It has a history going back to the Normans, but Castle Acre has hardly been one of Norfolk's most high profile villages... until this week when it was named one of the best in the country. CHRIS BISHOP paid a visit to find out just what makes it so special

If it was in the Home Counties, you wouldn't be able to move for tourists.

Yet a village that has everything, just off the A1065 north of Swaffham, remains one of Norfolk's best kept secrets.

Castle Acre has historic ruins, a log fire pub, twee tea shop and glorious surroundings.

There's a Tardis of a village shop, a chippy and a towering church.

The Normans knew a good thing when they saw one, pitching up where Peddar's Way meets the babbling Nar soon after the conquest.

Their great castle and nearby priory may have seen better times.

But the village, home to just under 900 people, is a thriving hive of activity which cocks a snook at the usual refrain of rural decline.

There are bowls, cricket and football teams, a mother and toddler group, horticultural society, allotments, British Legion, art group and choir.

A heritage project is currently uncovering more of the village's history.

TV presenter Ben Robinson named it as one of the best in the country in an article in Country Life magazine out earlier this week. Villagers agree.

"It's a brilliant community," said Dennis Pedersen, an acclaimed commercial photographer who has converted a rusting water tower on the edge of the village into a high-rise home with partner Misia Godebska.

"The Ostrich is a great village pub, the village shop is probably the biggest village shop for miles around.

"There's the cafe, Wittles - they're so into their food, proper foodies.

"And I'm really sure it's the only village in England that has a priory and a castle."

Judith Norton, 83, was out for a stroll in the sunshine by the neat village green.

"Everybody loves it, I've been here 32 years," she said. "My husband and I retired here, it's got a lot of history, it's got a horticultural society, I've been involved in the Royal British Legion, which is a very good branch."

Sam Bisla has run the village shop on Back Lane with her husband Rash for almost 15 years.

"It's a lovely little community, everybody looks out for everybody," she said.

"Even people who move away from here always come back, they bring their children back for a day at the castle, to get fish and chips.

"We still get Christmas cards from people who moved away years ago."

Shop assistant Libby Boulton, 59, was born in the village.

"I wouldn't go anywhere else," Mrs Boulton said. "I was born on one house, I moved next door and lived there for 34 years, then my husband and I moved to a bungalow next to the playing field.

"You drive through a lot of villages and you don't see anyone. You go out for a walk here and there's always someone to talk to. It's a lovely village."

Around the corner, the Ostrich Inn changed hands around six months ago, with Aoife Halliday and business partner Ant Ciavarella taking over the quaint brick pub on the village green.

Project manager Warren Calitz is overseeing a refurb of the bar, with its three roaring wood burners.

"Most towns have got some kind of history," he said. "But here it smacks you in the face, it ticks all the boxes."

The Ostrich stands more or less equidistant from the priory and the castle.

Narrow streets of brick and flint cottages in between include Chimney Street and Cuck Stool Lane.

Founded shortly after the Norman conquest by the Warenne Family, Castle Acre Priory presided over a large of estate of cattle and arable farming with associated trades for around 450 years.

After Henry VIII ordered its dissolution, in 1537, it fell into disrepair. Villagers looted stone from its walls for buildings elsewhere.

But the outline of the great monastic centre remains and is one of the best-preserved monastic ruins in Britain.

The Warennes, who were close associates of William the Conqueror, were also the architects of the castle, whose fortifications embraced the village.

But its high ramparts never saw a single arrow and by the 15th century it was derelict.

In 1615 it was bought by the lawyer Sir Edward Coke. In 1971 it was placed into state guardian ship by his descendant, the 5th Earl of Leicester.

Today Castle Acre's most imposing entrance remains the Bailey Gate, a stone's throw from the village green.

An undoubted part of the local charm is that it remains a quiet community.

The village has its visitors, for sure. But most of those you encounter on its pavements are locals.

Will its new-found attention change that?

Things to see

Castle Acre Priory, off Back Lane - opening times on English Heritage's website.

Castle Acre Castle, parking off Payes Lane - admission free.

Priory Field, accessed via South Acre Road, has views of the priory.

St James Church, Stocks Green, is large and has an ornate interior.

The Ostrich Inn beside the village green is a lively pub with an emphasis on local produce.

Wittles Cafe a few doors away offers brunch, lunch and picnics.