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I retraced Norfolk's surprising royal connections on a spectacular seal-spotting trip

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(Archie Molver)

Just like us, the royal family loves a country retreat and one of their favourite private getaways is only two hours away from the busy streets of London. The county of Norfolk, just 100 miles north of the capital, has everything for you to relax in the royal family style.

From Prince Harry and Meghan Markle singing with seals to the magical world of Grey Seals, discover the unexpected royal stories and connections that Norfolk has withBritain's most powerful family.

Norfolk wildlife adventure: from singing to seals to Harry Potter’s snowy owl

Seals, sometimes called dogs of the sea, are honourable residents in Norfolk. Visitors hungry to see the cute animals are in luck as there's a choice of three different places to see the beloved creatures. On the West Coast, the prime destination for seal spotting is at Hunstanton, on the North Norfolk coast it's Blakeney Point and on the East Coast, Horsey.

The best time to visit depends on the kind of seal you want to see as Norfolk hosts Grey Seals and the smaller Common Seals. The best time to see Common Seals (Hunstanton and Blakeney Point) is from June to August and for Grey Seals (Horsey and Blakney Point), the window of opportunity to witness them with their pups is from November to February.

More of Juliet's adventures

During my time in Norfolk earlier this month, I spent some quality time with the Grey Seals at Horsey Point, which was only a short 10-minute drive away as I stayed at Winterton-On-Sea, a town mentioned by Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe. Being a short drive away was ideal as in the winter months the daylight hours are short.

Pup seals can be spotted in Norfolk between November and January.
Pup seals can be spotted in Norfolk between November and January. (Archie Molver)

Do you ever struggle with finding an idea for a romantic date in nature? Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have given us an ultimate romantic date idea for all nature lovers. In his best-selling book, Spare, Prince Harry talks about a walk down the beach on which he and Meghan encountered a colony of seals. Prince serenaded them and Meghan joined in. To Harry’s surprise, the seals responded to Meghan’s singing which for Harry cemented what he thought of his then-girlfriend. "She really is magic".

He thought, "Even the seals know it." He added. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree as King Charles previously disclosed that during his childhood, he would sing to seals. Reflecting on his visits to the Castle of Mey in Caithness in an interview for the BBC's Songs of Praise episode, he reminisced about singing "Over the Sea to Skye" with his grandmother, the Queen Mother, and his sister Princess Anne while overlooking the cliffs, as seal heads would bob up from the waters below.

Seals are sometimes referred to as dogs-of-the-sea.
Seals are sometimes referred to as dogs-of-the-sea (Archie Molver)

During my time in Norfolk, I have decided to overcome my shyness of singing in public and I too have sung to seals. You can see my experience in the video included at the top of the article.

In order to make the most of the visit, I opted for an early start of the day and enforced a 6 am wake-up time for myself and my boyfriend, who celebrated his birthday with the sunrise and seal pups. See the short documentary below for more insider information into the life of seals and the sunrise experience. The experience is like no other, worth the cold hands and difficult early wake-ups.

Seals can be spotted (in large numbers) along the cost between Winterton-On-Sea and Horsey
Seals can be spotted (in large numbers) along the cost between Winterton-On-Sea and Horsey (Archie Molver)

In Britain, not many things are as famous as the royal family, but Harry Potter may be an exception. Did you know that the Potter’s favourite pet, the Snowy Owl, made a rare appearance in Norfolk in 2018? The owl, the same species as post-carrying Harry Potter’s magical creature, was spotted in 2018 near Wells-next-the-Sea. It was the first time the owl was seen in Norfolk since 1991.

Good news travels fast and within three days, 900 people turned up at Snettisham for a chance of spotting the rare bird. The Snowy Owl is a super-rare bird in the UK with only 430 recorded sightings of the bird across Great Britain and Ireland since the late 19th Century, according to The Rare Bird Alert Trust.

On our adventures in Norfolk, we spotted Snowy Owl’s cousin, a Short-eared Owl. It is quite a common visitor to Norfolk Broads, where we had the utmost pleasure of spotting the yellow-eyed owl as it was hunting for food with two of its friends.

Short-eared Owls hunt during the daylight which makes for a one-in-a-lifetime spectacle if you are lucky to spot them.
Short-eared Owls hunt during the daytime which makes for a one-in-a-lifetime spectacle if you are lucky to spot them (Archie Molver)

Cley Marshes in Norfolk are a dreamland for nature enthusiasts and royals alike. On our short but fruitful visit to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserve, we came across Snow Buntings. Worldwide, their breeding grounds span from the Arctic regions of Scandinavia to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, with a southward migration during the winter. Within the UK, they are a rare breeding species primarily found in Scotland, earning them a position on the Amber List of species.

Unexpected Norfolk royal connections

Every year the royals attend Christmas Day Church service at the Church of St Mary Magdalene at the Sandringham estate.
Every year the royals attend Christmas Day Church service at the Church of St Mary Magdalene at the Sandringham estate. (Getty)

You can't have Norfolk and royals in the same sentence without mentioning Sandringham Estate. The royal home, one of their two privately owned properties, has become well-known as a Christmas destination for the royal family. The estate, which has been in the royal family since the late nineteenth century, was built by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Christmas was previously associated with Windsor Castle since the royal family celebrated Christmas there from the 12th to the 20th century.

It was King Albert, Queen Elizabeth II’s father, who made Sandringham their family’s destination for the festive season, a tradition that Queen Elizabeth adopted and King Charles is expected to continue. The 20,000-acre countryside estate lies six miles away from the closest town, King's Lynn, assuring more privacy than the famous Buckingham Palace can ever ask for.

King Charles’ Norfolk trips are rich in amusing details.
King Charles’ Norfolk trips are rich in amusing details. (Getty)

Did you know that King Charles once had a troublesome pillow fight in a Norfolk pub? Before you start imagining a 75-year-old with a pillow in one hand and a pint of lager in another, it’s important to note the event happened in 1959 when King Charles was just 11 years old. Prince Philip took his oldest son and two of Charles’ friends with him as he took part in a coot shooting event. The royals intended to stay in Whiteslea Lodge for a couple of nights but when the building was flooded, they resorted to the plan B, Pleasureboat Inn.

The Inn was owned by Gwen Amis whose nephew, Graham Turner, ended up spending quality time with the future king. Although the specifics of their activities during Prince Philip's absence have faded with time, Mr Turner recalls the likelihood of them spending time together, possibly watching television. The infamous pillow fight unfolded on one of the evenings King Charles stayed at the Inn and it became quite heated. Prince Philip instructed the landlady to put the boys in their place which she bravely accomplished. In a letter to Mrs Amis on her 90th birthday, in 2000, the year before she died, King Charles revealed he had never forgotten the pillow fight incident. “The pillow fight is also a vivid memory but you will be glad to hear that I have become a little less violent in my behaviour as middle age creeps on.”

King Charles (left) was 11 when he had an infamous pillow fight in Norfolk pub.
King Charles (left) was 11 when he had a pillow fight in a Norfolk pub. (Getty)

Do you often treat yourself to a takeaway after a night out? In Norfolk, you might stumble across a takeaway approved by the late Queen! Queen Elizabeth II once ordered a local kebab takeaway after a bet she had with Prince Harry. The late Queen’s grandson had a cheeky birthday wish and asked the queen to try a kebab. As a loving grandmother, she obliged, despite being known as ‘not a foodie’ and normally sticking to the same meals every week.

In 2016, a source from within the royal circle shared with the Suffolk Gazette, “Harry had enjoyed a few glasses of wine, and when the Queen asked him if there were anything particular he would like for his birthday, he blurted out, "You have to eat a doner kebab.’" When you are in Norfolk, you too can enjoy a kebab worthy of the Queen for as little as £7.

Queen Queen Elizabeth II ordered a local kebab takeaway after a bet she had with Prince Harry
Queen Queen Elizabeth II ordered a local kebab takeaway after a bet she had with Prince Harry (Getty)

Where to stay in Norfolk

During my visit to Norfolk, I stayed at the Hollies
During my visit to Norfolk, I stayed at the Hollies (Winterton Cottages)

During my visit to Norfolk, I stayed at the Hollies, one of the Winterton Cottages. It is a beautiful modern bungalow with two very comfortable bedrooms. It was a challenge to wake up for the sunrise, but the complimentary coffee helped to sweeten the hardship of the moment. The big windows let plenty of natural light and a little private garden made it the perfect spot for a post-adventure relax or lazy morning tea-drinking.

The Hollies location is ideal for diving into Norfolk’s historic routes and seal-spotting adventures. The bungalow’s 10-minute walk to the sea and 10-minute drive to the Horsey car park, making it the ideal spot for adventurous mornings filled with sunrises and hot breakfasts. We recommend Snug Cafe in Holt for a dangerously delicious breakfast to start the day.

The comfortable beds at the Hollies don’t disappoint.
The comfortable beds at the Hollies don’t disappoint. (Winterton Cottages)

Winterton Cottages offer luxury self-catering cottages on the Norfolk Coast, tailored to your specific needs and expectations. The agency offers a wide choice of stunning holiday cottages - all of them located in or near Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk.

Winterton Cottages offer luxury self-catering cottages on the Norfolk Coast
Winterton Cottages offer luxury self-catering cottages on the Norfolk Coast (Winterton Cottages)

The cottages range from a cosy traditional fisherman’s cottage perfect for a couple to large houses with spectacular sea views and some also come with hot tubs.

All the cottages are paw-fectly dog friendly and some will accept two, three or even four dogs. Any dog owner will be happy to know that there are miles of walks right on the doorstep without having to drive anywhere and Winterton-On-Sea beach is dog friendly all year round.

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A three-night break at Winterton Cottages’ The Hollies starts from £414 for four in 2024. Contact Winterton Cottages’ at 01493 800645 or book online via wintertoncottages.co.uk.