Saddle up for a Norfolk ride… to discover Black Beauty and trace the author’s own story back to the county where she grew up
- Anna Sewell dictated Black Beauty, published in 1878, from her sickbed
- Her childhood home is now a tearoom called Kirsty’s Cakery in Great Yarmouth
- Stay on Somerleyton Estate – in the style of the novel’s Birtwick Park
There’s no greater pleasure than diving into the pages of a good book, but what happens after the story ends? In our occasional series, we explore the location of a classic book and discover more about its author – plus find fabulous places to eat, drink and stay.
Before mischievous Peter Rabbit, before Wilbur the pig and before Mole, Toad and Ratty, there was Bess, a very well-bred and well-behaved horse. Black Beauty was one of the first children’s stories to be told from an animal’s perspective. It was an instant hit and has since sold 50 million copies.
Published in 1878, it was not just a pretty story – it revealed the suffering of working horses and had a profound impact on the early animal-rights movement.
Stylish: Somerleyton Hall, centrepiece of estate where you’ll find The Fritton Arms
The first chapter in author Anna Sewell’s own story starts in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in 1820. It’s where she was home-schooled by her mother Mary, herself a children’s author.
From there, the family moved to London, where Anna learnt to ride. After damaging her ankles in an accident, she struggled to walk and was bought a pony trap to get around.
By the time she was 14, horses had begun to define her life. Anna’s declining health saw her family move to Brighton for the sea air before they relocated to Lancing, then Bath, then finally back to Norfolk.
It felt like a homecoming, but Anna still became bedridden with a terminal illness. Black Beauty, dictated to her mother from her sickbed, was published five months before her death, aged 57. It was her only novel.
Before her illness, stables and stud farms had brought Norfolk to life for Anna, and plenty of the red-brick farm buildings are still there to see. The county is home to Redwings Horse Sanctuary, the UK’s largest equine charity, and there are two of their shelters to discover. Caldecott House is home to 110 rehabilitated steeds, while the sanctuary at Aylsham has 50 residents, including a real-life black beauty called Maya (redwings.org.uk).
Anna’s childhood home in Great Yarmouth is now a tearoom called Kirsty’s Cakery
Stop in Great Yarmouth, where Anna’s childhood home has been refashioned as the tearoom Kirsty’s Cakery (kirstyscakery.co.uk), or canter to Norwich where you’ll find Sewell Barn, said to be the barn that housed ‘Bess’ herself and now a theatre, and at Sewell Park nearby a commemorative horse trough.
Stay on Somerleyton Estate – in the style of the novel’s Birtwick Park – at country pub The Fritton Arms (frittonarms.co.uk).
Farther afield is Congham Hall Hotel, a Georgian manor surrounded by fields of galloping horses (conghamhallhotel.co.uk). Sandringham is nearby and home to the Royal Stud. Look among them for Royal Applause, another black beauty that’s sired more than 700 race winners (sandringhamestate.co.uk).