To The Norfolk Broads

In which I travel from horses to Horsey.

Every School Holiday, throughout my childhood, was spent in Norfolk. Its close proximity to London, along with its sense of remoteness and quiet, makes it a popular escape for people from the capital. You can be there in a couple of hours but feel like you are a million miles away from civilization. I remember the abundance of wildlife, the long walks through sun-dappled lanes and the big, wide, star-filled skies. We would, sometimes, take a day trip on the Broads: pack a picnic lunch and leave early in the morning, hire a small motor cruiser from Wroxham and chug around the hidden lakes and meres that cluster around the water meadows and reedy fields along the Bure.

An enormous area of wetlands to the east of Norwich, The Broads were formed by flooding ancient peat workings to create 125 miles of navigable waterway that attract about 7½ million visitors every year. This rural idyll has attracted some great literary figures too. Arthur Ransome came to Broadland for the sailing in his yacht, the Nancy Blackett, and John Betjeman spent much of his childhood in Broadland. He writes affectionately about the happy times he spent aboard his father’s yacht, The Queen of the Broads.

Agatha Christie was attracted to Norfolk, not by the sailing, but by her close friends, The McLeods, who lived in North Walsham. Christie first met Peter and Margaret McLeod in Baghdad, where she was accompanying her husband, Max Mallowan, on an archeological dig. They hit it off immediately. The McLeods were both doctors and shared a love of poisons with Agatha. They would spend many happy hours discussing various chemicals and their effect on the human body. Christie took long holidays with them in Norfolk, spending her days writing in their summerhouse and her evenings happily discussing poisons with the McLeods. Peter and Margaret would both proof-read Christie’s novels and give advice about the actions of chemicals on the human body and the tell-tale signs that poison had been used to despatch an unwanted individual. Chrisite dedicated one of her novels, Sad Cypress, to the McLeods.

Beechwood Hotel, North Walsham, Norfolk

The house in which they lived is now The Beechwood Hotel. Mrs. P and I began our journey around Broadland with a night here. It is a charming and comfortable hotel, decorated in 1920’s style with many photographs of Christie adorning the walls. There are also framed letters and postcards from her to the McLeods. I lingered for a while exploring all they had to offer about the Queen of Crime, including a full set of her novels for guests to borrow. The staff were all approachable and lovely, particularly Beth, who checked us in, showed us to our room and told us all about Christie’s time at the Beechwood, including which room she slept in. Our room was, perhaps, a little small but we were only staying for a single night. We forewent the dining room that evening, fine dining is not really our thing: far too formal for us; food should be unfussy and relaxed. We walked into the lovely little market town of North Walsham and found a friendly little bistro – ‘The Shambles’, it was called – where we had a magnificent (and enormous) meal.

The following morning, after a magnificent breakfast, we set out to discover the literary heritage of this beautiful part of the country. I needed to walk off the B&E so we made our way to the village of Buxton. Here is Dudwick House, the ancestral home of Sewell family. They were quakers and reinvested much of their wealth in the local community. They built a reading room and a school in the village, as well as a jail. It was into this family, in 1820, that Anna Sewell was born. She would find fame as the author of Black Beauty, a book that is still popular today among horse loving children. The novel is narrated in the first person by the horse, who, in the course of his adventures, encounters hardships and cruelty before eventually finding peace. The novel did much to highlight the plight of working animals in the Victorian era. Sewell actually lived in Catton, near Norwich, but Dudwick House is important in her story as it was here, as a child, that Anna learned to ride. The original house has long gone and the one you can see now was built in 1937, when the estate passed to another family.

Black Beauty?

Dudwick Park is a beautiful open space, well used by the villagers. There were many dog walkers, happily admiring each other’s pets and some small boys, who left off trying to shoot each other to ask me what I was photographing. They hadn’t heard of Anna Sewell, and I suppose this is no surprise. The books do seem a bit old fashioned now, particularly to young children brought up on the high energy rude humour of David Walliams. My daughter read Black Beauty but, then, my daughter was horse mad. The two boys lost interest in my stories about the park and went back to trying to kill each other with their imaginary weapons. I continued my walk through the park. There is a little stream running through the estate, which eventually joins the the River Bure. I would be encountering the Bure several more times on my journey today.

Anna Sewell’s gravestone. Lamas, Norfolk

Across the River from Buxton is Lamas, where, in the garden of a quaker chapel, Anna Sewell was interred in 1878. This is now part of a private house and her gravestone, along with those of some of her family, has been moved to the roadside, set into the garden wall. Her grave, under a line of magnificent yew trees, can still clearly be seen from the road. Opposite, in a meadow by the Bure, a horse was munching happily. He wasn’t quite the sleek black stallion that Sewell wrote about, more of a dirty brown carthorse. I still thought his presence was rather poignant, so I went and talked to him for a while before making my way to the next destination.

The village of Horning the “Heart of the Norfolk Broads” centres, as you might expect, around the Broads. It has to be said that some Broadland towns can be a bit touristy, a few too many cheap giftshops and seedy caffs but Horning manages to get the balance about right. There are many, many tourists here; as many to watch the boats as sail, and Horning probably has more river traffic than road traffic but it still retains its rural, Norfolk charm. The high street has a good range of shops. There is a nice little Art Gallery and post office and general store, which also sells a few books. A pleasant little café and deli too and, yes, they do sell gifts but they are few and tasteful. There is also an enormous pub here – The Swan – around which little boats nestle: boats and pubs seem to go hand-in-hand. Some of the boats are lovely little yachts and motor launches, with varnished wood and fresh, clean paint; some, it has to be said, are monstrous looking things.

Arthur Ransome stayed in Horning while writing some of his hugely popular Swallows and Amazons stories. After exploring the town, I took a seat in the very charming little café, ordered up a coffee and dipped into my copy of Big Six, one of Ransome’s books set on the Broads.

‘Everyone knows the staithe, where boats tie up when calling at Horning. Everyone knows the inn at the bend of the river above it, and the boatbuilders’ sheds below it, and the bit of grass beside it, and the pump by the old brick wall, and the road with the shops on the further side of it.

Arthur Ransome, Big Six

Horning also features in Coot Club, Ransome’s other Broads book, in which he mentions the Swan by name. It’s nice to see that much of what he describes remains largely unchanged. We had planned to lunch at the Swan but, even though it was now well past lunchtime, we were still processing the enormous breakfast we had got around at the Beechwood Hotel. We looked in at the Swan, though and it seemed pleasant enough. It was large and cavernous: a big, bright central room with bare brick walls and stone tiled floor. Mrs. P and I prefer small, quiet, cosy little nooks. We decided to skip lunch today and we headed on to Belaugh.

Belaugh is a very short drive from Horning. A tiny little village, it is achingly picturesque but without the services, the facilities or the crowds of Horning. The river Bure makes a sharp turn here and briefly runs parallel to the road. There are moorings here and I can’t imagine a lovelier spot to spend an evening, under the trees opposite a reedy bank. The village is dominated by the Church of St. Peter’s, which sits atop a hill in the middle of the settlement. It was this church, particularly the view of it from the river, that inspired John Betjeman’s love of architecture and churches. I walked up the steep path that winds around the churchyard and took a look inside. They have a nice little display about the church and the local area and Betjeman features heavily within it. There are memories of him from local people, his thoughts on St. Peter’s and pictures of the church tower from the river.

“I think it was the outline of that church tower of Belaugh against the sky which gave me a passion for churches” – John Betjeman

Betjeman’s poetry about Norfolk is nostalgic and dreamy: a slightly sad look back at lost childhood from an adult perspective. Read ‘Norfolk’ and you’ll see what I mean. His ‘East Anglian Bathe’ is also full of sensitive reminiscences, this time of Horsey Mere, a large lake on the Eastern side of the broads, near to the coast. Betjeman sailed Horsey Mere with his father on their boat, in The Queen of the Broads. We headed there on what was now a clear, bright but slightly chilly afternoon. It was much quieter out here. There were a few boats moored up but Horsey had none of the bustle of the other towns we had visited today. Here it was sleepy and quiet and reminiscent of the Broadland that Betjeman evokes in his poetry.

There after supper lit by lantern light 
  Warm in the cabin I could lie secure 
And hear against the polished sides at night 
  The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure, 
A whispering and watery Norfolk sound 
Telling of all the moonlit reeds around. 

from ‘Norfolk‘, John Betjeman
Horsey Windpump

Horsey has a magnificent windpump, maintained by the National Trust. I went for a look around after my walk around the lake. Norfolk has a large number of windmills; the flat landscape makes this power source particularly efficient. Some families wandered about, with excited children squeezing up tiny ladders to the higher levels of the ancient building. I noticed one or two pushchairs parked outside too. In the little café and gift shop, I stopped for tea and to read up on the mere and the local area. The tea was served in a paper cup but it hit the spot. A rather harassed looking young couple came in with three young children. The man ordered several cups of hot chocolate while his partner policed the children as they rifled through every item for sale: fluffy seals, branded stationery, tiny plastic… things and so on. Each one grabbed along with a request to keep; each request answered with an emphatic “no!” One of the children then tried the same entreaties on his father, pulling at the man’s coat as he stoically tried to exit the shop with some dignity while hot chocolate ran up his sleeves. I chuckled to myself: I’ve been through it all, you see; done my tour of duty. My children are grown up now: a daughter who works for an Arts charity and a son who … something to do with computers, I think. 

I was brought back to my senses by the arrival of an older couple, who went through a similar experience with what must have been their grandchildren. Only they looked, if anything, even more exhausted. It struck me then that, far from being free of it all, I am enjoying a brief moment of freedom before there is a new generation to entertain, teach, take on days out and visits. It won’t be long before I am back to beaches, playgrounds and theme parks and trying to balance eight cups of hot chocolate while being entreated for another pocketful of plastic crap. And then there is my dear friend Ms E. The way that she and her boyfriend make moony faces at each other, it surely won’t be long before our literary research trips include pushchairs and changing bags and car seats and a ton of other equipment essential for the wellbeing of a tiny person.

Horsey Mere

So I was slightly chastened, a bit more thoughtful and perhaps a little less smug as I found my way back to the car and to Mrs. P, who had resisted the pull of the gift shop to spend an hour sitting in the sun. We left Horsey and made our way to our next overnight stop. We would be travelling along the coast tomorrow, in search of Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Swinburne and Auden and more. But that is a story for another time.

If you are interested in discovering more of the literature of Norfolk and the famous writers associated with the county, I thoroughly recommend visiting the Literary Norfolk website.

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