Day off? Oh, aah…” Desmond MacCarthy is uncharacteristically lost for words. The question of what he’d do with a day’s holiday has stumped the star of BBC2’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series Normal for Norfolk, which follows his efforts to turn his home – Wiveton Hall, a Jacobean manor house on the flatlands of the north coast – into a profitable enterprise.
As well as renting out a handful of holiday cottages, MacCarthy has pigs and chickens, a pick-your-own fruit farm, a farm shop, an art barn and a restaurant that’s won high praise from Delia Smith. When the first series aired last spring, his entrepreneurial antics, eccentricity and luxuriant eyebrows proved popular and the show has been a boost for business. “Lots of nice people who have seen the TV programme have come,” he says, “and they love seeing the place and it’s fun to show them round the gardens. They like the slight untidiness of it all.”
Norfolk is one of England’s more divisive counties: some people write it off as flat, featureless and dull (including Noël Coward, whose Private Lives includes the memorable line, “Very flat, Norfolk”). Others adore its huge skies, open countryside, famous broads and unspoilt coastline. Half an hour down the road from Wiveton Hall is Holkham Beach, which has often been voted one of Britain’s best beaches, thanks to its vast stretch of golden sand. MacCarthy’s own favourite is neighbouring Wells-Next-the-Sea, with its rainbow of beach huts bearing whimsical names like Dolly Mixture and Linger Longer.
The Norfolk Broads are a 125-mile network of waterways, meandering past water meadows, ancient woodland, pretty villages and market towns. The broads were formed in medieval times when locals dug for peat and then flooded the hollows (“broad” means shallow lake). The Victorians used the broads to transport goods, but nowadays they’re purely for pleasure.
There are plenty of paths and cycle ways, but it’s best to explore them by boat, says MacCarthy.“There’s a wonderful business at Ludham that hires out old-fashioned sailing boats – Hunter’s Yard. I’ve only done it once, but it was a real treat." The Broads are also a haven for wildlife and birdwatchers. “The nature reserves of Horsey Mere and Hickling Broad have very rare birds and the swallowtail butterfly still survives there.”
Ormesby Little Broad
If the British summer falters, holiday-makers can take refuge in Norwich, which was England’s second city until the Industrial Revolution. “Norwich is wonderful, with lots to do. There’s a very good bit called Elm Hill – it’s a gem of cobbles and Tudor houses – and a nice market. The Castle Museum has the astonishingly good Norwich School paintings, which depict Norfolk’s untidy countryside in the early 1800s.”
He also recommends exploring the county’s other man-made wonders. “Norfolk was rich in the 16th and 17th centuries and there’s some superb architecture influenced by the Dutch – Amsterdam was much quicker to reach than London back then. There’s a fantastic National Trust house called Blickling Estate, Holkham Hall is magnificent, and Houghton Hall is William Kent’s masterpiece, built for our first prime minister, Robert Walpole.
"East Anglia’s pre-medieval churches and Saxon towers are wonderful – often the church is standing on its own as the village disappeared with the Black Death. So there are lots of links to the past. And we still have small towns that haven’t been utterly dominated by chains – Holt, near us, is famous for its independent shops. And there are more and more good pubs and places to eat.”
MacCarthy suddenly remembers what he likes to do on his rare days off. “Ride out! A real day out is what they call a ride out – I love to have an objective and do a bit of exploring. I always take my binoculars with me. It’s nice to live in a county all your life and still there are lanes you’ve never been down.”
Norfolk's little trains
Dream by steam: The Mid-Norfolk Railway’s steam trains chug through beautiful countryside, from Wymondham Abbey to Dereham, in the heart of Norfolk.
Take the Poppy Line: The North Norfolk Railway — the Poppy Line — wends along the coast and through heathland, from Sheringham to classy Holt.
Follow the water: The Bure Valley Railway’s narrow-gauge trains take a scenic route from Aylsham to Wroxham, crossing 17 bridges and some lovely little villages. Combine it with a cruise on the Broads.
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