Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Where to eat and drink on a three-day Barn Owl hunt in North Norfolk

Curlew, Stiffkey
It may be the last weekend in March but it's finger-numbingly, eye-wateringly cold. Start at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Cley on Friday. Mid-afternoon and freezing cold. Give it an hour and a bit to walk round the perimeter under four layers of fleece. No owls but plenty of Shoveler, Shelduck, Redshank and Heron plus a couple of Little Ringed Plover, three Marsh Harriers, some Avocet and a massive flock of Brent Geese. They've stuck around all winter - probably as cold here as it is in their summer breeding grounds at Greenland.

Time for a warm at:

The George, Cley
Couple of pints of Woodforde's Wherry next to the stained-glass St George and the dragon window overlooking the 20mph coastal road stretch, the beer garden, the flood defence and the sea. Enjoy a packet of Seabrook salt and vinegar crisps, made in Bradford a few miles from where we bought our first house back in the 90s. Reluctantly drink up, remember your binoculars and walk on to:

Cley Smokehouse
Worth stocking up on some smoked mackerel and pickled herring here. You may need them later.

Nip into the local-food-packed:

Picnic Fayre Deli, Cley
For a dark and meaty Brays Cottage pork pie and a few scotch eggs to fortfify you for the late afternoon hunt.

Take a steady drive through Wiveton - if you fancy the excellent Wiveton Bell gastro pub book early; no tables for the evening by 12pm on Good Friday - then to Langham, home of the apparently up-for-sale Bluebell pub where half an hour on a Friday night can leave you shaking your head in admiration at the local vodka intake. Then wind your way down the country lanes of  Field Dalling and on to Bale - home of the historic Bale Oaks - and keep your eyes peeled on the way to Gunthorpe.


So regroup, then just after dusk head through Melton Constable to:

The Hunney Bell, Hunworth
A beautifully converted barn in a miles-from-anywhere rural village, but no owls anywhere, either. Enter the cosy, real-ale pub at the front, grab a Wherry than take a seat in the restaurant and enjoy the warmth from the real, enclosed fire. The mystery grilled fish was delicious - love a fish when the skeleton comes out in one piece - with potatoes and leeks; the Binham blue cheese tart vanished in seconds; the plate of a massive Wherry-battered fish and loads of thick cut chips was quickly emptied and the burger and fries didn't last much longer. Save room for the creamy, crunchy-topped creme brule with raspberry sorbet or the chocolate terrine with shortbread biscuit. Great, smiley service and a bill of around £70 for four including a couple of rounds of drinks.

Retrace your route to Gunthorpe. Vow to get up early to try again. Fail.

Map from exploring.co.uk

You might be lucky with a five-mile mid-morning jog from Gunthorpe to Brinton then Sharrington and back. Not this time. Just snow flakes pinging you in the face and Wood Pigeon exploding out of trees. A feeble singing Yellowhammer lifts the gloom.

Md-afternoon, Saturday, at Wells-next-the-Sea. The windswept coastal path heading east from the harbour towards Warham Greens is a Barn Owl banker. Unless the vicious wind is slapping you in the face so hard you can't stand more than five minutes at the edge of the marsh. Forget it. Get back in the car and drive along the coastal road to:

The Red Lion, Stiffkey
If you're lucky you can get a table right next to the roaring real fire while you enjoy a couple of pints of gravity-dropped Wherry. Then one for the road. Lovely rural pub.

Still time for an owl. Keep heading east towards Salthouse Heath. Always a good chance here. Keep 'em peeled as the road moves inland towards the fabulous Georgian town of Holt. Nothing. So phone ahead to:

The Taste of India, Holt
Don't leave it too late to book. By 6pm opening time it was already half full with more huddled masses streaming in. A no-nonsense, classic Indian restaurant with thick gravy jalfrezis, thick cauliflower bhajis, thick chicken dopiazas and thick chicken tikka masalas. Thick naans, thin pints of ice-cold Cobra and full pickle trays complete the nirvana.

Leave by 7pm - vanilla sky dusk - and head west on the A-road through Letheringsett, scanning the fields on either side of the road. Turn left into Gunthorpe. We've seen them here before. Not today. Vow to get up for an early one, even if the clocks do go forward an hour at 1am. Fail.

Last chance today. Ask for some divine guidance while doing your Easter Sunday duties at the standing-room-only St Joseph's in Sheringham. Brave the cheek-stinging powder hail storm for a five minute ordeal on the seafront then retreat for an early lunch to:

The Two Lifeboats, Sheringham
Lovely, refurbished pub right on the seafront with views of people eating fish and chips on the edge of the icy grey sea. Classic Sunday lunch at £8 a pop. Choice of pork or beef, roast pots, carrots, Yorkshire pudding, stuffing. Wash it down with a couple of pints of Wherry before bundling up and heading up the high street. Foolhardy folk may want to risk a Norwich-made Ronaldo's ice cream. Honeycomb is a good, mad choice.

Try the road up through Upper Sheringham past the National Trust park. Then snake your way back to Gunthorpe and wait until dusk. Then go again. Up through Langham, left at the church, right through Cockthorpe - a good hunting ground past the old RAF training dome near the battery chicken farm - then straight on to the car park at Stiffkey Greens. Go west and walk along the coastal path towards Wells. When you're looking for Barn Owl every Little Egret and swooping Black Headed Gull looks likely. Keep going past the boxing Hares, Grey Partridge, Curlew and Pheasant in the ploughed, brown fields until you can't feel your fingers, then head back to the car past the taunting Linnet and Mallard.
Hare departing Cockthorpe
Time's running out but don't give up hope. Even if the Norfolk Riddle's tables are booked you can phone ahead for three takeaway fish, chips and mushy peas plus a chicken burger and chips. The 20-minute route under the frozen skies takes you past the owl-friendly priory ruins of  Binham - best place in Norfolk for a pint of Binham Cheer brewed on the premises at the Chequers Inn if time allows - then on through Hindringham - we've seen Little Owl on a barn roof here in the past - to Walsingham. Henry VIII made a pilgrimage to the national shrine to Our Lady here when he was mulling over his first divorce and no doubt looking for owls. You'll remember seeing a nice copy of the golden triptych shrine at St Joseph's in Sheringham.

Park up and pay your £22 for a the take-out, complete with vinegar sprayed on with one of those containers you see in garden centres. Then a final chance for the elusive owl. Clear the windows of chip steam as you wind through Thursford, past the home of the Christmas Spectacular. Still no luck. Very last chance past Gunthorpe Hall - perfect fields for owl hunting.

But not tonight. Maybe it's just too cold. Voles stay hidden in the undergrowth and their elusive predators huddle in their barns.

Console yourself with the fish supper in front of a roaring Chimney Cottage fire. And the knowledge that you live to hunt again next time.

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