We had eaten at the Bell before, but on the prospect of grim weather for our weekend visit to Norfolk we took advantage of an offer to stay there. And how splendidly – with one or two hiccups – it turned out.
All was ready for us on arrival. Complimentary prosecco in the fridge, Viennese coffee in a jar and good biscuits to eat with it. The shower room was as good as any we’ve had outside the differently quirky Andy Warhol Arthotel in Berlin. That has to be some praise.
There was an insulated bag behind the door. We were advised to put it outside at night and by 8.30 or so next morning there would be croissants, petit pains au chocolat, bread to toast and a newspaper of choice. With that in mind we restrained ourselves with the prosecco, saving one 33 cl bottle for Bucks Fizz before breakfast. As well as the goodies to arrive from a Blakeney deli there was a range of cereals (with milk in the fridge) and of course jam, marmalade and honey to follow.
When we there before the restaurant had been extremely busy. This time was no different. There is a conservatory and the large bar area with a range of table sizes. The only small aspect was the bar itself, but when they served large bumpers of gin on ice with gin-marinated damsons it was worth waiting for. At table of course there was no delay.
It’s hard to tell whether the girls who help serve are regular staff or moonlighting from Gresham’s School in nearby Holt. They were all very friendly, helpful and efficient. The gin was a big success as aperitif and we chose a South African sauvignon blanc to go with the meal. If a terrine of partridge and chicken was a little bland – I’d prefer it without the chicken – the venison starter was splendid. Both came with good jus and a small salad. We both chose the cod with mussel sauce as a main course: it could have come fresh from the sea that evening, full and creamy with just sufficient vegetable matter alongside. Gastropub means not huge portions but adequate at least, and very well cooked. There was no need of dessert.
The next day we had a few problems with electrics. My suspicion is they need a higher resistance fuse for all the splendid heating, lighting, toasting and hair-drying equipment deployed. The manager was most apologetic and at the meal next evening offered a free bottle of wine or fizz in compensation. We chose what came as one of the best rose proseccos we’ve ever tasted. To eat we had beer-battered haddock with chips and the best ever mushy peas – real green ones just cooked and lightly mashed. In this case certainly not gastro-pub portions.
Breakfast, though it takes time arriving, especially if you normally rise early, was well worth the wait. The deli does a good line in croissants and petit pains, and even the sliced bread was wholemeal and toasted well. Apart from wishing to spend time outside we would have been tempted to overindulge on coffee. As it was we certainly indulged the food – a good long walk was more than needed.
Near at hand, though, there is plenty to experience. Arriving via Holt, as we did before, means coming from sophistication through deep rural; from Blakeney it means wood and country lanes; from Cley, the way we travelled homeward, is a journey back in time. The road drops past the church and immediately you realise what a vast haven there once was before the sea defences kept the tides back.
Inside the fascinating church there are pictures, matched in the Bell, of ships under sail in the haven. The three church towers of Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton, each on an eminence, were landmarks no doubt longed for by ships’ crew. There is also a small patch of medieval glass, high in a window, discovered when the window tracery was uncovered. Damaged parts suggest Reformation iconoclasts had been at work: the windows may have been enclosed for their protection or, all other glass having been destroyed, for the health of worshippers when winds blew in off the sea. There is still one window to be opened. Surprisingly, however, there are surviving brasses.
We could have spent much longer there, but home called and the bank balance will sustain just so much pressure. We will return.