Seven wintry wonders of Norfolk
- Credit: Nadine Gray
Norfolk sparkles in the winter - from remote moated castles to the shimmering seashore. We might not be able to get out there right now but we can snuggle up safe at home and plan and dream
Ask people what they love most about Norfolk and most will mention big skies, our overarching heavens untroubled by view-blocking mountains. What is in those skies can be almost as awesome. Hundreds of thousands of birds flock and flow in mesmerising shape-shifting murmurations through the winter – waders forced from Snettisham’s inundated mudflats at high tide, crows gathering to roost at dusk at Buckenham, starlings twisting like smoke over Norwich city centre or pink footed geese shrieking in vast V shaped skeins across coastal skies.
A footpath follows the curve of the Norfolk coast for almost 100 miles, an unfurling, unfailing delight of creeks, cliffs, saltmarshes, sand dunes, flint-built fishing villages, sturdy windmills and pastel beach huts. There is deep history with ancient henges and some of the earliest-ever human activity, underwater wonders along the world’s longest chalk reef and the wow factor of looking north from say Brancaster beach and knowing there is nothing but ocean and ice between you and the North Pole.
The heavy curved shapes of a Henry Moore sculpture recline close to the spikey geometrical drama of Lynn Chadwick’s abstract animals at the sculpture park on the University of East Anglia campus. The Sainsbury Centre is creating a collection of free-to-visit outdoor art to rival the works inside its galleries. The sculptures flow through a campus packed with important modernist architecture including the famous ziggurat residences, and buildings now topped with iconic Antony Gormley figures.
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Thousands of baby seals are born around the Norfolk coast each year and spend their first few weeks of life snug in white fur coats, like miniature polar bears. Blakeney Point is home to England’s largest colony of grey seals with more than 3,000 pups born here each winter. The first pup was spotted here just 32 years ago. Since then the isolated sand and shingle peninsula has become one of the best places in the world to see baby seals – and just round the coast between Horsey and Winterton another 2,000-plus seals are born each year.
A royal seal of approval.
Norfolk is where the Royal Family traditionally start their year, with the Queen spending much of January in Sandringham. In normal years her Norfolk winter generally includes everything from visits to her pigeon lofts to church services – and attending a meeting of the Sandringham Women’s Institute in West Newton Village Hall. She is honorary president of the group founded by her grandmother more than a century ago.
Capture a castle
Considering castles were constructed to be visible – think the heady heights of Norwich Castle on its mound or towering Castle Rising near King’s Lynn - Norfolk’s castles can be surprisingly secretive. Horsford Castle, north of Norwich, is a series of enigmatic bumps in a field, hardly known and hardly there any more. Beautiful, ruined riverside Baconsthorpe Castle, near Holt, hides the remains of a moated, fortified manor at the end of farm lane while moated New Buckenham Castle is so secluded it’s kept under lock and key. The castle at Castle Acre is hardly hidden but its vast ramparts, among the most impressive Norman earthworks in the country, are rarely crowded. Thetford’s Norman castle mound was built a thousand years ago within fortifications which were already more than a thousand years old. And for Roman remains take the Angles Way footpath from Yarmouth to mighty Burgh Castle. Out on the marshes three sides of the great fort still stand. The fourth tumbled into the river centuries ago.
Most winters the natural wonders of Norfolk are complemented by a wonderfully warm welcome indoors too. Britain’s only complete circus building, Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, had to finish its winter show early but most winters reveals an extraordinary circus trick of its own as the stage slides away, fountains soar and the circus ring becomes a swimming pool at the finale of each performance.