It is an early autumn day and we are on the boardwalk that carries visitors to Holkham beach. The walk – across sand-covered land and through a pine forest – is long, so the beach tends to be fairly abandoned in less than excellent weather, making the sight of its golden sand and sliver of sea near the horizon all the more magnificent. When we finally get there, the tide is low and the shore feels like it is miles away, but that doesn’t matter: the pale blue sky weaves an arch over our heads, and the sun – still strong enough to bathe the landscape in dazzling light – just about manages to spread some warmth as we tread through the sand.
For a county so close to the noises and stresses of London, Norfolk is surprisingly calm and peaceful: we are just a three-hour drive away from the city, but arriving here you would be forgiven for assuming that you had travelled much farther. Maybe it is because of Norfolk’s unique landscape: dominated by country lanes, fields and marshland into which the North Sea spreads its tentacles every time the tide comes in, this is a low-lying province where the eye can see for miles. Norfolk and neighbouring Suffolk were governed by Danes in the early 11th century and it is easy to imagine that they felt right at home here: there is something very Nordic about this place. Standing on the beach in Holkham, we have turned our backs on England: looking straight towards the horizon, the nearest land to us is Norway, miles and miles across the water.
We stayed the night in Holt, a small Georgian market town a few miles inland and the perfect base for a Norfolk break: small, pretty and charming, it is home to antique stores, food shops and Simon Finch – one of the finest antiquarian bookshops in the country, where creaky stairs, uneven floorboards and a ghost only add to the atmosphere (“mind your head,” reads a note on the stairs, “I can only deal with one headless figure wandering around the building groaning”). Right now, we ought to be making our way back to town for dinner, but our Holkham walk has left us too hungry to wait. Instead, we stop in Wells-next-the-Sea to pick up fish and chips from French’s on the quayside, which overlooks the marsh harbour. The water is miles away here too – it takes almost half an hour to walk along the sea wall promenade that leads from the harbour onto the beach – and all we can see from here are fishing boats on dry land waiting for the tide to come and sweep them up.
We reach Holt as the sun is setting, and decide to walk around the shops in the heart of town before settling down for a pint of Woodforde’s Wherry – a local ale – in the excellent King’s Head pub on the high street. Our holiday has only just begun, but London already seems a light-year away.