#NFDF2014 Days out in Norfolk – Part 2: celebrating our food & drink heritage

Naturally, you have all read part 1 of this series on days out in Norfolk (haven’t you), so you’ll know that the following visits weren’t directly food and drink related. However, we didn’t go hungry and in one instance we tried a new (to us) local delicacy – which illustrates the role of food and drink in Norfolk’s tourism offer (as Pete Waters at VisitNorfolk often points out, it accounts for nearly 30% of visitor spending). More importantly, most of the attractions have strong links with or celebrate our farming community both past and present and remind visitors of its importance to the local economy.

This is quite a long post – so grab a coffee (or beer or wine), get comfortable and stay awhile.

Tuesday 5 August – The Great Hospital, Norwich

The Great Hospital (a #Norwich12 heritage building) is an amazing institution that has been at the heart of community life in the city for over 700 years and still provides sheltered accommodation for local people. Although it opens The Lodge each Friday between April and September, the church, cloisters and medieval refectory are normally closed to visitors to protect the privacy of the elderly residents. However, as well as hosting special functions (such as weddings and conferences), the Great Hospital holds occasional open days and we took the opportunity of going along to one during the recent Norfolk Open Churches week.

Aside from seeing this historic building with its beautifully carved dragons in the brackets on the roof beams (much like those in the equally splendid Dragon Hall, another one of the #Norwich12), I was there to see fellow Norfolk Food & Drink Champion Charlie Hodson, who had recently been appointed Executive Chef at the Great Hospital. Over excellent tea and cake (made by Charlie’s talented team) we chatted about how he was introducing more locally produced food to the menus both for residents’ meals and for the grand occasions. If you ever get invited to one, leap at the opportunity because the food will be delicious and you will know that Charlie has paid particular attention to its provenance.


Blickling Hall by Paul Macro

Saturday 16 August – Blickling Hall

I’ve walked round the park at Blicking plenty of times – it is beautiful in all seasons – and sat in the courtyard to watch an open-air performance of Pride & Prejudice (which was great fun) but oddly I had never been inside the house. So it was a pleasure to finally walk past the grand heraldic bulls that stand either side of the main entrance and step through the ancient oak door into a hall that has greeted royalty, politicians and members of high society for hundreds of years. Now a National Trust property, it has been preserved to look like the family house it once was, with a minimum of ‘museum’ type signs.

It’s a fascinating place, with beautiful furnishings. Although I quickly tired of all the portraits of long dead nobles in their finery (one ruffed earl is much like another), I did enjoy reading about life below stairs and listening to the archive recordings of interviews with some of the last people to serve as butlers and cooks when it was still a private residence. The painted arts & crafts style decorations on the ceiling in the ‘brown room’ had a wonderfully irreverent feel , which perhaps explains why the last lord to live there had them covered up. And the gardens were beautiful, particularly the parterre with its formal structure of yew topiary inter-laced with wide herbaceous borders in hot and cool colours.

However the real surprise, and in many ways my favourite part of the visit, was the little RAF museum, commemorating the women and men who had served at RAF Moulton during WW2. It’s packed with personal belongings from the airmen, photographs, maps, and period memorabilia, including facsimile newspapers you can read and anecdotes from those who risked (and in many cases gave) their lives in defence of our liberty. It really is a poignant place and worth the price of admission alone.

After quickly dropping into the Hobart Gallery to see an excellent exhibition of landscape photos by Paul Macro and Stephen Mole (who have kindly supplied pictures for this post), we headed over to the Muddy Boots café. I’m not normally a big fan of National Trust cafés – there is something of the school canteen about many of them and the hot food never looks that appetising. However, on this occasion I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a large mug of very good coffee and an excellent scone (that tasted ‘home made’ rather than mass-produced) with clotted cream and jam. I was also pleased to see that, in a nod to buying local, they stocked Parravani’s icecream.

It’s worth remembering that the National Trust doesn’t just preserve fine buildings but is also an active landowner. As well as the woods and parkland, Blicking has around 3,500 acres of farmland, which generate an income to support the estate. This farming heritage is celebrated every year when the park plays host to the Aylsham Agricultural Show – if you missed it this year, make a note to visit in 2015.

<<Grab a refill!>>

Sunday 17 August – Bircham Windmill

I admire bold industrial architecture – and in many ways prefer it to the grand houses of the aristocracy. It tends to be eminently practical and, like all good engineering, wastes little on unnecessary frills and adornments. I have a particular affection for Norfolk windmills – the old type used for grinding corn (or, in some cases, as wind-pumps for draining fields) – in part because they remind me of my family roots.

My great-grandmother, Charlotte Varina Johnson, was the daughter of a Norfolk miller, James Johnson. From about 1850 to 1890 the Johnson family owned two mills (one wind-powered and one water-powered) on Scarrow Beck, which borders the Blickling Estate. Charlotte went on to marry Hubert Burgess, a local farrier, who died in World War 1 having been gassed while tending to horses in the trenches and whose name is on the roll of honour in Erpingham churchyard.

Digression over: Bircham Windmill (which is in working order, although it no longer grinds flour) is not just a fascinating industrial heritage attraction. It is also home to a number of rural enterprises, including an excellent bakery, a craft shop, a campsite and a self-catering cottage. You can either buy delicious breads, cakes and sticky buns to take away – or you can enjoy them as part of a meal in the tea room (which also sells pork pies made by a local butcher – naturally I had to try one and it was delicious).

As well as being able to climb up inside the windmill – making sure you keep well away from the machinery – you can actually walk out onto the little balcony that runs round the tower half way up and even step out onto the platform right at the top by the ‘fantail’ (not for the faint hearted – especially when the wind is gusting Force 5-6 as it was when we visited).  There are various exhibits inside the windmill explaining its history, how it works and how it was restored. It really is quite fascinating and makes you realise just how hard a miller’s life was and how integral is was to the community.

Outside there are various animals for children to pet and feed, including sheep, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs, and there is a pony they can ride. You can also watch the sheep being milked everyday – which is a great way for children to learn that milk doesn’t just come out of a bottle – and you can buy the wool for spinning and knitting. Sometimes you can watch someone demonstrating how they make cheese from the milk. Unfortunately they weren’t there when we visited – but we did buy two of the four cheeses they make: Norfolk Charm, and ‘feta style’ Miller’s Fancy.

Both cheeses were delicious and well worth trying if you can get your hands on some. The Charm had the texture of Wensleydale but with a richer flavour – it worked well crumbled onto hot pasta. While the Fancy had a fresh flavour (I preferred it to traditional Feta because it was less salty but still had that lovely creamy texture) and worked well in a salad with olives. I am not sure if you can buy these cheeses in any other shops – best call the windmill if you are interested – or visit (when it’s not too windy).


River Bure by Paul Macro

Sunday 24 August – Canoeing on the River Bure

Now I’m probably not the most adventurous chap you’ll ever meet but every so often I do like to get out into the countryside and explore ‘the path less travelled.’ And what better path to explore than a stretch of one of our county’s beautiful rivers? Not the river path mind but the river itself – in a canoe – with some bush-craft and archery lessons thrown in for extra fun. That’s just what is on offer from the Canoe Man with his Swallows & Amazons adventure day.

The Bure Valley is a beautiful part of Norfolk – with gently rolling hills, winding lanes, broad fields and lush water meadows. The upper reaches of the Bure are particularly tranquil because no motorboats are allowed beyond Coltishall and there are no big roads nearby. Aside from the occasional mournful hoot from the little steam engine running on the Bure Valley railway, all you can hear are the birds, the grazing cattle and the wind in the willows.

We joined a group of seven other people (one family up from Cambridge on a day trip and another from London camping at the Top Farm near Marsham) and were led by an extremely knowledgeable young man called ‘Monkey’. Having met at Wroxham (which was pleasantly bustling even at 10:00 on a Sunday morning) one of Monkey’s colleagues drove us to Buxton Mill where we picked up our canoes. From there we paddled downstream for about an hour and a half (at a leisurely pace) to a secret campsite in a small wood near Hautbois (pronounced Hobbis).

After a packed lunch (we all brought our own – so we enjoyed sourdough bread and chocolate brownie from Dozen, as well as home-cooked lemon chicken made with excellent local free-range chicken from Harvey’s) we had fun making campfires and learning about various survival techniques for starting fires – some of which were quite spectacular. We then spent about an hour pretending to be Robin Hood – there is something particularly satisfying about the sound of an arrow thudding into its target.

The canoe back took longer because we were paddling against the (albeit gentle) current and a pretty stiff wind that every so often would sweep the unwary into a bank of reeds – resulting in much muttering and back paddling. It was exhausting but in that satisfying way you get with hard physical work, like chopping logs or digging the garden. The final treat was a small tub of Ronaldo’s ice-cream from the tourist information centre when we got back to Wroxham – a perfect end to a perfect summer’s day – thank you to all the Canoe Man team.

River Bure in winter by Stephen Mole

River Bure in winter by Stephen Mole

Monday 25 August – Gressenhall

We certainly had the best of the weekend weather on our canoe trip – and the worst of it on our visit to Gressenhall. We chose this attraction over the Aylsham Show because our daughter particularly wanted to see the special ‘Village at War’ exhibitions commemorating both world wars.

Despite drizzle in the morning, turning to torrential downpour later, we had a marvellous time and the various groups of reenactors put on a brilliant show in period British and US uniforms and civilian costumes. I was particularly moved to see the ‘farrier’ with his portable furnace – looking much as my great-grandfather might have looked on a rain drenched field in northern France a hundred years ago.

WW1 Farrier at Gressenhall (photo used with permission).

WW1 Farrier at Gressenhall (photo used with permission).

Even without the military themed events, Gressenhall is a fascinating place – if you haven’t been and you have even a remote interest in the history of rural life, you must make a day of it. As well as an immense amount of moving detail about the place itself, which was once a workhouse, there are numerous displays telling the story of Norfolk’s farming heritage both in the main building and down on the farm. One of my favourite rooms in the house looks at the archaeological evidence of early hunter gatherers and the development of agriculture in Norfolk, with an amazing collection of flint tools.

The farm not only demonstrates traditional (pre-heavy machinery) farming techniques but also plays an important role in the conservation of some our native rare breeds – including the magnificent Suffolk Punch, the (to my mind) lovely large black pig, fine Red Poll cattle and Norfolk horn sheep. We were lucky enough to see two of the Suffolk Punch in action pulling an early harrow over the stubble field – it was a beautiful sight and felt as if we had travelled back in time.

Inside the farm buildings there are more displays telling you about the animals, the wildlife on the nature trail, and the people who lived on, worked and shaped this land over the centuries. This is the heritage the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival celebrates each year – so it seems fitting to have visited just days before the launch of the 10th and biggest festival. We hope you enjoy this year’s festival as much we have enjoyed championing it – and we applaud all those who have volunteered to make it such a success by organising so many varied events.

We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please donate £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

JustGiving - Please sponsor us

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or five).

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

NFDF coloured logos

#NFDF2014 visit to @Winbirri – just in time to celebrate @englishwineweek from 24 May to 1 June.

English Wine has seen a welcome renaissance over the last 60 years. Along with the development of cool-climate grape varieties, it has benefited from modern wine making techniques and substantial investment in new vineyards and wineries. As a result, some English Wines now rank among the best in the world.


Norfolk might not be quite as warm, or as rolling, as the South Downs or Cornwall but we do have plenty of sunshine. And while we have yet to produce a world beating vintage, we do have a growing number of professional growers and makers who are passionate about creating great tasting wines.  One of these is Lee Dyer, who runs the Winbirri Vineyard in Surlingham – and I had the pleasure of meeting him as part of my #NFDF2014 exploration of Norfolk food and drink.

If you haven’t visited Surlingham, you must. It’s a beautiful, virtually unspoilt corner of our county just 6.5 miles outside Norwich. Tucked away in a bend on the south side of the River Yare, between Bramerton and Rockland St Mary, it is quintessentially English with its gently rolling fields, narrow lanes, high hedges and pretty red brick and flint cottages. It’s also a very old settlement, tracing its roots back to Anglo Saxon times – which is where the name Winbirri comes from, being Anglo Saxon for Vine Orchard.

For those of you passionate about wildlife, the RSPB runs a small but delightful nature reserve called Surlingham Church Marsh. While on a food related note, the village is home to Orchid Apiaries, which produces exquisite local honey (including my favourite, The Wherryman’s Honey, which is dark and rich with a hint of toffee) and Yare Valley Oils. On a warm summer’s day (such as it was when I visited) you can see hare in the fields and, if you are lucky, marsh harriers swooping overhead.

Returning home to a new life

Lee’s father, Stephen, who has run Mr Fruity Wholesale Ltd for over 30 years, started the vineyard in 2006/7 while Lee was working abroad. “I got home to find he’d planted 200 vines on our 2.5 acre plot. I thought it was just a hobby at first – but as I looked into it I became convinced we could make great wine that people would want to buy. We’ll never be able to compete against cheap volume producers, we don’t have the climate for high yields, but we can compete on quality.”


Not being one to do things by halves, Lee enrolled on an intensive wine course at the renowned Plumpton College in East Sussex. “When they say intense, they mean it. We were studying 13-14 hours a day and some of the chemistry was PhD level stuff – in fact, successful wine growing is as much about the science as it is about the art of viticulture.

His time at Plumpton convinced Lee that he needed to focus on creating premium wines using vines specifically suited to Norfolk’s climate and soil. “The #1 rule is to know what will and what won’t grow – this is a long term business, with vines living upwards of 100 years, so you have to get it right. There’s no point trying to produce Shiraz – it just won’t ripen enough – but there are a number of varieties that will do very well here, including new ones developed by plant breeders at Hohenheim University in Stuttgart that produce excellent, crisp, aromatic whites.”

Although Lee acknowledges climate change may have played a small part in the English wine revival, he puts most of the progress down to the new breeds, improved technology and knowledge sharing between the world’s wine communities. “The expertise in this country has improved markedly over the years, thanks to places like Plumpton and organisations such as the English Wine Producers and the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA). We’re a member of UKVA through the regional East Anglian Vineyards Association – and it offers guidance on many aspects of the business, particularly technical developments.”

Variety adds sparkle to life

The three most popular grape varieties with English vineyards are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bacchus. This last one is rapidly gaining a reputation as the English Grape – much the way Sauvignon Blanc is now associated with New Zealand and Chardonnay with Australia. Lee grows all three, along with 11 other varieties including Pinot Meunier (one of the three ‘noble’ varieties, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, used in the production of traditional Champagne).

There are three reasons for growing so many varieties. Each one flowers, fruits and ripens at a different time – so you can stagger the harvest (an important consideration in such a labour intensive industry). Different flowering times also mean you are less likely to lose your entire harvest to a bad spell of weather. And the range of grapes, with their different sugar and acidity levels, gives the vintner more scope to blend wines with specific characteristics.

About 50% of Winbirri’s wine is white (including Bacchus, Solaris and Seyval Blanc), 20% is their premium sparkling (which is bottle fermented in the traditional way – first invented by an Englishman called Christopher Merret) and the remaining 30% is red or rosé. When I visited Lee, we were a bit early in the day for wine tasting. However, I had enjoyed a few sipps (sadly only a few as I was driving) of both the sparkling white and rosé when I visited the Maids Head in March and can tell you they are excellent.


A family business – and a personal passion

Considering Lee and his father still work full time on the Mr Fruity business, it’s amazing they have any time for the vineyard but as Lee admits, “it’s become a passion.” This is just as well because the work seems never ending, starting with pruning in winter. Lee uses the traditional Double Guyot system, which involves cutting back the vine to two strong shoots close to the main stem. Once the shoots start growing in February/March he bends them over and ties them to horizontal wires. The grape bunches then form along these two arms.

The vines then continue growing upwards, producing what is called the canopy. The canopy is where most of the photosynthesis takes place – so it’s vital for the growth of the grapes but it also has to be controlled otherwise the grapes won’t get any sunlight to ripen. During the summer Lee has to tuck the growing canopy into wires above the vine – he also has to knock off any buds growing on the lower part of the vine to prevent wasted growth.

When the canopy is at an optimal height (about six foot) he has to trim it along the top and sides – this effectively stops further growth (although it may take two or more trims) and encourages the vine to put its energy into the grapes. Good canopy control is also essential to preventing disease, such as powdery mildew. “It’s important to keep the air flowing freely around the vines, particularly during the humid months of July and August,” explains Lee.

The harvest then runs from the end of August through to mid November. In the run up to it, Lee is out every day, taking grape samples from across the vineyard to check for acidity and sugar levels. “I know exactly what I want for each grape variety – but we only have a 48 hour window to harvest them at their peak. As soon as we are within a day of that window we start harvesting, spreading it out over four days so grapes picked either side of the window even out the differences.”


Vine science and German precision

This might all sound manageable with 200 vines – but the vineyard has grown rapidly over the last eight years. There are now three fields (two are on very long leases from a local farmer), the largest and most recently planted of which is 12.5 acres and has 18,500 vines all in meticulously neat rows. “In all, we have 40,000 vines on 25 acres, which makes us a medium sized vineyard by English standards.”

Planting the vines in the largest field was a scientific exercise in itself. “The spacing of the vines, the distance between the rows and the height of the canopy is all carefully calculated to maximise yield and minimise disease. Everything has to line up exactly – so we employed a specialist German company who used the latest laser guided, GPS navigated machines to plant the vines. We also had to hammer in 4,000 metal posts and link them up with over 96km of wire.

Oddly, in a county with a reputation for excellent arable land, Lee needed fields with poor quality soil. “Most of the soil is Norfolk is quite heavy and very fertile but for vines you need light, very free draining soil and it has to be on a southerly facing slope so any frost rolls off it. The third field is virtually perfect – even the large number of flints is useful because we leave them beneath the vines where they soak up the warmth during the day then radiate it back at night, which helps boost yield. The landowner was probably quite pleased to find someone who could put the land to better use than he could.”

As well as being hard work, growing vines and making wine takes patience – a lot of patience. It takes three years for the vines to start producing mature grapes. It then takes another two years to make the wine, including a year in stainless steel fermentation tanks – three if you are making sparkling wine because the bottle fermentation takes a further 18 months. Payback on your investment can be upwards of 10 years.


Vineyard tours – Norfolk style

When Lee and Stephen first started making wines, they simply had a small shed and a few tanks. But with the new fields coming into production, they invested in a new winery that is the height of a three storey house and the length of two buses (my estimate). As well as the presses, shiny tanks, lovely American Oak barrels and racks of bottled wine, it comes complete with a tasting room and viewing gallery for visitors.

“We have volunteer days during the harvest, when local people and visitors from further afield can help out with grape picking. They tend to be interested in the whole business of growing and making the wine – as well as enjoying drinking it. We provide them with lunch and supper, when they can enjoy a glass of wine and watch us processing the grapes they have picked. Of course, they can also buy our wine – and tell their friends how they helped make it.

“We also give guided tours to parties of 10 to 30 people at a time. These go into a lot of detail and take between two and three hours – but that’s because I like to give them their money’s worth. At £10 a person it’s a great day out for locals, tourists and teams of employees – and it includes a delicious lunch, featuring local delicacies such as Mrs Temple’s cheeses, and Marsh Pig salamis.” If you are interested in organising a trip, just contact Lee – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Despite being a young vineyard, Winbirri has already won a clutch of awards including two gold medals, a few silvers and five or six bronzes in regional competitions. This brought them to the attention of the head wine buyer at Waitrose and, after a year-long vetting process, they started supplying the Norwich and Wymondham branches in 2013. “They’ve asked us back this year on the strength of our latest vintage, which we’ve just launched, and this time we will also be in the North Walsham and Swaffham branches.”

As well as supermarket success, Winbirri’s wines are now served in some of the best local restaurants: The Maids Head, as I’ve already mentioned, and most recently Brasted’s. “We’re in discussion with a number of others but we have to ensure supply can keep up with demand. Next year, depending on the weather, we hope to produce between 35,000 and 50,000 bottles – so there should be enough to go round.”

Now that’s a relief – cheers!


More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

BW Icon

 JustGiving - Please sponsor us

#Norwich please vote for @NorwichHEART’s #SHAPING24 cultural education programme in @europanostra Awards. Please RT.

The following is based (almost verbatim) on a press release from @NorwichHeart – it’s fairly self-explanatory – please read, vote and RT because it will help encourage people to #VisitNorwich and so support jobs and businesses in our vitally important tourism sector.

Norwich HEART’s #SHAPING24 project has just won a prestigious European Award, and we would love you to help us win the Public Choice Award too.

The SHAPING 24 cultural heritage tourism initiative recently won a prestigious EU prize for its work in education and awareness-raising. The pioneering project links the iconic ‘Norwich 12’ buildings with 12 heritage sites in Ghent, Belgium, and was led by the Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART) in conjunction with Ghent City Council.

The European Commission and Europa Nostra have already named SHAPING 24 as a winner of the 2014 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards. The project was selected from 160 nominated projects across 30 countries, and was a winner in the Education, Training and Awareness-Raising category.

Now @NorwichHeart needs your help to win another important prize. At the awards ceremony on 5 May in Vienna, six of the earlier winners will be named as Grand Prix laureates, receiving €10,000 each, and one will be chosen in an online poll conducted by Europa Nostra to receive the Public Choice Award.

So please support your fine city – Norwich – and vote for the SHAPING 24 project at http://vote.europanostra.org before 20th April.

This successful project has made a positive contribution to economic development, regeneration, education and learning, community engagement, and promotion and access in Norwich and Ghent, with initiatives such as the Culture Matters international cultural heritage conference, smartphone apps, games, publications, educational projects and public art installations.

You can find out more here: www.shaping24.eu.

Remember – please vote and share on twitter, G+, facebook and any other social media platforms you use – because it will help support your local community.

Thank you