“Always Norfolk Day”

A personal view by Lady Dannatt

Reams have been written and masterpieces composed, so it is hard perhaps to find anything new to say about this beloved county of ours. But given my well documented passion for Norfolk and her inhabitants, I have a rather curious confession to make: the passion was not always thus…

Given I am writing this piece in celebration of Norfolk Day, I feel I am already treading on dangerous ground by allowing such an admission.
As a child I had, and fortunately still have, a beloved aunt living in Somerset. To me Somerset was the golden county. I knew only the happiest of sunlit days roaming with young cousins, collecting warm eggs from the barn, blackberrying for hours, following slow tractors through
tangled lanes and – best of all – there were hills. Norfolk is so flat, I regularly complained to my long-suffering parents.

Later, I was seduced by the honey-soaked villages close to my Oxfordshire boarding school, long before the Cotswolds became the popular Destination of Choice it is known for today. We rode our bikes for miles. Chipping Norton was just ‘Chippy’ to us, a grocery shop, a knitting shop and a rather ugly garage on the hill. I may even have flirted with some of the prettier streets of London before the slow realisation dawned, and Norfolk pulled me back. It wasn’t an instant falling in love, I have to say; more of a gradual seeping in. A quiet and sure knowing this was where I belonged.

Norfolk is part of my DNA. The appeal of the county can be underwhelming, not so readily obvious and definable as other counties. But the picture postcard Cotswold villages don’t do it for me any more.

They fail to reach out and excite my soul in the same way as does the flinty, austere, unfathomable beauty of Norfolk.

Every day is a Norfolk Day for those of us who are fortunate enough to live here. We quietly get on and celebrate this wild and wonderful county by just opening our eyes and thanking God for the privilege of being here.

What equates to the early morning magic as I approach the distant sprawl of Great Yarmouth along the Acle straight? Spire of the Minster discernible for miles, the sound of the gulls circling the unforgiving sea beyond. Rolling mists of muted colours, mingling with the widest of skies, no ending or beginning to either. Ghostly sails of unseen boats moving through the fields; smudged outlines of animals across the low-lying meadows, horses perhaps, tired from pulling the pony traps the previous day.

When Reginald Pound wrote of the ‘ungrudging roominess of a kingdom’ this surely has to be the Norfolk to which he alludes. Nor is it just the ‘whispery and watery’ places, but the people who inhabit the lands themselves, walking and Crabbing at Wells, working in the footsteps of their ancestors for thousands of years.

At Happisburgh, human footprints were recently discovered in the fast-eroding cliffs, dating back some 850,000 years. Sidney Grapes famously wrote: ‘You can always tell a Norfolk man, but you can’t tell him much.’

Perhaps that’s why.

Presenting a cup in the Grand Ring at the Royal Norfolk Show some years ago, I attempted to congratulate the stockman on his very fine prize sow. ‘Oh’ he replied ‘this i’nt the winner. She’s an awkward ole bugger that one is, couldn’t get her into the loader, so I just bringed along any ole pig instead.’

Whether it is the legendary Norfolk characters, or generous sandy beaches, bustling market towns or tight knit rural communities, the sight of pink footed geese alighting on the marshes or the baby Atlantic Grey seals at Horsey Gap, the stately homes of Sandringham, Houghton and Holkham – or merely crabbing off the quay at Wells – Norfolk has it all. As one well-known native recently remarked, ‘I stray beyond the county boundaries but infrequently; and then, only to remind myself of the unrivalled riches left behind.’

He sounds like a sensible chap to me.

Picture credits: Newsquest, Ian Barsby, David White