NORFOLK: Nelson's county

Fritton Lake Lodge lr
L-R: A lodge at Fritton Lake and crocodiles at Thrigby Hall

By Tim Saunders

“Yes, it will be bliss,

To go with you by train to Diss,”

An extract from A Mind’s Journey to Diss (to Mary Wilson, the wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson) by John Betjeman, probably my favourite poet. This is brought to my attention by the artist John Atkinson, who we meet at his studio with little dog Treacle that daughters Harriett (4) and Heidi (2) enjoy stroking.

“You get a lot for your money here,” says John, who relocated to Diss from London, eight years ago. “It’s only about an hour and half from the capital,” he adds, which has allowed him to hire a chef from London for his latest venture, a restaurant in Diss to compliment the delicatessen he already runs. John, an entrepreneur, ran restaurants, delis and a graphics business in the city for a number of years. He then bought a property in Diss with his wife Juliette, which they renovated. A successful artist, it comes as no surprise when he says: “I will be exhibiting my industrial themed paintings in the new restaurant at The Boilerhouse in Cobbs Yard, whose name we are still deciding.”

We can see why Norfolk appeals to an artist not least because of the large skies and flat landscape, reminiscent of France.

Norfolk is full of many more success stories and we are able to discover some of these during our stay at Fritton Lake Lodges, part of Lord Somerleyton’s estate, in Fritton in North Norfolk. The estate was purchased by carpet manufacturer Sir Francis Crossley in 1863 and has been in the family ever since, which is quite an achievement in itself these days. This has partly been made possible through the current Lord Somerleyton’s successful Fritton Lodge venture where there are 80 or so self catering lodges set in 250 acres. Some are still available for purchase. We stay in a three bed lodge with all mod cons and views of the lake. My wife particularly enjoys the convenience of the washing machine after family days out when we return in a state. With two little rascals it is rare to have the luxury of relaxation but we are able to indulge in this precious pastime here. We enjoy watching a bit of television and having a lazy Sunday; the only lazy day we allow ourselves. Here, there is also an outdoor centre, a pub and hotel, too and it is possible to visit Somerleyton Hall, a wedding venue. Fritton Lake Lodges certainly provides a good base for becoming better acquainted with Nelson’s county. It was on September 29, 1758 Horatio Nelson was born to a prosperous family in Burnham Thorpe. (Vice Admiral Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805 aged 47.)

As it is not far from Great Yarmouth it is necessary to visit this seaside town. There are some pretty chilly winds during our winter/spring visit. The wonderful golden sand of the beach is arguably blighted by the numerous wind turbines in the sea. We note during our travels around the county that solar panels are becoming quite a popular choice for generating electricity, more so than in any other county we have visited.

At Norwich, again not that far from Fritton, we have chance to mooch around this historic city. Harriett walks with mummy while I push Heidi who is having a little nap in her pushchair. We find a nice spot in front of the market to eat our sandwiches and savour the afternoon sunshine. Afterwards we visit the castle, which dates back to 1096 and is constructed of flint and mortar, faced with a cream coloured Caen limestone. The cathedral was eventually completed in 1145.

Every morning the sun rises through the large windows of our lodge at Fritton Lake Lodges but today it turns grey and we are unsure whether it is a wise decision to spend the day outside at Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens in Great Yarmouth. But it proves the right choice. The first character we meet is Monty the talkative cockatoo who we discover is actually noisier than Heidi, which is quite an achievement. We are all mesmerised by the crocodiles in the swamp house and cannot believe how long they can hold a particular pose; their mouths wide open – you have to go back a few times to check they are actually real! It is pleasing to see that all of these animals are given so much room to roam especially the gibbons, who enjoy a good swing during our visit. Harriett and Heidi enjoy watching a pair of them looking after their little baby and become incredibly curious when the baby starts feeding from the mother. Afterwards our two little monkeys chase each other along the wooden trails and enjoy the wooden tunnels for animal spotting. It is the close up look at the Sumatran Tiger through glass towards the end of our visit that truly captures Harriett and Heidi’s attention. With benches for picnics and mazes to provide yet more entertainment Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens is a must to visit; Caroline particularly enjoys the little egrets in the Chinese willow pattern garden complete with suspended wooden bridges, a joy to walk around.

It becomes clear that Norfolk is home to a variety of attractions and at Hoveton, Wroxham; the gateway to the Norfolk Broads, we find Wroxham Miniature World. We’re not quite sure what to expect but when we visit we are surprised to find a variety of model railways and Scalextric sets. We are mesmerised at the size of these and our favourite is the Japanese railway complete with cuttings from Japanese newspapers. There is something very relaxing and enjoyable about watching model trains running across a track. The previous night we had been watching a television programme about model railways. Pete Waterman explained about Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke who spotted that people were fascinated by trains. He anticipated that there would be a demand for building model railways and so he began importing electric model trains from Germany and thereby started the British fascination with building model railways. This then saw Frank Hornby and others introduce cheaper models for the masses. Wroxham Miniature World is an award winning attraction which really does reinvigorate the model train enthusiast in us all and on leaving we wish we could buy our own model railway. I think that Wroxham should sell model railways; it would do well. Aside from the beautiful dolls houses that have been lovingly created there are collections of toys of yesteryear that we all remember from Sooty to the Smurfs, the Magic Roundabout to roller skates and Sindy. Wroxham Miniature World is a real delight for the child in us all.

It is always a joy to stumble upon a good local pub and we do this at The Bell Inn at Rickinghall, Botesdale. This independently owned pub and hotel is set in a delightful village, which incidentally still has its own Post Office and newsagent. Increasing rarities in today’s Great Britain. The Bell is also the place to earwig on local gossip. One regular at the right hand corner of the bar seems to instantly know which customers are local and those who are not. I now know that the young woman with the older man, sitting at the table next to us, has been in a couple of times and that she is a hairdresser. The chap over the other side of the bar is a market trader and he has just taken delivery of some new garments that one of the other customers is showing interest in. In short this is a great pub; a good friendly pub where travellers feel welcome and comfortable. It definitely raises a smile. Friendly landlord Danuel is also the chef and makes a delicious homemade parsnip soup. This is followed by well presented and equally scrumptious fish and chips and mine is accompanied by a pint of Adnams Ghost Ship, a tasty local ale. Caroline opts for a frittata, which she thoroughly enjoys.

On the way back, to break up the four hour journey to Hampshire we stop off at the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate. There we enjoy walking around historic Wimpole Hall, which dates back to 1640 and some of its 3,000 acres of land and gardens. At Home Farm Harriett and Heidi practise milking and sitting on a tractor as well as seeing the pigs, cows, lambs and Shire horses.

What more could you fit into a week?

Great Yarmouth – a lovely golden beach with seaside attractions
Norwich – the historic castle and cathedral quarter
Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens
A strole around Diss
The Bell Inn at Rickinghall, Botesdale
Wroxham Miniature World
Holt – lots of art galleries
The market town of Beccles
Wimpole Estate, near Cambridge

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