A short guide to Castle Acre, nr Swaffham and Old Red Lion bunkhouse
After departing the train at Kings Lynn I was soon on board the second of my three-legged journey to Castle Acre. I admit I’ve never been on any form of public transport with so many over 60s. Albeit over 60s the way one assumes such a generation should be like – friendly and chatty with sensible shoes, they know the bus driver’s name and say thank you when they get off. In return, an advertisement from the bus company reads ‘We encourage our drivers to be extra helpful and polite. Because a smile goes a long way’. This is one of those ways of life that differentiates rural areas from big cities. The other way of putting it, as the taxi driver on the third and final leg of my journey made reference of this area, is that it’s like ‘God’s waiting room’. I was eager to find out for myself what this little nook of Eastern England had to offer.
Upon my arrival into the village of Castle Acre and to the Old Red Lion bunkhouse, live-in owner Alison enthusiastically greeted me. You could say Alison is in the over 60s category (without being too presumptuous and for the fact that she spoke about her concessionary bus pass) yet she is certainly one of a kind. Her energy and enthusiasm for her guests and life itself is evident and she immediately makes you feel part of the furniture, in a comforting and reassuring way.
A former pub complete with cellar, the Old Red Lion envelops an ornate landscaped garden, full of potted herbs and saplings. On one side of the garden sits the communal kitchen, fully equipped, clean and orderly (where recycling is a given and a healthy wholefood breakfast is served), an attached loo and living/dining room, which is spacious and airy. All of which are open to guests throughout the day and night. Then in the main building guests are kindly asked to remove outdoor shoes and are welcomed by a cosy entrance and the two highly affectionate resident cats, Joe and Rosie. For those not partial to or allergic, do not be alarmed, as upstairs where the guest rooms are situated is out of bounds to the feline kind.
Bedrooms on offer include a mix of doubles, twins and dorms all with linen and towels supplied. Some rooms have ensuites, some have private wash basins and others share facilities. Not only are the rooms pleasantly decorated, they also feature locally handcrafted furniture. Even the dorm rooms transport one back in time. I’ve personally never seen bunk beds as solid and rustic, as though they’ve been rehoused from an old convent school, the bed equivalent of wooden church pews. You’ll certainly not find any of the standard hostel-type flat pack or flimsy metal bunks that feel like they’re built to move in an earthquake.
As Alison finishes showing me around she kindly invites me to join her yoga class in the evening, which she teaches regularly in the cellar (and where she lights a pot-belly fire to keep bodies warm and supple). At the same time she brings me a hot water bottle to warm my bed. I admit defeat. Hot water bottle 1 : yoga 0, followed by an evening exploring a very ethereal Castle Acre (blanketed by a rather ghostly dense fog) and dining at local pub, The Ostrich.
The village of Castle Acre and its surrounds are certainly charming and steeped in Norman history. Outdoor enthusiasts embarking on the Peddars Way and those following Christian pilgrim routes are already inclined to stay in Castle Acre as a pit stop. However, even if guests aren’t motivated by the former activities, what makes the Old Red Lion a unique place to visit and what sets it apart from the other B&Bs and guesthouses, is its retreat-like environment and purpose-built facilities. Not only does Alison cater for solo travelers, couples and small groups but the property is also available for private hire. Those seeking a tranquil but well-equipped space for courses, workshops and functions should look no further.
Areas of consideration:
I was fortunate to stay when it was quiet; therefore Alison was able to give me her undivided attention. However at peaks times, i.e. on weekends or during half term, I wonder how one person alone might cope with a large number of needy guests. Even for someone as vivacious as Alison it would be challenging to tend to all the catering / tidying up and still take it in stride. On another note, the shared guest bathroom in the main building has no shower, only a bathtub. While this is a rather nice feature it may not be totally practical when large numbers of guests are staying.
All in all the Old Red Lion is simply a unique place. Yes, many guesthouses and villages in the English isles still have that quintessential charm. Yet perhaps it’s the ‘lost in time’ air that gives both the Old Red Lion and the village in which it sits its character and appeal. Surfing the Internet on one’s smart device and even making a mobile phone call is like a game of chance. Yet I can’t help but think it’s Castle Acre’s way of saying ‘for just one day leave your emails and social media alone and take a chance on doing nothing at all’. I admit it was hard for this city girl to grasp the concept of doing nothing and just enjoy the tranquility. But it was not before long that I became smug and to all the people back in London I said to myself ‘ha ha, there is absolutely nothing I must be doing’ and what an uplifting sensation it was. And if you really really must be doing something, then let it be navigating the Peddars Way, taking a yoga class or getting in touch with your creative side.
Must do in Castle Acre and Swaffham:
- Do some research before you visit. Dedicated websites include www.castleacre.info, English Heritage, National Trail and www.countrysideaccess.norfolk.gov.uk
- Visit historic sites including the priory, castle ruins, Bailey Gate and the River Nar
- Eat and tea your way around town. There are a number of traditional teahouses and cafes in both Castle Acre and Swaffham including Churchgate, Barnfields, Ceres Bookshop & tea room (do try the Guinness Cake), Co-Coes and Market Cross café bar
- Visit the Ecotech Centre, which is attached to one of the wind turbines in Swaffham. The centre encourages school groups and tourists alike to climb the turbine, visit exhibitions and learn about sustainable energy and green technology
- Be at one with inner health and alternative therapies. Pop into the The Green Parrot or get your hands on a copy of Eco Echo for all the latest holistic news and events in the Norfolk region. (At time of writing I couldn’t find any online links to Eco Echo magazine, however you can pick up copies from Co-Coes and other local businesses)
- Get in touch with your creative side. Try Chalkies or nearby at the Westacre Theatre for courses, activities and performances. Rag Rug workshop anyone?!?
- Ask Alison for local taxi numbers. Without your own transport you’re likely to need them.
Give it a miss:
- If you’re in search of a happening nightlife or a lads weekend away, Castle Acre and the surrounds are not for you
- If without your own transport and travelling from afar, Castle Acre is not the most accessible place. A one-way taxi journey to/from Swaffham (about a 10 minute journey) costs £8 and although the ‘walking’ distance in miles isn’t that far, the main road isn’t exactly pedestrian friendly. On top of that the nearest national rail station is Kings Lynn, which in itself is a 25-minute bus journey to Swaffham. The X1 bus does service some other larger towns including the city of Norwich (approx 40min drive), therefore Swaffham itself is well serviced by public transport.
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