East Anglia: The Land That Time (Almost) Forgot
East Anglia was one of the ancient Anglo Saxon kingdoms. It fills the lobe-shaped protuberance of England northeast of London and shown (very roughly) in the illustration above. Today it it covers the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk along with parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex.
Originally the home of the Iceni tribe, whose Queen Boadiccea (or sometimes Boudicca) held off the Romans for a while, it was the kingdom of the East Angles and the Danes before the Saxons moved in and gave it its traditional name.
A Lucky Accident of Nature
Throughout the Middle Ages, East Anglia was an important region; its largest city, Norwich, was second only to London, its trade links to Europe, through the Hanseatic League, made its merchants rich and powerful.
But then nature dealt it an unlucky hand (or a lucky hand, depending upon your point of view). The region has no coal or iron, tin or china clay, nor rushing rivers to turn the wheels of giant mills - all the resources that fueled the Industrial Revolution. So the Industrial Revolution went elsewhere, leaving East Anglia a mainly undeveloped, rural corner of Britain, dotted with traditional villages, market towns and small cities with pristine medieval quarters.
All this makes East Anglia perfect for touring. It has:
- huge, gorgeous beaches - the last scene of Shakespeare in Love was filmed on Holkham Sands),
- a subtle landscape - some people say East Anglia is flat but its gently rolling farm country hides many surprises
- several spectacular ancient cathedrals
- two important university towns - one ancient and one modern
- original medieval halls and Elizabethan farmhouses wherever you turn
- excellent seafood - from world class oysters in the south to wonderful crabs in the north
- the home of thoroughbred racing
- and no gigantic motorways screaming with huge semis - what the British call articulated lorries.
And just to remind you that you haven't stepped through a time machine, every now and then super-modern, delta-winged military jets scream overhead. Norfolk and Suffolk are also home to RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall - both USAF bases.
This three-day itinerary, expandable to six, focuses on the northern part of East Anglia, mostly in Norfolk (the "North Folk" if the ancient Kingdom of East Angles), with brief incursions into Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. It can be extended by several days with the Extra Day Options suggested on several pages. Since the furthest point, Norwich, is about two and a half hours (in perfect traffic conditions) from Central London, you could also turn these suggestions into several separate day trips. But don't try to pack too much into one day; if you are used to driving in North America, France or Germany, you'll find that it takes about twice as long to cover the same distance in the UK.
Distances and times are judged for automobile touring, which is the most practical way to get around this part of the country. But most destinations can also be reached by train or bus, plus the occasional taxi.
Suggested Itinerary: Day 1 - Cambridge and Ely
Morning: Get an early start after your hotel or B&B breakfast because you want to miss the London and Cambridge rush hour traffic. Cambridge, home of England's second oldest university, is just over 60 miles from central London - but if you get caught up in traffic, you could spend hours just breaking free of the city.
Summer daybreak in England is much earlier than you may be used to - by 5a.m. the sun is shining brightly (if it's a sunny day, of course). That will give you a chance to walk around some of the city's open areas, beside the River Cam, to look around and simply enjoy the beauty of the place before the hustle and bustle begins.
Aim for a morning stroll along The Backs, so called because many of the University colleges back up on the riverside walks and landscaped gardens.
As the river meanders through Cambridge, it passes between some of the most beautiful college buildings. A walk along the Backs between Magdalene Street and Silver Street, crossing the many small footbridges and watching the punters on the river is a traditional highlight of a visit. It may seem like a tourist cliché, but so what? Give in to being a tourist and enjoy yourself.
Elevenses: After such an early start, you'll want to boost your energy with coffee and, perhaps, a little cake. Try a Chelsea bun with your coffee at longtime favorite Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street, or Hot Numbers in the Dales Brewery on Gwydir Street. Then take a tour to learn a little something about this fascinating place - the town had already been a thriving market town for 400 years when students fleeting a rebellion at Oxford, arrived to found the first colleges in 1209. The Tourist Information Office provides a range of walking and punting tours. Find out about the options. Alternatively, you could visit one of Cambridge's most interesting churches. Anglo Saxon St. Bene't's Church, has a tower and nave dating from 1040 A.D.making it the oldest building in Cambridgeshire. Years ago I was able to take a rubbing from the church's monumental brasses. That's no longer allowed, but you can visit the church to admire them.
Lunch: As a university town, with a student population of more than 100,000, it's no surprise that Cambridge has plenty of places for a quick, cheap lunch. There are a lot of chain cafes. For a bigger selection of independent restaurants and cafes, aim for Norfolk Street, which has a run of interesting places. Try to squeeze into the tiny Zhongua Traditional Snacks at No.13 Norfolk Street for recommended dim sim and noodle dishes.
Afternoon: Spend some time in the town's museums. There are several worth a visit, the main one being the Fitzwilliam, an enormous collection of art and antiquities behind a neoclassical facade. Or check out scientific instruments going back to the 14th century at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.
Nighty Night Head for Ely, 17 miles north of Cambridge on the Great Ouse River and tomorrow morning's destination. The town has a good selection B&Bs and recommended restaurants. The Riverside Inn is a small B&B overlooking the town marina and right next door to one of the better restaurants for dinner, The Boat House.
Extra Day Options
Get back to nature on Wicken Fen, the National Trust's oldest nature reserve. It's a place of superlatives - England's most famous fen, Europe's most important wetland. But hey, what's great is that you might spot more than 8,000 species - birds, plants, dragonflies, otters - as you walk through lush grass or on raised boardwalks. You can hire a bike from the visitor center and cycle along miles of trails with nary a hill in sight. Or take a boat tour in the reserve's traditional, but electric powered, fen lighter.
Travel: The Wicken Fen Visitor Center on Lode Lane in Ely is about 17 miles from Cambridge on the A10 and the A1123.
Suggested Itinerary: Day 2 - Ely to Kings Lynn
Morning: Visit Ely Cathedral, one of the tallest and most beautiful cathedrals in England. Sometimes called The Ship of the Fens, it earned its nickname because the towers of the Norman Church soared over the once watery landscape of the Fens. The Norman cathedral, built between the 11th and the 14 centuries, occupies a the site of earlier Christian establishments, including a monastery founded by the daughter of an Anglo Saxon King, St. Etheldreda around 630. The tall stained glass windows that flood the pale interior and the thistle arched ceiling with dappled light are worth the visit but climb at least one of the towers for the magnificent full effect (both if you have the stamina) At 215 feet, the West Tower is the tallest, with wide views across the countryside. But The Octagon, pictured here, with its "lantern" of stained glass, lead and wood, is considered the jewel of the Cathedral. Guided tours of both towers (children must be at least 10 years old) are given several times a day. There is an admission charge. Free tours of the Cathedral are also available and are a good way to learn about this beautiful building's history. There's also a stained glass museum in the South Triforium of the Cathedral (okay, don't know what that means either, but just ask, as I did, when you get there.)
From the high church of the cathedral, head for a low church experience at Oliver Cromwell's House. Cromwell, the Lord Protector after the English Civil War, lived in Ely for ten years. To some he was a great Protestant hero while to others he was a rigid dictator - the man banned Christmas, after all. You can make up your own mind in his Ely House, the only surviving Cromwell residence (besides Hampton Court Palace), on St Mary's Street.
Lunch: If the weather is good, pick up the fixings for a picnic from a local grocers and enjoy the view of Ely Cathedral from one of the riverside parks or the Cathedral's landscaped grounds. Rather be indoors? Head for the riverside where there are several good pubs and inns.
Afternoon: Head for Kings Lynn for the afternoon. In the Middle Ages, it was one of England's most important ports. As a member of the Hanseatic League, a Medieval association of guilds across northern Europe, it was the base of merchants shipping goods from the Midlands, like coal and wool, all along the Baltic and North Sea coasts as far east as Novgorod in Russia. The League is sometimes compared to a Medieval Common Market. The town has a rich heritage of early and later Medieval buildings including one of the few Hansa warehouses still standing. While there, stop at the tourist office, in the lovely 17th century Customs House on a cobbled street by the waterfront. Pick up a leaflet for a self-guided walk around ancient landmark buildings that date from the 12th century and earlier or book a guided tour.
Travel: Kings Lynn is about 30 miles north of Ely on the A10. Along the way, pass through the market town of Downham Market to stock up on supplies.
Nighty Night After a long day sightseeing and marching around historic attractions, have an early night in Kings Lynn so that you can have an early start for the regional capital of Norwich in the morning.
Extra Day Options
Visit the Medieval Shrines to the Virgin Mary at Walsingham. The village, about 25 miles north of Kings Lynn on the A148, has been a place of pilgrimage since before Norman times. According to the story, an Anglo Saxon noblewoman had a vision of the house where Mary was born and a replica of the house was built in honor of the Annunciation.Whatever you believe about the story, the fact remains that the site has been important to religious pilgrims for 1,000 years and most important Christian denominations have shrines or pilgrimage centers there. If you aren't religious, you will probably find the place puzzling, but a stroll around the village and the shrines offers a glimpse of a millennium of devotion.
Drop in to see the Queen at Sandringham - The Royal Family's Norfolk estate, Sandringham, where they usually spend Christmas and Easter, is just 6 miles northeast of Kings Lynn and signposted from the Fakenham or the Hunstanton roads. Sandringham is the Queen's private farm estate but the house, garden and museum are open to the public from Easter to November, with a few weeks time out for the Queen's private vacations. The schedule changes from year to year but is published on the website. There is also a visitor center with shops and restaurants, open every day (except Good Friday) all year round.
Suggested Itinerary: Day 3 - Norwich
The Cathedral City of Norwich is one of England's best kept secrets. Left out of the highway building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the city has a relaxed charm and a low key air. But don't be fooled. This is no low-key backwater, but a sophisticated university city with strong connections to the contemporary worlds of literature and the performing arts.
Before you plan your day, read my profile of Norwich for lots of good ideas.
Travel: 46 miles east from Kings Lynn on the A47 should take you just over an hour - unless you get behind a slow moving farm vehicle.
Morning: Tackle the shops while you've got the energy - there are lots of them. All the high street brands are well represented in Norwich but the real joy is in wandering the pedestrian "Lanes" for independent shops, interesting boutiques and unusual attractions like the Colman's Mustard Shop and Museum, a replica of the Victorian shop where this popular English condiment was first made and sold. If you tire of shops, Norwich's extensive open air market, with its stalls under striped awnings, is open every day.It's a place where you can buy almost anything - from knitting yarn to claw hammers to hog roasts - food, hardware, crafts, produce. Or just walk around to absorb the market banter.
Lunch: As you've probably worked out by now, I am not a big fan of wasting valuable sightseeing time over long, leisurely lunches. Save the big feed for dinner time and build your lunchtime refreshment into your touring itinerary. You might graze the market stalls - I'm a fan of Norfolk pork buns with apple sauce from Henry's Hog Roast at stall No.81, or buy a picnic lunch from a good deli in the Lanes - Clark & Ravenscroft comes to mind - and then eat it by the River Wensum or in The Plantation Garden on Earlham Road (click on the profile highlighted above for more details). If you're into micro breweries, I'm told that the Plough on St. Benedict's Street doesn't mind if you bring your own food - so another good lunch spot.
Afternoon: Shopping done, it's time for museums, cathedrals and culture. Ease yourself into it with a different kind of retail therapy, walking up Elm Hill (antique shops and boutiques) toward the 1,000 year old Norwich Cathedral. It has the largest cloister in England and a soaring vaulted interior. It's surrounded by a Cathedral Quarter of more than 45 acres with many houses that are about 500 years old. Those are the "new" houses - the older houses were destroyed by fire about, you guessed it, about 500 years ago. If you haven't seen enough, pick up a guide to the Norwich 12 at the tourist information office (in the Forum on Millennium Plain, Norwich, NR2 1TF) - a list of the city's most architecturally interesting buildings, old and new. Or you can hike up the hill to visit Norwich Castle. The Norman bastion houses an art gallery and museum of Norwich history.
Nighty Night: Because of its university and art school, Norwich has more sophisticated tastes than you might expect in such a small city. You can dine out on all sorts of British, European and Asian cuisines, have a pub meal or a pretty good pizza. Because restaurants change so often, your best bet is to check out the current copy of Hardens or the Good Food Guide, both now available as Apps, and see what you fancy.
There are a number of chain hotels in Norwich and some decent country house type accommodations in the surrounding countryside. But if you want to experience Norwich, aim for a guest house or B&B. Some of the best are within walking distance of the University of East Anglia and in the Cathedral Quarter. The tiny www.arthouseb&b.com, an eco-friendly, organic guest house with a website for a name on Grange Road regularly gets rave reviews.
Extra Day Option:
From your base in Norwich, head west toward Swaffham, the market town where Stephen Fry's television show "Kingdom" was set and partly filmed. If you go on Saturday, you can enjoy a lively market in the town's Georgian market square. While there, you can explore the Green Britain Centre and climb 300 steps to a viewing platform on one of two giant wind turbines. Then step back at least a millenia by visiting Castle Acre - just under six miles north on the A1065 then follow signs. Here you can explore the ruins of an early Norman castle (free) and a beautifully atmospheric Cluniac priory (admission charged). The village of Castle Acre has a good pub, and is on the Peddar's Way for walking enthusiasts. Read more about Swaffham and Castle Acre.
Travel: Travel west from Norwich on the A47. Swaffham is about 25 miles away and usually reachable in half an hour. For Castle Acre, drive just under 6 miles north of Swaffham and then follow signs.