Sunday, 6 January 2008

Chapter 3

Some people whom I thought that I had heard the last of were about to re-enter my life. Later that day, I sat on the remains of an old Wartime pillbox to eat my lunch. I was struggling in the breeze to pin down my copy of the Eastern Daily Press and eat a bag of crisps at the same time….a manoeuvre involving skilled use of the elbows, when into sight hove my fellow walkers from a couple of days earlier. Perhaps I use the term “fellow walkers” a little too freely , but folks like us soon build a rapport out in the wilderness.

“ Blimey !” said Trevor “ How did you get ahead of us?”
What possessed me to almost tell the truth I’ll never know. It isn’t something that comes easily .
“ Well, I needed to crack on a bit, so I missed out a short section” I said economically
“ Yes” said Joan ” Holidays are never long enough for all we want to do are they ?”
“No” said I, shaking my head sagely” Just have to cram in as much as we can eh ?”
“ Right- you could walk for ever in countryside like this couldn’t you ? breezed Trevor
I said nothing.

They wished me well and hoped to meet up further on around Norfolk. Sadly for me, they spotted me peering out of the back window of a bus trundling through Blakeney a day later and I realised that my credentials as a long distance walker might just as well be torn up with my bus ticket.

After lunch I walked on to Morston Quay, where a raised observation post gives a great view of the surrounding area. It is from here that boats sail for nearby Blakeney Point taking trippers to view the seal colony- although the way the seals swim up to the boats, it often seems the other way around.

Strolling inland to Morston village, a sudden shower caught me out as I waited for the bus back to Wells. I headed for the church , both to shelter and to explore. Anyone who has travelled the coast road will recognize the tower of Morston church as it is half constructed of lovely old stone and the other half looks as though Billy Bodger has been asked to repair it on the cheap with some ugly bricks he’d salvaged from a demolished privy.

The pamphlet inside revealed that when the tower ( XXXXX18th C XXXXX) people felt that the second coming was imminent and that it would be a waste of money, besides being a sign of a lack of faith, to repair it properly. Couldn’t just be that the wardens were a bit pinched for cash at the time I wondered?

That night was my last in Wells and I again spent it enjoying the heady mix of chips, chocolate brazils, fudge and red wine around the harbour before strolling back to the site. In the morning , I packed much more easily than before and feeling like a real camper, strolled off…to the bus stop. The feet were still tricky under load, so I determined to repeat the strategy of finding a central camp and walking the route in sections. As I had continued to shiver violently at night, I felt that somewhere close to my chum’s camping shop might be good as I could collect the silk liner for my sleeping bag.

I took the Coast Hopper to Sheringham , alighting by the preserved railway station just in time to watch a steam train getting under way. This is a treat for people of all ages, but especially for a certain generation who remember the smells and sounds of a bygone era. The string luggage racks, pictures of idyllic Britain on the walls, the dire warnings about pulling the communication cord and those big leather straps with which we lowered the windows.

Risking being blinded by flying embers to look out of the windows as the train chuffed along. Corridors, compartments with blinds. A staff member told me that grown men often cry as they step aboard, and no wonder. There is a British Rail station just opposite and I learned that there are plans to link the two and even join up with the Dereham /Wymondham lines to make a continuous loop. That would be wonderful. Maybe I could walk around Norfolk on the train next time?

I wandered into Sheringham itself, a pretty place with its “blue stone” flint cottages tucked away in side streets and the usual pepper-pot jumble of buildings that characterise old fishing ports. The natives are known as “Shannocks” and if you want a knuckle sandwich, then mention Cromer crabs. Speaking of which, I bought some genuine local crab sandwiches and headed out east to find a picnic spot.

Everyone in Norfolk has heard, and is heartily sick of, Noel Coward’s reference to Norfolk “ Hmm..very flat” Were he available today, I’d march him up Beeston Bump ; a volcanic cone-shaped mountain which looms Vesuvius-like above Sheringham. I climbed steadily towards the summit, which ,as they always do, receded before me. Eventually I reached the top, a dizzy ( XXXmetres) and wondered at the view below me. This part of the Norfolk coast does indeed give the lie to the old jibe about flatness. Left behind by the last Ice Age are mounds and folds of hills and ridges totally unlike the rest of the county. Below me lay the cliffs in which have been discovered numerous fossils of extinct species including the famous Cromer Elephant.

About 10000 words…

I feasted regally on the hilltop , the air fresh and crisp- unlike my bar of Fruit and Nut which had melted into a disgusting mess. I began the descent in the direction of West Runton. Beeston Bump appears on many a Norfolk calendar and postcard. The view is usually from below looking across a field of glorious red poppies . This whole area is known as “Poppy Land” a term first coined by (Clement..??XXXXXX XXXXX) . I wriggled through a hedge to get my own snap of this classic view and headed off to Mark’s camping shop.

Sadly, no Mark. He was away staffing an outdoor display of camping equipment. Even sadder was the lack of my silk liner, not yet arrived from the manufacturer. I inspected some of Mark’s latest imports which included a battery operated fan assisted stove which runs on pine cones and dead twigs. Fearing the damage such a device could do under my ownership, I decided to stick to gas and chip shops.

I made camp at an excellent site at East Runton, only a stone’s throw from Cromer and the official end of the Coastal Path. I still planned to backtrack using the bus and complete as much of the route as I could. I was resigned to another cold night, but had been finding sleeping with my head on my rucksack a real pain. I had already decided to take a break after finishing the Peddars way before carrying on with the Weavers’ Way. It therefore seemed a smart idea to buy a new pillow to use at my new “base camp” and then take it home after the walk.

After phoning my chum Phillip and arranging a rendezvous in a couple of days time when I could be “sprung’ from the wilderness, I descended on Woolworth’s in Cromer and bought what looked like a nice economical pillow. Returning to the tent, the merest nick in the wrapping was enough to cause a kind of “pillow-quake” It was a bit like an airbag inflating in a Mini. Unbeknown to me, the pack contained two pillows very densely compacted and shrink wrapped. Still, I would be comfortable that night.

I inspected the site and found a club room with a bar and entertainment.
Settling down with a half bottle of Vin Rouge , I looked around me at my fellow campers. Most were caravanners and tended to be somewhat mature in years. As couples looked lovingly past each other at the flock papered walls, I wondered what the takings were like from the vending machine in the gents selling Curry flavoured condoms.

The cabaret act was billed as “ Marco The Singing Chef”. As he introduced himself, a lady asked ,
“Ooh-did you cook the meal tonight?”
“yes” he said” and I can’t sing neither”

My coast hopping continued the next day with a ride back to Cley. A very helpful lady on the bus stopped me from alighting at what I thought was the correct stop.
“Hang on love, the coastal path is further on.”
Trustingly I baled out where she suggested. Maybe the concept of walking by bus was new to her, but, sadly, she had obviously assumed that I wanted to carry on walking in the direction in which the bus was travelling. I now stood on the wrong side of a substantial river and had to backtrack into the village to pick up the path leading back towards Cromer.

Cley itself is very fashionable and chic. A very pretty village with a well preserved windmill, possibly the best picnic shop in the universe and some fine restaurants. It is unfortunately plagued by traffic congestion. The narrow street which winds its way through the centre is a nightmare of through traffic struggling to negotiate a safe passage between the parked cars.

The path leaves Cley along a bank through vast reed beds bordering a nature reserve. Here, it is almost routine to spot marsh harriers and avocets-birds under grave threat only a few years ago. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust has a visitor centre here with informative displays, tubs of local ice-cream and the chance to peep through telescopes overlooking the reserve.

As I walked down towards the sea, I noticed a sign saying
“ Road liable to flood”
Beneath which someone had hand painted “ Yes—About once every 30 years”
I later learned that there were contentious plans to build a larger flood protection wall nearer to the road which had not gone down well with many of the locals. Down by the beach is an area known as the “Eye” , once an island in the marshes, now home to the famous Arkwright’s CafĂ©, haunt of many a rare and colourful birdwatcher on a cold winter’s day.

I crunched along the sea wall, listening to the crash of the waves below. Out to the right lay the reedy expanse of Cley reserve. I was deep in thought, dreaming of my soft bed at home and the massive soft pillows which I would somehow have to carry in or on my rucksack tomorrow. As I neared the far boundary of the reserve and the earth bank which led back inland, I was startled by loud cries of excitement from a chap leaping about in an amusingly animated way as he danced around his tripod mounted telescope
“Hey ! Did you see it ?” He grinned
“Er..see what?”
“The bittern, it flew alongside you for ages!”
Oh dear, possibly Britain’s most elusive bird, rarely seen by even finely honed twitchers, had just flapped along beside me ..and I and completely missed it !

The path continues along the shingle to Weybourne, but I chose to dive inland a little and meet the legendary Tom, voluntary warden at the Norfolk Ornithologists’ Association watch point on the nearby Walsey Hills. Tom is one of those salt-of –the –earth folks who devote massive amounts of their time to Wildlife causes. He is also known for his no nonsense approach to thoughtless visitors who try to interfere with his charges.
“Some fantastic, massive adders up here” he said” And the daft buggers try to pick ‘em up..well, they go down them steps quicker than they come up!”

I walked up over the hills and down into Salthouse, where I sat and munched a sandwich at Cookies Crab shop. The owners had organized a petition against the proposed sea wall which would pass across the marshes directly in front of the village. An artistic looking lady, wearing the mandatory multi coloured smock, was painting the view of the shop with its old boats and crab pots. I noticed that a rusty Eldorado ice cream truck had been airbrushed from the picture .

I walked on, past the chip shop and ice cream van at Salthouse pool. Each to their own, but parking on a titchy piece of scuffed roadside grass and sitting in the car reading a newspaper scoffing chips ,somehow seems a less than ideal way to experience the beauty of the Norfolk coast. Picky types might suggest that whizzing through on a bus leaves something to be desired too. Masses of ducks and gulls hang around ready to gulp down the leftovers.

A path leads across the marsh to a lovely spot with the unlovely name of “The Quags” This is a seasonal lake which is home to a terrific range of wildfowl in winter and an interesting range of cows and mud in the summer. A stockman was trying to unload some cattle from a trailer to turn out onto the pasture as I arrived. It was sad to watch the poor frightened beasts clinging to the safety of the transporter when outside lay a lush buttercup bedecked meadow on which to gorge. Eventually the secret cry of the drover…a sort of “ WHUT HUT HUP HUP CUMMUN GERTCHA !” accompanied by a whack with a stick- persuaded the cattle to disembark. They stood on the threshold of this bovine paradise with a look of mistrust which seemed to say “OK what’s the catch ?”

I chatted for a while with John, a dedicated birdwatcher who had taken early retirement to spend more time on this beautiful coast . He carried a paging device which bleeped furiously as we talked. Apparently a Golden Oriole had been spotted not far from where we stood. We set off together up the nearby Mount Muckleborough which soars a majestic XZXX metres above the surrounding landscape. OK .. I tease about these bumps being Norfolk’s only mountains, but the views from even XzXX metres is stunning when all around is so much lower.

Muckleborough Hill, to give it its proper name, rather reminded me of the Malvern Hills in miniature… a number of bare crests above grassy slopes and wooded foothills. We didn’t see the Oriole but watched parties of tourists down below at the Muckleborough Military Collection roar around the old airfield in troop transporters , yelling and whooping with joy.

I thought of this as I walked along a permitted path which skirted the airfield. I passed old defensive bunkers and tried to imagine the young men who huddled in them on dark February days in wartime-waiting for a German attack from across the cold North Sea.

There is a deeply moving passage in one of Spike Milligan’s war diaries describing how many years after the war, he went back to an observation post on the South Coast where he had been stationed . He found notes and drawings in pencil on the walls which he and long dead chums had left so long ago. He shared with us his tears at the memories and the ghosts.

From here, the Coastal Path leads on to Weybourne. Home to decrepit old fishing boats and John Major, ex Prime Minister, notorious now for more than his fiscal policies. Weybourne too is deeper than one might think. It is apparently a natural landing place for an invading fleet. A saying on local postcards goes “ Who would old England win…must at Weybourne Hope begin” Fortunately, few of our enemies seem to have read them and maybe they should be withdrawn before they fall into the wrong hands.
( XHXG 11700 words)
OOO mention Sherlock and the hound etc..OOO

From here on, the coastline changes from flat saltmarsh to a glacial mix of sand, clay and chalk which has yielded countless fossils including the aforementioned elephant. Clear evidence in my eyes that there was once an ancient circus or zoo in the area.
The cliffs here are soft and crumbling. Bashed about by waves, wind and rain, they form and re-form, fantastic coves and bays which tempt many an unwary elephant-hunting palaeontologist to climb into danger.

The final leg of the long distance path now took me inland and through the stunning Sheringham Park. This was laid out by Humphrey Repton ( XGXGX) Of whom, more later. The park is a real treasure rising above the coastline and offering lovely views out to sea.
There is a viewing platform on top of an impressive wooden tower which looks out over dazzling displays of rhododendrons and azaleas in season. I marched on to reach the highest point in Norfolk at Roman Camp( xgxgFt).

A display board there showed how scrub and trees had taken over the site since the turn of the century. The evidence of old photographs proved how open the area had originally been.
This is a contentious subject as up and down the county a number of wildlife organisations have been working to clear away trees and bushes to restore the original heathland habitat in places like this.
Local people who have grown used to walking the dog through leafy glades are sometimes shocked pale and rigid when confronted by piles of burning timber and a carpet of sawdust.
I remember a notice board on a reserve near Fakenham being spray-painted with the word ”Vandals!” by an irate opponent and the letters pages of local papers testify to the ease with which well meaning experts can get up the noses of the locals.

I wandered around for a bit looking for the actual Roman camp. Sadly, there isn’t one…and no-one really knows if there ever was. In fact, it may well be named after the pub of the same name nearby.
There’s no other part of Norfolk quite like this. The glaciers left a lumpy bumpy landscape of hills and hollows. Tree covered ridges and knolls dot the landscape, each marking the spot where a chunk of Scotland was dumped a few thousand years ago.

I scrambled on through bracken and brambles, risking a broken ankle at every turn as I negotiated huge spoil tips from the billions of rabbits working away below ground.
There is evidence of human mining activity on these hills so there must be something good down there somewhere.

I sat on a bench at one of the many viewpoints and as I chomped on a Snickers bar , the sad and soggy days of bleeding feet and tie-dyed underwear seemed far away and long ago. Here I was, approaching the end of the first stage of the journey and actually able to walk without cursing…able to swing the pack up onto my back in what might pass on a foggy night for a graceful arc. Strength, determination, versatility and blatant cheating had brought me to the very threshold of…..erm..Cromer.

After a wonderful night’s sleep on my plumptious new pillows, I rose at dawn… or rather between dawn and noon. Packed everything into my rucsack…except of course the wretched pillows. I finally gave up trying to wrestle them into submission . I rolled them as tightly as I could and lashed them to the top of the bag.
This may well have been amusing to some…but to me it was merely a couple of pillows dangling over the top of my head and interfering with my view.

(12330 words…only 68000 to go)

Bidding farewell to the campsite with its singing chef and gourmet condoms, I strode off towards the rendezvous in Cromer where I hoped to be whisked back to civilization by Phil.
I tramped through town towards the end of the pier where we had agreed to meet. As I approached I noticed a great deal of movement and heard the rhythmic stomp and slap of that most dangerous sound…….Country Music.

To my erm…delight, the end of the pier had been given over to a charity Line dancing event amazingly, and indeed to a man with my childish sense of humour…amusingly..sponsored by Steradent, the foaming false teeth cleaner. I guess it ill behoves a man with two floppy pillows strapped to the top of his head to mock others, but it made ME laugh.

I stood and watched the dancers . Most had gone to a great deal of trouble to dress the part; Stetsons , tooled leather boots, fancy shirts- Tesco jeans. The music was irresistible. I swayed and stamped and thigh slapped along …my rabbit lug pillows wobbling to the beat. I was almost sad to leave when Phil eventually appeared.

After modestly accepting his fulsome praise and congratulations on walking so far with such a large and unstable load , I took great delight in dumping the pack in the boot of his car . I now go around urging tortoises to just see how nice it feels when you take your shell off for a bit.

And so I reached the end of the first section of the walk . A chance now to recover a where necessary and then back to tackle the next stage.

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