Handle with Care: Meet Norfolk’s Finest Independents

Handle with Care: Meet Norfolk’s Finest Independents

Meeting the makers of North Norfolk on a road trip fuelled by cinnamon buns and craft beer.

This article first appears in Vol. 32: Homegrown.

and I have stopped by at a friend’s house for a of a
renovated family home and the kitchen of a London much-needed cup
of tea. She lives in the coastal town of Wells-next-the-Sea, where
perfumed pine forests open out onto a sprawling, sandy beach lined
with pastel huts. Something hot and fortifying is welcome after an
uncharacteristically early morning walk along the sand, and we
settle back on the creaky kitchen chairs to tell her all about our
last two days exploring the North Norfolk coast. She grew up in the
area, and raised her family here in Wells. Yet after we tell her
about our visits to a microbrewery in an old priory, to a bakery
that’s run out of a renovated family home and kitchen of a London
chef-turned-fishmonger, she frowns. “It’s funny,” she says. “I’d
just never know any of this was going on.”

That’s the thing about North Norfolk. Beneath its flat,
open-book landscape, giant skies, heathery marshes and sea-skimming
villages, ingenuity is quietly at play. People build, cook and
create here, informed by the area’s dramatic landscapes and ample
natural resources. Which makes it the perfect place to dig beneath
the surface and explore – so long as you know who to ask.

Day One

We leave London on Thursday morning, feeling our shoulders
soften as we puncture the Norfolk border. We hadn’t really noticed
the change of season in the city, but here autumn has turned every
leaf amber and filled the trees with crab apples. We check into the
Shed Motel
, an eco-friendly bolthole not far from the coast in
King’s Lynn. This wood-clad row of simple, cosy rooms has
underfloor heating and big, fluffy beds, and down a gravel path
there’s a toasty pub that begs you to sip local beer beside its
crackling fireplace.

After resisting the lure of a midday nap, we bundle ourselves
into the car and head to Stiffkey. Here, the pristine salt marshes
twist towards the horizon, awaiting their daily flooding by the
tide. We stand alone on a raised path, inhaling the salty sea air
with nothing but a couple of elderly birdwatchers interrupting the
empty landscape. We walk aimlessly (the best kind, we agree) along
the muddy, samphire-filled paths of nearby Morston Quay. Breaking
away from the path to take a look at the flaky boats lying belly-up
along the banks, I squelch calf-deep into the soaking marshes and
squawk louder than the redshanks circling overhead.

Jeans and boots fully caked, we head back to the car and drive
to Blakeney. Filled with flint cottages, glowing pubs and a
bustling harbour, this little village is also home to some of the
best oysters in the country. We slurp a few from a seafood van
parked on the water’s edge. They’re ice-cold and mineral rich,
scooped fresh from the North Sea this morning. The couple behind us
excitedly place their order as we eat: fish-finger sandwiches, hot
cups of Bovril and a couple of rollmops (“pickled herring fillets
wrapped around a gherkin,” they explain).

Siding is an artisan bakery housed in a former railway
station in Melton Constable, not far from the Swanton Novers Nature
Reserve. This bright, soaring space is all concrete floors,
whitewashed brick walls and metal rafters. After living “all over
the place” for a few years, including a stint at a bakery just
outside of Toulouse, owner Polly Quick returned to Norfolk to open
Siding early this year. Her partner Harry makes fresh pasta and
soups from local, organic veg in the open kitchen, while Polly
rises at 4am each morning to bake sourdough and crumbly pastries
using “100-per-cent traceable” Norfolk wheat. We bed down at one of
the tables for a bubbly cheese toastie and flat whites served in
weighty earthenware mugs, while the shelves slowly empty behind the
counter. Always on the hunt to fill our kitchens with more ceramics
than necessary, we demand that Polly immediately tell us where she
found them.

After several hasty phone calls, we soon find ourselves pulling
into the gravelly front of Kat Wheeler’s home. This Cornwall-born
ceramicist works out of a small studio in her garden. Every inch of
it is filled with clay and air-drying pots, with a paint-splattered
radio on the shelf and a wheel beneath the window where she works.
“A whole day can just disappear in here,” she tells us, as I settle
into a chair and scoop up her russet-coloured dachshund, who
remains snuggled into me until we leave.

Kat’s pieces are sturdy and earthy, thrown in small batches and
inspired by the coast. “I think a lot of artists around here get
their inspiration from the beaches and woodland. I definitely do,”
she says. “It’s my good place. If I can bring those landscapes into
my work, that’s a lovely starting point.” She sits to begin work on
a new pot, deftly spinning the wet clay on the wheel as sun streams
through the window. After making ourselves at home in the studio
for far too long, we finally wave goodbye to Kat and her dogs, a
brown paper bag stacked with pebble-coloured bowls and mugs under
our arms.

Day Two

We wake up to the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside and
open the curtains to a shockingly blue sky. We’d been expecting
rain today and the appearance of the sun lifted us out of the
warmth of our beds with a sudden burst of energy. We both agree
that the only way to fuel the day ahead is with fresh pastry.

Over in Cley-next-the-Sea, Pastonacre is a small bakery run out of the
renovated family home of Ed and Harriet Clark. Formerly an art
dealer in London, Ed is the self-taught baker, while Harriet is
front of house, serving flaky croissants, sourdough loaves and
bursting sandwiches to the long queues that form each morning along
their driveway. We visit just before opening time on Friday
morning, when trays of sticky cinnamon buns and sugary doughnuts
are just filling the shelves. We inhale our Spanish jamon, juicy
tomato and salty focaccia sandwiches in a matter of seconds, and
agree it’s probably the most delicious thing we’ve eaten all

Following Harriet’s directions, we make our way around the
corner to the beach, just as the skies turn to lead and the rain
starts hammering down. Most know better than to be outside in these
conditions, but we zip up our raincoats and push on along the
shingle anyway. We watch the huge waves push their froth onto the
shore, while flocks of seagulls flap against the wind. Behind us,
the village, marshes and 19th-century windmill are blanketed in
mist. It’s the kind of weather you’d hide away from in the city,
but here it feels worth braving the outdoors – waterlogged boots
and all.

Norwich once laid claim to having as many watering holes as days
of the year, and while that’s no longer the case, it’s no surprise
that plenty of brewers have flocked to Norfolk to make use of its
endless miles of crops. Duration Brewing is the brainchild of Miranda Hudson
and her husband, head brewer Derek Bates, who moved to the UK from
South Carolina and brought with him 20 years of brewing skills. Its
gleaming tanks and bottling machine stands in a renovated medieval
barn spread across the ruins of a 11th-century priory. It has just
opened a tasting room next door, where we sit and sip Duration’s
award-winning brews with names such as Turtles All the Way Down,
Little Fanfare and Quiet Song. “We’re in our first year, so we’re
trying to show a breadth of style right now,” Miranda tells us,
pouring the golden liquid into tasting glasses. “Norfolk is pretty
traditional when it comes to beer. We’re a lot more progressive,
I’d say.” Later that day, we bump into Miranda, Bates, their
daughter and labrador puppy in the pub and join them for a drink. A
pint of Duration American Pale, naturally.

Day Three

The next day, after a slow start punctuated by yet more
pastries, we make our way to Gurneys in
nearby Thornham, and stop by Abbey Farm
on the way. This working farm is in the flint-walled
village of Binham, and is home to a herd of pedigree Friesian cows.
A small shop beside the field sells creamy milk in traditional
glass bottles, dispensed through a vending machine. We buy locally
churned ice cream and yoghurt, leaving our money on the table – a
moment of trust that seems a million miles from the city we left

Surrounded by fruit and vegetable shops, orchards and gelato
makers, this celebrated fish shop is run by Mungo Gurney and his
father Mike, who set it up around 40 years ago, moving from a
hole-in-the-wall shop to a fishmongers in Burnham Market. Mungo was
once a chef at
‘s much-lauded Rawduck, and now serves fresh lobster,
oysters, mussels and smoked fish from a kitchen not far from
Brancaster Beach. He ushers us behind the counter and into the
kitchen, where he lays down fillets of pearly haddock onto a rack
over a ceramic bath “the old-fashioned way”. He’ll be opening up a
crab shack on this very site next year, serving up just-caught
sushi-grade fish and local beer.

“The best way to eat in Norfolk is by tasting what local
producers have to offer,” Mungo tells us, stepping outside while a
queue steadily forms by the door. “There’s so much beautiful stuff
here, we just need to make sure people discover it.” And it’s true.
Whether it’s a sign of the times or something that simply marks
North Norfolk out from the rest of the country, this is a place to
be explored through its makers. Be it beer made from green-gold
local hops, art inspired by the wild coastline or fish plucked
straight from the waters, Norfolk is a place to slow down and let
the land do the talking.

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