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No better place than Norfolk for great beer, cultural stimulation and places to visit

In his weekly The Bar Man column, Jeff Hoyle chats about a recent short trip...

It was a bright autumn day when we headed out to Houghton Hall to see their sculpture exhibition featuring works by Sean Scully.

Unlike some artists that have headlined the summer exhibitions in the past, I had not heard of the 78-year-old Irish American, but even if his work proved disappointing, there was always the chance to stroll around the extensive grounds, see the permanent exhibits from the likes of Richard Long and Rachel Whiteread, stroll round the garden and visit the interior of the house.

Jeff Hoyle
Jeff Hoyle

As it happened, I need not have worried. Scully’s sculptures were magnificent, being monumental in scale and superbly positioned. The great cube made up of huge sandstone blocks complemented the water tower behind it while the network of metal beams, something like a three-dimensional Mondrian, were perfectly placed in front of the great house.

With the discs of sandstone stacked on top of one another like millstones reminding me of a geological section and the marble ones resembling a pile of giant poker chips, for once my mind was distracted from the flame in the fountain, perhaps my all-time favourite work.

Last time we visited Houghton was for the stunning Christmas light display a couple of years ago and we had continued on to eat at the newly opened Sculthorpe Mill. This time we decided to go one better and stay there for the night, and very pleasant it was.

There was time for a stroll to the nearby village of Shereford (Me ‘See those trees over there? That’s Shereford Forest. Her ‘You are not funny’) and inspect the ancient round towered church with what looks like a Norman doorway, before returning for an excellent dinner.

On my previous visit I had scored the beer, Moon Gazer Pintail, at 5/5 and did the same again this time. Has beer ever been better?

Our overnight stay allowed us to visit another sculpture trail at nearby Bayfield Hall, where 40 works were distributed through the grounds. Varying from stuff that looked like old washing hung on branches to beautiful and involving installations near the ruined medieval church, this was a fascinating visit rounded off with a poke around in the antique centre and a coffee in the café.

Both exhibitions are open until late October, so you may just have time. A couple of days later it was Moon Gazer on the menu again, as brewer Dave called into the Warehouse Taproom at Setchey on the latest leg of his barrel push. He had walked from the White Hart at Ashill earlier in the day, a distance of over 20 miles, and was the star attraction in a pint and pizza charity quiz evening.

Thrillingly for me, I had at last an opportunity to taste cask-conditioned beer at the Warehouse, and although I didn’t reach the level of perfection of Sculthorpe Mill, it was still pretty good and a perfect accompaniment for the marvellous pizza.

We had to be content with second place in the quiz, but that was secondary to the news that the total raised for the ‘On the Ball’ charity was approaching £35,000. I think it was the tagline to the Fridtjoft Nansen slide on the lectures when we went to Svalbard, but the phrase ‘never stop exploring’ came to mind.

You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth to discover new and interesting things. It may be a search for the next great beer, some cultural stimulation or a new place to visit, there can be no better place than Norfolk to begin.


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