Back home by the North Sea

As we usually do at the end of term, Beth and I have returned home to North Norfolk. Throughout the academic year, I greatly miss the North Sea from coast to countryside. In the past I’ve written about the coastal footpaths we’ve come to know intimately; the secret gardens and ponds off the path, with many hidden nooks etched into the landscape for a quiet picnic or some outdoor reading; the little cottage that we lived in for many years, where the clock seemed to tick slower; the sand dunes and the cliffs towering over the beaches; the rolling heathland where Shetland ponies roam free; and the poetry of tall Scotch pines seamlessly blending with farmland and rich marshes. It’s a romantic vision, I admit. It’s a land we know deeply, such that as we return each year from university we notice many small and intricate changes to the tangled ditches that line familiar country lanes; the assorted growth of wildflowers and the poppies that border the rolling fields; not to mention the forest paths we frequent where new saplings seem to be constantly breaking the soil. There are so many changes and developments in a year as the land takes new shape.

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Aside from studying birds and other wildlife, and when not engaged in spontaneous philosophical and scientific enquiry, a reoccurring topic of discussion this week has been sociological. I haven’t taken too many pictures of the towns and villages, nor of the people, but for every eloquent description of the countryside it is interesting to also think about the sociological dimension of life here.

Beth and I spent important formative years growing up in North Norfolk, and we know first-hand how young locals might eventually yearn for more opportunities and possibilities than what can be offered by the local towns and villages. In our visit to Sheringham we spoke to a young lad at one of our favourite chip shops. He was quite sweet, working in what was probably his new summer job. When we mentioned in passing that we used to live in the area he commented in agreement that it is difficult because there aren’t many opportunities. We call this lack opportunity in rural England and the eventual forced migration ‘the brain drain’. It gives description to how young people feel they must leave rural areas to find economic opportunity, perhaps most prominently university graduates. This brain drain relates to the common, if not universal paradox in many western countries as far as I can tell: urbanisation versus rural life.

To my mind, there hasn’t been a single period of British government (left or right on the spectrum) that has successfully confronted this paradox, although some more than others have certainly exacerbated the issue over the years. In North Norfolk I think it is fair to say that for a place that is so tranquil its sociological dimension can feel restrictive and absent of future. The reality is in the juxtaposition. The beauty of the landscape and the richness of rural life on the one hand, and then the creaking public infrastructure, rural poverty, lack of opportunity and social mobility, along with lower wages combined with higher living costs on the other. Then there is the ongoing issue of the loss of small farms, the struggle of small business, and the erosion of important civic assets like access to land and well-connected transportation networks. (I imagine these issues stretch across the entire country).

In the right situation with a well-paid job nearby or with one in the nearest city; established money; the special circumstance of successfully establishing a small business; or economically viable farming (not at all an easy thing to do nowadays with many farmers selling off their businesses); one could live here in great peace and enjoy a genuine slice of heaven. Otherwise, it can easily be a desperate situation with few channels for basic work and with fewer opportunities in which one might secure a decent living. (I remember reading a sociological study where the youth of old industrial cities and mining towns offered similar accounts).

I would say East Anglia shares similar sociological features as most counties ranging north from the Midlands to the Scottish boarder. For every coastal town or rural village with a healthy economy, there is another that is quite obviously deteriorating. In the heart of North Norfolk, with its glorious scenes, quaint flint-stone cottages, and well-off neighbourhoods – of which I often speak poetically – there are also obvious signs of poverty. Towns like Holt are a good example. From the view of an outside observer Holt has the appearance of an affluent neighbourhood; but that general appearance of affluence can be misleading when it comes to the particular realities of people that call it home. Generally, a lot of the wealth does not seem to be sourced, or kept, locally. Many people have holiday homes in this area and therefore reside here only part-time or less, bringing their wealth from London and elsewhere. I think this partly contributes to the affluent appearance. Its impact is noticeable in many little details of life, like the quality of the roads, perhaps because a lot of the money is not actually taxed here; or in how the buildings on the high street are owned by only one or two companies.

I am quite sensitive to people. I like watching and observing. After a certain amount of time, it becomes easy to distinguish a local from a part-time resident or a tourist. The distinguishing features between the locals, part-time residents, and temporary holiday-goers can be much more obvious in towns like Cromer, North Walsham, and parts of King’s Lynn. When passing through Cromer it is possible to see local families wait in line at the foodbank as tourists pass with ice creams after enjoying a day on the beach. In many cases, poverty seems to be entrenched; such that it is not surprising when the Office for National Statistics releases a report indicating massive income disparities in this area. Extrapolate across the whole of England, and one finds a fairly straightforward explanation for Brexit and other recent political trends, with people in rural areas feeling abandoned or perhaps even completely forgotten. All it takes is appropriately directed political rhetoric to exploit the underlying currents of resentment and frustration.

But that’s enough observation and reflection for now. My main purpose was to share some photographs of the countryside. Perhaps next time I will focus more on writing about the many different towns and villages, with their unique histories and characteristics, and about the people that live in this area. I can then also focus on taking more pictures from that perspective.

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The most popular castle in Norfolk is Norwich Castle. Outside of Norwich in rural Norfolk there were over 20 other castles built during the Middle Ages. The other day we returned to Baconsthorpe Castle, which has a very interesting history. I hadn’t been here for almost 10 years, so it was lovely to see it again.

The main court yard would have been full with residences and stables. You can see a bit of it behind me, although much of the structure has been lost over centuries.

The castle is situated next to a pond. There were lots of baby ducks and baby swans swimming in it, but we didn’t manage to get a good picture. Here is one photograph of the pond facing away from the castle’s courtyard.

The lane to get to the castle cuts through a number of fields. It makes for a painting in-itself. Quintessential Norfolk.

This picture reminds me a lot of the family dairy farm. It was nice to visit. There wasn’t time to see the cows on this occasion, but I did take some photos of the fields that Beth and I used to walk through.

We had lunch in the orchard under one of the apple trees.

Weybourne beach is a place we like to have picnic dinners. Watching the seabirds and the fishermen is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s a place where many locals will spend the evening with a comfortable chair, a good book, and a bottle of wine.

The sea was especially calm this day. We managed to capture a few lovely photos.

Beth and I will sometimes search the shingle beaches for cool pebbles and cobbles. I’ve been experimenting with taking more focused photographs, and this is one of the cobbles that I think looks good.

One of our favourite forests in North Norfolk is captured below. I’ve written about this forest a few times in the past. It is one of the first places we visit whenever we return to Holt. We used to go for walks here a few times a week, and it is always interesting to compare the growth over the years.

Here I am walking down one of my favourite footpaths that runs under a canopy of trees. On the other side of the gate is an entrance to the heath.

Below are some pictures of the heath, which has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. We used to be able to see very far down into the valley, but the goss has grown so much that this is no longer possible. In recent visits we’ve also spotted more garden snakes than usual (in fact, we never used to see any at all!), suggesting perhaps that their population has grown. I am curious as to why. Maybe there has been a decline in the population of birds of prey?

Here we are having a sit down.

Beth did take one image of Sheringham high street on our way to the beach beneath the cliffs.

Here is a photo of the beach and the cliffs.

Sheringham Golf Club is situated just a top these cliffs. It’s a beautiful links course that I was looking forward to play if not for an injury.

One of the most beautiful places on planet Earth, as far as I am concerned, is Holkham beach.

Here is a tile gallery of a few more of my favourite pictures.

It was especially hot one day we were there, so we receded to the forest. The tall Scotch pines provided lots of shade. The treeline also made for a nice photo.

Finally, a picture of Beth and I having a stop at a countrypark. We’ve never been here before, and I was excited to learn that it had a fresh water lake.