Norwich: historical and scenic Best of British

BRITISH holidays and city breaks have enjoyed something of a renaissance in these recession-hit times – and it s about time. Why bother waiting for hours at an airport or the dreaded Eurostar when you can jump in the car or hop on a train for a getaway on

BRITISH holidays and city breaks have enjoyed something of a renaissance in these recession-hit times - and it's about time.

Why bother waiting for hours at an airport or the dreaded Eurostar when you can jump in the car or hop on a train for a getaway on British shores?

The great thing about UK destinations is that while we all spent years trudging to far-flung paradise islands, the tourism industry was getting its act together and putting together powerful PR offensives to lure people closer to home.

The absolute jewel in the crown for UK tourism is its city breaks. Nothing beats a weekend away from the stresses of day-to-day life - especially for people with busy professional lives.

So it was with this in mind that my partner and I found ourselves on a picturesque drive to Norwich, the city at the heart of Norfolk.

Norfolk has won major plaudits in recent years as a place for relaxation with its rolling countryside, beautiful coastline and gastronomic delights.

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But Norwich is rarely plunged into the spotlight, which is a great shame judging by the few days we enjoyed there.

The city's main selling point is its rich history and the fact that during the 11th century, it was the biggest city in the country second only to London.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg as we learnt during a guided tour, led by an excellent Blue Badge tour guide.

Norwich may be compact but there is much to see - the 12th century castle and cathedral are the obvious ports of call, and the scores of medieval churches within the city walls are difficult to miss.

It's worth popping in to see the churches - they are open to the public and the interiors are fascinating to view.

The Romanesque cathedral was a particular highlight - the spectacular architecture is breathtaking and it is set in superb grounds. There is a restaurant and cafe where we enjoyed a pot of tea, and it also hosts a variety of concerts throughout the year.

There is seemingly no end to the many historical buildings - The Assembly House, The Guildhall and St James's Mill all have huge historical significance and are worth a visit.

I can't recommend a guided tour enough, simply because of the neverending lesson in historical facts and figures.

For instance, we learned that the first ever provincial newspaper was printed in Norwich in the 1700s, that the first British carpet was made there in 1583 and that it was the first local authority to install a computer.

It is also home to Colmans mustard and there is a shop not to be missed containing an abundance of Colman's-related goods - a must if you are looking for souvenirs.

The shops are vast and varied in the city centre and combine a huge market square with shopping lanes reminiscent of those in Brighton, and a shopping mall.

The combination of high street stores, independents, restaurants and coffee bars means there is something for everyone.

Not to be missed is the television and film store which specialises in Science Fiction products (Doctor Who and Star Trek fans will be in their element).

Also worth a visit is The Forum - a millennium project for Norwich which is regarded as the city's community building.

It was the site of major excavation to transform it into the centre it is today, which includes eateries and shops, a major gallery and an outdoor amphitheatre.

The market combines stalls selling clothing, food, books and music to name just a few.

I also recommend having a scout around for book stalls and flea markets - there were both during our visit and we picked up some great bargains.

Culturally, Norwich fares well. Although we did not have the time to experience them personally, there is a wealth of museums, theatres, art galleries and a vibrant music scene.

For food lovers, there is an abundance of restaurants - from the big chains to smaller bistros. We ate dinner at the The Dining Rooms which is within the confines of Cinema City, an arthouse picture house which claims to be the largest in the country.

The menu combines heartiness with the contemporary punctuated with locally-sourced ingredients.

We both chose the Attleborough rib-eye steak on the recommendation from the waitress which was simply superb.

There was a nice ambience to the restaurant - although we were right amid the hustle-bustle of people arriving to see a film, it was never obtrusive. It was nicely lit and relaxing - the perfect end to a busy day of shopping and sightseeing.

Incidentally the weather, I must mention, was superb for a crisp November day. According to weather reports, the rest of Britain was suffering from incessant rain but it seemed to clip the edge of Norwich where it was bright and dry. Perfect.

All in all, the weekend was admittedly a bit of a surprise in that there is so much to see and do.

It is a two-hour drive or train journey from London Liverpool Street, through the picturesque countryside so it is hardly a chore. So next time you're thinking of booking a weekend break, take a look at Norwich - this historical, bustling city is the perfect choice.

* IF you fancy a bit of luxury during your stay in Norwich, look no further than Dunston Hall, part of the De Vere hotel chain.

Situated about five miles from the city centre, this country hotel is set in 150 acres of Norfolk countryside.

The hotel is absolutely huge with facilities second to none. Its main selling point for many will probably be the par 71 golf course which covers 6,275 yards. It includes a golf school and a practice range.

But for me, the main attraction is the leisure club and spa which includes a fully-equipped gym, pool, sauna and whirlpool. There are a wide range of reasonably-priced relaxation treatments to indulge in. I chose a massage - the absolutely perfect way to unwind on your arrival on a Friday evening.

There are two restaurants; the award-winning La Fontaine or the Brasserie Bar and Grill which operates a buffet system. We dined in the latter and enjoyed a delicious carvery. The breakfasts are also very good.

The rooms vary in size but all are comfortable and provide the mod cons.

If you can, take time to have a look around the superb grounds - a nice end to the weekend.