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Richard Long's sculpture in the Stone Hall at Houghton Hall's EARTH SKY exhibition

Richard Long’s circle of flint and slate hushes the grandeur of the Stone Hall at Houghton. The Roman emperors, whose fine classical busts line the walls, must be gazing down in confused envy at the monochrome tumble of jagged slabs and rocks which have upstaged them.

Long’s arrangement, a cross within a circle, aligns not to the axis of the room, but rather to magnetic north – a reminder, perhaps, that his works relate first to nature and then to the spaces in which they’re housed.

Standing in the 40 foot cube of Houghton’s Stone Hall, amid an embarrassment of sculpted riches by Giueseppi Artari and John Michael Rysbrack, the realisation slowly dawns it has all been faded into background scenery by Long’s striking installation.

Thanks to an invite from Davina Barber at Norfolk by Design, I had a chance to admire it for a moment in the quiet of the hall a few days ahead of the opening of EARTH SKY, the exhibition of Long’s works which runs at Houghton from 30th April 2017.

Long has been labouring at Houghton for a year and a half, adding to his permanent work, Full Moon Circle, which was installed on the lawn in 2003.

Richard Long's henge at Houghton Hall's EARTH SKY exhibition

Elsewhere, the green space between the driveway and the stable yard is now home to a circle of mighty tree stumps from the estate. Placed upside down, with their roots waving towards the sky like antlers, they will be good company for the deer herds which roam the park. Apparently Long was inspired by his recently acquired knowledge of Seahenge, the 4000 year old wooden circle discovered in 1998 on the coastal sands at nearby Holme-next-the-Sea.

Richard Long's sculpture in the walled garden at Houghton Hall's EARTH SKY exhibition

The Walled Garden, lined with apple blossom and tulips in late spring, features another cross by Long, this time executed entirely in slate and on a much larger scale than in the Stone Hall. It rises in peaks from the impossibly green lawn. Seen from ground level, it appears as a mountain range in miniature, jutting up into the huge blue and white Norfolk sky.

Richard Long's sculpture on the lawn at Houghton Hall's EARTH SKY exhibition

I suspect it is Long’s ruler-straight stripe of local orange carr stone, which slashes through the lawn for more than 80 metres between the house and the Full Moon Circle, which will remain the exhibition’s enduring image. It gives scale to the massive expanse of Houghton’s lawn, leading the eye on and on until it is eventually absorbed in a bucolic haze of fields and grazing herds. This is the runway visitors will now follow to the Full Moon Circle and I’m told you should hope for rain, as the circle’s slates – dry on the day of my visit – shine in the wet.

Norfolk by Design sign at the Houghton Hall exhibition

The stable yard, faced with more of the carr stone, hosts an exhibition of works for sale curated by Norfolk by Design. If Long’s sculptures felt like a chance meeting abroad with a kindred spirit, Norfolk by Design’s collection was much closer to home.

Blakeney Sands painting by Lorraine Bewick at Norfolk by Design's Houghton Hall exhibition

I was drawn immediately to Lorraine Bewick’s landscapes. The wild expanses of Blakeney Harbour at low tide, where I walk daily, are beautifully evoked in her ‘Blakeney Sands’. This is work by someone who understands the middle of the harbour – when the water is out – is as much a journey for the imagination as a trip on foot.

Smoke drawing of an owl by Maria Pavledis at Norfolk by Design's Houghton Hall exhibition

Maria Pavledis’ giant ghost of an owl, created as a smoke drawing, hovered over another of the horse stalls which house the exhibition. The use of smoke seems very fitting for a creature which, at this time of year, Michelle and I often see drifting above the marsh on evening walks between Morston and Blakeney.

Shell art by Blott Kerr-Wilson at Norfolk by Design's Houghton Hall exhibition

I remembered Blott Kerr-Wilson’s wonderful shellscapes from a previous Norfolk by Design exhibition. Their sweeping textures and metallic sheen remain just as striking, especially at the large scale on display at Houghton. There’s something about framing the curving patterns in a rectangular space which seems to amplify the natural form of the shell. Our nearest mussel beds at Morston, sadly, are no longer producing, but the shells are everywhere on the coast. At Freshes Creek, a little anchorage near Stiffkey, the path itself is made of crushed mussel shells laid down over the years by the locals.

Helena Lynch chair at Norfolk by Design's Houghton Hall exhibition

There were bright flashes of colour to catch the eye throughout. A large armchair and footstool by Helena Lynch stands out in bold blues and reds against the wood and cream of the stables.

Pink and white tree by Catherine Cazalet at Norfolk by Design's Houghton Hall exhibition

Catherine Cazalet’s Weeping Pink and White tree uses an amazing shade of almost neon pink, yet somehow seems so calm and natural.

Ceramics by Polly Fern at Norfolk by Design's Houghton Hall exhibition

The progression of spring to summer in Norfolk is an evolving haze of sun and cloud, fields and flowers, expanding days and living outside on the allotment and the water. A set of nine tiles by ceramicist Polly Fern captures the essence of that, or at least how it often feels to us in our little coastal corner of the county.

Norfolk by Design have done a tremendous job of showcasing the diversity and quality of art and craft in the local area, a reflection perhaps of the many worlds which co-exist in this place of farms and beaches, country lanes and fishing villages…and, of course, great houses with great taste for art.

There are more photos in our Flickr gallery or follow @north.sea.living on Instagram.

EARTH SKY, 30th April to 27th October, and Norfolk by Design, 30th April to 30th September 2017, at Houghton Hall. Thanks to Davina Barber for the invitation.

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The first swim of the year will always be cold. That’s half the point, surely? After a winter and chilly spring bundled in layers and coats, there’s something cathartic about the burning freshness of the North Sea, still carrying it’s memories of January’s churning, grey waves.

We cheated a little. Instead of tackling the open sea from Blakeney Point, we walked down the harbour at low tide to a favourite swimming hole. Even when the water is out, there’s enough depth left to swim a few laps.

A weekend of warm sunshine had taken the edge off that first plunge, but there’s still a degree of steeling oneself for a ritual which soon becomes second nature as the season progresses. Clothes off, don’t wait too long in the chill of the wind, tell the dogs to sit, dive under and then call them in: leaping with all their Labrador enthusiasm to save their floundering humans from their folly.

It’s never as cold as you expect and you never regret the decision to go for it.

There’s nothing like the feeling of the sea on your skin and I notice it especially on days when work has called me to the big city. There’s no better way to reconnect with life on the coast than returning home from a day of meetings, cycling to the beach and diving into the waves.

Emboldened by that first foray, I woke early the next day to find the sun already shining and a big tide rushing in past the quay. What better way to work up an appetite for breakfast than another swim? I walked down to the sheltered spot where the channel turns on its way to Morston and dived off the ramshackle old wooden platform.

Without the benefit of a full day’s sunshine to warm it, the morning tide felt much, much colder than before. Puffing against the incoming flow, I managed a few quick strokes of front crawl back up the channel, then let the tide wash me back down to where I’d started, escaping up the ladder to a towel and hearty breakfast.

It’ll get warmer every day. By September, there will be evenings when the water seems to melt into a liquid sunset around you and night swims glow with phosphoresence.

Mud & rainbows in Blakeney Harbour on the North Norfolk coast

 

The Northerly was whipping down the little channel of Blakeney Cut this morning, chopping the water into brown and grey waves.  “Fine weather,” observed the solitary walker I encountered, as she turned quickly for home, the Labrador at her heels following with obvious enthusiasm for returning to a warm kitchen.  There was a flurry of snow last night, but as I continued out onto the marsh, glad of my fur hat, a sudden rainbow arched across the horizon.  It seemed to rise from the Watch House on Blakeney Point and disappear into the steel grey of the sky, before dropping some time later away on the freshes towards Morston and Stiffkey.

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There was no denying it was a stunning morning. Cold and crisp, with frost in the shade and barely a breath of wind to disturb the incoming tide under a white winter sun. The only question was whether I could sneak in an outing in the kayak before starting work.

With the winds which have gusted along the Norfolk Coast all winter, this was the first time since the start of the year I’d had the opportunity to take to the water.

I paddled out, justifying the trip in my own mind by thinking I’d combine it with some scouting of the mooring location I’ve been eyeing up for our boat.

One of the great beauties of kayaking in the winter is that the colourful mooring buoys are not hidden by their boats. They stud the water with bright bursts of pink and yellow, contrasting beautifully with the ice blue of a calm winter sea.

I didn’t go far, conscious I ought to be back at my desk by a reasonable hour. Just down to where we might establish our mooring, finding to my satisfaction there was plenty of water, even with an hour of tide still left to rise.

I explored the channel which occasionally fills near the bank, wanting to take a closer look at the boat which had washed up there. She’s a sturdy twenty footer, but must have pulled free of her mooring a few weeks ago, and has been drifting around the harbour on the big tides. Last I saw her, she was on the shingle near the beach, up the Cley channel, but today she’d come for a visit in Blakeney.

A reminder of the care we’ll need when mooring our own if we don’t want her to take off for a solo tour of the harbour!

Frost & high tide on a winter's morning in Blakeney

It was one of those rare days: an icy blue morning tide which rose gently, irresistibly until it lapped against the frost left by the winter’s night.

The Saturday Map, a day well spent

Maps should tell a story. This one is the tale of our Saturday. If you know these places, you’ll perhaps also understand why it wouldn’t be at all bad to spend every Saturday like this.

We’ve walked through Salthouse Churchyard on many hikes along the Norfolk Coast, but only today did I notice the little red sign to ‘The Old Chapel’.

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The grass is hardly trodden down, just a faint memory of footsteps leading between the headstones to a low gap amid the briar, ivy and blackthorn. Stooping through this natural green arch, you find yourself in a small open space, the ground covered with brown leaves.

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Ivy chokes the remains of the flint walls and headstones are stacked all around. The dates are all from the 1800s. One read, simply: T. H. 1896 S. H. 1852.  I wonder who they were?

One of the ways I notice the passing of the seasons is the difference in the morning light when I come down to breakfast.

The windows face East and this morning it was all sunlight, shadows, reflections and rainbows.

Morning rainbows

Morning shadows

Morning colours

Morning shadows II

Morning light

We’ve been living by the sea in Norfolk for two and a bit years. This is the first in a series of four photo essays documenting each of the seasons on this coast. With the glorious summer of 2014 just passing, it seemed the right place to start.

The photographs were mainly shot on camera phones, a discipline with its own challenges.

Summer night sky over Blakeney Cut

I returned home to Blakeney Quay after kayaking the harbour on a warm, still July evening. Turning to look back north and west, the quiet glow of the summer night sky continued long after the sun went down. We see this rainbow of the dusk each night from May to July as we walk up to bed, looking out from the staircase window and framed by the gables of old houses. In June it is still there at midnight.

Picnic at Burnham Deepdale

Purslane and muddy sand, the bright colours of mooring buoys and the blue expanse of the Norfolk sky. Taken as we sat for a quick picnic at Burnham Deepdale, on our way to collect weekend house guests from Kings Lynn station – a recurring theme of summer when your family realises you live in a house by the sea with spare bedrooms!

Mucky paws

Ankle deep in squelching mud from a walk down the harbour at low tide. It’s always fun to see how visitors from the city react to what our little nephew calls ‘The Blakeney Blurgie’.

Black bream

Taken at Cley Beach, cooking locally caught fish over a charcoal grill. Light the barbecue, dive into the waves and swim as the smell of the fire drifts over the water. By the time you’re out, the coals are ready to cook. We love it best on a Sunday evening, when the coast empties of weekenders and there’s still time for an evening on the beach before the working week.

Samphire is at its most tender in early summer. We always pickle some to stow away in jars and eat at Christmas. I love to go early on a summer’s morning to cut a few tips for a breakfast of scrambled eggs and samphire on sour dough bread.

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The summer of 2014 will be remembered for the endless bounty of strawberries. These were some of our own and, once we’d picked all those, we had them for several months from neighbouring Wiveton Hall and Sharrington, a few miles inland.

Picnicking in the church yard at Cley under an impossibly blue sky.

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Taken in the Glaven Valley, between the ford at Glanford and Bayfield Hall. It is a staggeringly beautiful spot and sometimes I’ll just stand on the bridge looking South down the valley, drinking it all in.

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It was one of those special days when the summer sun is high in a blue sky, but little patches of coastal fog hung beside the sea. This was taken at Kelling Quag, a remote pond you pass on the way down a long lane to the deserted beach at Kelling Hard.

It is impossible to sit on one of Norfolk’s pebble beaches and not play with the stones: to throw or collect or build. Cley, after a swim.

Sunset through the fishing pots at Cley

The sun sets over the water at Cley Beach throughout the summer. We will often sit in the lee of an old fishing boat, between the sea and the pots, keeping warm by the charcoal barbecue after an evening swim.

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We were nearly at Morston, gliding through the creeks from Blakeney, when George spotted it: a luminescent white green arc where the bows of my kayak slid through the water. Suddenly it was all around us. Every paddle stroke and every droplet of water sparkled with glowing phosphoresence.

We could send sparkles shooting from our finger tips simply by flicking water with our hands. There is, no doubt, a scientific explanation for all this, but on a still, warm September night – when the harbour was a black mirror filled with reflected stars and our boats glowed with the water’s soft green fire – I am content to believe in a little magic.

The extraordinary phenomenon stayed with us the whole journey, through the creeks and out into the open harbour as we circled back to Blakeney. It must be seen to be believed, but perhaps it is best equated as a Northern Lights of the sea?