If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.
The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.
Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.
Clustered on the very edge of North Norfolk, the little fishing town of Cromer is famous for the eponymous crabs caught off its beaches, the lighthouse that stands guard over them and a pier that spikes off into the distance. It is in full possession of all the iconography a traditional British seaside town should own. As lovely as Southwold and Holt but without the twee self consciousness, Cromer’s wind blasted cliffs stand guard against time, tide and Londoners in search of second homes although their influx is inevitable as Holt, Burnham and the Brancasters price themselves out of all but the spendiest of pockets.
Like a lot of coastal towns it is more than the sum of its parts and we have had a good look around, talked to locals and come up with a handy guide to ten of the best things about the place. This list is by no means exhaustive (the idea that there is only ten, TEN lovely things is plain daft), but this guide is a start and we’d love to hear of anywhere we’ve left out and you believe should be in here. We are happy to add and amend and places do open up and they certainly (and very sadly) close down. So here it is, Ten Reasons to Visit Cromer.…
(1) All things lifeboat and lifesaving-
The lifeboat service has been described as ‘lifeblood of the town’ and this applies to any place with a strong maritime history and dependency upon the fruits of the sea – Cromer is no exception. The Henry Blogg Museum commemorates Coxwain Henry, saviour of over 170 lives from the North Sea and the RNLI’s most decorated lifeboat man, serving over 53 years. Holder of the George Cross for bravery, the exhibits tell the story of Henry Blogg’s most famous rescues and has as its centrepiece, the HFBailey, his trusty boat. The museums design has won architectural awards and is regarded as very child friendly, admission is free and there is a lively programme of year round events.
Cromers lifeboat station is actually spread over three locations including the museum and carries ‘Explore’ status meaning it offers a higher level of visitor experience. Free access means you can go inside, look around and chat to the crew when they are around. Tours can be pre-booked and there is an RNLI gift shop. Please do make a donation too, no matter how small: every bit counts for a service that scandalously relies on these to keep it going and all beach goers should be prepared to contribute to a service that, god forbid, you will hopefully never require. And should you be on the pier and hear a loud’ bang’, get down to the pier end as fast as you can to where the station is and you may, if you are fortunate, see the lifeboat being launched along its slipway, straight into the spumey grey green waters of the North Sea.
Living near the sea affords locals with a healthy respect for what it gives and takes away and many people recommended nnslsc.org.uk a voluntary organisation set up to train lifeguards and offer water and beach safety awareness courses for children aged 7+. Summer sessions are held on the beach, from out of the club house on the promenade and then move to the indoor pool during the colder months. Membership is very inexpensive and lasts for a year.
(2) The beaches
Being essentially Edwardian – Victorian in its character and town development, Cromer is all about those healthy sea breezes, much recommended by Victorian fresh air fiends who placed a lesser priority on feeling warm and sheltered as they ‘took the sea air.’. However this doesn’t mean that visitors hoping for a sunbathing, bucket and spade holiday will spend their time shivering, wrapped up in blankets, grimacing as the wind blows a shed load of sand into their eyes. I have toasted myself on the beach here and there are plenty of natural windbreaks along the coastline, where families can spread out and enjoy the warmth.
The town front beach is a lovely combination of utiliarian and leisure- a lack of a harbour means visitors enjoy a ringside view of the fishing boats being hauled up by winches over thick ridges of shingle by rust speckled tractors. For a great view, park up on the cliff top and watch the boats come in from afar but don’t forget the binoculars.
Cromer boasts two sandy blue flag beaches which span as far as the eye can see when the tide is out, whilst kids can paddle some distance before the seabed falls away. West beach to the left of the pier is a nubbly mix of sand and stone and usually quieter the further you proceed towards East Runton; this is where you’ll find some good rock pools.
East Beach is the most picturesque, channeling that traditional seaside vibe as it clusters below the town and its higgledy piggledy warren of streets and alleyways. It is also overlooked by Hotel de Paris, now sadly faded and standing over the town in the manner of a Diva a few years past her glory days. Designed by the architect George Skipper, he was sometimes referred to as the ‘Gaudi of Norfolk.’
The undersides of the pier offer some shelter, especially for surfing and swimming, and again, when the tide is out, is the location of some good rock pools for kids to explore. There is a rip tide though and boards on the beach advise as to how best avoid it. Those lovely cliffs do mean a bit of a stiff plod uphill though so they aren’t ideal for the infirm or very young of leg. Disabled parking is provided on the promenade to make walking life a little easier. Cromer is one of the many seaside resorts known for its gaudy beach huts but many of the huts along the promenade are privately owned although the local authority does rent out brick built ones by the day- contact them via their website where you will also find information about dog friendly beaches coast wide. In Cromer, dogs are banned from the beaches between 1st May to 30th September.
Reaching nearby beaches is easy too; from the Esplanade you can walk east towards Overstrand, or west to the wide and comparatively deserted beaches of the Runtons, Don’t forget to tell the children that this is where beachcombers uncovered elephant bone fossils a few years back. East and West Runton remains a popular fossil hunting destination and significant amber finds have been reported too, around the pier and along the coastline to Overstrand and East Runton.
(3) The pier and promenade
Cromers north facing coast means the pier is the only one where you can watch the sun rise and set over the sea, something that is free of charge at any time of the year. The pier offers amusements, a restaurant where they serve great hot chocolate (another brilliant winters day thing to do) and the Pavilion Theatre which has a famous end of the pier summer show and also hosts Christmas entertainment. In polite Victorian and Edwardian Society, these piers became the place to promenade and socialise, the working classes arriving en masse via the newly built railway lines, usually in waves as their entire factory took its holiday at once. Entrance to the pier was restricted by cost and a dress code. Nowadays no such conventions exist but the promenade remains the place to saunter, especially as the sun goes down. And if you are nearby on Boxing Day you are perfectly placed to observe one of the more eccentric habits of the British, the famous North Norfolk Beach Runners Boxing Day Dip in aid of charity.
The promenade has gardens, a putting green and small boating lake and has had considerable money spent on it over the last few years. A charming and knowing touch is the paving which includes some quirky features such as quotations by famous people about Cromer including Oscar Wilde who had this to say about the town: “I find Cromer excellent for writing, Golf better still..”
(4) Those crabs, food & drink
Famous for quality and taste- the locals say this is down to the cretaceous chalk ridge that offers crabs shelter deep under the waves alongside a smorgasboard of other sea creatures to feed upon, the nationwide decline in the fishing industry has not stopped the daily launch and return of the crabbing boats from the beach although their numbers are greatly reduced. Local fishermen will sometimes take tourists out on their boats too- hang around the beach and ask them.
Plenty of local cafes sell Cromer crab both in the traditional dressed manner and as a filling in sandwiches and ingredients in main meals. For a more traditional Cromer crab sandwich try the Rocket House cafe next to the Henry Blogg Museum or the Lifeboat cafe, both with sea views or buy from Bob Davies crabshop in the Gangway which locals cite as a must visit for tourists. You can watch the crab boats setting out from and returning to the beach at the foot of the gangway too, popular with children.
Alternatively go crabbing off the pier after buying the crabbing line, bucket and bait (bits of bacon or other smellier alternatives such as squid) sold from the many stores that line the beach front. In the summer, there are competitions to catch the most and the biggest crabs, fiercely fought by locals and tourists. And don’t forget the Cromer & Sheringham Crab & Lobster Festival, held every summer and hugely popular. Look out too for the local Stiffkey Cockles, harvested a few miles along the coast and also known as Stewkey Blues because of their colour which ranges from lavender to dark grey-blue. The colour is a result of their muddy sandy habitat that requires them to be harvested with short-handled, broad rakes and nets and they are traditionally steamed, boiled and eaten with vinegar and pepper although more chefs are coming up with innovative ways of cooking with them.
Local cheesemakers Mrs Temples Cheese, located in the village of Wighton, not too far away from Cromer, are made from the milk of Holstein Friesians and Swiss Cows and sold throughout the county. Look out for Walsingham and Hard Matured Cheese, the mountain style Wells Alpine, the semi soft Warham and Binham Blue, a soft blue veined cheese. Lastly, Copys Cloud has a fluffy white rind and melting centre whilst Wighton is a fresh curd cheese. Just three miles out of Cromer is Grovelands Farm Shop, a cornucopia of food, including butchery, a wine cellar, garden centre, restaurant and coffee shop, all housed in a traditional Norfolk flint barn. Selling local products including Norfolk honey and spelt from a few miles down the road, poultry from woodland and grass reared birds and local drinks, this is the place to stock up at if you are self catering or want to take some gifts home with you. Finally, they sell many of the regions beers, no mean feat when you realise how many there are. Norfolks high ground and sea frets make it a brewers paradise due to the moisture they offer the grain of the malting barley and it is the reason why the county has more brewers than any other. With over sixty brewers, finding a good local pint in Cromer will not be difficult.
The town itself is a charming place divided into little streets and alleyways with interesting shops and quality restaurants making it a pleasant stroll. The Buttercups Tea Room serves excellent cakes and the Sticky Earth Cafe offers paint your own pottery and T shirts alongside meals, snacks and drinks. It is also truly child friendly as opposed to gritted teeth kid friendly. The Rock Shop Bistro is also described by people on twitter as dog and child friendly with ‘great cake’, including gluten free varieties and an amazing bread pudding, free papers and hot chocolate to die for, whilst fish and chips from Mary Janes should be part of any default Cromer visit according to many. The beach front with its elevated views over the shingle is one of the best seaside places to sit with a hot paper wrapped parcel of fish and chips- eating them will keep your hands and lap warm and bolster you against those North Sea breezes.
No1 Cromer is the latest restaurant from renowned chef, Galton Blackiston serving chips made from potatoes from his own farm and a Times newspaper rating as the 6th best place to eat by the sea. According to tweep Lisa Vincent, “there is nothing better after a bracing seafront walk.” Upstairs is their modern British restaurant with endless views of that Cromer sunset and pier. Should you feel like Italian food, try “La Griglia‘ on Brook Street and whilst Kews Pie Shop on Garden Street might look a bit down at heel from the outside, don’t be fooled. It boasts a loyal clientele and has great ratings with mains for £6:50 including some of the most buttery mash we’ve ever eaten.
Pub wise, we’ve heard good things about the Cromer Social Club: “good for a cheap pint” and the Red Lion with a solid Edwardian exterior and stellar location. It offers well priced accommodation, food and drink and overlooks the pier with those views. Eating local is their priority too – Norfolk Sausages, Venison, Cromer Crab, Morston Mussels all feature on the menu.
(5) A glamorous stay
The Grove provides super luxe accommodation alongside a lovely restaurant for dining at lunch and evenings. Their own fruit and vegetable gardens and access to the counties best local food producers means your plate will always contain the best of what is available and a choice of the oak-panelled study or the original Georgian dining room offers formal dining or something more intimate. Should you choose to stay, there are rooms in the original Georgian building or contemporary Orchard Rooms overlooking the landscaped gardens and six self-catering cottages in the adjacent barn conversions. A private path to the beach and heated pool with treehouse and trampoline rounds off the general loveliness mentioned by many people on twitter.
Rather different is the Beach House, a property available to rent in Cromer, located on the beach front with spacious first floor open-plan living area and glass exterior plus a multi level, enclosed decked garden. Felbrigg Lodge Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel midway between Cromer, Holt and Sheringham, ideal for short breaks or longer stays. It comes highly recommended. Finally, if you like staying in something traditional, then the Cliftonville Hotel, a family-run listed Edwardian building, with stained-glass windows, wooden bar, minstrels gallery and grand staircase will suit you. All 30 en-suite bedrooms benefit from stunning views of the sea and town and an all day coffee shop and bar as well as Boltons Bistro and a la carte dining will keep you all fed.
(6) Museums and the church tower
The Cromer town museum gives an excellent account of life in a Victorian fishermen’s village in the 1800s and has an exquisitely restored fishermans cottage that children (and adults) tend to be enchanted by. A collection of seaside and fishing history artefacts complement the cottage whilst the Geology gallery has the oldest and most complete elephant fossil from the ice age found in West Runton on the nearby beach and inspires visitors to go fossil hunting along the cliff base. You will also discover the creatures that swam in the surrounding seas some 80 million years ago and a stunning series of sepia photographs of the town by North Norfolk photographer Olive Edis. Experts from the museum can be booked to take you on a guided walk which are suitable for older children.
The parish church at Cromer dominates the town centre with an impressive 160 foot tower which naturally offers fine views and is open in the summer for visitors to climb all 172 steps. The tallest tower in the county, the church was once used as a navigation point by ships out in the North sea who could see the distinctive tower for many miles and replaced an earlier church that was lost in the 1330’s to the sea, along with the village of Shipden. On Sunday mornings, the peel of bells can be heard for miles around and the tower is open between 30th March and 2nd April 10.30-12.30 and on 4th April (Easter Saturday) and from 6th April (Easter Monday) until the end of October half-term (Friday 30th October.
(7) Stately homes
Felbrigg Hall is a mere couple of miles from the town with its lovely gardens, under the auspices of the National Trust and landscaped with with miles of wooded trails and walled gardens. Buggy friendly surfaces make access easier and childrens play boxes dotted around the great house help kids understand its history. The interiors are mind blowing in their opulence and stories behind the acquisitions- the Chinese nodding mandarins in the bedroom; majestic stained glass windows in the great hall; a royal teapot belonging to Queen Mary and the more prosaic, although nonetheless covetable, copper pans in the kitchen.
Another local estate run by the National Trust is Blickling with over a thousand years of history contained within its red brick walls, extensive gardens and park, situated in the Bure meadows a few miles from Cromer. Like Felbrigg, it puts on a year round programme of special events, often linked to festivals and historical moments alongside its every day opening. Bike hire allows the more active to explore the grounds and there are trees to climb and an unusually shaped mausoleum to discover. Those of you interested in oral history can hear the voices of those who have lived and worked here over the years, recorded to bring the past to life as you explore the interior. Home to the RAF Oulton Museum, the exhibits remember the Bomber Command squads who were stationed there. The largest collection of second hand books in the NT is available to browse and buy from so why not do that then retire to the tea shop for a piece of cake and cup of coffee?
(8) Carnivals and festivals
Cromer has a strong community feel and organises an incredibly popular carnival each summer which kicked off in 2014 with a five metre high reconstruction of the animal that lived in the Cromer area 600,000 years ago. Clowning, aerial displays, some traditional competitions; ‘Bonny Baby,’ and Fancy Dress, plus wacky races ensure that all ages can take part. Delicious food with a strong emphasis on those famous crabs, a treasure hunt, fireworks at night and what looks like the whole town participating means that although parking is a bit of a nightmare, it is worth braving the queues to visit at carnival time. The sandcastle competition is really popular and great to watch.
The Cromer & Sheringham Crab & Lobster Festival is a must do according to many of the people we asked, organised by volunteers over two days and raising money for local charities. Kicking off with a variety show in the grand tradition, there follows cooking demonstrations featuring the eponymous creatures, market stalls, live music, special events across the museums in both towns and enough seafood to feed an army. Keep an eye on the website for 2015 dates.
The pier hosts Folk on the Pier each year and is scheduled between 8-10th May in 2015. Described by Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg as “the Best Gig on the North Sea,” Folk on the Pier is a highly regarded showcase for the finest folk and folk-rock acts from all over and the opportunity to listen to music backlit by the multi hued rays of the setting sun is unforgettable. And for book and art lovers, COAST, the Cromer & Sheringham Arts Festival, is one to watch. Including painting and sculpture, pottery, music and photography plus dance, theatre, literature and film, the festivals remit is broad and inclusive. Slated to start on 23rd October, keep an eye on their website for a list of events.
Cromer is one of the few seaside resorts keeping the tradition of end of the pier variety shows alive via the Pavilion theatre. Touring drama, music and musical theatre companies all make a pitstop here for the chance to perform in a location that is anything but run of the mill. Expect a varied programme, from a talk by Michael Portillo, classical ballet from the Vienna Ballet to the Johnny Cash Roadshow. Alongside the Pavilion, the nearby town of Sheringham has its Little Theatre, home to one of the countries last surviving repertory companies. A popular winter pantomime and a year-round programme of events, includes film, art exhibitions, dance, drama, music and comedy is put on alongside weekly classes in stage skills, drama and dance for young people aged from four to 25. Cinema lovers are catered to also with the Merlin Cinema which shows first rank films across four screens and is the oldest cinema in Norfolk.
(10) Travelling around is as pleasurable as arriving
The town and surrounding countryside offers a wealth of interconnected walks and trails and there are good public transport links for people who don’t want to walk the whole route. Annoyingly, getting to Norfolk from the rest of the country is not the easiest thing to do though; there is a much maligned rail link to Norwich (45 minutes or so, every hour) and by road, Norwich is 40 minutes away and the A1 or M11 up to 90 minutes away. High season will see traffic snarl ups, especially along the most obvious routes.
An excellent bus service serves the coast east and west: the Coasthopper bus runs along the North Norfolk coastline and is, in itself, a lovely thing to do providing gorgeous scenery out of big picture windows and a warm place to gaze upon it during the colder months. Living up to its name, it is easy to alight at any of the stops and walk to the next one, catching later buses back. Walks from the Cromer clifftops can be extended to the north via the Cliff tops to Sheringham (about six miles, return by train) or to the south along the cliff top past the golf course and through ‘Poppyland’ to Overstrand (about four miles).
The ‘Poppy Line‘ run by North Norfolk Railway operates both steam and diesel trains and sells Rover tickets, providing a whole days travel. The route is a 10.5 mile round trip by steam or vintage diesel through Norfolk areas of outstanding natural beauty. To the south are wooded hills, glacial rises and falls and the Norfolk beauty spots of Kelling Heath and Sheringham Park whilst northwards lies the sea. Beaches and resort facilities are all within easy walking distance from the various stations.
The Bittern Line takes you via rail from Norwich and follows the course of the River Yare before turning left towards Salhouse and nearby Salhouse Broad, changing at Wroxham to join the Bure Valley Line. Travelling on through Worsted (named after the type of cloth woven in the village in the middle ages), you will pass through North Walsham and Gunton then continue onto Felbrigg before arriving at Cromer where the train reverses to access the last short stretch of the former Midland and Great Northern Railway from Cromer to Sheringham. If you Decide to continue onto West Runton via rail, your children might enjoy a visit to the Hillside Animal and Shire Horse Sanctuary. On arrival, at Sheringham you will then have the option of transferring onto the Poppy Line to proceed on to Georgian Holt. The railway lines take bicycles so you can hop on and off as you like.
The Cromer Treasure Trail is a downloadable trail approximately 1¾ miles long and requiring around 2 hours to complete. Starting at Meadow Road, it takes in the beaches and is a great way to introduce yourselves to the area if you are on holiday. The North Norfolk Coastal Partnership provides information about local bicycle hire from companies offering electric bikes to child seats and trikes. The roads make wonderful cycling but don’t kid yourselves that they are flat- glaciation many centuries ago has left some very unusual contours along the North Norfolk coast!
The Sustrans National Cycle Network is designed to take advantage of safer places to cycle such as old railway path and forest tracks, passing through off road areas wherever possible and it covers the county. Some well known bike trails include the Peddars Way which starts near Thetford in the sandy gorse and heather covered heaths of the Brecks to the most northerly point of the counties coastline, following an ancient Roman pathway. With gentle gradients, the 59 miles of the Norfolk Coastal Cycleway from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth, passes through Cromer. Trekking through inland country lanes, it is relatively safe for children to ride. The Cromer Loop is a downloadable pdf of a 24 mile route which takes you past some of the counties most amazing and historic churches. It also passes by the lovely stately home estates of Mannington and Wolterton.
The Quiet Lanes Explorer offers you 36 miles of a Quiet Lanes network around the National Cycleway route. Marked by distinctive signs it encourages car users to be more considerate on these back roads and offers cyclists and walkers a route around Cromer and Sheringham that darts between the coastal area and the hedgerow edged lanes. If you are planning to visit Felbrigg Hall, we’ve found this route for you so you can cycle should you so wish. More challenging than others, it takes you past the steep hills of the Cromer Ridge up to Beacon Hill for a rest and contemplation of the views for miles around, the highest point in Norfolk. As you progress inland, you will pass the leafy lanes, flint built villages and farms surrounding Felbrigg Park and the Roman camps that once dotted the region. Twenty per cent of this route (about 12 miles) is classed as off road, taking you along loose surfaced farm tracks where you can leave clouds of dust in your wake as you rattle along soft sand, flint and loose stone pathways. Go up Beacon Hill and you’ll add two extra miles to the journey.