I love the English counties of Cumbria, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall. Indeed they're some of my favourite areas of the country. But they can often be, at certain times of the year, just too full of people - and their cars and caravans and children and dogs and barbecues: all the assorted paraphernalia of the British on holiday. At times like these I like to turn to the quiet footpaths, byways and coastlines of Northumberland or Norfolk, two of the best kept secrets of the UK.
We've just returned from a long weekend in Cley-next-the-Sea on the north Norfolk coast. This whole stretch of coastline is outstanding - wild and unspoilt, with mile upon mile of spit and shingle, river and creek, mudflat and saltmarsh, reedbed and sandbank. Lovely villages - which were often important ports long ago - line its length, from Hunstanton to Sheringham: villages with distinctive flintstone churches, sometimes with round towers; and houses and cottages built of flintstone, with red pantiled roofs.
Cley has much to recommend it. There's the famous landmark windmill. Out on the marshes there's the bird reserve, one of the most important in Europe. There's the smoke house, where you can buy anything from smoked olives to smoked eels.
Last but not least, there's one of the best food and wine shops in the country, let alone the county: the unpromisingly named "Picnic Fayre". It's small, it's homely-but-sophisticated all at once, it's full of freshly made breads and cakes, pies and sausages. I noted that some staff were in there at 7 o'clock on the Sunday morning preparing stuff. The focaccia loaf we bought was the best I've ever tasted outside Italy. The Norfolk sausages were sensational. There are wonderful cheeses. There's an impeccable choice of wines - at all prices. There are gorgeous olives, and taramasalata, and nuts presented in all kinds of different ways. It's like being transported to France. Just go there and revitalise your taste buds. God, there's so much more to life than Spar and Tesco..!
I promise I'll get to the walks and the wildlife soon... The photo was taken at Blakeney Quay, one mile west of Cley.