This northern section of East Anglia – one of the most rain-shy counties in Britain – could have been tailor-made for family holidays, offering masses of scope for traditional bucket-and-spade holidays on uncrowded sandy beaches.
If your children grow tired of sandcastles, however, there’s lots of cycling along safe and scenic paths that even your youngest will manage – Norfolk is predominantly flat. Or play Swallows and Amazons on the Norfolk Broads – now a National Park, with many fantastic nature reserves attached. Animal-loving children will enjoy spotting the many seabirds that stop off along northern Norfolk’s beautiful coastal creeks as they migrate to and from breeding grounds, as well as taking boat-trips out to seal colonies (although you can often see seals while you walk along the coastal path).
And if you like history, you’re in luck too: Norfolk has long been home to famous people, reaching as far back as Queen Boudicca in Roman times, and many have left historic buildings behind them. Henry VIII’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, is said to haunt the National Trust’s Blickling Hall near Aylsham; Horatio Nelson – later Lord Admiral – is remembered in the church at his birthplace, Burnham Thorpe; and then there’s the Queen’s country home at Sandringham. On top of all of this, there are lovely villages to visit, many with wonderful markets or local food shops.
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Explore the unspoilt beaches, traditional seaside resorts and coastal creeks stretching from the resort town of Hunstanton, in the north, along the coast to Holkham Beach and Wells-next-the-Sea with their vast expanses. At Holkham, visit historic Holkham Hall and its Bygones Museum, or just stroll around the estate’s parkland with its lake, nature trail and deer. Then potter around the old port of Wells-next-the-Sea, now a little inland from its beach, and full of shops, cafés and pubs.
Continue east, as the coast becomes marshy in places. The National Trust-owned shingle spit at Blakeney Point is a National Nature Reserve that you can reach from Blakeney village. Boat trips from nearby Morston Quay take you to the seal colonies, or you can follow the North Norfolk Coast Path to Stiffkey Saltmarshes.
Head for the sandy beaches, usually safe for swimming, that begin at Sheringham and Cromer and go right down to the border with Suffolk. Cromer Pier’s Pavilion Theatre hosts a traditional summer show plus other entertainment, or visit Cromer Museum next to the church of St Peter and St Paul. Not far from town is the National Trust’s Felbrigg Hall, a beautifully restored Stuart property with wonderful gardens and woods to explore. Also just outside Cromer is Amazona Zoo, with exotic birds, monkeys and big cats.
Kiss me quick at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk’s biggest seaside resort, with sandy beaches backed by the Golden Mile of amusement arcades, the Pleasure Beach funfair, Britannia Pier and the Sea Life Centre. Dig a little deeper and you’ll also find the National Trust’s Elizabethan House Museum, where children are encouraged to dress up in Tudor costumes and find out what the house was like in Victorian times, with a play room full of toys from the past. By it at South Quay are The Old Merchant’s House in all its Jacobean glory, and Row 111, another 17th-century house but one preserved as it was in the 1940s. Both are owned by English Heritage. There’s also the Nelson Museum in a Grade II Georgian building at South Quay.
Great Yarmouth is the gateway to the Norfolk Broads. When not messing about on the water, visit the Museum of the Broads at Stalham, where you’ll find out how the Broads – navigable rivers and lakes – were created by medieval peat extraction. Wroxham, regarded as the centre of the Broads, is a pretty village but one that can get overly busy. Nearby, at Hoveton, is BeWILDerwood – a woodland adventure playground with zip wires and treehouses. You’ll also find the Norfolk Broads Cycling Centre here, where you can hire bikes and buy cycle route maps covering the whole of the Broads.
Discover Norfolk’s county town, Norwich – a handsome old city with one of the finest Norman cathedrals in the country. It’s a lovely city to walk around, with a lively market and medieval streets. Norwich Castle Museum & Gallery has plenty of hands-on displays to please youngsters, while older children may enjoy the rather more modern Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia.
West Norfolk, furthest from the coast, is often overlooked on family holidays, but if you’re near Thetford Forest you’ll find plenty to do at the High Lodge Forest Centre, including the Go Ape high-wire adventure course – great for older children –a sculpture trail, bicycle paths and acres of space for walks and picnics.
Also out west is King’s Lynn, which was a very wealthy port until the discovery of America. It boasts some superb old port buildings and the charming Lynn Museum, home to a life-size replica of Seahenge, a Bronze Age timber circle discovered at Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998. Parts of nearby Sandringham Castle are open to the public.
Northern Norfolk is not known as Islington-on-Sea for nothing: the influx of London second-home owners there has raised the bar at many of the restaurants and hotels. The Victoria at Holkham is a gorgeous hotel with a superb restaurant that relies heavily on local produce such as lobsters and Cromer crabs, while Strattons Hotel in Swaffham has an award-winning restaurant that serves child-sized portions from its main menu.
Slightly less grand is the Queen Victoria at Snettisham, a homely hotel with a caravan site attached and a children’s menu in its restaurant. The Blakeney Hotel at Blakeney Quay is renowned for its Sunday lunches.
For picnics – a must on family holidays – visit the famous smokehouse at Cley-next the Sea, the food hall at Bakers & Larners in Holt, or the fabulous Walsingham Farms Shop. There are also several good restaurants and pubs in all these towns, including the Norfolk Riddle in Walsingham, which does take-away fish and chips too, and the George Hotel Bar at Cley.By Deborah Stone
Where family holidays are concerned, summer is the best time to appreciate Norfolk’s huge skies, warm weather and below-average rainfall, although the countryside itself is probably at its prettiest in spring and autumn. The north-east winds can strike at any time – particularly in winter – but blustery strolls along the beach followed by nights in front of a log fire can be magical.
The Norfolk county town of Norwich is about a 2hr 15min drive from London, while Cromer takes nearly 3hrs from London by car.
Trains service the region, with Norwich itself about 2hrs from London’s Liverpool Street Station.
Norwich is 1hr 30mins northeast of Stansted Airport, with flights from all over the UK and from abroad, and also has its own airport, Norwich International, with links with Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen in Scotland, and the Channel Islands, as well as the Netherlands and Switzerland.
You can enjoy very reasonably priced family holidays in Norfolk, particularly if you rent a self-catering cottage (from about £500 for a week for a family of four or more).
Accommodation suited to family holidays in Norfolk ranges from campsites, farm-stays, holiday parks and cottages to wonderfully stylish hotels with restaurants to match. Sandringham Castle (see Things to Do) has a caravan/campsite on its estate, or see our feature Green Places to Stay with Kids: Europe for inspiration.
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