9 of Norfolk's most beautiful buildings
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
The Custom House, King’s Lynn
One of the town's best-known landmarks, the Custom House has overlooked King's Lynn's historic quays for centuries.
Designed by Sir Henry Bell, it was built by Sir John Turner in 1683 to house customs officers keeping their eye on Lynn's bustling waterfront – the town was an internationally important trading port and a member of the Hanseatic League.
Opened in 1685, merchants originally traded from its ground floor, but they decamped claiming the Custom House was too far from Tuesday Market Place – which was a short walk down King Street.
Architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who wrote The Buildings of England, called it one of the most perfect buildings ever built.
In 2016 restoration work was carried out on the Grade I listed landmark building to repair its distinctive, ornate cupola and balustrades.
Bell, a contemporary of Sir Christopher Wren, designed a number of other well-known buildings in Norfolk including All Saints Church in North Runcton and the Duke’s Head Hotel in Lynn’s Tuesday Market Place.
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Outside the Custom House on Purfleet Quay stands a statue of Captain George Vancouver, the Lynn-born explorer who charted North America’s north-western Pacific Coast. Vancouver Island, the city of Vancouver in British Columbia and Vancouver, Washington are named after him.
King’s Lynn has a wealth of beautiful historic buildings, including the Trinity Guildhall with its flint and stone chequerboard façade and King’s Lynn Minster.
St Michael the Archangel, Booton
Norfolk is blessed with many beautiful churches, but St Michael the Archangel near Reepham is one of the most distinctive and fascinating, shaped by eccentric rector the Rev Whitwell Elwin.
He arrived at his medieval parish church in 1850 and spent the next 50 years redesigning and rebuilding it.
He had no architectural experience, but incorporated his favourite features from the Palace of Westminster, Glastonbury Abbey and Oxford colleges into his design.
It is known as the Cathedral of the Fields thanks to its soaring twin spires. And inside, angels fly overhead and cluster with vast feathered wings – they were modelled on Elwin’s female acquaintances.
The Rev was a friend of Charles Dickens, Walter Scott and William Thackery and a great letter writer, advising one correspondent, Charles Darwin, to stick to writing about pigeons.
As well as redesigning his church, the Rev designed Booton House, the childhood home of Stephen Fry.
Today St Michael the Archangel is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust and is the first in Norfolk to offer church camping – or champing – for an overnight stay with a difference.
Hippodrome Circus, Great Yarmouth
The Hippodrome Circus at Great Yarmouth been dubbed one of the seven wonders of the British seaside, along with the likes of Blackpool Tower, Brighton Royal Pavilion and Southend Pier.
And as Britain’s only surviving total circus building, it is certainly a place to be treasured.
Tucked just off the seafront in St George’s Road, it was built in 1903 by legendary showman George Gilbert. Designed by architect Ralph Scott Cockrill, the brick and terracotta exterior features two ornate towers and arches embellished with Art Nouveau foliage reliefs.
But it is inside the building where the magic truly happens, because it is one of only three circuses in the world where the circus ring sinks and becomes a swimming pool.
Impresario Peter Jay bought the Hippodrome in 1979 and restored the water spectacle for the first circus he produced in 1981.
And the trick continues to wow audiences to this day, who still flock to the resort for their Pirates Live show, Summer Circus and Water Spectacular, Halloween Spooktacular and Christmas Spectacular.
The work of architect George Skipper – around Norwich and beyond
George Skipper was born in Dereham in 1856 and John Betjeman said of him: “He was to Norwich rather what Gaudi was to Barcelona.”
Skipper's work included elements of the French chateau, Palladian, Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau styles.
His legacy in the city includes the spectacular Marble Hall in Surrey House on Surrey Street, which is home to insurance giant Aviva.
Commissioned by what was then the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, behind the imposing Palladian exterior its jaw-dropping domed entrance hall includes walls and pillars of patterned marble intended for Westminster Cathedral.
He also designed Jarrold’s Exchange Street façade, the building which is now St Giles House Hotel and the much-admired Royal Arcade, which was designed with 24 wooden bow-fronted shops and features colourful and elaborate tile work.
Skipper also made his mark around the county, including Sennowe Hall at Guist near Fakenham and Hunstanton Town Hall.
From the coming of the railways, Cromer was transforming from a sleepy fishing village into a resort for wealthy tourists who wanted holiday homes and hotels.
And reflecting its new-found fashionable status, Skipper gave the town a wealth of buildings including the Queen Anne-style former town hall, large homes on St Mary’s and Vicarage roads and the Hotel de Paris, which rises, topped with pinnacles and domes, from the seafront.
Feted as one of England’s most beautiful Palladian houses, Houghton Hall was built in the 1720s for Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
It was a collaboration between two of the most famous architects of the period – Colen Campbell and James Gibbs. Built to reflect its illustrious owner’s wealth, taste and power its sumptuous interiors were created by William Kent, featuring painted ceilings, gilding and marble.
In the State Bedroom, its famous Shell bed was dressed with green velvet and silver gilt embroidery and the Marble Parlour, dedicated to the Roman god of wine Bacchus, is adorned with carvings of grapes and vine leaves.
Houghton is currently the home of a direct descendent of Sir Robert Walpole, the Marquess of Cholmondeley and his wife, Rose Cholmondeley.
Lord Chomondeley is a collector of modern sculpture, which is displayed in the gardens and grounds and Houghton Hall has hosted major exhibitions by Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long and James Turrell.
In 2013 it staged the landmark Houghton Revisited show, a reconstruction of Sir Robert Walpole’s picture collection which had been sold to Catherine the Great in 1779.
Is there a more ‘in-spiring’ sight than Norwich Cathedral? Steadfastly soaring above the fine city for centuries, its spire is actually the second highest in England.
A sublime example of Romanesque architecture, Norwich Cathedral was founded in 1096 by Bishop Herbert de Losinga and was built using Normandy stone shipped over from Caen. The building was completed by 1145, under the direction of Bishop Herbert’s successor, Eborard de Montgomery.
It was originally a Benedictine monastery run by a prior and a community of monks – and was where city dwellers would go to if they were sick or poor.
Your imagination goes into overdrive as you walk around the Cloisters, thinking about the many feet that have trod the walkways before you.
And the Nave is always breath-taking. Look up and admire the 225 carved bosses in the ceiling, the largest collection of its kind in the world, starting at the east end of the cathedral and progressing from creation to the last judgement.
In 2019, the cathedral attracted international attention for its Seeing It Differently campaign, which saw a 55-foot helter-skelter erected inside the Nave to help visitors appreciate the roof bosses.
And last summer the Natural History Museum’s iconic diplodocus cast, Dippy the Dinosaur, took up residence in the Nave on the final stop of his national tour.
This week, in a poll for Norfolk Day, Norwich Cathedral was voted the county's number one icon, ahead of Norwich Castle, which was second, Colman's Mustard in third and Cromer crab in fourth.
This summer Oxburgh Hall is free of scaffolding and can be seen in its full glory for the first time in six years.
The 500-year-old moated manor house has undergone a £6million project to restore its roof and the façade of the gatehouse, which was much admired by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.
The house, which is between Swaffham and Downham Market, was built for Sir Edmund Bedingfield around 1482, and the family has lived at the hall since, although ownership was passed to the National Trust in 1952.
The gatehouse features a pair of polygonal stair towers which Pevsner described as 'the most prominent of the English brick gatehouses of the 15th century.'
The Bedingfelds were once rising stars of the Tudor royal court before falling from grace when Sir Edmund refused to sign the Queen’s Act of Uniformity in 1559, which banned Catholic mass.
But the family stayed true to their faith over the centuries despite being ostracised and persecuted. They even had a secret priest hole installed as a place for the clergy to hide from Elizabeth’s priest hunters.
And it is home to the Oxburgh Hangings - a collection of needlework made by Mary, Queen of Scots when she was imprisoned, and Bess of Hardwick, the wife of Mary's captor, George Talbot.
Since 2016, 14,000 roof tiles, 27 chimneys, 12,000 3-D printed bricks and 14 windows have been replaced.
And several exciting discoveries were made under the floorboards during the project, including a rare 15th-century manuscript, a banned prayer book, a wartime chocolate box and rats’ nests made from Elizabethan textiles.
A multi-faceted architectural gem, Blickling Hall was built between 1616-24 for Sir Henry Hobart, Lord Chief Justice to James I.
The stunning Jacobean mansion stands on the site of a late medieval moated hall, where Anne Boleyn and her siblings were born at the start of the 1500s. And it is said that every year her ghost returns on the anniversary of her execution, on May 19.
Its library houses an important and extensive collection of books and manuscripts and other treasures include a tapestry from Catherine the Great.
The upper anteroom’s embellished ceiling, consisting of a large central octagon with eight decorated panels surrounding a pendant with floral decorations recently underwent restoration after being damaged by death watch beetles.
Philip Kerr, 11th Marquis of Lothian, left the estate to the National Trust in 1940 and generations have been able to enjoy the house, gardens and grounds, which include its very own pyramid.
The mausoleum was built in the Great Wood in the 1790s, based on the Roman tomb of Cestius.
The ziggurats, University of East Anglia campus
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the UEA campus has been home to bold, cutting-edge architecture right from the start.
When the university was founded in the early 1960s, architect Denys Lasdun was commissioned to plan the first buildings, creating a concrete teaching block, lecture theatres, library, socialising spaces and residences all within a short walk of each other.
And the distinctive-shaped Grade II listed 'ziggurat' halls of residence, designed to create a sense of community among students, are often cited as a brutalist masterpiece.
In 2020, a book named their neighbour, the Sainsbury Centre, as a shining example of modern British architecture.
It was architect Sir Norman Foster's first major public building and home to a world class collection of art and antiquities, it has even starred on the silver screen.
The gallery was one of just three buildings in the east of England to feature in the book, Best Buildings Britain, along with the Willis Building in Ipswich, another building designed by Foster Associates, and A House For Essex on the banks of the River Stour, designed by FAT Architecture and Grayson Perry.
Some of the book’s other choices included Preston Bus Station and the National Theatre (also designed by Denys Lasdun) and Art Deco gems such as De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Marine Court in St Leonards on Sea.