Visitors often ask me where they can find the "real England." What they usually mean is an English rural landscape dotted with small, simple English villages they imagine from the films and television programs they've seen.
What they don't realize is that they're probably looking for the landscapes in East Anglia and, in particular, north and western Norfolk. They know it, without knowing they do, from watching Jonathan Creek and Lovejoy and from seeing Atonement, The Duchess and dozens of other films. Most recently, the lovely Georgian town of Swaffham "played" Market Shipborough in the Stephen Fry television series Kingdom.
Perhaps film crews like Norfolk because parts of it are so relatively undiscovered. Visitors who do manage to find their way to the northern side of the Norfolk region known as The Brecklands, will also find wonderful country pubs, charming market towns, beautiful country to walk in and landmarks that range from 1,000 year old castles and priories to futuristic eco and energy projects.
What you won't find are crowds, mediocre restaurants aimed at tourists and tacky shops full of overpriced souvenirs. No wonder Queen Elizabeth II likes to spend family holidays there. Sandringham House, annual Christmas retreat for the Royal Family, is quietly hidden away in this part of England which is also the birthplace of Princess Diana.
Ancient Ruins and a Fine Pub Lunch in Castle Acre
About five miles north of the market town of Swaffham (North on the A1065, then left on Newton Road), the village of Castle Acre is a rare, complete example of a Norman planned settlemen, with a bailey gate, a fortified manor house, a parish church and an elaborate Cluniac priory. Park free in the town center next to the Norman bailey gate - all that remains of a stone fortification that once surrounded the entire village. A main road still runs through it. Then walk downhill on Bailey Street and follow signs to the castle.
The Castle was built around 1070 by William I de Warenne, a prominent Norman landowner who fought with William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings (1066). Known as a motte and bailey castle, its elaborate earthwork defences and inner stone buildings give a very good picture of the Norman impact on the community shortly after the Conquest. Though privately owned, the castle is managed by English Heritage and is free to visit. Views from the curtain wall extend across the managed landscape to the River Nar. The grass covered embankments of the castle's huge earthworks are child and dog friendly and great fun to wander around (or run around) in.
Find out more about visiting Castle Acre Castle and Bailey Gate.
The Priory - After visiting the castle, walk back through the bailey gate, turn left on the High Street past the suggestively named "Stocks Green". A few hundred yards along, you'll arrive at the Castle Acre Priory, a Cluniac Priory that William de Warenne brought with him. The buildings date from about 1090 and it's one of the largest and best preserved Medieval monasteries in England. The substantial remains include the highly decorated west end of the church, the prior's lodge and a recreated herb garden. There's also museum with a good exhibition. And dogs on leashes are welcome. The Priory is open every day during the summer but only on weekends from early November to late March. There is an admission charge.
Find out more about visiting Castle Acre Priory
A Pub Lunch at the Ostrich Inn, on Stocks Green in Castle Acre, will set you up for the rest of the day. It's a 16th century coaching in with a solid pub menu, a child-safe garden and several luxury B&B rooms. Decor is traditional and the building is genuine, complete with tilting walls and a resident ghost. There's also a children's menu. This place is popular with locals from the surrounding villages so get a table early or stop in to book when you first arrive in the village.
Visit their website.
Back the Future - Green Energy in Swaffham
Retrace your route back to Swaffham and just before entering the town, you'll jump ahead in time nearly 1,000 years as you pass two gigantic wind turbines beside the A47. The turbines operated by Ecotricity and the local council were among the earliest and largest in the UK. Besides generating several Megawatts of green energy, they are now at the heart of the Green Britain Centre. If you are up to climbing 300 steps (and your kids will probably race you to the top), you can view the countryside from the observation deck in one of the turbines. You can also explore the center's huge solar array, its organic gardens - which provide produce for the center's cafe, and rotating exhibits about green vehicles, green power generation and related topics.
Find out more about the Green Britain Centre, including opening times and prices.
A Great Day Off Base For USAF Families
Just across the county line in Suffolk, thousands of US Air Force families are assigned to two big bases. RAF Lakenheath, 21 miles from Swaffham, is home to the USAF 48th Fighter Wing. RAF Mildenhall, about 27 miles from Swaffham, is home to the USAF 100th Air Refueling Wing. From the bases, it's a straight run on the A1065 through Brandon, taking less than 40 minutes. Castle Acre is about ten minutes further along, if that. Along the way, you pass through Thetford Forest Park, several small villages, enormous pig and geese farms (kids will love spotting the livestock and the thousands of snowy geese) and stretches of some of the densest woodlands in England. Watch for rabbits everywhere as well as the occasional pair of boxing hares. And, in the spring, watch out for colorful pheasants along the roads. Altogether, both the drive and the attractions at the end of this make this a fine family day out and a chance to have a really English experience. If your leave is on a Saturday, make time for Swaffham market. At least 70 traders set up stalls by the Market Cross in the town center and you can buy everything from local produce and game to French cheeses and hard to find hardware.