Gareth Butterfield and his wife spent a week touring East Anglia in a motorhome – a trip that threw up a few surprise highlights along the way
SO the plan was pretty simple. Pack the motorhome with a week’s worth of supplies and toddle off and explore that bulbous protrusion of England known as East Anglia. And when I say “plan” that really was the extent of any pre-scheduling, preparation and aforethought.
You see, the joy of owning a motorhome is that it allows you to be spontaneous. There really is no need to plan for anything when your accommodation is right behind the driver’s seat. If the wife and I want to stop driving and stay over somewhere for the night, we just put the handbrake on, close the curtains and open a bottle of wine.
And if we decide we’ve not got as far as we’d have liked to, the scenery’s not as pretty as we’d hoped, or we don’t like the look of the local pubs, we just turn the lights on and drive until we’re ready to settle.
Truth be told, we did have a plan for the first night of our spring adventure. We were going to stop at a pub in the Cambridgeshire Fens, right between our home in Derbyshire and the first destination of North Norfolk. But we’d made much better time than we thought we would and we decided to push on past Kings Lynn, overnighting at a charming pub in a village called Congham. So, already, the plan had gone out of the window and spontaneity won the day.
We left The Anvil Inn the next day well fed, watered and ready to hit the road. I should point out before I go on that we’ve made an obvious omission from our tour of the Norfolk end of East Anglia – the pretty, tourist-rich North Norfolk coast. And there’s a good reason for this.
My in-laws have a flat in Hunstanton and we visit at least two or three times per year, so visiting Hunstanton, Sherringham, Snettisham and all those lovely places around it would have been a bit of a busman’s holiday, rather than the voyage of discovery we were hoping for.
So we set the sat nav for Cromer and missed out the more familiar parts of the county.
With time on our side, we diverted our route to head through Aylsham. Wikipedia had promised an historic market town and it wasn’t wrong. We watched it pass by out of the window, but didn’t feel compelled to stop, as had originally been the intention.
Cromer, by contrast, was bustling with life. It’s smaller than I’d imagined but every bit as interesting. There’s a wonderful pier, plenty of nice shops to look around, and it’s a great place to buy some seafood.
The sun was shining, the winds were dying down and we were by the sea – so we headed to nearby East Runton to a campsite, Woodhill Park, which sounded just right for a spot of lazing around in the sunshine, nibbling at fresh cockles.
The following day we decided to head for the broads – cross country, leaving the main roads alone as much as possible. The Norfolk Broads is stunning, you won’t need me to tell you that but, alas, between that and Cromer there’s little to write home about.
The landscape’s not as flat as everyone tells you it is, but it’s far from pretty and inspiring. It seems the best Norfolk has to offer is in the North and the south. The inland bit is a trifle dull.
And so we stopped and parked up just north of Great Yarmouth, ready to give up on Norfolk. The wife and I are in our 30s now, not quite ready to ignore the lure of a seaside resort with all its flashing lights, kiss-me-quick hats and rides and attractions. So we made a bee-line.
That said, I had reservations about Great Yarmouth. I’ve been to Blackpool and found it all a bit revolting. Great Yarmouth comes close to being equally tacky, but it’s ever-so-slightly nicer. We didn’t do a lot. Poked around some shops, walked up and down the main strip, called into a pub and contemplated a mooch round the sealife centre. But we’d noticed a model village on our walk up and down and couldn’t resist.
I expected an over-priced, dilapidated mish-mash of sagging MDF and fuzzy felt but it couldn’t have been further from it. Merrivale Model Village was huge, immaculate, fascinating and good value for money. If you’re in the area don’t miss it, it’s certainly one of the best model villages I’ve seen.
Aside from Cromer, the broads and, to a lesser extent some of the area around Great Yarmouth, nothing about Norfolk had lured us in for a longer stay so we left Great Yarmouth behind and pressed on. Suffolk was next in line.
Some friends of mine, and some friends of the wife’s and some relatives and my neighbours, all told us we should go to Southwold. So that’s what we did. We parked up over by the pier in a rather pricey car park, marvelled at the rows of ridiculously pricey beach huts and then took a walk up the pier.
It was all very nice but I wondered what the appeal had been. Then we decided to take a walk up the cliff-top towards what I later realised was the town. We’d parked about a mile away from the best Southwold had to offer; its charming, intimate network of narrow streets, interesting shops, lovely old pubs and rows of quaint cottages. I ran back to rescue the van from the big car park and found a space in a side-street.
In the end we’d wasted so much time parking in the wrong place we didn’t have long to grab a late fish and chips lunch from the Red Lion and track down a campsite.
There’s a campsite in Southwold owned by the council, but I’d ready some iffy reviews about it so we decided to press on towards the next one along the coast, Cliff House Holiday Park. We usually avoid sites with entertainment and pubs and shops and so on, but water was low, toilet was full and the wife wanted a proper shower with a place to plug her hair dryer in, so we booked a space.
It’s a fabulous place. Right above the quiet beach with RSPB Minsmere on one side and the lovely village of Dunwich on the other side. You can see Southwold across the bay from parts of the sprawling site.
As we sat back and admired the sea view, with pint of the local Adnams beer in one hand and some fresh mussels in the other, we decided we’d achieved something. Although we failed to fall in love with southern Norfolk, we’d certainly fallen for Southwold. And it was somewhere we’d head back to very soon.
Suffolk, in general, was a surprise highlight of the trip. The further in we got, the more deeply we fell for its charms. It’s an enchanting landscape, dotted with quirky old buildings and acre upon acre of pretty landscape blanketed by huge skies.
We didn’t stop as long as we’d have liked because the week was flying by and we wanted to make the most of our next destination, just over the border in rural Essex was Constable country, Dedham.
Although the intimacy of this pretty little village has been chipped away a little by the onslaught of tourists, seemingly from all corners of the globe, it’s still a must-see place. From the high street to the River Stour, there’s plenty to see and do and the surrounding countryside is stunning. Flatford Mill, just down the river, is an obvious highlight but there’s plenty more to enjoy if you want to avoid the beaten path.
But it was time to head north again. We’d hatched a plan to stay over in Cambridge, a city neither of us had explored and it was a good idea. For a relatively small urban settlement, it’s bustling with life. Every other person seems to be on a bicycle or a rowing boat and we watched the activity from our free overnight parking bay by the River Cam until the sun went down, then we headed into town to seek out a cocktail bar.
The next day we set about on the final leg, and I’d followed a recommendation to see Stamford. It didn’t disappoint. Stamford is a lovely town, full of character thanks to its honeystone buildings and delightful riverside setting.
Although very different to the Norfolk and Suffolk we’d left behind, it was the perfect landscape in which to end our journey and from there we set off north, back to Derbyshire.
East Anglia threw up many surprises. Great Yarmouth isn’t as hideous as I expected, but Norfolk certainly has its ups and downs – and I’m not just talking about the topography.
Suffolk is perhaps one of the most under-rated counties in the British Isles and we’re already setting dates to go and explore it further.
This time, we might just set out a bit of a plan. And at the top of that plan will be a priority visit to what was undoubtedly our favourite place. Southwold.
I don’t doubt we missed out on plenty during our whistle-stop tour, scratching the surface of East Anglia, but I do doubt anywhere will top that lovely little coastal town.
I can’t wait to get back.