I am seated in the restaurant of The White Horse. In front of me, three magnificent oysters, and beyond, a panoramic window lays bare the wild, stunning coastline of North Norfolk.
The views stretch across the saltmarsh to the distant horizon. To the west, the sun has started its slow, steady descent, creating a myriad of vivid colours… blues, reds, yellows… a fiery backdrop to a long, narrow stretch of coastline, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
This internationally important protected area runs between Old Hunstanton and Holme-next-the-Sea, eastwards for 27 miles to Kelling. The White Horse nestles to the eastern edge of the village of Brancaster Staithe, six miles distant from Old Hunstanton.
Like the area, with its ghosts of smugglers past, The White Horse has its own history to tell. The present house was built in 1934, adjacent to the site which once accommodated a pub, which itself pre-dates the present building by almost a century. The present owners of The White Horse, the Nye family, bought the rundown pub in 1994. Then known as The Lobster Pot, a caravan park was sited on the present car park area. By 1999, the original name had been reinstated and 15 hotel bedrooms added, doubling its size in depth and width.
Brancaster Staithe is renowned for its mussels and oysters, grown in the ‘lays’ along the tidal creeks nearby, which is why I find before me three Brancaster oysters, chosen from an excellent starter menu which includes scorched cured mackerel; cod brandade; ‘marsh pig’ salami with peach, honey, curried granola and cultured yoghurt; and pressed ham hock, complete with rye, piccalilli and quail egg.
Initially, I struggled over the menu, such was the dazzling choice, but it had to be the oysters, the origin of which plays to effect on the actual taste. I can assure you that the waters that lap the saltmarshes hereabouts make for a superb taste. Now, I guess you may be wondering whether I chewed them, or let them slip down whole. It had to be chewing, as why would one want to miss out on the brininess and, of course, the umami. Have I gone over the top here? Possibly, but I wanted to ease you into the dining experience here at The White Horse.
A restaurant full of diners at 7.30pm speaks volumes. There is little doubt why people come here. Apart from the excellent menu, the conservatory restaurant with its attractive deck terrace and adjoining dining area offers spectacular views of the tidal marsh beyond to Scolt Head Island. The restaurant’s elevated deck terrace has been cleverly designed, facing east to west and thereby offering guests those spectacular sunsets whilst sipping their gin and tonics.
That afternoon, I had headed across the expansive car park to the Norfolk Coast Path, which runs across the northern boundary of the property. At 84 miles long, the long-distance trail stretches from Hunstanton eastwards to Hopton-on-Sea. As I was gazing out across the tidal marsh towards Scolt Head Island, a four-mile long sand bar housing a National Nature Reserve, and home to terns, oyster catchers and ringed plovers, a small boat with outboard came chugging towards me, two local fishermen bringing in their day’s catch.
As I watched them unload, waders splashing through the water, their bright yellow waterproofs in stark contrast to the sombre, dark clouds overhead, I was struck by the timeless beauty of this place. It was if I was caught in a vacuum. I took a steady walk westwards to Brancaster Staithe Quay, where once cargo ships stacked with coal and grain sat alongside fishing boats.
Despite its steady decline in the 1800s, local fishermen, like those I had seen earlier, continue to plough these waters. I am told that Brancaster Staithe is an excellent base from which to begin an exploration via the coastal path. Head west to find Brancaster beach , for example, and you will happen upon vast expanses of golden sand.
With time being short, I headed back to The White Horse, where each of the 15 spacious en suite bedrooms have been tastefully decorated in a coastal contemporary style. Mood lighting cast delicate shadows across the soft blues and hues which adorned the modern fabrics of my room, one of eight cleverly built into the natural contours of the land, each with their own terrace complete with table and chairs.
The room is equipped with digital television and WiFi, complimentary tea and coffee making facilities, biscuits, and bathroom toiletries. Rooms upstairs in the main building include the split-level ‘Room at the Top’, which has a glazed gable end to a viewing balcony and telescope.
To the front of the building is a landscaped sunken garden with marsh-type shrubbery, and comprising a solid roofed shelter area with sun canopy over the sunken seating area, with both areas benefitting from heating. A separate purpose-built kitchen is housed in the outdoor garden – The Shack – and convenient for all-day al fresco dining.
Back in the restaurant, I choose a glass of the house red, a ‘Joie de`Vigne’ Grenache/Pinot Noir 2016, which is full of red fruits and berries, and a perfect accompaniment to my mains of 28-day matured Norfolk 8oz ribeye steak with garlic butter, mushrooms and hand-cut chips. I also opted for a bowl of locally harvested marsh samphire.
This fashionable vegetable has an extraordinarily short harvesting season, so my timing of the visit could not have been more perfect. There are various ways to prepare the sea vegetable, the easiest method being either to boil or steam with a little olive oil or butter. Mine came dripping in butter, and was a deliciously salty accompaniment to a steak.
As for dessert, I opted for the lemon tart with bee pollen creme fraiche and honeycomb, which had to be one of the best tarts I had eaten in quite some time.
The award-winning White Horse belongs to the Anglian Country Inns family, which also owns The Jolly Sailors, a short walk back through the village. Voted the nation’s favourite family pub in 2016, the 18th century establishment has held a liquor licence since 1789, and it is said that many a smuggler enjoyed swilling back a a pint or two here.
I can think of far worse ways of spending a sultry evening than here on Norfolk’s spectacular northern coastline, seated on The White Horse’s deck terrace, soaking up the sunset, the atmosphere, a drink to hand, and listening to many a tall tale, whilst awaiting the call for dinner.
The White Horse
Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk PE31 8BY