Norfolk, a county is south east England is, like Holland, famous for being flat and full of ancient windmills.

Like Alabama in the US, its inhabitants are often derided by outsiders for being inbred mutants with webbed fingers.

But, according to William Rees-Mogg, Norfolk has a lot going for it.

Britain is famous for its glorious architecture - building such as great stately homes and more castle than any other country in Europe.

And Nofolk is a particular jewel in the crown.

In fact, according to Rees-Mogg, the only thing that prevents Norfolk from becoming a most perfect county is its lack of a first-class cricket team that plays in the County Championship, just like Lancashire, Derbyshire, Essex, Somerset, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Yorkshire etc have.

It is the county of Sandringham, one of the Queen's residences, Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, once owned by noble families, and Ely cathedral, founded in 673 by Saint Etheldreda as a monastery, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.

An Englishman should go home to his castles

08th August 2009
Daily Mail
William Rees-Mogg


Area: 2,074 sq mi (England's 5th largest county)
Capital: Norwich
Population: 841,000
County flower: Poppy
Origins of the its name: Norfolk is in a region of England known as East Anglia, named after a Saxon (people who came over from what is now Germany and Denmark) tribe known as the Angles (from whom England also gets her name). Those settled in what is now Norfolk were known, in Anglo-Saxon, as the "north people". Neighbouring Suffolk, therefore, derives its name from the "south people".

Architecture is our history. Norfolk is one of the great counties of England; it lacks nothing except a first-class cricket side to be one of the most perfect counties. I ought to know Norfolk much better than I do.

One cannot seriously tackle a great county in a quick visit, but it is better to have spent a short break there rather than never have visited some of the great Norfolk sights.

This summer many people have chosen to spend holidays at home, either because of the recession, the cost of travel or the hassle of airports.

Norfolk can be reached by car, just about, though from London one has to risk the girdle of obstruction known as the M25. My wife, Gillian, is an intrepid driver, so we decided to have an early August break in North Norfolk, a part of the county neither of us knew well.

We had decided on a similar holiday venue as Gillian's sister and her husband. Both couples visited Sandringham within 24 hours of each other, without having known the other's intention.

This is just one of those small coincidences that makes one feel a trend may be set. Certainly the sights we went to were well attended, though not overcrowded.

Sandringham, though it is the Queen's residence, could not possibly be described as one of the great houses of Norfolk. It is a remarkable aspect of England's unwritten constitution that the palaces of the high nobility, in which Norfolk is particularly rich, are far more attractive than the palaces of the Monarchy.

Sandringham House is a residence of the Royal Family

No one could reasonably prefer Sandringham House to Holkham Hall or Houghton Hall, neighbouring North Norfolk palaces which are owned by noble families.

Holkham belongs to the Earl of Leicester; Houghton, which was built by Robert Walpole, belongs to the Marquess of Cholmondeley.

Yet Holkham and Houghton themselves, grand as they are, are somewhat less grand than Chatsworth, the Duke of Devonshire's house in Derbyshire, or the Castle Howard, the Hon Simon Howard's house in Yorkshire, which was used as the setting of Brideshead in the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

When one visits Sandringham, the house is not the real attraction; it resembles one of those sprawling seaside hotels built at the height of some great boom. I am particularly thinking of The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, which was built by Henry Flagler, the American railway tycoon.

It is not that Sandringham is ugly, nor is The Breakers. Both are wholly outside any aesthetic interest. Queen Victoria bought the original Sandringham hall for her son the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, and his bride Alexandra. But it was too small, so he had it demolished and rebuilt.

Tourists, mainly British, go to Sandringham because they want to see how the Royal Family live, from their dinner service to their shotguns.

Apart from the shotguns, the Royal Family choose to live more like their subjects than grandees. They are a family with strong outdoor instincts; they enjoy sports.

They are, as are many British people, intelligent but not intellectual. The Princess Royal is easy to imagine as a Sandringham character.

Of course this is how wise princes do rule; Sandringham could not be less like those three great expressions of Royal display: the Whitehall of Charles I, the St Petersburg of Catherine-the Great and the Versailles of Louis XIV. But we know the fates of the Stuarts, the Romanovs and the Bourbons.

Princes ought to be close to their people, and Sandringham is a symbol that our Royal Family do not 'put on side', to use appropriately Edwardian slang. They are a people's Monarchy, as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, understood so well.

The magnificent Ely Cathedral was founded by Saint Æthelthryth (or Ethelreda), the daughter of King Anna, King of East Anglia, in 673 as a monastery. It became a cathedral in 1541 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, in which Saint Ethelreda's shrine was destroyed

On our way up to King's Lynn, which makes a good starting point for the discovery of North Norfolk, we made a diversion to Ely, which has one of the most imposing cathedrals in England, but perhaps one of the less well known. Ely was a monastery, apart from one historic gap caused by the Viking invasion, from 673 AD, when it was founded by Saint Etheldreda, until 1539, when it was dissolved by Henry VIII.

The building of the present Ely Cathedral was started by Abbot Simeon, a cousin of William the Conqueror.

The largest part of the building is Norman and, like Durham Cathedral, has the formidable feeling of Norman faith and power. Ely is still an active, worshipping cathedral as well as being an amazing medieval building.

But Norfolk religion is not merely a record of ecclesiastical architecture. On our way from Fakenham to Holkhamwe passed a modern youth pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. It is an international pilgrimage site today, as it was in the Middle Ages.

Houghton Hall was the home of Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister

However, the site that fascinated me most was Robert Walpole's house at Houghton; the vistas stretch out to the horizon; the house is Palladian; Walpole was our first, our longest-serving and in some ways our best Prime Minister.

While we were in Norfolk we read a paragraph alleging that ten students reading history at a leading university could not between them name a single 19th Century Prime Minister.

I would have thought that Gladstone and Disraeli were still two of the most famous figures in English history. If they are forgotten, one can scarcely hope that Walpole is remembered.

At least people can learn history from the houses in which the great figures chose to live or build for themselves. How grand did they want to be? Did they see themselves in an essentially modest role, similar to King George V sorting his stamp collection in his study at Sandringham, or did they build themselves houses such as Houghton, fit for a Roman emperor?

Whichever their choice, the buildings belong to English history.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Aug 9th, 2009 at 11:50 AM..