Old clever-cloggs, Noel Coward, was not one to let inconvenient facts get in the way of a well-crafted aphorism as his comment on our county demonstrates. It implies that this is really all there is to say about the place. And yet, from a different perspective it is a wise statement because any description of Norfolk has to be limited in scope: the skies are vast; the ocean is immeasurable; the people are hardy; the easterly wind on the North Norfolk Coast can rip through any articles of clothing; and, yes, Noel, the land IS flat. But it is not possible to come up with a valid sentence that summarises the character of whole county.
Yes, statements can be made about individual towns, themes and areas. The city of Norwich is the most complete medieval city in the Kingdom. The northern coast is beautiful beyond description with some internationally important bird sanctuaries. The Broads are indeed, to quote Ted Ellis, ‘a breathing place for the cure of souls’. Ancient Royalty was very partial to the salted herrings of Great Yarmouth. The greatest ever British Admiral, Lord Nelson, gained a first taste for the sea at Brancaster. Cromer crabs are supreme. The range of beautiful churches, laboured on by families as an act of love for generations, are wondrous and compelling. The county has stimulated an incredible amount of great literature – from The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to The Shrimp and The Anemone by LP Hartley. And so on.
Some places are complex and contradictory. Take Hunstanton, for example. To start with, it is pronounced ‘Hunstan’, or ‘Sunny Hunny’ by the locals who dwell in a state of perpetual optimism. Looking out to sea, at the never ending ‘ highway to heaven’ in hues of pink, orange, silver, green and blue, as the sun sets of a very long evening, is a never-to-be-forgotten experience of peace and stillness. As is the sighting, on lazy hazy summer days, of magical castles and boats in a mirage – OK, perhaps it isn’t – on the far horizon. Yet the sea can also blast away a pier, and a storm in the Wash, perhaps of tsunami intensity, is said to have swept King John’s crown jewels to the bottom of the ocean. At times like this, nature seems to be saying ‘take me as I am: you don’t have to like me’.
Us locals would not have it any other way. Being a ‘bit out of the way’, our county, customs, dialect and way of life have never been simple or easy to understand – no slick advertising agency can brand Norfolk as anything other than ‘Norfolk’.
That is why we love it so.
Text copyright Stephen Browning 2015