Never mind the two-metre rule, how does 500 sound for adequate social distancing? That’s how far you are from another soul when you bed down for the night inside Norfolk’s Appleton Water Tower. Discount the tiny village of West Newton and your nearest neighbour might even be the Queen.
It seems odd that, after four months of lockdown and “bubbles”, isolation was what I desired for my first post-pandemic holiday. But after such a long stint in a one-bedroom London flat, with walks in Epping Forest my only solace, I needed proper space – away from the endless Zoom meetings, the queues outside Tesco, and the hum of the North Circular… away from everyone, in fact (my wife excluded).
So what could be better than Norfolk? Among England’s least crowded counties, with a population density of just 166 per km² (for Greater London the figure is 5,618), it also has no motorways, countless sleepy villages, and 90 miles of glorious coastline (93 when the tide is out). Furthermore, despite its relative proximity to London, it isn’t as fashionable as Cornwall. While my friends and colleagues, and just about everyone on my Instagram feed, were heading west for their first post-lockdown holidays, we seemed to be the only Londoners going north.
For stays with solitude, the Landmark Trust is a godsend. This charitable organisation saves historic buildings, many of them miles from anywhere, and turns them into unique holiday lets. It has more than 200 properties on its books, including a Napoleonic-era fort on the island of Alderney, a lighthouse on windswept Lundy, and Clavell Tower, its most in-demand option, on a clifftop overlooking the stunning Dorset coast.
Almost as isolated is Appleton Water Tower. Built in 1877 to supply clean drinking water to the nearby royal residence of Sandringham House, where the Windsors traditionally spend Christmas, it dominates the surrounding countryside. Navigating the twisting gravel driveway to arrive beneath the 60-foot red-brick building – your home, incredibly, for the weekend – is an unforgettable experience, and all the more remarkable when you consider that rates start at just £546 for a four-night stay.
The interior is clean, comfortable, and refreshingly unfancy. Expect sturdy antique furniture, heavy curtains, and sepia photographs of Edward VII out hunting game. There are a few recent additions, such as a modern kitchen and shower, but, as with all Landmark Trust properties, TVs, radios and Wi-Fi are absent. Perfect for a pandemic-weary journalist desperate to escape the 24-hour news cycle of doom.
As you’d expect of a holiday home that’s very tall and very narrow, it’s also perfect for firming up the thighs. The ground floor has a loo and the kitchen/dining room, the first floor (up three flights of stairs) has a twin bedroom, the second floor (up another three flights of stairs) has the master bedroom, the third floor (ditto) has the bathroom. Four days of fetching refreshments, answering calls of nature, and searching for your lost reading glasses, adds up to plenty of vertical ascent.
The tower’s crowning glory, literally, is higher still. The rooftop, accessed via a wrought iron spiral staircase, offers sumptuous panoramic views of green and pleasant Norfolk, its sheep, and Sandringham, around a mile to the west. The only thing missing is an armchair from which to enjoy them.
The royal estate has reopened, but visitors must book in advance. Keen to avoid yet more social distancing measures, we chose outdoor exploration on two wheels. Never too steep, the roads of East Anglia are perfect for pootling, and we ticked off the pretty villages of Anmer and Great Bircham, skirted the country pile of Houghton Hall (currently hosting an Anish Kapoor exhibition), before seeking out sustenance in Burnham Market. Bustling gently on a Saturday afternoon, but with timidity and one-way signs happily absent, things felt reassuringly normal – especially at smart restaurant Number 29, where our waiter wore a smile, not a mask.
This stretch of coastline, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty reknowned for its birdlife, is packed with highlights, but two we discovered over the weekend stood out. The beach at Holkham could well have been designed by God to aid social distancing. So vast is this sandy wonder that just walking from the car park to the water, via a copse of sweet-scented pine trees and a vast expanse of sea lavender, took us 20 minutes. It extends for four miles, meaning you’ll always find a quiet spot to lay down your towel, or a secret hiding place amongst the dunes.
To the east there’s Blakeney Point. A colleague and Norfolk resident met us at Blakeney Harbour with cold beers and sandwiches before leading us to his sailing boat, Killiemor Kate. We drifted past muddy flats for a close encounter with the colony of grey seals that call this shingle spit home. We edged a little closer, close enough to smell them, and locking eyes with these awkward 500lb balls of blubber – as interested in us as we were in them – was humbling. I forgot, if only for an evening, about this whole blasted pandemic. With the sun setting, and the tide turning, we made haste for home.