by Barendina Smedley

Here’s a question. What’s the flattest county in England?

Norfolk, you might well answer — but you’d be wrong. The answer is, of course, Cambridgeshire.

What’s the second flattest county in England?

Norfolk, you might answer — but again, you’d be wrong. The answer is Lincolnshire, although before 1974, the answer would have been Huntingdonshire — followed by Lincolnshire.

Norfolk, in other words, isn’t as flat as all that. Nor does Norfolk offer much in the way of fens. Fens, in general, are a Cambridgeshire thing. Norfolk does have some fens — but then it also has some coastal cliff formations, at Hunstanton, Sheringham, Cromer and so forth. It has a lot of coastline, but in places it is not particularly close to the sea. It has rivers, obviously, but in recent years, it has had far fewer serious problems with flooding than some counties one might mention. And if there are no mountains in Norfolk, how many English counties can claim anything approaching a mountain? Unless I’m missing something here, post-1974, only Cumbria has mountains — and not many of those, either.

In short, there is nothing particularly astonishing about the altitude of Norfolk relative to the rest of England. Or to put it another way, Norfolk really isn’t very flat, whatever Noel Coward’s not-very-reliable heroine in Private Lives might have claimed to the contrary.

Yet the canard persists. Even the nicest attempts to explain what is good about Norfolk, or even East Anglia — I am thinking now of Tim Dee’s recent sketch in Country Life, beautifully written thing that it is — have to address the flatness claim, if only to dismiss it again.

It’s worth wondering why we see flatness as a negative thing. The problem with flatness, real or imagined, is that it stands as a trope for all sorts of other qualities, so many of them apparently undesirable. Flatness equates to a lack of incident, drama, excitement — who wants to feel flat? Furthermore, any nineteenth century holdouts still wedded to ideas of the romantic sublime — there are more of them about than you might think — will necessarily find flat places unsatisfactory. Those of us who love seventeenth century Netherlandish landscapes, productive agricultural land, stability and peace, on the other hand, don’t share this prejudice.

There are, of course, other snobberies, conscious or otherwise, capable of turning visitors against Norfolk. For instance, Norfolk has no motorways, only one city (Norwich) and hence positively no credentials as regards being fast-moving, gritty and urban.

No wonder some visitors, mostly from London, really cannot bear to venture far beyond the social and economic microclimate that exists along part of the north Norfolk coast. Here, they can complain about minor differences from London — the broadband is slower, for one thing, and the actual weather is slightly more evident — whilst at the same time, enjoying most of the creature comforts that make the metropolis bearable. There are delis in north Norfolk that would give Villandry a run for its money, for instance, clothes and homewares shops calibrated to London prices, a remarkable range of bookshops. Here visitors can stay in pretty bijou cottages, the flintwork newly re-pointed, the joinery painted in on-trend shades of linseed-oil-based pigment, which now smell less of fish and desperation than of the newest seasonal fragrance from The White Company. These visitors can walk briefly beside the marshes, congratulating themselves on how fast-paced, contemporary and important their real-world lives must be, compared with all this ornamental, agreeably sleepy rusticity — because they somehow assume that because they are on holiday, everyone else in Norfolk is as well. And then, of course, they go back to London.

Norfolk, it must be said, is broadly indifferent to the thoughts of these urban birds of passage, apart from doing whatever is necessary to ensure their frequent, highly lucrative return. For the important thing about Norfolk is not so much flatness, as a self-confidence so radiant it does not require or even much acknowledge validation from others.

Oddly, in this context, one of the truest things ever written about Norfolk emerged from the pen of Virginia Woolf, who lived at the beautiful Blo Norton Hall, down near the Suffolk border, for a brief interlude in 1906. The exact quotation eludes me, but it ran along these lines: that the people of Norfolk were as poor as church mice, but as proud as Lucifer.

The church mice aspect, admittedly, was truer then than it is now — in 1906 times were very hard in agriculture, not least in East Anglia. The point about pride, though, was and is and perhaps always will be spot-on. There are parts of the UK where a Londoner cannot venture without being told, assertively, how much better these places are than London. Norfolk is not one of these, for the simple reason that virtually no one in Norfolk really feels the need to make this point, so self-evident as to be like telling people that air is good to breathe, or that the daily rising of the sun is a beneficial thing.

Perhaps part of this pride emerges out of Norfolk’s very distinctive history. Far from being isolated, let alone ‘inbred’ (that other particular sturdy canard) Norfolk could probably make a strong claim for having had better links with other parts of the world, for a longer time, than any other English county.

The oldest evidence of human activity to be found in Britain — perhaps 850,000 years old, possibly even earlier — comes from Happisburgh. Flint tools from Pakenfield, just over the border in Suffolk, are dated to circa 668,000 BC. Nor is this in any way surprising. Norfolk was directly connected with continental Europe until as recently as 6200 BC through a marshy, environmentally rich land-bridge now known as Doggerland. This is why it formed a natural point of arrival for early settlers. And even when the land-bridge vanished beneath the waves, good ports and proximity to the Low Countries, Scandinavia and beyond ensured an East Anglia that was outward-looking, confident and, certainly until Tudor times, conspicuously wealthy.

There is a persistent folk-myth that Norfolk’s great abundance of medieval churches is the result of the wool trade. Like so many folk-myths, this one is true — but only up to a point. Wool was profitable — but so was trade of many other types, as well as fishing. Indirectly, this led to probably the most repulsive moment in Norfolk’s history. In 1144, what had been a thriving Jewish community in Norwich was slaughtered — men, women and children — by at least some of their Christian neighbours. The human condition being what it is, subsequent Dutch and Huguenot immigrants to Norfolk were not always given an easy time. But the very fact they pitched up in Norfolk in the first place speaks volumes about the opportunities it offered — and what such ‘strangers’ and those who followed them contributed to Norfolk, in economic and cultural terms, should never be forgotten.

Many things that seem very ‘Norfolk’ have strong roots elsewhere. Just think of all that mellow old brick, the colour of good smoked salmon (a Dutch import), Dutch gables (ditto), effective land reclamation and flood control (ditto), expertise in fishing, boat-building and harbour construction (ditto), four-course crop rotation (Flanders this time), market gardening and new crops like the carrot (Dutch again), Nonconformist worship (the Dutch influence certainly helped) — even smuggling (the tobacco and spirits had to come from somewhere) — all of these speak of links with a wider world. The Norwich School of painting learned a great deal from the Dutch landscape painting tradition — Norfolk’s own local rivers and coastline scrutinised through a Netherlandish lens. Followers of Norwich City Football Club will perhaps know already that the breeding and sale of canaries was brought to Norfolk by settlers from the Low Countries.

Indeed, the sort of commentator who likes to ascribe personalities or habits of character to entire counties is often quick to make much of these Dutch links — and, up to a point, the comparisons work. Norfolk people — as any Suffolk resident will tell you, all too gladly — are plain-spoken to the point of brutality (unless they are the sort of Norfolk people who never say anything), quick to hold a grudge (although if they are the non-speaking sort, you’ll never find out) and while they often like to travel the world, they always come back home again (Norfolk natives are less likely to move permanently away from their county than any other UK inhabitants). Norfolk is also rather Dutch in its attitude towards hierarchy. On one level, the generally attitude is unselfconsciously levelling — as there are really only two sorts of people, Norfolk and non-Norfolk, why entertain other distinctions? — yet there is also a robust and heartfelt loyalty, for instance, towards to the folks who live up at Sandringham House. Where, after all, did Prince William go for his stag do, knowing that not a word about ‘the boys’ would ever leak out?

Nor did the movement of peoples and ideas stop with the Dutch influence. Its relative wealth, based by the eighteenth century on some of the most progressive and successful agricultural practice in the British Isle, attracted economic migrants from across Britain to Norfolk. Maritime trade built up other links. Anyone who bothers to learn about Norfolk’s folk music tradition will at first be mildly unnerved, but then perhaps rather pleased, to discover songs that bind Norfolk with Scotland, Ireland and Australia, via sojourns at a few foreign ports on the way. Indeed, one school of thought would argue that the well-known ‘Irish’ song, The Wild Rover, in fact originated in Norfolk. Well, if so, there’s something fitting in that.

The early twentieth century, in its turn, saw different tides of influence lapping at the edges of East Anglia. Unusually, one of these had quite a lot to do with London. The development first of the railways, then the motor car made Norfolk’s beautiful poppy-strewn countryside and wholesome seaside villages desirable tourist destinations. Cottages, larger houses, indeed sometimes whole villages were consumed by Londoners’ need for weekends-and-holidays country retreats.

But although Edward VII led the way here, his shooting holidays, seaside excursions and adoption of Sandringham House granting Norfolk a royal seal of approval, it is striking how broad the church of Norfolk tourism soon became. The London invasion of Norfolk was never just about shooting amongst a smart set. Instead, from the start, the atmosphere was rather more bohemian and inclusive. Artists, foreigners, those who were unable or unwilling to conform to the doctrinal or sexual orthodoxies of their age and nation often found comfortable berths in East Anglia, where no one seemed to mind terribly what they did or didn’t get up to. ‘Do different’, it appears, was never confined to the locals.

And then there came the development of aviation, two world wars and yet another influx of ‘strangers’, some of them happy enough to go back to North America afterwards, but many left with a lingering regard for Norfolk’s beer and big skies — and others still, resting even now in Norfolk graves. The roar of their sleek loud aircraft is still a central feature of East Anglian experience. Finally, in recent years a new chapter of Norfolk’s cultural history has opened, with a steady stream of migrant workers arriving from Eastern Europe and (once again) from the Baltic States.

Of course some people grumble, complaining that their village isn’t what it used to be — as, I imagine, they’ve been doing since approximately the end of the last Ice Age, thus maintaining a proud old Norfolk tradition.

For the basic reality of Norfolk’s geographical position is still unaltered from the days of Doggerland and that land-bridge. Norfolk is still pointed out towards Europe, the East, lands beyond. Unlike some parts of Britain, Norfolk has never been forced to engage with the world through London’s mediation. It isn’t so much that Norfolk is ‘remote’ from London, as that London isn’t necessary for Norfolk. The ultimate irrelevance of London to Norfolk is, for Londoners, often hard to grasp. But for Norfolk, it is a basic fact of life.

So when journalists, writing from charmless offices in London or from desks that look out over London’s grey and faintly tragic suburbs, condemn Norfolk as ‘flat’, what they really mean is both that Norfolk sometimes seems a long way from London, and that they do not really understand why this doesn’t seem to matter much to the few people they have encountered in the course of a few hurried holidays along the Broads or the north Norfolk coast. And who really minds about that?