Salt marshes and sea defences; fields of corn and birders with binoculars swinging from a string around their necks; honesty boxes proffering samphire and freshly laid eggs; sand dunes, beaches and village pubs; these are the sights I see through the window of the Coasthopper bus as we clatter our way from Sheringham to Hunstanton.
At points the road is so narrow I fear we’ll clip the flint walls of the cottages that abut the street, but each time we somehow squeeze through. We pass through lovely little Stiffkey, then Wells-next-the-Sea, with its cheesy arcades sitting cheek-by-jowl with upmarket delis. On through gentrified Burnham Market, with its chic shops, past handsome Holkham Hall, until we reach what looks like a cluster of boutiques by the side of the road. The driver shouts “that’s you love” and stops the bus.
This is Drove Orchards, a 40-acre fruit farm which is host not only to a farm shop, but a wet fish stall, a restaurant in a yurt, a posh chippy and — it seems my eyes have not deceived me — a couple of boutiques. I’m seeking out Wild Luxury, which offers top-of-the-range glamping right in the middle of North Norfolk’s larder. To reach the site I must first cross the orchard, which — on my visit — is in glorious abundance. Fruit trees reach up to a bright sky, while below them lies a carpet of windfall apples in red and yellow. The smell is sweet and almost fizzily heady, made all the more bewitching because you can reach out and pick the ones you want. As I pass along the rows I discover varieties I’ve never even heard of — Peasegood Nonesuch, D’Arcy Spice, Robert Blatchford and Norfolk Beefing are just a few among a total of 160 types of apple first planted here by Major David Jamieson when he returned to settle in his family home after winning the Victoria Cross in the Normandy Landings.
A gate leads me to a field laid out with four Serengeti-style tents, one of which is mine. I step up onto my porch, with its two sofas, and unzip the flaps. The inside is fabulous — there’s a table seating six, a sofa, a kitchen, two bedrooms proper and a little double cabin bedroom carved into the side of the room. At its beating heart is a log-burning stove, which must be lit to do any kind of cooking. There’s also a small camping stove for the kettle but all culinary adventures are wood fuelled — plus there’s a large firepit outside should the notion of toasted marshmallows, or even joints of meat wrapped in foil and cooked in the embers, take hold.
A tent for six is a waste for a single girl so my friends and Frank, their baby, drive from London. We pile Frank into a wheelbarrow and head for supplies. The farm shop sells produce grown on the 350-acre farm, of which Drove Orchards is a part. Depending on the season there’s beetroot, potatoes, broad beans, lettuce, rhubarb and soft fruits. Ciders and apple juices are made on site.
Back on our porch, we slide down oysters — cultivated by Richard Loose out near Scolt Head Island. These are followed by dressed crab, lobster, prawns and crayfish, all bought from Gurneys Fish Box a field away. In our stove there’s an apple and blackberry crumble made from fruit picked on the walk back to our tent.
We cycle along tracks and wooden bridges crossing streams towards Holme Dunes nature reserve, a vast swathe of sand and long grass that marks the point where The Wash meets the North Sea. Norfolk is known for its flat landscape and wide-open skies, and here the beach is vast and sandy.
There’s sea buckthorn everywhere here — the chef’s foraged berry de jours — while in the lodge there are recipes for wild food dishes such as ‘baked fish in newspaper’ or ‘safari coffee beef’ which use ingredients collected yards, rather than miles, away.
We cycle on to the Lifeboat Inn for a pint before heading back to Drove Orchards and Eric’s Fish and Chips for fried haddock, mushy peas and IPA-pickled onions. With Frank strapped up in a baby seat our bike forays are restricted to the beach and pubs. But the slightly less wary could eschew four wheels altogether and still cover a large swathe of this north-west corner of Norfolk.
Once my friends have headed back to the smoke, I use Shanks’s pony and the Coasthopper to get me to lunches and dinners. On my way back from the glorious White Horse at Brancaster Staithe I walk through marshland and stick my feet in the mud to forage sweet but salty samphire around the banks a little in from the coast. It will go perfectly with a piece of fresh fish.
Other highlights include Mrs Temple’s Cheese, made by Catherine Temple at Copys Green Farm in Wighton; and a preponderance of local gins, including Bullard’s, Black Shuck and Norfolk Gin, as well as local berry liqueurs.
For almost the entire weekend the weather is kind, but on the day I leave the rain pours. As I wheel my bags along in the barrow, I see fellow campers wrapped in blankets lying on their outdoor sofas with books in hand. There’s a pair of kids playing swingball with waterproof jackets flapping. They all smile: they might be laughing at the state of me, but I think it’s also because — in spite of the rain — this is just a good place to be.
Up by the roadside, I stick my hand out for the Coasthopper. The windows are steamed up so I cannot nod at the multi-coloured sign I love in Blakeney, guiding people to a path down the side of a house where they will find ‘crabs fresh boiled and dressed’, ‘oysters’ and ‘samphire’. I can’t see the old windmill in Cley or any of the lovely village churches. But I am happy. I may be soaked to the skin, but North Norfolk has left me truly aglow.
A taste of Norfolk
Overseen by chef Eric Snaith (owner of Eric’s Fish and Chips), the restaurant here offers a la carte and five- and seven-course tasting menus. Dishes include Brancaster lobster bisque and Norfolk quail, parsley root, and cobnuts and Szechuan pepper.
How much: Six-course meal costs £50 per person.
The White Horse, Brancaster
Look out across the Brancaster Staithe and see the fishing boat used by Cyril Southerland to bring in the mussels on the menu. The seafood platter is spectacular with Brancaster oysters harvested in the waters before you and prawns smoked in the smokehouse in the Jolly Sailor pub across the road.
How much: Mains from £17 per person.
Shuck’s at the Yurt, Drove Orchards
A cosy affair inside a yurt with a wood burner in winter. A starter called ‘sack of spuds’ of salt-baked Maris Piper potatoes comes with garlic aioli and red mojo sauce, while mains include ballotine of free-range chicken, lemon pepper and bacon stuffing.
How much: Mains from £12 per person.
How to do it
Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)