Pretty, handsome, genteel, stunning, charming, architectural legacy, shoppers’ paradise – just some of the many adjectives describing the near-perfect Georgian market town of Holt, six miles from Blakeney in North Norfolk.
It became a picture-perfect setting after fire ravaged the entire original Medieval town in 1708. The flames engulfed and destroyed virtually every building in a three-hour inferno. The new town was re-created from scratch and rose from the ashes reflecting the Georgian architecture of the time.
Even the late Saxon St Andrews Church, on the edge of town, was damaged when its thatch caught alight. The church was re-built between 1722-1727.
The original town, first mentioned in the Doomsday Book, was of some significance. It had five watermills and was served by the port of Cley next the Sea, one of England’s largest harbours in Medieval times. Only one town centre building, now occupied by Byfords, an extensive and popular delicatessen and restaurant in the town centre, escaped the blaze.
The ferocity of the fire’s clean sweep has, however, turned tragedy into a triumph. It created what is perhaps Norfolk’s prettiest market town with a network of streets, alleyways and four hidden courtyards providing a range of independent shops, art galleries, cafes and pubs housed in attractive flint stone buildings. Bakers & Larners store, known as 'the Harrods of Norfolk', has a pedigree family ownership dating back to the 18th century.
The town is a haven for photographers and artists with style and eccentricity. It has an Owl trail with 24 informative pavement plaques leading visitors around while tracing its history, personalities and notable buildings. The guided walk takes about 45 minutes to complete.
The North Norfolk Railway, known as the Poppy Line, is a five-mile award-winning heritage steam railway running from Holt to Sheringham via Weybourne. The railway opened in 1887 by the Midland and Great Northern Railway. It achieved its ‘poppy’ moniker from the wild poppies growing across the Norfolk countryside on either side of the track and reproduced in the work of numerous artists, photoghraphers and poets. The railway was closed in the ‘Beeching’ cuts of 1964 but was re-opened by enthusiasts who have re-built stations, marshalling yards and created a rail museum.
One of the cultural highlights of the year is the Holt Festival in July. The town, its streets and buildings become home to internationally-recognised musicians, poets, comedians, artists, actors and dancers. Performances are held in the church, the Auden Theatre, the town’s bookshop, the community centre, hotels and the open-air Theatre in the Woods and regularly feature Norfolk’s famous son - actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry. The festival has achieved something of an international reputation as a music, literary and arts festival attracting top talent.
On one edge of town is Holt’s famous public school, Gresham's, founded by John Gresham in 1555. Sir John’s uncle founded the London Stock Exchange.
The school plays an important role in the town and among its famous former pupils are industrialists, Sir James Dyson, inventor and entrepreneur, and Sir Christopher Cockerell the inventor of the hovercraft, Soviet spy Donald Maclean, poet W.H. Auden, musician Benjamin Britten and actor Olivia Colman.
Olympic gold medal oarsman Sir Matthew Pinsent who won 10 world championship gold medals and four consecutive Olympic golds, was born in Holt.
South of the town is the 100-acre Holt Country Park, a haven for peace and tranquillity. Wildlife roams the mature woodland and rolling heathland, but this was not always the case. The land was recorded as being used for horseracing in the 1700s with members of the aristocracy competing for the Town Plate just ten minutes walk from the Market Square.
Holt, like its famous sons and daughters, is just that little bit special.