PETER and ANN FROST find plenty to eat, drink and discover on the short journey between two camp sites in North Norfolk.
If you were in a hurry you could drive the nearly forty miles between Sandringham and West Runton Camping and Caravanning Club camp sites in just under an hour. But who wants to hurry? Do what we did, take a few days and discover a pretty coast of birds and boats, of windmills, steam trains and religious pilgrimages and, best of all some of the most diverse and delicious local food and drink you will find anywhere in the country.
We started our gourmet break with a couple of nights at the Club site on the royal estate at Sandringham. Club Patron Prince Philip runs the estate as a working farm with cattle, sheep and pigs selected to give tasty cuts rather than maximum yield.
At West Newton, just down the road, we found Great Bircham Foods whose Sandringham Village Store and Butchery sell only meat from the royal estate. Beef comes from red-poll cattle, organic dorper lamb from estate sheep and free range pork, ham and bacon from rare breed pigs.
All that high class meat impressed but we’d actually got something a little simpler but no less delicious. On a farmer’s market stall we’d bought a local wild rabbit and we had a recipe we had picked up from a Spanish campsite owner. It was rabbit cooked in lavender and Ann knew just where to get the rather unusual sweet smelling herb.
We really enjoy visiting Norfolk Lavender’s gardens at Heacham. While we are there we always top up on our supply of lavender oil. At home we find a few drops on my pillow can help towards a good night’s sleep. Strangely we never need it when we are out in our motor caravan. We always sleep like a log after a day in the country.
Tours are available both around the gardens and also to see the stillroom and workshops where the precious oil is extracted from the tiny purple flowers. We got some fresh sprigs of lavender for the rabbit recipe and then decided to try the lavender cream tea
The scone was speckled with lavender and the jam was lavender and strawberry. The sponge cake too was scented with you-know-what and the icing was a beautiful natural lavender colour. We found the whole thing fragrant and delicious although it was not to everyone’s taste. One customer on the next table declared it all reminded him of his old mum’s furniture polish!
Our next stop was Bircham Windmill. The mill is still working but offers many other attractions. We liked the fact that children can bake their own rolls or small loaves using local flour in the ancient bakery with its coal fired oven.
The rabbit was for tomorrow, tonight we were eating out. The Neptune is just a stone’s throw from Old Hunstanton beach, the restaurant has a Michelin star and the food served here is second to none, but it isn’t cheap so we decided to save the experience for another more special day and bought fish and chips in the paper and sat on the sea wall in the balmy evening to watch the curious sunset.
Why curious? Well this is the east coast. East coast seaside towns don’t have good watery sunsets. But look at a map, you’ll see that east coast Hunstanton looks out directly west right across the Wash.
The huge open expanse of the Wash is one of England’s richest remaining wildlife wildernesses. Millions of visiting seabirds, wildfowl and waders join the seals to feast on the rich harvest of its mud-banks. Those banks are also a rich fishery for shellfish like cockles, mussels and whelks.
Sadly today most of the cockles go to France and the whelks to Korea for the tinned soup trade. However there are enough left for us to find some along the coast so let’s go. We are on our way to Blakeney and our favourite whelk stall.
The converted caravan on the front here sells a lot more than whelks, we’ll pick oysters, shrimps, prawns, cockles as well. We always bring a bottle of English wine to wash it down, some fresh crusty bread and some good mayonnaise, and we sit at one of the open air tables or on the sea wall and enjoy a Fruits de Mare worthy of the finest Breton eatery for about a quarter of the price.
Drove Orchards at Thornham is our next stop. The farm shop always has a good seasonal range of apples. They have 150 varieties here, over a hundred of them local. Add to that plums, pears, soft fruit, salads and vegetables, all local and all fresh.
They have recently opened a restaurant at the orchards and it should suit us campers – it’s in a tent, well actually a rather spectacular Yurt. The tent might be exotic and foreign but the food they serve couldn’t be more local.
As you drive along the coast keep your eye out for the small roadside stalls offering local fish, shellfish and other delicacies. Depending on the season they could include local mussels, crabs, asparagus, duck and goose eggs and the real local treasure summer samphire.
Samphire is a succulent plant that grows on the saltmarsh hereabouts. Simply boiled and served with butter it is the perfect accompaniment for the local fish. Someone once called it ‘poor man’s asparagus’ If that’s true I’m glad I ended up poor.
Some of these tiny local stalls have grown surprisingly big. The Fishshed at Brancaster is a good example. Almost 22 years the owners, Mr and Mrs Bocking, started the tiny business using their own fridge in their kitchen using only a box of fish. The Fish Shed name was created after they converted the shed behind the house to make the shop.
Today a bigger shed now sells just about everything from simple fresh fish to handmade sushi, home smoked salmon, fish pies, pates and fish cakes, as well as local game and shellfish.
The first Saturday each month means a great farmer’s market at Creake Abbey. That’s where we got our local rabbit. Arts and crafts studios here are open all week and worth a visit but the monthly farmer’s market is one of the best you’ll find. There is also a nice café.
Walsingham is one of Britain’s most holy places. In Medieval times it was known as England’s Nazareth. Today thousands of pilgrims come to worship at the Roman Catholic or Anglican shrines. There is even an Orthodox church here complete with onion domes and a school of icon painting.
They make good cider at Wells next the Sea. Whin Hill Cider is run by Jim Fergusson and Pete Lynn. It started in a small way in 1993 making cider from spare apples from the garden.
Today more than a thousand cider apple trees have been planted. The cider is made and sold in an 18th century barn off the main car park in Wells. Just down the road is an amazing new business. De-lish could be a fine French charcuterie – in fact its salamis and other cured meats are all local.
For the second part of our tour we have moved to the Club site at West Runton. It makes exploring Cromer, famous for its crabs and its pier, easy. Also handy is the buzzing seaside resort of Sheringham where we caught the Poppy line steam railway to Holt.
Along the coast from Sheringham is Salthouse where Cookies crab shack offers great fish and shell fish in a unique setting. Don’t expect posh tables. You’ll be lucky to get a table in fact, but if you do you’ll eat good local shellfish and samphire second to none. Do remember to bring your own wine.
Cley next the sea is an attractive little town. On its fringes you’ll find a unique little shop. Picnic Fayre. It does what it says on the door, it sells every thing you’ll need for an amazing picnic.
When you come out sniff the air. Clean Norfolk sea air of course but with a curious pleasant odour as well. That’s the local smoke house. Kippers, bloaters, bristling, eel, salmon and even cod’s roe for that Norfolk delicacy – taramasalata are all produced here. Pop in and stock up, we do. Ask nicely and, if they aren’t busy, they may let you have a peep and a sniff in the smokers.
We finish our food trail at Stiffkey, pronounced Stewkey.
Today the quiet and pretty village is mainly renowned for cockles, a local delicacy, known as ‘Stewkey Blues’. But it is hard to believe the amount of notoriety it achieved as a result of the escapades of its local vicar during the 1930s. The village’s name was scarcely ever out of the Sunday papers.
The Revd Harold Davidson spent too much time away from his parish and in the company of fallen women in Soho. He claimed he was trying to save them from their wicked ways.
Eventually he paid the price, being unfrocked by the Bishop in Norwich Cathedral in 1932. He ended his life preaching in a lion’s cage on the seafront at Blackpool. They still tell the story, with a chuckle, in the pubs along the Norfolk coast and the story ends in a way that befits our food tour. At one night’s show the angry lion ate him!
Where to find those local goodies.
Sandringham Village Store and Butchery
Great meat from the Sandringham Estate.
Tel; 01485 542219
Stoneground flour and great home baking and sheep’s cheese.
Tel: 01485 578393
Michelin Star Restaurant.
Tel; 01485 532122
Tel; 01485 570384
Many varieties of local fruit.
Tel; 01485 525 652
A restaurant in a tent.
Tel; 01485 525 108
All kinds of fish at Brancaster Staithe.
Tel; 01485 210532
Gurney’s in Burnham Market
Great fish shop that always has samphire in season.
Tel; 01328 738967
Creake Abbey Farmers Market
30 plus stalls on the first Saturday of every Month.
Tel; 078014 418907
Whin Hall Cider
Refreshing local brew from good Norfolk Apples.
Tel; 01328 711033,
Wells next the sea’s very own charcuterie, making all sorts of venison and other sausages and cured meats.
Tel; 01328 711914
All you need for a picnic from the Old Forge at Cley.
Tel; 01263 740587
Fish smoked on the premises.
Tel; 01263 740282
Cookies at Salthouse
Shellfish and samphire to eat in or take away.
Tel: 01263 740352
This article was first published in Camping and Caravanning Magazine.