Sunday, 6 January 2008

Chapter two

Mary was a smallholder who also sold a few vegetables to passing callers. I did my bit for rural diversification by purchasing 3 potatoes and 2 carrots for my evening meal, and plodded round behind the greenhouse to set up camp. I quickly pitched the tent…then quickly took it down and tried again- before deciding that it was as tent shaped as it was likely to become before nightfall.

As a treat, I decided to use my emergency veggie sausage mix to make some ..some… er…flat things to fry as an accompaniment to my fresh vegetables.
The one-pot technique involved the use of a tin mug on which I had thoughtfully scratched a measuring line. Just pop the mix into the mug, add water up to the mark, stir vigorously and squeeze it into balls. Flatten and mould to shape; wipe hands on trousers, remove bits of grass and fry. Then later, scrape remains of burnt mix from the aluminium frying pan with a penknife.

I wanted to round off my meal with a coffee but found that I had somehow lost my poly bag of dried milk. I ambled over to say hi to the folks camping over the other side of the field and purloin a drop of milk in the process.
They were super people. A pacifist vegetarian couple who hoped to visit the site of the recently discovered “Sea-henge”, a prehistoric timber circle found on the beach nearby after an exceptionally low tide. This had become a focus for pilgrimages by druids ancient and modern plus various other interested mystics….and inhabitants of alternative realities.

My new friends, Duncan and Elsa, were delightful and I received more dried Soya milk than I really knew what to do with. As far as possible, they were camping out using ex-army equipment on the basis of a “swords into ploughshares” philosophy. Duncan beamed as he said( echoing Bach ?),
“ We walk through fields of sheep saying,” Hi sheeps, like...don’t worry...we won’t eat you “
“Yeah !” agreed a very laid back Elsa. ” We say it to the pigs as well “

Sadly, I spent another freezing cold night in my wholly inadequate sleeping bag.
An old biking chum of mine happened to own a caravan and camping store further along the route at Runton, so first chance I had, I phoned ahead and ordered a silk inner lining to fit the bag. I hoped to pick this up in a few days, but, in the meantime, my (pink)fleece jacket would double up as a pyjama top. Unfortunately, neither pair of underpants that I had brought along (one to wash--one to wear), was any longer in a fit state to be worn on my head.

In the morning I searched my soles, and felt that yet again, travelling on foot would probably spoil my walk. I decided that, although sticking to the North Norfolk Coastal path in spirit it would be prudent to catch the Coast Hopper bus to Wells-Next-the-Sea.

Having already mentioned the difficulties involved in erecting the tent and setting up camp, perhaps I should add that getting it all back into the pack also presents problems for the un-practised..especially when various extras such as carrots, potatoes, Tofu, sticks of seaside rock etc have to be found a home. The technique is not unlike lacing and fastening a Victorian corset.

Eventually I bade farewell to my friends and smallholding saviour and caught the bus outside the gate. Great to be back on the road again, I thought.

A lovely clear day afforded views of purple flowered marshes and deep blue sea. Once, I caught sight of an enormous chocolate brown bird hunting back and forth across a reed bed--a female marsh harrier according to my pocket guide.

I did however rather distrust my ornithological skills when I felt that I had positively identified a Griffon Vulture near Burnham Overy. The book suggested that Southern Spain and the Atlas mountains of Morocco were more likely haunts of the species.

The bus chattered on towards Wells. A lovely lady on her way home from hospital in Kings’ Lynn gave me a running commentary on the journey, in spite of the surgical stitches in her throat.
We passed the magnificent Holkham Hall along the way. All seemed well with the world ..until I glanced at my rucsack which I had left at the front of the bus, and to my horror noticed a wet patch developing on the side as my plastic water bottle , which had thus far belied it’s low price by remaining reasonably watertight, slowly emptied its contents into the bag. Fortunately, we reached Wells before too much damage was inflicted on my essential supplies, or my food and clothing.

I dismounted from the Coast Hopper( hobbler?) and once more became aware of those ever present feet. I knew that the campsite was at the end of the mile long sea wall which gives the lie to the “Next-the Sea” portion of the town’s name.

Fortunately for the weary walker a fantastic little steam train runs almost the length of the wall. Happy, laughing children were clambering aboard as parents inspected the gleaming brass work on the steam engine. I shoved my damp and bulging rucsack into a miniature carriage and casting aside any remaining pride, elbowed my way in with the kids. With a cheery toot of the steam whistle, we chugged off to the campsite.

At the other end, I fought my way clear and struggled back into the straps. I limped into the reception office to be greeted by the very lovely Helen.
“ Oh you poor thing!” she exclaimed “ However far have you walked today ?”
How close I came to perjuring my immortal soul, but said instead;
“ Only from that little train I’m afraid !” and thus began a friendship alive to this day !

I set up camp like an old hand -pity about the old feet. After two nights under canvas and one in a caravan under a carport, I felt I had paid my dues and earned the respect of hardened walkers and beautiful campsite receptionists. After showering, changing and selecting my most bendy pair of socks, I set off to walk back into town promising myself a big bag of chips on the famous harbour wall.This is one of the cheapest and most accessible of the world’s great wonders. Sit on the wall with a bag of French’s or Platten’s finest and watch the tide come in. I haven’t yet been to the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids but can’t imagine either can stimulate the senses more than a mouthful of haddock in that setting.

I sat wolfing down chips and watched the world go by. Kids were heaving out crabs, using a lump of bacon on a line. The dozy crabs fasten onto the bacon and promptly find themselves hauled out of the water and plopped into plastic buckets on the quay.

Sometimes they appear to spot their fate at the last minute and, letting go of the Danish, scuttle sideways across the harbour, to the accompaniment of squeals of excitement from the children, in a bid for freedom . All harmless fun as hooks are banned and all the grumpy crustaceans are tipped back in eventually.

As the water level rose, fishing boats navigated their way back to port via the tortuous channel which links the harbour with the open sea. Muscular fishermen lugged ashore their catches of crabs, lobsters, whelks and goodness knows what. Lorries were loaded and sped off into the night. Teenagers took to leaping into the water to be swept along on the rising tide before clambering back up a rusty ladder 100 metres away.

To my delight, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Helen from the site. She introduced me to her friends as “One of my campers”
My diary records that I thought” …The odds seem heavily stacked against her having a thing about sore-footed father figures with sun-burnt lugs and delusions” and of course, I was right. We did however spend a great evening in the harbour-side Golden Fleece which appeared to be the fishermen’s local and a place where early holiday makers mixed with locals in a warm and noisy babble of music and conversation.

The fishermen put me in mind of the men in the pub in which I first took refuge. Maybe it’s the same with groups of working men in communities the world over. The banter and boisterousness, the relentless tormenting which masks a real affection and sense of belonging. These were men who also shared dangers. The very real physical perils of the sea as well as the ever present fear of their living drying up as prices fell and catches shrunk.
“I’ll see ya tomorrer Huddy” said one
“Not if I see you fust” was the reflex reply

I sat and sipped Merlot with my female friends. Helen explained to everyone that I was walking around Norfolk. This raised the obvious difficulty of my answering questions with a modicum of honesty without losing face or interrupting the flow of glasses of wine which well-wishers continued to provide. I parried those that I could, dissembled where necessary and fudged expertly, falling back on “ Well, it seems like hundreds of miles already”
And “ I don’t really keep track of the miles I’ve walked...more the ones still to go” It did however shame me into a decision that I would have to get down to doing some actual walking without delay.

The delay was shorter than expected. Closing time came and we spilled out of the pub in a splash of light and noise into chilly darkness. Hugs and kisses all round. Words of encouragement, and they were gone. Leaving me peering through the gloom in the general direction of my mile long journey back to the campsite.

The oystercatchers whistled in the dark. These are birds, not chirpy shellfish gatherers working a night shift. I paused frequently on the walk back, sometimes to breathe, but at others simply to admire the view of Wells harbour with its distinctive granary all illuminated against the darkness.

Most of the light came from amusement arcades ,chip shops and a bingo hall but this is the joy of Wells. A real place with real working inhabitants as well as a heady mix of visitors who have come to write poems, sail a “sharpie” eat winkles, attend a car boot sale or just wander and drink in the beauty of the place.

My tent was damp in the chill night air and seemed so tiny compared to the family canvas bungalows around it. I climbed in the way that one enters a canoe, gingerly one foot at a time, trying to avoid standing on my muesli. Facing a cold night, I had thoughtfully kept the daily paper in order to drape it tramp-fashion over me for additional insulation. I shed very few clothes that night and slept the better for it, waking to some horrid kid yelling,
“Hey dad… come and look at this funny little tent “
“ Come away son, there might be something in there”

I got up and dressed; that is to say-I put my boots on – and stumbled down the beach to meet the day. What a glorious half hour followed : all alone, I paddled peacefully in the cool sea- back and forth along the water’s edge. My feet sighing with pleasure. Listening to the piping calls of Curlews and Redshanks, the sucking and gurgling of the tide, I sloshed along like a child in seventh heaven. As I dried my feet, a plan came to me.

I decided to book into the campsite for a further three days and to use the Coast Hopper buses to take me out to points on the coastal path from which I could walk back. This would allow me to walk the path in sections without having to lug the full pack with me. I ambled into town and bought some more hi-tec plasters . After first aid and a change of socks, I bought a lurid plastic day-sack from a novelty shop, packed it with an eclectic lunch , plenty of water and caught the bus back to Burnham Overy Staithe, a tiny harbour about 6 miles to the west.

There are a number of Burnhams( 7 in all) including Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of national hero Horatio, Lord Nelson . He may not have been very big in real life, but he certainly looms large in Norfolk. A board on the harbour’s edge at Burnham Overy Staithe proclaims that it was here that Horatio probably learned to sail. It is a fine place where a channel winds it’s way in from the sea and small boats bob at anchor or sit on the sandy mud depending on the tide. A chandlery in an old barn sells sailing requisites, specialist clothing, tasteful postcards and also does a great trade in mugs of tea and Mars bars. Much fortified, and plastered with sun block, I strode off along the sea wall heading east.

It was a scorching hot day and wearing my pinkish fleece jacket didn’t help. The jungle hat did however come into it’s own and my new plastic rucksack felt better than it probably looked. ( It later came to grief very inopportunely in the depths of a Swedish forest ) I was now walking much more freely and really began to enjoy the feeling of the hard packed clay of the bank beneath my boots. Wading birds abounded in the creeks beside my path and on the other side I had a wide view of the marshes and grazing meadows managed by English Nature for the Holkham Estate. Despite my loss of confidence over the alleged Griffon vulture, I was quite certain that I saw three Little Egrets. This was later confirmed by a bona fide “twitcher” encountered along the way. These absolutely snow white birds could easily earn a bit on the side doing TV adverts for washing powder.

The path leads to the soft sandy beach via a boarded section and, for Norfolk, a mighty hill. And, speaking of big bumps, it also soon crosses the local Naturist beach. Now, I don’t want everyone to know, but I have used such beaches. There are few sensations so pleasant as swimming naked in the sea. I would qualify this by adding, when the sea is reasonably warm and clean and the beach is not being patrolled by elderly men wearing nothing but Y fronts pulled up under their armpits. This seems to me a peculiarly British phenomenon. Why O why do they not at least buy a pair of shorts if they must stay covered around the nether regions? This from a man who sleeps with his knickers on his head I hear someone say.

I soon reached Holkham beach, famous as the setting used in the final scene of the movie, Shakespeare in Love. Sadly Gwyneth Paltrow was elsewhere that day . I settled in the pine woods which fringe the beach and prepared to eat my lunch. So did about a million flies. They clearly adored my High Power Jungle mix insect repellent. In fairness, it would probably have worked much better in Myanmar or somewhere similar. Having the kind of complexion which calls for factor 60 sun cream, and having liberally applied both cream and insect repellent, it should come as no surprise to learn that my sandwiches tasted more of greasy flies and industrial alcohol than the local crab that I had so pleasurably anticipated.

The sun continued to burn down and I felt like a wayward extra from Lawrence of Arabia as I huffed and puffed my way across the vast sands. Down by the shoreline, the receding tide leaves the fine sand sculpted into banks and mounds. Nature scallops and corrugates it leaving pools and channels to splash through. A magical place guaranteed to bring out the child in any walker. Indeed, it brings out the foal in the many horses which canter across its huge expanse . Every year, the Household Cavalry bring their mounts here to gallop through the surf.

I walked on through the pinewoods towards Wells. These were planted by the third Earl of Leicester in the 19th century to stabilize the shifting sands and are now a wonderful place to walk in all seasons. Majestic, mature pine trees arching overhead, soft forest litter to walk on below. The glorious aroma of the pine forest .

In late summer there are blackberries galore and the shallow sea is at its warmest.

In winter this area is home to literally thousands of migrant geese, Pink Foot, Greylag and Brent… and the pines are the first welcome shelter for many tiny birds which migrate across the cold and rough North Sea in autumn and spring.

I marched on in the blistering heat….passing the bleached bones of holidaymakers…or maybe they were cuttlefish shells…whatever, there were plenty of them.

I soon reached the famous Wells Beach huts, subjects of so many postcards and paintings. Their jumbled heights and styles and colours ; the obvious signs of care and attention from occupants, all lend a charm which one would hardly expect from a row of garden sheds on sticks in an area of such natural beauty.
The “Wells” effect again maybe ? It’s ability to integrate the sublime and the everyday into a working whole.

Back at the campsite, I worked the “one-burner gourmet” trick again, as I conjured up a feast of Sosmix and vegetables. A refreshing mug of instant white tea revived me sufficiently to indulge in a combined shower and laundry session. An esoteric process involving a sort of naked soft shoe shuffle, lots of bubbles and all kinds of slapping sounds guaranteed to arouse suspicions of kinky goings on in the shower block. I rigged up a sort of washing line and left my smalls to dry overnight. Unlikely as it seems, they did !

Next morning, I set out to cover another section of the walk. This time, rather than take the bus, I decided to head east to Morston Quay and catch the bus back. I stocked up with essentials such as chocolate and crisps and headed out through the old whelk sheds of the East Quay to the coastal path. This area is now a hive of activity with a small seasonal art gallery and various unfathomable marine processes being employed cord wangling and the like probably.

Out on the path along the sea wall, I made good progress until I reached a swampy looking bay . On the map, the path crossed this by means of a bridge over the central creek. After half walking, half wading into the swamp, I was less than thrilled to find that the bridge had been ravaged by fire and I had to backtrack through the gloop. I walked on and eventually stopped to rest by the side of a field which ran down to the marshes.

I sat for a while and read from my Jungle Adventures of World War 2 book.
Suddenly I became aware of a presence and, looking up, saw a strange figure crouched beside me. He could well have passed for a jungle fighter himself. Clad from head to toe in camouflage gear and wearing a floppy hat not unlike my own, he glanced furtively from side to side as if expecting an enemy patrol to stumble upon us at any time.
“You camping?” he asked
“Yes, at the beach site in Wells “
“ God you must be bloody mad ! What.. when there’s all this free camping out here in the wild? You won’t find me on no campsite. I’ve got a Gore-Tex Bivvi bag and just roll into the bracken where nobody can see me”
Now over the years, I have come to love wild camping but find it a much safer and easier pursuit in the lakes and mountains than in rural Norfolk. Fresh water is easier to find for one thing and the chances of being combine harvested are substantially less on Snowdon .

This is a fabulous section of the walk. It hugs the edge of wild marshes intersected by creeks and channels. Surprises lurk around each bend and over each rise. A little harbour for sailing boats or a secret beach. A lake for wildfowl recreated some time back from land which had been farmed for over two hundred years. It now teems with birds.

Seductive paths which meander out over the saltmarsh ..leading no doubt to more derelict bridges to mock the unwary. This coast was once home to flocks of grazing sheep and many more working boats but now offers solitude under huge eastern skies. I walked on and came to the village of Stiffkey.

I had heard that this is pronounced “Stewkey” by the natives and later, proud of my research , I was chatting away to a charming and venerable chap I encountered raking for cockles out on the mudflats.
“Are you a Stewkey man ? I asked innocently
“What?” his bushy eyebrows bristled ” These are Stewkey blues” he said thrusting his harvest of shellfish at me” I’m not a bloody cockle ..”
I understand that the local pronunciation is used somewhat sparingly; a phenomenon which I came across later when asking the name of a village over the channel.
“That’s Clay” said my informant
“Oh, isn’t it pronounced Cly” says I
“Not by me it’s not...and I ought to know, I was born there “ he snorted.
In fact, I never heard anyone else at all call it “Clay” Maybe it’s an old family thing shared by “Proper” locals.

Stiffkey has several other claims to fame. Henry Williamson of “Tarka the Otter” fame farmed locally and wrote a book about this period in his life. “The Story of a Norfolk Farm ” is still well worth a read, providing an excellent insight into Britain between the wars and the agricultural and social upheavals of the time. Williamson himself had complex , and to many, unacceptable political views.
He was influenced enormously by his service in the Great War. He saw and felt the horrors of modern warfare and was himself seriously wounded. He was particularly struck by the gulf between the reality of the trenches and the propaganda being produced back home. He was never again to trust the “establishment” and was drawn towards National Socialism and a creed embracing purity, strength, health and the great outdoors. His later holocaust denials caused his works to disappear from view and left his reputation severely tarnished.

Another complex character associated with Stiffkey is the legendary Reverend Harold Davidson , local rector in the nineteen twenties and early thirties. Undoubtedly believing that one can have too much of a good thing, this worthy man felt drawn to leave the pure sea air and vast salt marshes of North Norfolk and travel regularly to the fleshpots of London. He believed his calling was to bring salvation to the lost and fallen ladies of the night.

His parishioners became somewhat suspicious of his motives…possibly brought on by his gaunt and exhausted appearance after these missions of mercy…and investigated further. Apparently his downfall began when he arrived late for a remembrance service in the parish thus infuriating the Bishop who put a private detective on his trail.

His subsequent trial in 1932 brought him great celebrity but also caused him to be de-frocked for “unwholesome behaviour”. He tried to raise money to appeal against the decision and in a story stranger than fiction, became a kind of fairground attraction preaching Daniel-like from a lion’s cage. Sadly, unlike Daniel, he one day stepped on the lion’s tail . The irate animal, possibly already inflamed by Harold’s daily sermons….promptly mauled him to death.

There have been moves in recent years to reopen the case and indeed, many scholars now claim that Harold was much misunderstood and may well have been completely innocent . The “Prostitutes Padre” was sentenced on the basis of some very dubious evidence and it is said that the one girl who spoke against him had been bribed with money and booze ….and later recanted. We may not have heard the last of Harold Davidson.

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