The crumbling Norfolk seaside town being restored to its former glory
Never judge a book by its cover. Or, indeed, a hotel by its exterior. There are many metrics by which to make snap assessments about a hotel’s soul (dining-room chairs are my favourite litmus test – if they have scrimped here, scarper; ditto the ladies’ loos) but I have found some of Britain’s best boltholes hidden down insalubrious back streets, above pet shops even.
I digress. But not much. Because as I approached the Cliftonville, I was forced to remind myself of this. The imposing seafront hotel was built in 1894 – Cromer’s golden era, when King Edward VII graced the Norfolk resort with his presence for the golf, and grockles flocked to its shiny new pier. Less illustrious periods sadly followed, both for the town and the hotel.
So as we pulled up and got a back view of the hotel, first impressions were of peeling window frames and an overfilled skip. But hold tight. The place is in the final stages of a renovation. In fact, it has been bought by the brains behind the Hoste Arms, Burnham Market (the Norfolk coast’s slinkiest, most chi-chi pub with rooms). If the Cliftonville is getting the Chelsea-on-Sea treatment, could Cromer finally be restored to its former glory?
Walk along the windswept promenade, through the hotel’s front doors and into the cavernous lounge, and the odds immediately improve. The Cliftonville has glorious bones: lofty ceilings, shedloads of bright and billowy stained glass, arts and crafts carving and panelling. A grand split staircase frames the old-school reception desk, where keys are nostalgically hung on a board. Off the lounge, in a long dining room overlooking the waves, sits a huge zebra-striped stone fireplace and there is even a minstrels’ gallery.
The refurb has polished all these tarnished jewels. Panelling is now an inky blue. Mid-century sofas, old gramophones, grandfather clocks, scuffed hardbacks and salvaged portraits of salty old sea dogs soften the space. As we bagged a table, vintage soul music was playing, board games were out and punters were picking from a very decent list of local beers.
The Hoste it is not. A whiff of Fawlty Towers still hangs about the place. Corridors are lined in pebbledash wallpaper, and plastic signage falls tipsily off the walls. And while the facelift has given all 30 bedrooms wood-panelled walls in moody marine shades and framed illustrations of corals and seaweed, the finish falters in places. There are some things – instant coffee sachets, plastic windows you can open only an inch, hair-dryers with buttons that have to be pressed hard at all times – that not even nostalgia can imbue with charm.
Still, every room has sweeping sea views. If Cromer was Margate, this place would be heaving with hipsters – another reason to head here before they take root like Japanese knotweed. Right now, while hoping to lure some in, the Cliftonville still caters to the coach trippers who have kept it afloat for decades. Frankly, they are a more fun crowd.
The fantastic young general manager, Steven Wild, walked me around the dusty final stages of the renovation, talking excitedly of plans for jazz trios playing in the minstrels’ gallery, parties in the old ballroom, and sultry cocktail evenings in the private event rooms.
The chef is also a strength, serving up a menu of crowd-pleasers (burgers and Sunday roasts) alongside a short but sweet selection of local seafood. The position, too: practically falling into the glorious soft sand, and next to the slot machines of Golden Sands arcade.
The Cliftonville’s facelift is not the only change afoot in Cromer. Its legendary “No.1” chippy has a hip rival in the Bucket List (fries drenched in homemade sauces, with a cult following). The Gangway serves Norfolk spirits and craft beer and the Fig and Olive deli sells kombucha in champagne bottles.
Down on the sand, my son has often hired a wetsuit and board from Glide Surf, battling with the cold and surprisingly decent waves. We judged it wiser to join the dog walkers queuing outside North Sea Coffee Co – a cubby hole serving unrivalled, home-roasted brew and cake. Five minutes down the coast, fossil hunters gather at West Runton, where belemnites are two-a-penny in the rockpools, then head to Rocky Bottoms – a brick kiln turned seasonal restaurant – for “pot to plate” seafood. They call this stretch “the deep history coast”. Kiss it quick, while it is still poignant, fun and affordable.
A family of four can stay from £169, B&B, in winter and £240 in summer. 29 Runton Rd, Cromer NR27 9AS (01263 512543; thecliftonville.com).