North Norfolk Coastal

4 August 2013
Ben Pentreath

I left London on beautiful, baking hot Thursday morning. I was making my way to the coast – to Cley-next-the-Sea, where we’ve been asked to help on a fine small Georgian house in the village. Knowing, as I do, that I never get up to my old stomping ground of the North Norfolk Coast – it’s literally years and and years since I’ve last been – I have to admit I was full of anticipation. I was staying not too far away, with old friends, and as the miles sped by would it be too much to say that the years slipped away with them?

I guess when it’s about 20 years since you’ve lived somewhere – I guess it was 18 or 19 years ago now that I moved to Norfolk for my very first job – well – a trip to the old places does bring back not only happy memories but a sense of rejuvenation. It’s a strange factor of growing a bit older that although you don’t feel any older as such, you do begin to measure your experiences, your memories, in chunks of time: the five years spent in New York… or, can I really have been back in London ten years now? (Yes… I can… in October. oh wow. Goodie. I feel an excuse for a party coming on…).  Well, it was a very very long time ago that I used to drift gently up to the coast in the old Morris Minor that was my company car (I am not joking) – in fact, to the very house I was staying tonight; where fixing up two little cottages was the very very first, tiny, project that I could really call my own in the office.

But first… to Houghton – where the extraordinary exhibition ‘Houghton Revisited’ has been assembled for once in our lifetimes… re-uniting Sir Robert Walpole’s remarkable picture collection – sold a couple of generations later to Catherine the Great – from the Hermitage and back to Houghton, and to the walls where it used to belong.

I’ve got to admit (may I admit?) that with the exception of a Van Dyck (of Inigo Jones), a Kneller (of Grinling Gibbons) and a Velazquez (Innocent X, who’s name could not be more wrong)… well, I’ve got to admit, the paintings as such didn’t thrill us.There was an elegant queenly art historian giving a tour of the exhibition to some-one-and-such-and-such; I am sure he was in the know, on the other side of the velvet rope, as it were. Fascinated, we couldn’t help overhearing the exquisite way in which he said absolutely nothing other than “EXquisite, oh yes that really is an EXquisite example of its type” and we would go and stare at the dull Madonna and Child in question, a minute later, thinking “hmm, I’d rather be looking at a Ben Nicholson” (okay, okay, unfair comparison). Well, you get the point. It’s not about the individual pictures. It’s about being in a room packed with dark expensive gloomy paintings in gilded frames that look F**KING incredible en masse. Especially against the dark olive green velvet walls of the newly-restored ‘Carlo Maratta Room’, which is my new non plus ultra of high aristo taste. I don’t think I’ve seen anything so beautiful in a long time as those velvet walls.  Go, just because of them. Well, and everything else.

The real joy of Houghton is perhaps the park. You cannot make up such a park… it is perfect. Time for some photographs perhaps.

From the minute you pass the white lodges and the white gates (yes, white, but they work, perfectly) you know you are in a very remarkable place.

The brick lined interior of the stable block. Architect un-known but safe to assume William Kent (who worked on the interiors of the house, alongside Colen Campbell who designed the serene Palladian facade – softer, less severe, than so many other Palladian compositions).

The view across Bridgeman’s landscape is breathtaking. We will look back in a while.

A mighty avenue cuts across the countryside.

The stable and house.

A detail of Kent’s sublime Stone Hall (borrowed from Houghton’s website).

Looking back from the great avenue…

… at English Palladian perfection.

A softer version of English perfection – the view from the terrace, at supper that evening.

Seafood from the coast and yellow courgettes and broad beans, and Hugh’s home-made garlic mayonnaise in a Wedgwood dish.  Too much. I couldn’t stop grinning.

Mirabel’s shell fireplace in the garden, made by the indomitable Mr George Carter (our very own Mr William Kent).

Serene Norfolk interiors.

The house we are working on (hidden under scaffold) is in a beautiful street in Cley. We spent a long and extremely productive day poring over every detail on Friday. Opposite, you will come to Picnic Fayre, which should you find yourself on the Coast, is about as brilliant a food shop as I’ve ever been in.  (My local knowledge tells me the lovely owner is the daughter of Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s Cousin, who recently made a little bit of a stir by reminding the world that she wasn’t very excited by the Royal baby, and that ‘everyone has babies’. So there. I’m sort of inclined to agree… Bridie, I’m rather glad we didn’t rush out a royal baby plate after all).

Another perfect supper that night came from Picnic Fayre, and we ate risotto and drank far too much wine under the stars.

And I still couldn’t stop grinning. I felt like I was on holiday. Not least because my computer wasn’t on the internet and my phone had no signal and for 48 hours I had not a single email. I cannot tell you how much calmer this makes me. I read my book; finishing one, starting another. I had time to read again. Books. Not flipping email.

The joy didn’t stop there. On the Saturday, after revisiting the house in Cley for a second look at a few things, we (that is, the owner & I) jumped in our cars down to Glandford, just down the road, to the Shell Museum.  Here is a taster. And the rest of that story will have to be Part II.

Because tonight, back in calm, quiet, restful London, it’s late, and dark. (Have you noticed how the evenings are drawing in again? Fairly soon, it will be dark again at 8, and then 7. Time is rolling on… nearly 2/3 of the year is passed. I am thinking of autumn. Time to order tulips now). And it’s time for me to go to bed, and read a bit more, and fall asleep. Pretty happy, as I’m guessing you can tell, and feeling just that little bit… softer, perhaps, at having reconnected with the 23-year-old Ben, that Ben who was strangely quite shy (maybe he still is, underneath the bravado?); who wasn’t quite comfortable in his skin, didn’t quite know what life was going to bring, but equally, who didn’t have too many worries, and felt like he had all the time in the world. If you happen to be a young guy, reading this… time to start dreaming, and thinking of what you’re going to be up to 20 years from now.

24 comments on this post


I learned to ride a bicycle in Cley-on-Sea…


I hope you’re considering changing the blog for ‘technical’ rather than aesthetic reasons. As per other posters, I believe that the design and format of the existing blog work well. If you are changing, please try to keep the style light and simple, un-noticeable.

This was Mary Norwak’s old house, a cookery writer extraoadinnaire. For more thoughts on pleasures oft forgot in our cluttered lives, visit – impartial and ad-free. Have you discovered Richard Scott Antiques in Georgian Holt’s High Street? Come and meet Nelson on your return?


I’d love to come and meet Nelson – next trip in October!

Why does this remind me of a scene from “The Wind in the Willows” or something similar? Is it just me?


Perhaps a touch of Posy Simmonds about ‘Picnic Fayre’. Tresoddit lives.


The drive in that weather!! Mind you it probably looks good in all weathers!!!


I read this with a bit of a heavy heart,I’m a bit older than you, though not by much. I found out today that someone I had once loved died suddenly; hearing of his death suddenly transported me back 20 odd yrs when I was in the flush of youth, when we both were young and the future seemed without limit. Though I’ve not seen him in yrs it still came as a bit of a shock & I’m feeling unsettled. I guess we all must face the fact that time moves along like the currents in the ocean, inexorably bring us along. As always I enjoyed your musings and your gentle grace.

Claire Howardsays:

Dear Ben,thanks for writing a lovely account of Norfolk,a favourite place to visit with lots of fond memories( never without a dog)as I sit here in 38 degrees by the pool in Malaga, it all seems so far away but hopefully we too will visit in September and I will look out for your restoration house in Cley.Thanks for your blogs,Claire

Houghton is lovely, is that a cattle grid at the gates? I read about cattle grids all the time in British novels but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in situ before. Speaking of the Hermitage, have you seen Aleksandr Sokurov’s amazing movie, Russian Ark? I am looking forward to further, more relevatory photos of the house you are working on, and to the promised post about the shell museum. But the real delight in this post was sharing your memories. I have to smile when someone your age comments about “20 years ago…!” None of us, I hope, ever stops dreaming and planning, even, as I am now, in our 60s! And I suppose that’s a good thing 🙂

Thanks for another informative, entertaining and inspirational post!


Ben you brought a tear to my eye with your poetic prose on the quiet, quick passing of time and how we fail to notice age creeping onwards until occasions such as this overwhelm us with distant glad that yours are so happy.


Monday Sunshine…thank you, Ben.

Your writing is different in this post too – a little bit more stream-of-consciousness, a little bit more flowing. The river of Ben Pentreath.


Dear Ben
I have been following you silently for some time and sometimes forward your posts on to others to enjoy. But I have to comment this time as I was at Houghton for a second visit the day after your visit before then spending the rest of the weekend in North Norfolk so I particularly enjoyed this post. Houghton is glorious and I had the same response to the paintings — but the story of the discovery of the notebook and the patient negotiation to reassemble the collection is fun. But you didn’t mention The Walled Garden! Please don’t say you missed it? It is even more wonderful than the Park and although some things have gone over it was still looking spectacular. Another visit next Spring must be booked into the diary.
Thank you for the great pleasure your posts give me each Monday morning.


We love the perfect little Shell museum which we re-visited only two weeks ago. Also Sir Alfred Jodrell’s totally bonkers church at Glandford, not quite to your taste, I suspect.

Lovely post. Looks like you had a great time. I love the look of the Picnic Fayre, my kind of shop!


Ben, that funny little white gate lodge you photographed is available for holiday lets – we stayed there a few years ago and had the most wonderful holiday – after all the day visitors have gone the grounds are available for roaming. I’ll never forget the sight of the white deer in the early morning mist. A wonderful place. Thanks for reminding me.

Ben – how did you know that North Norfolk is my favourite place in the whole world. We visit as often as we can, which isn’t often enough in my book, and go to Cley for the birdwatching. We always discover something new – thanks for showing Houghton it looks majestic. Also have never been to the Shell Museum so that is on the list for September when we go again. Sounds like you really enjoyed going down memory lane, thanks for taking us with you.

Deby (in Canada)says:

Ben, you are spoiling us…three in a row of the best posts ever! Lovely to hear you got to unplug for a few days and even though working turn it into a holiday, may that mood carry right through the week. We all need a reminder to keep dreaming… (and a perfect dish for home-made mayonnaise)

Steve Truncellitosays:

Thanks for another great blog post from one of your many admirers across the pond in America. Your photography and text are excellent….nice to take quick trips to England via your thoughtful and intelligent insights into British culture, architecture and interior design. Have a great week.


I fell into your blog Thursday evening at the perfect time to help me avoid the writing deadline rolling at me. What can I say? Everyone that comments here says it…the blog and your voice are just wonderful. But I must try to say how utterly charmed by how you put it all together. It’s been a very long time since I found a blog and was inspired to start at the beginning and read it through, deadline or not. In any event, yours is the best blog I’ve ever read…your accessibility, humor, authenticity, generosity, maturity, joy and occasional lament – along with the beautiful photos and writing…it just comes together beautifully and I am so happy to have found it, you. There…I’ve gushed, but really, thanks.



Hope the glow stays with you and you have a great week, Ben!

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