I needed a summer holiday. I needed sunshine. But six months travelling abroad had left me poor, reluctant to spend hours on a plane, and unsure about already asking my employer for time off already. I always say that I must explore our fair isle more, and that some of my best holidays have in fact been UK based. So what better opportunity for a weekend in the UK. Sure, it wouldn’t be quite as good as real holiday, but I guess it would have to do.

Oh ye of little faith, Francesca.

Not far from London is a cultural, diverse, beautiful, vibrant and lovely spot in which to spend a few days. Norfolk. Only a couple of hours after finishing work on Friday evening, and after a pleasant ride in Greater Anglia’s first class cabin, we were entering into the spired city of Norwich. The sun had been beaming down all day, and the fields and flats of the Broads as well as the flint and limestone buildings of the city were illuminated in the gentle glow of the sunset, and a week coming to meet the weekend.

My friend Tess and I smiled at our first glimpse of the famous city, but those grins revealed that we were weary and hungry. First stop: The Maid’s Head Hotel. We took the ‘scenic’’ route to the hotel (I got lost), but this did take us along some very pleasant side streets, including Elm Hill, the pretty cobbled street (of course it had cobbles, Tess had a wheely suitcase) filled with Tudor buildings. Elm Hill opens on to Tombland, where we found the Maid’s Head, on an enviable corner of the square. Tombland is not as grim a name as you may think, but comes from the Saxon word for open space, and was a market place in Saxon times, a public space ever since, and the centre of much of Norfolk’s early history.

The Maid’s Head itself has had an enviable past, and claims to be the oldest hotel in Britain, or at least with the longest continuous use of a site for hospitality. The site of a palace of the Saxon Bishops of East Anglia, and later a Norman Bishop’s Palace, it was in the mid 13th century that the building was leased and became the Murtle Fish Tavern. Famous guests include Edward, The Black Prince in 1359, Queen Catherine of Aragon in 1520 and Queen Elizabeth I in 1587, and was a key site during Kett’s Rebellion, the Civil War and French Revolution celebrations.

Now comprised of this original inn building, the old Cavell hotel (in memory of Edith Cavell, Norfolk born) and a range of Tudor houses, this Grade II building with its 82 bedrooms was a relaxing place to spend two nights. The layout is sprawling, given its expansion, and we had a room up in the new wing, overlooking the Cathedral. As comfortable as the tea and coffee, bathrobes, satellite television and en suite, we needed sustenance, and so went out to explore the many restaurants that Norfolk had to offer. We only made it as far as Tombland, where the warm summer’s evening and murmer of chatter from diners eating at tables rolling out into the big cobbled spaces gave the air something of a continental feel. We were on a real holiday after all!

%TNT Magazine% Credit VisitNorwich PrincesStreet 027.jpg

Dined, we returned to the hotel, and couldn’t resist a peek into the Jacobean bar, oak lined and believed to be one of the oldest places to drink in the city. But with a long bicycle ride planned for the next day, there are no tales of debauchery to tell; just an early night and a good sleep.

Breakfast at the Maid’s Head is designed for a day of heavy activity. Delicious breads and rolls sit alongside fresh cakes and platters of pastries, as well as deep bowls of fruit and yoghurts. Cereals of all varieties line the table, aside cold meats, cheeses and smoked salmon. Any type of eggs, bacon, sausages, and kippers are on offer, as is piping hot porridge and of course, a full English. We filled up our plates and our bellies and headed out to pick up our bicycles.

Norfolk and Suffolk are both famed for being cycling destinations, and Abellio Greater Anglia has made it easier by opening a Cycle Station pick up point at Norwich station, so people to arrive by leisurely train travel and then hop on two wheels to explore. Starting at only ten pounds by day, it’s an affordable, enjoyable, green option, and opens up the opportunity of a cycling holiday to more than just the pros.

Our 26 mile route would take us through pretty little villages and quiet country roads, past stunning countryside, and started off in Whitlingham Country Park, the gateway to the four hundred year old shallow waterways and sparkling landscape of the Norfolk Broads. With protected status, it is certainly unique, and watching boats glide along lazily as you yourself laze back, listening to twittering birds and flickering leaves, is certainly one of life’s pleasures. Vast open skies, pretty open fields, and the rivers and lakes of the Broads, cover 303 square kilometres, and are Britain’s largest protected wetland area, home to many rare species.

We knew that the bicycle ride would be a success when we saw two magpies, and my pal beamed out ‘For Joy!’ It was joyous. Very loosely following the River Yare to the south west, we pedalled through Surlingham and the Marsh Bird and Nature Reserves, as well as skirting 130 acres of marsh carr and wood, before Claxton, a little village which is home to a site of Special Scientific Interest due to the rare grasses and butterflies that rest here. Butterflies seemed to be all over, flirting with one another and skimming the tops of our helmets, making us smile as they tickled their way around. A nature  lover’s dream, and so accessible to the city, there are cyclists, walkers, anglers and observers scattered around.

The halfway point is a village called Loddon, which we handily reached at lunchtime. A quick look at the seventeenth century Holy Trinity Church and we were ready for our picnic. Sprawled out on the bank of the River Chet, the sun’s rays coming down and a mouthful of sandwich, only the ducks frolicking on the river could have been more content than we were. Loddon is filled with shops, pubs and little tea rooms, and would make more than a pleasant place to amble around for a few hours. We had heard thunder was coming though, and so decided to make our way back.

A few minutes later, we had a distinct sense of de ja vu. After numerous swerves to various grass verges to check the map, we still had no idea how we kept seeing the same landmarks. Then a rumbling tractor carrying bales of straw, strands dispersing themselves on the road started coming towards us. All we needed. Thankfully, this isn’t London, and so the driver didn’t just tell us to move out the way as he briskly attended to his business, but stopped to help.

‘You’re not really lost, girls, are you?’ he burred.

‘Yes’ I answered.

‘No’ Tess answered.

We were lost, and so we admitted this and asked for help. A swift set of simple directions and a nice friendly chat, and we were back on our way through the heady scent of an English summer, powered only by our bodies. These is cycling terrain, and as such many bikers whizzed past us, but we were happy to take it steadily, gently taking in the beautiful sight of broad horizons and a feeling of freedom.

The rain never did come, but after our pedaling we still deserved a good dinner and so made our way to the award winning Wine Press restaurant at the Maid’s Head. The menu was brimming with choices, all of which sounded delicious, including assiette of beetroot, Dedham Vale fillet of beef with Dauphinoise potatoes, grilled chicory and herb pearl couscous, and sesame seeded sea trout on coriander gnocchi and ginger & chilli vegetables, but we chose the lobster, prawn, shrimp and crayfish platters, complete with a tomato and rocket salad, pickled vegetables, warm new potatoes and focaccia bread. With such fresh and summery flavours we needed a refreshing drink, and the waiter recommended Tour de Belfort Sparkling Rosé. The Maid’s Head are the only establishment in the UK to sell Tour de Belfort wine, and this sweet and elegant tipple bubbled over with the aromas of berries and fruits, and was a perfect accompaniment.

Despite the day’s activity, we couldn’t quite manage two desserts, but found it difficult to whittle down the menu. Rhubarb presented every way imaginable? The Signature Dish: Maids Head Fruit Salad, which was more than just a fruit salad, with a lemon & thyme madeleine, elderflower consommé, strawberry jelly, rhubarb parfait, blackberry sorbet, lemon curd, fresh berries and a mint crisp? A dark chocolate mousse, frozen banana terrine, cherry sorbet, topped off with shortbread? In the end summer flavours won out again, and we opted for the Norfolk strawberry & greek yogurt vanilla verrine, strawberry ice cream and oat biscuits to accompany. Delicious. A couple of glasses of fizz later and we were two very happy ladies.

The next morning was devoted to exploring Norfolk, and the cathedral bells acted as our alarm clock. The Lanes, the quaint little shopping area of Norfolk, filled with independent retailers and cafes, let us test out something more modern – the Droplet app. Various vendors have signed up to let you spend loaded credit with just a few taps on your mobile. Technology!

On turning into the main square, where the Art Deco City Hall overlooks the colourful market stalls we came across a beautiful building, which turned out to be the Guildhall. Once the home of the council and law, this building is the largest and most elaborate to survive outside of London, and the chequered flint façade and grand assembly chambers evidence of the wealthy mercantile rulers. Norwich is full museums and must see sites, but we chose to spend our Sunday at the stunning Norwich Cathedral.

Founded by the first Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, the cathedral and adjacent priory complex is the most complete Norman place of worship in the UK. A blend of Norman, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the cosmic structure is inspiring and intimate in equal measure. From afar the spires dominate the skyline, the tower being the highest in the UK and a soothing piece of punctuation in the sky. Radiant stained glass, a Saxon Bishop’s throne, over ,1000 medieval roof boss carvings, and some of the earliest and finest pre-Reformation paten in the treasury make this an artistically inspiring spot. The whole area spans 44 acres and includes 88 listed buildings, including the largest second largest cloisters in the UK, and is home to more people than any other European cathedral.

%TNT Magazine% Cloisters at Norwich Cathedral.jpg

We could easily while away many hours just gazing in awe at the monument, and peacefully relaxing in the gardens, but we had another stop on our Norfolk visit, North Walsham. A small market town, North Walsham (where Nelson was born) sits to amongst the vast swathes of rivers, fields, reeds and marshlands that make up the famous Broads.

After only twenty minutes on the train, through a thunder storm, we arrived, and went straight to Davenport’s Magic Kingdom. We weren’t sure what to expect, as I’m sure you aren’t either. Especially given its situation in a vast warehouse. However, Tess left saying ‘That was the best afternoon I have had in a long time.’

This isn’t just the story of magic, but of play, creativity, entertainment, and entrepreneurialism. As we learned Roy Davenport’s great grandfather, Lewis Davenport, first became passionate about magic as he realised that tricks and novelties were a way to supplement his meagre income and elevate the family from poverty. Over time, he became able to not only earn money performing, but as a successful businessman distributing novelty goods.

Being poor, Lewis kept everything, including catalogues and trinkets that would have otherwise been lost – and this is the content, supplemented over the years, that tells the story in Davenports Magical Kingdom. Starting out in the early years with the ‘Witches of Wonder’ exhibition, through to replica shops, past Houdini, a whizz through European and British magical history, and live magic show in the replica St George’s Theatre, where Lewis Davenport performed over 3,000 times.

Once upon a time this was how people were entertained in the evening, and it was a joy to see such passion for this creativity exhibited. A visit to the shop in London is now on the list!

Very rarely do I visit a hotel and want to stay in it. I’m one of those tourists who tends to arrive in a new place, dump my bags, pick up a bottle of water and a map, and head on out. But at the Beechwood Hotel in North Walsham, all we wanted to do was stay in. It all seemed to work for us. The weather was glorious, a balmy summer’s weekend of the type we are often promised but rarely receive in England. I’ve got plenty more travelling to before I know whether it really is ‘the finest hotel in the land’ as the Davenports told us. They’re not the only ones. Twenty years ago Don and Lindsay took over the B&B, and today it has counted Eric Clapton, The Who and the Davenports as guests, as well been voted fourth best in the country by TripAdvisor, and won AA rosettes.

Dining at the Beechwood is testament to the importance of good ingredients managed in a good way. Each evening the head chef Steven Norgate and his team prepare a ‘ten mile dinner,’ sourcing, where possible, all foods from within that radius. Famous Cromer crab picked up frm Bomb’s, Morston mussels and Sheringham lobster supplied by William Davie, sit along side sausages from Tavern’s Tasty Meats in Swafield and seasonal produce from North Walsham Farmer’s Market. Tomato and cream cheese crostini, juicy olives, and salmon and poppy seed puffs whet our appetite, before the pre-starter of tomato and courgette soup with bacon and thyme foam. Fresh melon and seared Scottish scallops on sweet potato purée with crispy pancetta, with a pea shoot salad and lemon dressing were the delicate and tempting starters we chose, although the Perl Wen cheese beignet with spiced apricot purée was hard to turn down. For main my friend went for a medium rare Phil Roofe’s fillet of beef on fondant potato with curly kale, roast salsify, anna potatoes, carrot purée and red wine jus, which she stated was ‘the best meal I have had in a long long time.’ I chose a very simple breast of organic chicken, boiled potatoes, fresh minted peas, rocket, cucmber and cherry tomatoes, and if ever proof was needed that quality ingredients need little adornment, this was it. It was a joy to eat such good food, and the whole menu is accompanied by a carefully selected wine list.

A small garden is filled with the intoxicating perfume of summer bloomd, and it was here that a friend of the former owners, Agatha Christie, used to write. Fresh air and an easy evening out here before relaxing tea and biscuits in the Agatha Christie lounge, and we were ready for bed.  On ambling back up the stairs, past photographs and paintings telling the story of the local area, we find a turned over quilt, a fresh set of tea, and a softly lit bedroom. The grand four poster beds had us both in princess mode, especially after a luxurious soak in the freestanding slipper baths as our Molton Brown bubbles filled up. It’s fair to say that a return to the London bedroom was a disappointment.

Nearby Heritage coast and the quaint seaside villages of Wells and Sheringham are well worth investigating if you have transport, and Beechwood run a super value weekend deal that many cyclists take up, but for us it was back into Norfolk the next morning.

Today it was all about more history and culture, and we headed to the Castle. TheNorman builders of Norwich Castle and Norwich Cathedral did not make things easy for themselves, shipping over limestone from Caen, and the resulting buildings make them some of the finest in Europe. Standing proud up upon Castle Hill, now appropriately named, the grounds are stunning and the vista across Norfolk and its many rivers and bridges, elegant spires and medieval streets a delight to absorb. Filled with artefacts and engaging exhibitions, the Castle museum does a good job of exploring the city and building’s heritage from a palace to a prison in an entertaining and educational way, through its vast collection of art, archaeology and natural history. Majestic and strong, the remaining keep is a fantastic reminder of the stately structures and impressive buildings that founded this magnificent city.

%TNT Magazine% The Forum exterior supplied by Jayne May 2013.jpg

After taking in the futuristic Forum (pictured above) and the country’s busiest library, the medieval trading hall Dragon Hall and its impressive timber crown post roof, and the Guildhall and its chocolate café, is was time to head off. Reluctantly, we ambled back along the river.

Norwich was a winner. This fine city is compact enough to easily navigate and explore, especially with the City Sightseeing bus and easy cycling options. Full of culture, as the 1500 historic buildings and UNESCO City of Literature status testify to, it is a bubble of creativity, no doubt partly a result of housing one of the UK’s best English Literature departments at the University of East Anglia. All manner of restaurants and bars are on offer, and entertainment caters for every need, with festivals, theatres, performances and celebrations taking place all year round. Norfolk itself is also bursting with passion and exuberance, but relaxing and wholesome, that perfect blend for either a short break or a longer holiday.

Plus it’s beautiful. Especially in and English summer.

Who needs to go abroad?

Norwich is only two hours by train from central London with Abellio Greater Anglia, and North Walsham a further twenty minutes. The Beechwood Hotel and Maid’s Head Hotel both offer weekend deals, with a special focus on history and culture and cycling. Fans of cycling can hire bicycles directly from the railway station. For a limited time, the Droplet app are offering a free £5 credit to spend in Norwich Lanes. Many of Norwich’s most famous and iconic buildings are available to visit with Norwich 12. For more information visit the Visit Norwich website.

Images via Visit Norwich, Norwich City Council, and supplied