From crabs to seals, steam railways to sand castles, Matt Thompson finds Cromer has more to offer than your typical seaside town
Ask a friend what comes to mind when they think of the north Norfolk coast and – if they’re not familiar with the place – chances are they’ll reply with talk of neon arcades, windswept hair, candyfloss, cockles, sticks of rock, rickety rides and faded seaside glamour. Before I went, that’s what I thought, too. Not anymore.
A picture of colourful simplicity
Staying with my young family in the picturesque coastal town of Cromer, our first stroll along the seafront reveals a place quite dissimilar to our original preconceptions. Walking beyond quaint teahouses and bright beach huts, one of the most striking sights is a row of beautifully rusty tractors ready to pull tiny fishing boats out to sea the following morning.
The no-frills shabbiness of it summarises the restfulness of the area. On first impressions, functionality appears king over style, affording the scene a well-weathered and loveable façade – one that’s older, calmer and more uniquely charming than more “pimped-up” resorts.
Looking around, I’m clearly not alone in seeing things that way. Perched further down the beach, an artist is stood with just an easel and his own inspiration for company. He’s got the right idea. The place is a picture of simplicity. The kind of scene that’s been captured in watercolour for decades. He seems concentrated, contented, lost in the moment.
I don’t get to see his finished artwork, but local craft shops are bursting with other colourful coastal creations, all of them paying testament to the beauty of this beachfront.
For most of us, life usually runs in fifth gear. This place barely gets out of second. There’s no bustle. Shopkeepers stop to talk to you. Time seems to be measured by the tides of the sea.
Savouring a local craft beer in the Rocket House Cafe – an old lifeboat launch with arresting, elevated views over the coast line – Cromer is restful immediately.
But on this trip there’s not the opportunity to kick back and relax entirely. With two young children in tow, it’s only so long before this short moment of relaxed pleasure must give way to something a little more active. Thankfully this part of east England has plenty to offer.
Thriving with life
In Cromer itself, there’s a whole host of things to keep the kids – and their parents – occupied and amazed. From building sandcastles on the blue flag beach, to lounging in cafes; crabbing off the pier, to eating locally-made ice cream on the promenade; the opportunities are plentiful and unlikely to hit your wallet too hard either.
This afternoon we do all these things. And more.
At low tide, as the sea moves unhurriedly away from the seawall, the town’s pebble beach makes way for acres of bright yellow sand and rock pools thriving with life.
Searching for crabs in these pools is one of the holiday highlights. Gently lifting up rocks, the buzz of finding a crab is addictive. Cheered on by shrieking children, the first “catch” is magic, but then you want more, and more, and more of them… The thrill of the chase quickly takes hold. But thankfully there are plenty of crabs in Cromer – and they don’t do a great job of hiding – so it’s easy enough to find your fix.
Worth hanging around for
Of course, the crabs you’ll find in these rock pools are tiny in comparison to those caught by local fisherman. And in the town’s eateries their hauls are served up fresh each dinnertime.
This evening we head to No1 Cromer for a fish and chip supper – undoubtedly the swankiest fish and chip supper I’ve ever had.
With gorgeous sea views and a tasteful décor quite unlike your typical chippy, queues of people snake out the door every night we’re there, waiting patiently for tables.
It’s worth hanging around for, though, with the popcorn cockles especially tasty.
If you’re visiting with family, the kids’ meals are certain to please your younger companions , too – served as they are in plastic seaside buckets, complete with spades. It’s a nice touch, in-tune with the restaurant’s relaxed and family-friendly feel.
An afternoon of activity
Slightly further out of Cromer, there’s another bunch of stuff to explore, too. Far more than could ever be crammed into a week’s holiday, in fact.
On this trip we spend one afternoon at Amazona Zoo, home to a collection of some 200 tropical South American animals.
Located an enjoyable 15-minute stroll out of town, the walk itself takes us past the sprawling flint-built Cromer Hall country house, along a field of grazing horses and into the nearby countryside. Among such scenery, there’s plenty to take in before you even arrive.
Once through the ticket gates, the zoo itself is perfect for an afternoon of activity. Small enough to not miss anything, it’s big enough to leave you feeling well entertained – and, indeed, well educated.
With keeper talks and feeding sessions throughout the day, it’s, of course, the animals that provide the real entertainment, with spider monkeys, alligators and jaguars proving particularly fascinating for the little ones.
The zoo also boasts a decent playground for good weather and, smartly, an inside soft play area for those typically British rainy afternoons.
Needless to say, after a day of monkeying around at the zoo, at bedtime it didn’t take a great deal to get the kids off…
Visiting a bygone age
When in Norfolk, one trip everyone should try is a boating trek along the broads.
From Cromer it couldn’t be simpler, either. So, following our day looking at Brazilian animals in the zoo, the following morning we head to see some of the most impressive wildlife native to this country.
From our holiday apartment this one’s a short car trip away. Well, a car and a steam train trip away…
The fun begins as we pull into the car park of the Bure Valley Railway in Aylsham.
Immediately, it’s like visiting a bygone age. Firstly, there’s not the slightest whiff of phone reception. Then there’s the quaint, well-kept station; the costumed volunteer staff; the loosest of timetables; and, of course, the beautifully maintained narrow gauge steam trains.
Each carriage is immaculately presented, and as we chug along the 45-minute journey there’s a whole landscape to enjoy from our windows. As we take in the sights, our view turns from grazing bulls to freshly harvested fields. Later in the journey, rivers make way for forestry, meadowland and chocolate box villages.
It’s a gorgeous journey, and the perfect prequel to the Broads boat trip.
The Broads are gorgeous
After finishing its meandering 18-mile path, the Bure Valley Railway terminates at Wroxham – the so-called “capital of the Norfolk Broads”.
From the station it’s a 15 minute walk to the boats, where today we’ve booked a guided sightseeing trip with Broads Tours.
Many people hire their own boat for the day, but having young kids with us we decide this time it’s easier to let someone else do the hard work, and jump on one of the company’s double-decker tourist boats.
With garish logos emblazoned along its sides and decades-old decor, the boat itself is hardly a thing of beauty. But that’s not the point. The Broads are fine-looking, and the journey starts against a backdrop of the most striking riverside houses. Both old and new, they’re stunning and kept perfectly – almost to the extent it’s hard to believe anyone actually lives in them.
As we cruise at 4mph the waterways soon widen and before long we’re in the region’s natural heart.
Over a tannoy, the captain-cum-commentator points out kingfisher nests, rare duck breeds and other species unique to the area, while describing the medieval peat mining industry that shaped the area as it is today.
Running about two hours, the out-and-back journey is barely a taster for what the Broads has to offer. But it tests the limit of two young kids’ attention span, so after amazing in nature for the afternoon, it’s back on the train to Aylsham and then home for the night to our Cromer apartment.
Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them Our last big adventure of the week sees us travel to Blakeney Point, hoping to see seals in their natural environment.
Driving to Morston Quay, about 40 minutes’ from Cromer, we book a boat tour with Temples Seal Trips.
These boats are much smaller than those we travelled on for the Broads tour, and as such this trip feels far more of an intimate adventure. That fact’s especially true when we see the seals. If beforehand we were sceptical and thought, “well, hopefully we’ll see one or two of them”, 15 minutes in those doubts are quite literally blown out of the water.
There are seals everywhere. Hundreds of them. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them.
Sunning themselves on the beach, playing in the water, coming almost right up into the boat. It’s like they know they’re the star attraction and are deliberately playing to their audience. And it’s quite some sight.
As soon as we see them, the kids light up. Bouncing up and down, they’re causing the boat to rock. It’s enough to try and stop them jumping in.
I’ve rarely seen them so excited, so full marks to Mummy and Daddy for arranging this trip.
Shorts and suncream
With temperatures rising as high as 30° for the duration of our stay, we certainly had opportunity to explore the outdoors on this holiday.
Dressed throughout in shorts and suncream, the experience would have been vastly different were we treated to more typically English downpours and forced to find activities protected from the weather. That said, thumbing through leaflets advertising other local attractions it does seem the area has plenty to offer in case the weather’s not quite so generous on future trips. We’ll keep those up our sleeves for next time.
For now, on our last day we settle into another laid back time close to the apartment.
Searching seafront shops for pirate flags; taking photos; and combing the beach for shells; one of the day’s highlights is flying a kite.
Not since I was at best 25 years younger did I last fly a kite. And my thoughts as I do so pretty well summarise my feelings towards this trip.
Staring upwards, chasing this colourful diamond in the sky, I’ve all the space in the world. I’m not tiptoeing over people or tripping over sun loungers. No-one’s clambering around to come to Cromer. There’s no fighting for beach space. And no-one aggressively trying to pull me into their bar or restaurant.
Here the noise of everyday bustle is replaced with the sound of waves, excited kids and this plastic kite flapping in the wind. It’s nice. Not jaw dropping. Nor heart quickening. But slow and tranquil and undemanding.
It’s often said the simplest pleasures are most rewarding. Here in Cromer that’s undoubtedly true. So, as the kite pulls tighter on its nylon leash, I think what I’d say if a friend asked me what comes to mind when I think of the north Norfolk coast.
It doesn’t take me long to settle on my answer – “take a trip and find out for yourself”.