September the marinas are filled with small yachts and motor boats. The Broads had started simply as great ditches cut into the medieval peat fields to provide the surrounding monasteries and cathedrals with fuel; the sea raised and began to flood the region, despite the local efforts, and even the Dutch failed to dry the peat marshes. The landscape that remained after all that is very much that of Holland: all windmills, dykes, and canals. National Trust owns one of the windmills, a particularly attractive one at Horsey, and we turned from the main road to see it; it’s an idyllic site, great for picnics, with thatch-roofed cafe on the shore of a reed-strewn lake.
The Broads lie on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, and our next stop is in the southern of the East Anglian shires; the final of Britain’s Cardinal Points on our journey – the Easternmost.
Until you arrive at the very point, nothing betrays that there’s anything of interest here – the road winds through gas terminals and chemical plants of Lowestoft, with almost no signs to point the way. At the end there’s a small car park, a single tall wind turbine (tallest in England, incidentally), and a large, round plaque set into the ground. This marks the Ness Point itself, and shows the absolute distance to all the cities of Europe, and the rest of cardinal points; we learn it’s 850 miles to Warsaw, as crow flies.
The eastern gale batters against the foreshore, and tankers ply the Channel on the horizon; the wind turbine turns slowly, and the gas refineries belch fumes behind us. There are a few passers-by here, one or two tourists who seem lost, and a lonely bird watcher, looking at some unknown point in the distance. It is a scene as remote from the wind-swept, romantic emptiness of Dunnet Head, Lizard Point or Ardnamurchan as possible – and yet somehow remains, against all odds, quintessentially British.
The sea plays with the East Anglian coastline; the tides here are on a Biblical scale, fast and epic; in places the low-lying marshland is slowly submerged, in others, the beach expands and multiplies into moving tombolas and nesses, like that at Orford. People who live here must be constantly aware of this battle, which man must inevitably lose: just as, over the centuries, he had lost the villages towns of the Suffolk shore, and none more so than the nigh-legendary burgh of Dunwich.
We arrive late to Dunwich; but since the last remnant of a church wall fell from the cliffs twenty years ago, there’s not much to see here. It’s being here that counts, seeing the famously receding cliff and the cruel sea, lapping at its feet, and trying to hear the bells ringing beneath the waves.
Dunwich is now a tiny village of few streets, one church, one pub, and a ruined monastery. But just beyond the beach lies another Dunwich: a wealthy trade port of four thousand souls, devoured over the course of several storms in late Middle Ages. It’s not a mythical Atlantis, but a true lost city; the ruined monastery survived only because it was on its outskirts – and it was one of the two within its borders.
For decades the archaeologists believed that little or nothing of the old Dunwich remains on the bottom of the sea, but since 2008, with use of the newest techniques, the city has been thoroughly surveyed and mapped; still more work remains to be done, as most of the old town is buried by several feet of sand. Hopefully when we come here next, there will be some new discoveries made.
We cross the Dunwich Heath – still in bloom!, past more pig farms and beech forests, before arriving in Rendlesham Forest, not far from Woodbridge. The campsite here is in the middle of a dense open woodland, not far from the defunct RAF base known as “British Roswell” due to a famous UFO incident (we didn’t know about it during our stay).
It’s a decent site, well laid out, level and with good facitilies; it’s also a fairly small one compared to other forest camps we’ve visited earlier, and a fair bit cheaper – just £16 with hookup.