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Unturned Leaves

When you live in the concrete web of a capital city, it can be easy to miss the seasons. Especially in London, where a summer’s day can mean gale-force winds and relentless drizzle, and midwinter can bring a snap of blue sky. England’s climate is confusing at the best of times, like an outlandish stage actress who can slide in and out of character at the drop of a hat. In London, the small details that spell the changes in season are nothing more than background color. Winter slides into spring quickly and doesn’t stick around to say goodbye. It just flees with nothing more than a dip in temperature. It is only in the countryside that the wild, dramatic transformation of the seasons can really be seen. Which is why my best friend and I decided to take a trip to the North Norfolk coast on the first day of September. We wanted to watch summer turning into autumn.

We left London early on a Thursday morning, the clouds thin and low. Our flat is buried in the East End, where police sirens and motorized drills provide a 24-hour soundtrack and the lights of The City glare through the blinds. As we drove away from the fringes of London, we felt our bodies loosen a little. Two hours turned into three, three turned into four, and we found ourselves gliding further into the countryside with London nothing more than a loud blur behind us. On either side of the road, sheep chewed on grassy mounds, pigs spun in their swill, and the traffic slowed a little. The motorway narrowed into a straight Roman road, guiding us towards the edge of England. The towns and villages dotted down the North Norfolk Coast are approached on the Coastal Road, which snakes past thatched cottages, creaky windmills and seafood shacks beside the wild North Sea.

It is hard to imagine anywhere as British as The North Norfolk Coast. It is a land of cider yards, endless flat farmland, marshes full of mussel shells, grain mills and sleepy villages with nothing but crumbling stone walls dividing them from cattle farms and cornfields. There are more pubs than any self-respecting ale drinker could dream of, some with the same yellowing wallpaper and creaky beams they’ve had for hundreds of years. Lord Nelson famously said, “I am a Norfolk man and I glory in being so!”.

Sometimes, it seems little has changed since he was plotting and planning here.

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When I first met my Norfolk-born boyfriend, he and his family took me to one of these low-ceilinged drinking dens. They ordered me a glass of ‘Nelson’s Blood’, which I knocked back too quickly. As I spluttered, they told me that each bottle of this biting elixir contains a drop of Lord Nelson’s blood. Like any newbie, I widened my eyes and said “Wow! Really!”. I later found out they were joking. Which, in retrospect, appears embarrassingly obvious.

We approached the Coastal Road via a tunnel of trees. The leaves were turning from golden green to purple at the tips, like tongues of chicory. The ground smelt peaty and damp, and the fields on either side were a strange, bright shade of amber studded with spools of hay. Everything felt like it was in motion – like these colors would only last a few days. Norfolk is famously flat, which means that at times, it can feel like you are seeing it all at once.

Our first stop was Castle Acre Priory, which was built in 1089 to house the first Benedictine monks of England. We wandered through the thistly fields located on the edges, gazing at the looming arches and intricate columns that are as perfectly formed as the day they were built. They jut out of the crumbled flint stone ruins, which look like a shipwreck covered in barnacles. I could just picture the monks floating around in their itchy brown robes, with the shrill music of grasshoppers filling the halls.

Leaving the castle behind, we slipped back onto the Coastal Road and watched flocks of geese fly low over rye fields, as flat as floorboards. Through mouthfuls of ginger biscuits, we talked about the insatiable appetite that comes with spending time in a car.

Our next stop was Norfolk’s famous lavender fields. We’d entertained ourselves with pictures of these combed, amethyst-colored pastures for most of the journey, and couldn’t wait to see them for ourselves. Unfortunately, we had forgotten to research the harvest times and were met with 100 acres of bare land where the lavender once stood. We walked resentfully around the gates of the small lavender garden where every variety of the plant grows in tiny flocks. A man in a purple shirt sat on a chair beneath a groaning machine, extracting oil from the flowers and throwing their juiced bodies onto a giant pile off to one side. The air was filled with the perfume of it – a deliciously, cruel reminder of what we might have seen. We piled back into the car, agreeing that lunch would soothe our disappointment.

There is a little café in Holt just off the Coastal Road. I’ve passed it a few times over the years, and the tables outside are always full of people eating platters of fresh seafood – potted shrimp, peppered mackerel, anchovies with garlic, herring in honey mustard – enjoyed with bottles of cold white wine bought from the newsagent next door. Cookies Crab Shack (why it is called Cookies, I will never understand) is nothing more than a small brick kitchen and the scattering of metal furniture spilling out of a wooden shed. Various chalkboards are propped outside, announcing ‘bacon rolls’, ‘live mussels’ and ‘samphire’. We parked beside a pebbled wall and joined the queue trickling out of the front door, filled with snuffling dogs and school children. Opposite, a field of heather and wildflowers underlines the sea. The owner ushered us to one side and cleared a table, propping us down and chucking a few menus in our direction. We ordered crab, lobster and hot smoked salmon, which came with smooth white bread rolls, margarine and a slice of lemon. Nothing more was added. And nothing more was needed.

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Our next stop was Wells-next-the-sea, a small fishing town on the northern tip of Norfolk. This is where my boyfriend’s family live, and where I have drunk frothy ale and peddled rusty bicycles up and down the coastal path for four years. I would call it a toy town with weathered edges. The narrow high street nose-dives visitors onto the harbor, where crabbing boats knock together and families eat fresh cockles and chips out of polystyrene cups with little wooden forks. The air smells of seawater, and ruddy fishermen – wearing yellow rubber overalls – unload seaweed-covered boxes of flipping fish from red and white boats. The town quietens to a whisper in the colder months, the cluttered, jostling activity at the waterside cleared away for winter. On this day, however, summer seems to be in full swing.

Kids sat swinging their legs off the side of the quay, dangling buckets to catch crabs. We arrived in the afternoon and went straight to a little house just up from the waterfront – Storm Cottage is a small guest house run by Alison and Richard Cracknell, who were both born and raised in this town, and who brought up their own family in this small community. They appear in every fuzzy group photograph pinned to the wall of the Wells Sailing Club, standing proudly beside glinting wooden boats. Their house is a little like a boat itself, with all groaning wooden beams and low doorways. An old range cooker warms the place, and the front door is always open. Our 5 pm visit coincided with the very hour they break open a bottle of their daily gin and tonics. We left feeling warm and woozy, reaching the harbor through Jolly Sailor Yard just as the sun began to fade.

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After walking up and down the waterfront for a while, we settled into The Albatros, a 18th-century Dutch schooner sailing boat shored up on Wells Quay. Its mast climbs high into the sky, and locals drink wine on the wooden deck. We started off outside, watching the still water murmur as a swimmer in a rubber cap grazed its surface. The last of the light turned everything pink, then lilac, and when it faded completely, a chill sent us inside to the bowels of the ship. The owner tipped beer into glasses from wooden kegs, and a musician plucked a guitar and sang to the busy room. Looking around the room, it was difficult to tell locals from visitors. Each person drank, talked and sank into their chairs as comfortably as the next, some with dogs curled up at their feet. It felt like we had spent every summer here, drinking in the early evening on the water’s edge.

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We woke up in the morning to a cold breeze through the window and the sound of rain on the glass. Groggy with wine from the night before, we were convinced by Alison and Richard to climb aboard a rickety-looking tandem bicycle. We are an unbalanced pair at the best of times, and maneuvering the vehicle along the road would have been treacherous if Wells wasn’t such a traffic-less haven. We wobbled it all the way down the pathway to the beach, past banks covered with poppies and small wooden boats left stranded by the tide. Wells Beach was named the best in Britain this year, and locals are worried about it becoming a tourist trap. On that day, though, the drizzle left the beach almost completely deserted. The wind was strong, the waves frothy and high. We shared the long stretch of blonde sand with just a few couples and their dogs. Two parents helped their son launch a thin paper airplane into the sky. It was all very innocent.

The beach is lined with wooden huts painted peppermint green, pink and blue. Some are shiny and new, while some have been there for so long that their doors are flaking and their front steps are sunken into the sand. We walked the length of the beach with our shoes off until our feet were cold, before retreating to the pine forests behind. The tall trees fragranced the air, their seaweed-green tips shivering with drops of rain. Everything that had been so bright the day before was now lightless and submerged in grey mist.

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Back on the quay, we bought a giant box of battered haddock and scampi. We covered it in vinegar and ate it in front of a pink arcade, where old women were planted in front of slot machines promising ‘big wins’. Then we made our way back to Storm Cottage, where we knew Alison, Richard and four strong cups of tea would be waiting. Once there, we propped the bike on a brick wall outside the house. The rain poured on. It was as if England was reminding us that, despite the bronzes and golds of the day before, summer was on its way out. And we can’t think of a better place to leave it behind.