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Yes, Norfolk is flat...

...and, yes, it's interesting too! Europe » United Kingdom » England » Norfolk » Thetford 23 June 2010

sunny 20 °C
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It’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins isn’t it?

No, I don’t mean lusting after the blonde at number 94. I mean envy!

Pat and I recently spent a while house-sitting for my elder brother David and sister-in-law Janice. Deadly Sin or not, they have a house that anyone would envy! David and Janice are jointly known as the bloggers 'Grey haired nomads'. They were gallivanting around Eastern Europe in Bertie, their smart new motorhome. Read their stories of life on the road in Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia starting with Motorhome News from Europe 39. Many would envy that freedom-of-the-road lifestyle too.

Anyhow, plug for those Hall of Fame bloggers over, their house-to-die-for is ideally situated just down the road from the golf club and out-of-town supermarkets and, if they ever hanker after human hordes, they’re within spitting distance (not literally you understand) of Norwich and Bury St Edmunds. Technically, they’re in Suffolk but most things close by are in Norfolk.

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The extended former lodge to a nearby estate has a huge garden with several lawns, groups of mature trees, a sparkling fish pond and colourful herbaceous borders - and it’s almost surrounded by the tall green trees of Thetford Forest. Inside, the house is full of character, cosy, comfortable and fitted with every possible modern convenience - just right for us as a relaxing, luxurious holiday home!

The weather was great with hardly a drop of rain, so we took advantage of the conservatories and patios for breakfast, lunch and dinner whenever we could. The Wimbledon Championships were on telly so, while Pat enjoyed seemingly endless games, sets and matches, I earned our keep by trundling around the garden on a sit-on lawnmower, weeding borders and topping up a pond that seemed to lose gallons during the heatwave.

The garden’s visited by all manner of wildlife - birds serenaded us from early morning to late evening, bright blue damsel flies flitted over white water lilies in the pond, unseen moles let us know they were there with spoils of their excavations on the lawns, and a friendly grass snake enjoyed the warmth of the compost heaps.

Blackbirds nested among the Rambling Rector rose and a swarm of bees took up residence in the gas meter. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the heron, sparrow hawk, deer, fox and rabbits which have popped in from time to time didn't grace us with their presence on this occasion.

However, it wasn't all lounging around enjoying this great house and garden.

Towns worth seeing

Bury St Edmunds, once the capital of East Anglia, is a very pleasant market town with a superb cathedral and colourful, prize-winning gardens. You can enjoy the town's medieval and Georgian heritage or its excellent modern shopping centre. Although we didn't, you could even tour the historic Greene King brewhouse - apart from beer tastings, there's said to be a great view of the town from its roof.

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Then, of course, there's Norwich. It's some years since we were last there. The market has been poshed up a bit and there are lots of new shops, but it still has a great vibe - atmospheric old bits and colourful new bits, crowds of people of all shapes and sizes, street artists and entertainers, pubs and eating places galore. Parking can be a nightmare, but there's an excellent Park & Ride service - and our old folk's bus passes were duly put to good use. We thoroughly enjoyed our day here and hope to be back soon.

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Stately homes and estates nearby

One stately home that we thought was local, Bradenham Hall, had an address that claimed: Bradenham, Thetford. The index in our road atlas suggested there was no such place. The internet clarified its whereabouts and we then found it listed under E (for East Bradenham) and W (for West Bradenham), neither of which is remotely near Thetford.

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The gardens and arboretum here were well worth the journey. The estate is said to be near the top of Norfolk's second-highest hill (which isn't saying a lot!). It's privately owned and the gardens (there were several, including a courtyard one, a kitchen garden, a private children's garden, a paved one and one full of old-fashioned roses) plus numerous green walks, wide lawns, shrubberies and colourful herbaceous borders hidden behind yew hedges were all very well maintained. Knowledgeable plantsmen had clearly been involved in their creation. The arboretum contains around 800 varieties of trees, most of them with name tags. Unlike some of the more grand estates we've visited in recent times, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. The herbaceous borders and statues were particular highlights.

Oxburgh Hall was the only National Trust property that we visited on this break. It's an interesting manor house owned by the Bedingfeld family since the late-15th century. The family still lives there I believe. The second Sir Edmund Bedingfeld guarded Henry VIII's first queen, Catherine of Aragon. His son, Sir Henry Bedingfeld, was Princess Elizabeth's jailer during the reign of Queen Mary. They were Catholics and, after Elizabeth became queen, they were increasingly persecuted for their faith. I'm glad I wasn't a 16th-century Catholic priest on the run - the secret priest's hole that I managed to squeeze into was disguised from above as a long-drop toilet and it was extremely claustrophobic (sorry, no evidence of said squeezing as interior photography at this NT property was forbidden).

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The manor house was reflected in the moat surrounding it. A resident family of swans and quite a few fish, pike and perch in particular, added to the interest. The gardens - lawns, a somewhat colourless parterre, drab herbaceous borders, a recently-planted orchard with grass in desperate need of sheep or a lawnmower, and a kitchen garden that'll have difficulty in providing the promised victuals for the tea-room - were pleasant on a bright summer's day, but nothing much to write home about.

Most people who visit Oxburgh Hall miss the parish church of St John, Oxborough (note the different spelling), which is a pity because it's right next to the hall's entrance and car park, and certainly worth a look. Actually, it's only part of the original church as its spire was struck by lightning in the 19th century, then rebuilt, only to collapse in 1948, pulling down the tower and nave as it fell. However, the still-intact Bedingfeld chapel and the family's 16th-century tombs are of interest. They're said to be the finest and most extensive terracotta tombs in England.

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Last, but by no means least, there's the Norfolk retreat of Her Majesty The Queen: Sandringham. The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh come here orften.

When they're not here, to help make ends meet, they allow the paying public to visit the ground floor of the house and the gardens. We weren't allowed to see the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs - well, if it was your house, would you allow the Hoi polloi to see where you and your other half walk around in the all-together?!

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Sandringham House, seen from across the Upper Lake.
The summerhouse on the right of the picture, called the Nest, was a gift from Queen Alexandra's Comptroller (financial controller) in 1913.

This is actually a very well-managed commercial enterprise with a huge Visitor Centre complete with loads of parking for cars and coaches, a restaurant and a shop selling all manner of expensive royal memorabilia and produce from the estate. The Sandringham apple juice, however, is worth the two quid a bottle - freshly made from single-variety apples that might have been picked by Her Majesty's own hands (or not).

However, it was the house we came to see. It's a bit of a trek to get there along the Woodland Walk or through The Glade but the views are lovely and, if you can't manage the walk, a Land Train runs from entrance to house and back.

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The sundial on the wall of the house reads: 'My Time is in Thy Hand. Let others tell of storms and showers, I'll only count your sunny hours'


The house is not a castle or a palace, although one has to admit it's a bit on the big side for two people and more than a few bob's been spent on the furniture and fittings! Unfortunately, interior photography was not allowed so I'll have to ask you to use your imagination.

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The inside from outside (interior photography not permitted!).


Just inside the front door is The Saloon. When the house was first built for Albert Edward Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra in 1870, this room was made in the style of a Jacobean Great Hall, two storeys high. It was used for parties and balls, complete with a Minstrels' Gallery. However, a separate ballroom, with another Ministrels' Gallery, was built only 11 years later to avoid having to keep shifting the furniture.

The Saloon's now a comfortable sitting room, where the queen does jigsaw puzzles; she keeps them in cabinets in a nearby corridor decorated with weapons and armour brought back from India by said Albert Edward.

There's a small drawing room, its walls hung with Suffolk silk. A Dresden porcelain chandelier here was a gift from the Kaiser and there's Meissen and Copenhagen porcelain on the shelves, as well as The Duke of Edinburgh's collection of contemporary bird sculptures. The very long main drawing room is opulent, with painted ceilings and panels and two fireplaces. Glass-fronted cabinets built into the walls house the queen's collection of figures in semi-precious stone, jade and amber. There are some wonderful white marble statues and elegant family paintings in this room too. The dining room, with a mahogany table that can seat 22 people, has Braemar green walls to enhance a display of magnificent Spanish tapestries adorning the walls.

The lobby and ballroom corridor house a collection of bronze sculptures and paintings of horses, the sea and sports, the Royal Family's abiding interests.

Then, finally, we reach The Ballroom - 63 feet (19.2m) long, 30 feet (9.14m) wide and 33 feet (10.05m) high. It has a white barrelled ceiling, for the best acoustics, and three magnificent chandeliers imported from Buckingham Palace. Oriental arms, Japanese bronze lamps and Chinese vases decorate the walls. It's now used mainly as a cinema and for occasional cocktail parties. The Ministrels' Gallery houses a film projection unit - rather a waste, if you ask me!

I must make special mention of the guardians in each room. They were very friendly and so knowledgeable about every item, offering information, anecdotes and glimpses into life here when the Royal Family is in residence. Changing rooms every half hour means they have to know about the history and contents of every room. Very impressive.

There's a museum housed in the former coach houses and stable block. It has the inevitable game trophies from the days when everyone seemed happy to slaughter wildlife for stuffing and display, but the old carriages and cars (including a 1900 Daimler Phaeton, the first motor car ever owned by a British monarch. and the 1969 Austin Princess Vanden Plas limousine in which Princess Anne was attacked and her bodyguard and chauffeur both shot on her way back to Buckingham Palace from a film premiere in March 1974) gave an insight into royalty in recent times. You'll also find superb examples of saddlery, lots of horse-racing memorabilia and vintage photographs tracing the estate's royal ownership - all quite interesting (as museums go!). Photographers will be pleased to learn that there were no restrictions in the museum.

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The Queen also has a stud farm hereabouts, as well as 16,000 acres of farmland, some village properties and a nature reserve.

Just a short walk, or Royal car journey, away is the church of St Mary Magdalene, regularly seen on TV as it's used as a place of worship by the Royal Family and estate staff.

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The gardens of Sandringham House itself cover some 60 acres. In those grounds are York Cottage, once home to King George V and Queen Mary, and now the Estate Office (what a place to work!).

There's also Park House, now let to Cheshire Homes as a hotel for the disabled, which was the former home of the Althorp family. There, on 1 July 1961, Diana Frances Spencer - later to become Diana Princess of Wales, our own Lady Di, The People's Princess - was born.

Like David and Janice’s house, Sandringham would be a lovely place in which to spend a week or two, wouldn't it?

Our week positively flew by. We enjoyed a rest but, perhaps above all, we reminded ourselves that, while it may be a bit on the flat side, Norfolk is a really interesting county.

Thank you D & J for the use of your lovely home. We'll try to make it a fortnight next time!

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:53 Archived in England Tagged england norfolk royal thetford national_trust Comments (0)

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