Find out why Alison Rye and family love this part of the Norfolk coast so much.
We’ve been in the car for a good 30 seconds when the demands for food start coming from the back seat. Out come the raisins and apples, and the kids settle themselves in for the journey to Cromer, on the Norfolk coast, now armed with a potful of nibbles each and several episodes of ‘Bob The Builder’ on DVD.
There’s much excitement as we arrive in Cromer, and the kids get their first glimpse of the sea. “Are we really in Cromer?” asks Millie, almost popping out of her car seat with joy. “It’s my favourite and my best!”
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It’s a beautiful warm evening, and we’re lucky enough to get one of the benches overlooking the pier so we can watch the sea splashing in as we eat our takeaway from Mary Jane’s fish and chip shop. The kids run round and round the bench pretending to be trains, pulling into the ‘station’ every time they want a chip.
James’s eyes had lit up yesterday when he saw that the site offered cooked breakfasts on Saturdays and Sundays, so our first stop was the restaurant. There’s a good selection of food at equally good prices – the most challenging meal on offer being the mighty Seacroft Big Breakfast at £4.95. Millie and Matthew settle down with the colouring books and felt-tip pens provided for them, and staff are happy to provide extra plates so we can give the kids the bits and pieces they want from our meals. They’re not big fans of breakfast, so this arrangement works well. Sheringham is our first port of call, and it’s buzzing with life thanks partly to the bustling market next to the train station. While the kids demand handfuls of 2p pieces for the amusements, James heads to ‘Joyful’ West’s shellfish bar on the corner of High Street and Gun Street for his favourite dressed crab.
Meanwhile, Millie and Matthew have pretty quickly blown their cash stash and are now looking hopefully at Ellie’s, a little shop on the High Street where you can get child-sized 99s for just 45p each.
Continuing our walk down to the seafront, James pops into Rallentando for our order of takeaway coffee and biscotti, then we all sit looking out to sea – between mopping up the endless drips of ice-cream, of course. Millie declares that she’s sad to see Sheringham has no beach (the coastline here is 100% flint rather than golden sand) but thinks her ice-cream is “very delicious indeed, of course!”.
Sheringham is a lovely town, but the promenade appears to be made of bolted-together concrete blocks more in keeping with a multi-storey car park than a seaside resort. The kids don’t care though – they’re too busy admiring the small boats that have been dragged up on to the shore and trying to understand how a ‘buoy’ is different to a ‘boy’.
Back at Seacroft, and with the sun still high in the sky, we give in to the kids’ requests to try the heated outdoor pool. Barely 15 minutes of swimming later and the sky darkens, the temperature drops – and within minutes there’s a full-blown thunderstorm under way and the noise is tremendous. “Can you turn the rain down?” asks Millie as the sky is briefly made brighter by a flashing bolt of lightning. It’s a good job we brought our wellies…
At breakfast the TV is on, and the forecast is dire: it’s due to rain, pretty much until the end of time as far as we can gather. Ever the optimists, we gather our kit together and head for… Cromer beach!
Millie and Matthew are thoroughly over-excited to be back on a beach, and run down the slope a bit too fast, almost tripping over their spades on the way. We set up camp on the west side of the pier, and while the beach has a fair few pebbles, there’s plenty of sand for castle-building projects.
James starts to dig out his trademark ‘car’, and the children help by hunting for stones (headlights), shells (dashboard instruments) and sticks (gear lever). Sadly, before the kids can try out the seats, the rain comes and it’s time for another sharp exit. In the way of our strange British weather, though, the beating rain departs almost as quickly as it arrived, which leaves us free to make our way to Matthew’s favourite destination – the ice-cream shop!
Our visits to Cromer always include a stop at Windows Ice-Cream Parlour, which is near the seafront on New Street. The pink boards on its walls list the many icy temptations on offer, but Matthew knows what he likes and, as ever, places his order for a 99. James has more sophisticated tastes, though, and takes delivery of a large ‘blue goo’ – soft, whippy ice-cream with blue swirls running through. The kids are fascinated, and he doesn’t manage to hang on to it for long!
After lunch, rain sets in once more and keeping the kids happy becomes… challenging. We manage to reach dinner, but general hysteria seems to have set in, and at 9pm the kids are still giggling and popping the window blinds up. Deep breaths…
Having sifted through the leaflets in the site’s information centre (and seen the dark grey skies above), we decide to visit Let Off Steam, an indoor play centre in Sheringham.
The centre is perfect for pre-school children, and Millie and Matthew waste no time in climbing over the brightly coloured bumps and obstacles, whizzing down the shiny slides and traversing the rope bridge. Space bouncers roll around on the floor for the children to play with, and there are boxes of books dotted around the room if the youngsters want a quiet five minutes away from the action. James and I have a coffee from the café, and the kids refuel between slides with a teacake.
After obligatory stops at the ice-cream shop and amusement arcades, we wander along the promenade and down onto the flinty shore to watch the waves lapping in. Sitting on the huge rocks at the edge of the ‘beach’, you have to admire the swathe of flint that adorns the coastline here, even though it doesn’t have the child-pleasing qualities of sand. Away from the shore, the flint is everywhere, decorating houses, walls, farms, barns, churches and all manner of buildings across the county.
After lunch back at the site, we drive into Cromer and, in a moment of dubious judgement, decide to climb the 50m tower of Cromer Parish Church.
The well-meaning man who takes our money assures us that the climb is do-able with two young children but after trying it out I’d have to disagree. The staircase is steep and spiral, with concrete steps that get steeper towards the top: Matthew soon gets tired and Millie quite scared. The last thing you want is a tantrum on stairs like these, so we end up edging our way back down, the kids bumping down on their bottoms. By the time we reach ground level, both kids are filthy and unhappy, so this is not one to add to your ‘must-see’ list.
Today, we venture the nine miles inland to the Georgian town of Holt. It has some excellent shops, but with two children and a shopaphobic husband in tow, browsing is out of the question. Instead, I pop into the Tourist Information office and ask if they can recommend a child-friendly café for morning coffee. They suggest Jambo’s Courtyard Bar and Café, just off the main street.
I’m not sure why they have sent us here – it has no obvious nappy change area, and the majority of the indoor seats are upstairs – but we are welcomed warmly. The waitress finds a space for our pushchair and brings extra plates for Millie and Matthew to share their toasted teacake. Millie is impressed by the bright yellow walls, while I spend a while gazing at the for-sale art on display – in particular a sharp, colourful painting of beach huts. The excellent toasted teacakes are a cut above the usual fare, and our coffee is good too.
Millie and Matthew are remarkably well behaved while we have a quick mooch in the wonderful food hall of Bakers & Larners department store, so we decide to visit nearby Holt Country Park to let them run off some energy. We spend a little time in the play area (Millie loves looking through the telescope at the top of the slide) and have a short walk through the trees, but Matthew is getting tired so we set off for Wells-next-the-Sea while he has his 40 winks in the car.
The twisting road to Wells takes in the flint-studded villages of Cley-next-the-Sea, Blakeney, Morston and Stiffkey, and banishes the fallacy that Norfolk is flat and boring. The lush green countryside is decidedly undulating and the views are never dull.
It’s always a pleasure to turn the corner into Wells, and see the pretty quayside dotted with boats. Wells is a charming place, slightly let down by a couple of boarded-up buildings on the seafront, and I would recommend exploring beyond the main street for interesting shops and cafés (try Staithe Street).
We drive down Beach Road towards (not surprisingly) the beach, at the end we park the car and jump aboard the Wells Harbour Railway for the mile run back into town. Millie and Matthew are excited about a trip on this narrow gauge railway, and hop on board as soon as Howard, the shiny blue engine, is coupled up. Millie is grinning widely, but Matthew takes his train travel very seriously, and concentrates hard on the track ahead.
Back in Wells, James heads into the nearest fish and chip shop for a longed-for battered sausage, while I’m drawn towards the pink-painted Wells Deli, which is advertising an enticing list of takeaway sandwiches on its board outside. Ordering a mozzarella, tomato and basil panini, I spend a few minutes browsing the heaving shelves while my sandwich cooks. The counter display has a mouthwatering assortment of cakes on offer, including the perfectly named Luscious Strawberry Cake.
The weather is truly wet, wild and windy as we drive back towards Cley, but this doesn’t seem to deter the numerous hardy bird-watchers near the Cley Marshes visitor centre.
Just after we drive through Salthouse, James notices the sea splashing up high from beyond the gravel banks to our left, so we decide to investigate. A small road leads to Gramborough Hill, where we scale the shingle and see the amazing sight of an angry, boiling sea just a little way in front of us. It’s a sobering sight: a combination of beauty and danger that reminds you of mother nature’s awesome power. We’re just a few days away from July, it’s 11 degrees and the kids are wearing three layers. Summer? Ha!
We get up, pack our swimsuits and drive the 10 minutes to Sheringham to try out the indoor pool at Splash Leisure & Fitness Centre. We join the toddler swim session and I’m pleased to see the pool has a beach-style walk-in area so there are no steps to negotiate while holding little ones.
The well-heated changing village is right next to the pool, and has larger cubicles for families and disabled people to use, which makes changing and drying off a lot easier.
The shallow end of the pool is dotted with fountains and bubble jets for the children to play in, and balls and floats are all around the pool for everyone to share. It’s not too busy, and Millie is in seventh heaven, climbing on a huge frog-shaped float and being pulled along while she barks out orders to her driver (Daddy).
Despite his caution, by the end of the session Matthew is walking around happily in the shallows, playing with a ball and poking his fingers in the bubbles.
We stop on the way back to the site to pick up a loaf of hedgehog bread from Morrisons (the kids eat it because of its name), then after Matthew’s nap we brave the gusts to stroll down Cromer pier. We planned to visit the lifeboat station at the pier’s end, but it is closed for building work so we wander back towards shore. The children spot the bright lights of Cromer Kiddieland on the West Promenade. Kiddieland is a small funfair for younger children, with plenty to do in a very compact area so it’s not too overwhelming. Today, Millie and Matthew take the wheel of the purple train (complete with bells to ring), then have a quick spin on the roundabout. Both these rides cost £1 (or two tokens) per child, but if you’re planning to stay a while you can buy a job-lot of tokens at a reduced price. Older children might like to try the wonderfully named Cromer Eye – a ‘big’ wheel for little people!
With the skies once more the colour of lead, we drive back to Sheringham and check out the children’s activity train carriage at Sheringham station. A converted carriage on platform three, it has a mini train inside where you can ‘travel’ first, second or third class behind an engine called Puffing Billy. I jump into first, of course, and don the smart hat thoughtfully provided for ladies who travel in luxury. James and Matthew resign themselves to third class, while Millie takes up her post in the mini ticket office, complete with tickets and telephone. It’s only small, but it’s nicely done, and would be an extra chunk of fun for any train-mad youngster.
Oooh… what’s that big yellow thing in the sky? Sunshine! As soon as we’ve recovered from the shock of seeing some blue skies at last, we set off for the Norfolk Shire Horse Centre, just a few minutes away in West Runton.
I love horses, so am looking forward to stroking a few ears and noses – but to Millie and Matthew they must seem absolutely enormous creatures. Once the kids master the technique of holding out some food on a flat palm, however, they both have fun feeding a gentle Suffolk Punch mare called Golden Genisis. “She’s tickly and slimy!” is Millie’s giggling verdict.
As well as the various breeds of heavy horses on display, the kids can let loose in the play area and then say hello to goats, donkeys, sheep, pigs and small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs. The star of the show on our visit is Arabella – a two-month-old Falabella foal which the kids help to bottle-feed during one of the regular demonstrations. Falabella horses are a miniature breed, so Arabella is as far removed from her heavy horse cousins at the other end of the yard as it’s possible to be!
After lunch at the Shire Horse Centre’s basic café, we pay another quick trip to Holt Country Park before heading back to the site for dinner. With exceptional timing, the ice-cream van comes tinkling past the van just as Millie and Matthew finish their Yorkshire puds, so there’s no avoiding the bill for another two 99s!
The yellow thing in the sky has disappeared again, which is our cue for another fun session in the pool at Splash Leisure & Fitness Centre. I’m almost starting to feel like a regular here! Then, sadly, it’s time to head back to make preparations for our trip home tomorrow. We drive into Cromer for farewell fish and chips overlooking the sea (this time from Monroe’s on Garden Street), and we all feel sad as we walk away from the pier for the last time on this holiday.
Never mind though. I rather suspect we’ll be back in North Norfolk before too long – but hopefully with some sunshine to cast an extra bit of sparkle on this most beautiful of counties.