Windmills, whelks and waterways: The ultimate guide to Norfolk

Mar 13, 2021

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From 12 April at the earliest, we may be able to rent holiday homes, enjoy outdoor dining and drinks and non-essential shops will reopen. Some good news at last!

With that in mind, a great place to start for a staycation is Norfolk. Note though the hotels featured in this guide will not open until 17 May at the earliest, as per government guidelines.

The county is known for being the country home of the Queen and Prince Philip, Cromer crabs, the Norfolk Broads and, of course, our beloved Alan Partridge. It’s quite close to London, so easily doable in a few hours by car but it also has plenty of well-connected train stations. If flying into the U.K., the nearest airport is Stansted.

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Traditional windmill on the Norfolk Broads. (Photo by George W Johnson/Getty Images)
Traditional windmill on the Norfolk Broads. (Photo by George W Johnson/Getty Images)

Here are some ideas for a lovely staycation in a part of the country that might be a bit quieter than the usual summer hotspots like Cornwall, the Lake District and Scotland.

The Norfolk Broads

The Norfolk Broads is a national park with over 125 miles of navigable lock-free waterways set in beautiful countryside. It would be a fabulous place for a social distancing-inspired boat rental, as you can pootle down the water stopping as little or as much as you like — and there are no locks to bother with, so it’s super easy. Begin in the busy boatyard in the town of Wroxham, take in Great Yarmouth, Norwich, Loddon, Burgh Castle and wind your back to where you started over the course of a leisurely week.

Read more: The ultimate guide to visiting Somerset 

(Photo by Graham Custance Photography/Getty Images)
(Photo by Graham Custance Photography/Getty Images)

If boating isn’t for you, the Broads has 190 miles of footpaths and nature trails through gently rolling countryside and quiet picturesque lanes. The circular walks are all well signposted and offer some of the best scenery Norfolk has to offer. There are mammoth 78-mile trails for keen ramblers like the Angles Way to shorter, more family-friendly options like Bramerton riverside strolls. But they’re all stunning. The area is also known for its wonderful windmills — check out Hardley Windmill, beautifully restored and one of the most recognisable on the Broads. Spend an afternoon at the thatched Fur and Feathers Inn at Woodbastwick, home of Woodforde’s Brewery — make sure to ask for a pint in a traditionally handled jug and sip it by the pond.

Where to stay: The Boathouse at Ormesby Broad is a hidden little waterside pub with boutique rooms and woodland lodges with charming views and a lively atmosphere. The food is hearty pub grub and The Boathouse is great value for money at about £100 per night for the end of May.

North Norfolk coast

Here you will find 45 miles of stunning coastline, a designated AONB, with six blue flag beaches — some of the finest in the country. Start in Hunstanton — or “Sunny Hunny” — so-called because it’s one of the most sun-drenched resorts in Norfolk. This elegant Victorian town is west facing, so it benefits from seriously spectacular sunsets. It’s also known for its stripy cliffs and is a super day out for the family, as there are loads of rock pools just waiting to be explored and the water is shallow and sheltered.

A spectacular sunset at Hunstanton. (Photo by Joel Santos/Getty Images)
A spectacular sunset at Hunstanton. (Photo by Joel Santos/Getty Images)

About a half-hour away is Brancaster, a lively town with a glorious beach and thriving fishing and sailing communities. It’s also one of the driest places in the country, so year-round, you can enjoy activities like kite surfing. The beach, miles and miles of golden sand, is popular with dog walkers and a variety of wildlife call it home, too. In winter, the sky is filled with the sight of pink-footed geese. Naturally, Brancaster has no shortage of excellent seafood spots, so make sure to pay a visit to The Crab Hut at Brancaster Staithe Harbour for a fiendishly fresh crab or lobster baguette.

With that in mind, the next stop should be Cromer, where the famous Cromer crab is caught. The crustaceans feed off the Cromer Shoals Chalk Bed reef, giving them their rich and delicate flavour, it is said. Cromer also has a Victorian pier, home to a lifeboat station and the Pavilion Theatre, where the U.K.’s only remaining traditional “end of the pier” variety show takes place each summer and winter. The sands are pristine and the waters ideal for surfing and paddleboarding. But no visit to Cromer is complete without a spot of crabbing — the season is from March until the autumn. After, go and sample grilled Weybourne king crab at Rocky Bottoms restaurant, a brisk 40-minute walk from the beach.

Read more: 8 top holiday homes to rent in Cornwall

Cromer pier. (Photo by. CaptureLight/Getty Images)
Cromer pier. (Photo by CaptureLight/Getty Images)

Once you’re brimful of briny air, how about heading to the town of Holt for some shopping? This historic Georgian town is close to the beach and has a jumble of alleyways packed with art galleries, antique and book shops and places to eat. We recommend checking out the newly opened Fairfax & Favor flagship store on the high street — purveyor of luxury leather footwear and accessories. The Regina boots with detachable tassels are fabulous.

Where to stay: The Lifeboat Inn is a 16th-century property found in the picturesque village of Thornham, on the outskirts of Hunstanton. It used to be a sanctuary for those looking for shelter from stormy seas and now is a place “where wellies, walking boots and the well-heeled sit comfortably side by side”. Rooms start at about £144 per night.


Norwich is the county town of Norfolk and has been named the “City of Stories” thanks to its 2,000-year-old history. It’s divided into eight quarters so easy to navigate to make sure you don’t miss out. In the Cathedral Quarter, you can discover the imposing place of worship with its 315-foot spire, built in the 11th century. Norwich Lanes are brilliant for shopping and a cocktail as well as housing hidden music venues and playhouses. Meanwhile, in King Street Quarter, you will find all things literary.

Norwich Lanes. (Photo by Geography Photos / Contributor/Getty Images)
Norwich Lanes. (Photo by Geography Photos / Contributor/Getty Images)

The National Centre for Writing is at the historic 14th century Dragon Hall. Nearby Lady Julian Bridge honours the greatest mystic of the Middle Ages — Julian of Norwich — who was the first woman to write a book in English. Head to Norwich Market for some amazing street food including the Mushy Pea Stall and Bun Box for steamed bao buns. For something a bit more refined head to Benedicts Restaurant, an upmarket eatery whose chef trained at the Roux brothers’ triple Michelin-starred restaurant, Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire.

Where to stay: 38 St Giles is a characterful B&B with an interesting history — it’s a real five-star “home away from home” experience and ideally located in central Norwich. Rooms start at about £130 per night.

Sandringham and West Norfolk

The crowning glory — pardon the pun — of West Norfolk is the beloved country residence of the Queen. Sandringham House is set among 20,000 acres of glorious grounds and is a majestic red brick structure dating back to about 1870. The gardens including the formal North Garden, the Stream Walk and Queen Alexandra’s Summerhouse, which is perched above the lake, are a sight to behold. Visitors can access some of the ground floor rooms of the house that are used by the Royal Family, full of “great collections of objets d’art and family portraits by leading contemporary court painters”, as well as the gardens. Check the website for post lockdown opening hours.

Read more: Red deer, unspoiled beaches and sublime seafood: The ultimate guide to the Scottish Hebrides

(Photo by Juvinar Santiago / EyeEm/Getty Images)
Sandringham. (Photo by Juvinar Santiago/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Nearby is the ancient maritime town of King’s Lynn. Fine old merchants’ houses stretch down to the river between cobbled lanes and the elegant Custom House overlooks the harbour. It’s a vibrant place and a great base for Norfolk. The story of the town’s maritime trade, its fishing communities and its famous navigators can be explored on the Maritime Trail. For shopping, there’s Vancouver Place, which is full of modern boutiques. Also, don’t forget to take a trip on the King’s Lynn ferry to see the maritime landscape of the King’s Lynn quayside and town from the banks of West Lynn.

Where to stay: Located near the historic market town of Swaffham, the Bedingfield Arms is a stylish country pub with rooms, a huge, splendid garden and delicious fare. There are 10 luxurious en suite boudoirs — our favourite is the Parisian Penthouse Suite. The outdoor area is perfect for long evenings of G&Ts and the owners, Cat and Stephen Parker, are a delight and super friendly.

(Photo courtesy of the Bedingfield Arms)
(Photo courtesy of the Bedingfield Arms)

Bottom line

Visiting Norfolk means you can have all sort of holidays in one trip. From gorgeous beaches to leisurely boating to gorging on seafood — there’s something for all tastes. And again, East Anglia is close to London with an international airport nearby, so there’s really no excuse!

Featured photo by George W Johnson/Getty Images

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