A whole Hoste of reasons to return to windy Norfolk

Bridget Galton finds East Anglia is just the same as it ever was – except for luxurious food and the hotels, the service... and, oh yes, the grasping car park attendants SHELTERING blue-lipped behind windbreaks before plunging into the icy North Sea wa

Bridget Galton finds East Anglia is just the same as it ever was - except for luxurious food and the hotels, the service... and, oh yes, the grasping car park attendants

SHELTERING blue-lipped behind windbreaks before plunging into the icy North Sea was a feature of my happy childhood holidays near Cromer. Thirty years ago, property in unfashionable East Anglia was as cheap as chips and eating out a grim, cheerless experience characterised by chicken in a basket.

Today, parts of Norfolk and Suffolk are dubbed Chelsea or Hampstead-on-sea. No barn has been left unconverted, and the boozers and restaurants have been at the forefront of the foodie revolution, serving locally-sourced quality produce such as Cromer crab.

Travelling to my aunt's Norfolk home always took hours, trailing behind caravans on the two-lane trunk roads across the region.

These days things are somewhat improved and within two and a half hours of leaving north-west London we are approaching the north Norfolk coast.

The beaches are as I remembered, inviting sandy expanses fringed by dunes and occasional pine trees. They are still windy, but, even in May, all roads leading seawards are policed by uniformed attendants quick to relieve you of a set £3.50 fee for even a half-hour stroll.

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Oh well, not all changes are for the good. But the sea change begun at the Hoste Arms in Burnham Market is definitely to be welcomed.

Back in 1989, erstwhile Peterborough potato trader and fish and chip shop supplier Paul Whittome acquired the freehold to a 17th Century coaching inn as part of his burgeoning portfolio of property investments.

A year later, he had ousted the tenants and decided to have a go at running a pub and restaurant.

A natural networker, with the affable landlord's talent for talking to his guests, Whittome made friends with other local restaurateurs and food producers.

As he says today, he didn't invent the idea of serving locally sourced meals but he simply cannot understand why you wouldn't.

With 90 staff, including a brigade of top chefs and a 36-bed luxury hotel, the Hoste has become a destination for the great and the good to unwind and eat well amid the surroundings of an impossibly pretty Georgian village.

On our visit, the sun was shining on the brick and flint frontages that overlook a wide main street, edged by village greens and a tree-shaded stream.

A butcher, baker, grocery store, post office and fishmongers are among the 40 immaculately kept shops that take you back half a century to an age of independent stores that really served the community.

It should be said there are also plenty of high-end craft, niche clothing and art gallery type shops - the Burnhams, as the seven north Norfolk villages are known, have long been a haven for a community of potters and artists as well as the birthplace of Admiral Lord Nelson.

Whittome and his pub hotel are partly responsible for Burnham's elevation to chic rural retreat.

But although he has bought other properties in the village and converted them into holiday cottages and B&Bs, he is wary of creating a Norfolk version of "Padstein", where squeezed-out locals come to resent a wealthy restaurateur dominating a small tourist destination.

The purpose of our stay was to try out Whittome's latest venture, the seven-bed Vine House hotel just opposite the Hoste Arms. The Georgian gem has been converted into a boutique hotel that blends eclectic but elegant antiques with contemporary design.

Whittome's wife Jeanne has shaken down the full offering of Fired Earth's bathroom suites and generously applied the entire spectrum of Farrow and Ball's grey palette to create a look that is entirely sympathetic to the old house, while offering maximum comfort for guests like us from that there London.

Our room boasted a mezzanine sitting room with a gallery looking down onto a vast comfy bed. In the late stages of pregnancy, I was relieved to find it well stocked with cushions and pillows to pad around my vast bump.

There is no bar, but in the evenings, a "butler" will serve you drinks in the small garden or two sitting rooms. For dinner and breakfast, you trot across the green to the Hoste Arms. The unpretentious bar is as though time has stood still.

Amid leather, old wood and plum walls, a bunch of locals discussed the day's horse show over real ales. In the wood-panelled dining room, elderly couples enjoyed the food, while a trip to the bathroom and (more Fired Earth) you could have been in the ladies room of a hip London bar.

Certainly the food lived up to expectation. The superb starter involved fresh mackerel fillets and a red pepper salsa followed by hearty wedges of Gressingham duck mixed with bacon, mushrooms and cabbage. My partner made short shrift of the local pigeon with rhubarb compote and the loin of pork from a farm just up the road. And the dessert, chocolate fondant pudding, would have brought a smile to the face of any pregnant lady with a craving for ice cream and dark chocolate.

Our visit was short, but we managed a stroll along sweeping Brancaster beach where we watched the kite surfers harnessing that ever present wind to skim the waves on surf boards. At Wells-Next-The-Sea we bought fish and chips and watched the world go by in the harbour.

But there are myriad boat trips, walks and wildlife watching to be done along this lovely coastline, and just a few miles from Burnham Market is the old Holkham estate, where you can tour the house and grounds or walk down through the pine trees to the stunning beach.

You can see why urbanites return again and again to places like the Hoste Arms, to recharge their batteries with good food in a relaxing, comfortable environment. To breathe in the ozone and get the wind in their hair. Just watch out for those car parking attendants.

Dinner bed and breakfast rates at Vine House start at £140 per room per night and at £114 per night at the Hoste Arms.

Further details on 01328 738 777 or from the website at www.hostearms.co.uk.