Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Walking over Bishy Barnabees

The first fat raindrops hitting the windscreen should have made me abandon the whole ill conceived plan. My friend Cindy had agreed to, as she put it, release me back into the wild. She had driven me and my badly packed, bargain rucsack into Norfolk’s vast Thetford Forest. Raindrops continued to splatter the screen as we crept along looking for a narrow opening in the trees that marked the point at which the ancient Peddars’ Way crossed the road.

I had only recently decided to take up backpacking. Being in my, shall we say middle years and having never been a walker, or camped in anything needing less than six poles and a degree in architecture to erect, the decision to circumnavigate Norfolk may seem foolhardy. I had however prepared carefully.

A week earlier I had taken my rucsack into the woods for a trial run. Not at that time having all the equipment I would need, I loaded up with books to simulate the 20 Kilograms I anticipated carrying out in the wilderness.
It seemed a little heavier than expected, and indeed, as I swung it up to my shoulder, I executed a graceful pirouette, ending up sprawled across the sofa under the Waverley Encyclopaedia, Mrs Beeton and Female Labour Under Socialism.

I persevered and soon worked out a technique involving balancing the rucsack on the back of a chair and reversing into it. I staggered off to tramp through the local woods hoping against hope that as I grew in strength and experience, I might be able to straighten my back and look at the track ahead rather than my feet.

I managed a circuit of about three miles without being arrested on suspicion of robbing the local library, and reasoned that my intended daily stages of twelve to fifteen miles should be easily achievable. After all, I would have all day and surely each day I would grow stronger? I had visions of doing the last fifty miles at a brisk trot.

My intended route was a circuit of Norfolk taking in the Peddars’ Way from Thetford Forest up to the coast at Hunstanton, The North Norfolk Coastal path along to Cromer, The Weavers’ Way diagonally down to Great Yarmouth finishing with a fast romp along the Angles Way which would take me back to my starting point. A total of about 225 miles

It looked wonderful on the map. Little hamlets with windmills and unbridged fords, doubtless home to an ample bosomed Mrs Miggins the local shop owner, busy weighing sugar in brown paper bags. Village greens where one might spot a romantic gypsy encampment with a row of spotless washing hanging from the chestnut trees.

But back to the steamed up car, the raindrops and the leaden skies. The forecast spoke of scattered showers, maybe becoming more organised later.

Having planned the trip for days, I was reluctant to let this put me off and pulling on my remarkably inexpensive waterproofs, I trusted that I would prove more organised than the showers. Cindy looked on in blank incredulity as I sat the rucsack on the car, backed in and buckled myself to it. Tugging the straps so tight that I struggled to breathe, I choked out a thankyou, said my farewell, and with her pleas to phone if it all went horribly wrong ringing in my ears, I set out into the Norfolk bush.

I tried terribly hard to walk easily and confidently in an upright position until she was out of sight, but soon, rustling and squeaking, wheezing and stumbling I drooped back into the Neanderthal posture so familiar from my previous tests. I say “tests” as prior to the previous week’s full scale rehearsal with a bag of books; I had very sensibly walked the first few miles of the Peddars’ Way to test my ability to carry a load over rough country.

Not at that stage owning camping equipment; after all I had two weeks to sort that out, I had used two shopping bags with shoulder straps crossed diagonally around my neck. These were laden with whatever had come to hand up to the necessary 40 pounds. As I had used the bathroom scales to ascertain this with some accuracy, much of the contents had a lavatorial flavour. In went the loo brush; paper, lifebuoy and Toilet Duck to fine-tune the weight of the bags.

This preliminary test proved that, yes, I could carry the weight, but no, my neck could not withstand the effect of the crossed straps slowly throttling me.
I stumbled on, hands clasped under each bag to try to lift them sufficiently to breathe from time to time, and managed a creditable two miles before collapsing exhausted. This explains why I had asked Cindy to drop me off part way along the Peddars’ Way; no sense walking the same bit twice. Besides, I think the memories would have flooded back and caused morale to fall to an unacceptable level on a trip which was to place such demands on a virgin hiker.
It was less easy to ignore the purple bruises still evident on my throat, but you can’t have everything.

Thus I trudged on. The rain continued to fall, appearing very well organised already to me. I wore a green PVC anorak with a faulty zip, green overtrousers which were totally waterproof…although rather less breatheable. On my head was an ex Malayan campaign jungle hat. My boots were quite new and again very well priced…they and my feet had attempted to break one another in as I wore them a couple of times to do the shopping. My socks were the real thing, guaranteed absolutely no blisters in five hundred miles. I doubted I could walk that far, so felt quite well taken care of in that department. My budget rucsack contained an ultra lightweight one-person tent, a synthetic sleeping bag guaranteed to be snug down to 10 degrees Celsius, a gas stove and a selection of cooking utensils. Stores included pot noodles and a big bag of vegetarian sausage mix.

It seemed unlikely that the rain could last much longer. It drummed on my soft and soggy hat, dripping uncomfortably down my neck. The scenery I glimpsed from my stooped position seemed marvellous though; beautiful water meadows grown lush and tall in the recent wet weather. They had also grown very wet and discharged their load of rainwater down my legs as I blundered through.
I crossed the river Thet by an attractive wooden footbridge and made quite good progress through pine forests and over heathland. I vowed to return one day in dry weather without the contents of a small family hardware business on my back.

Eventually I reached the main A11 trunk road. I stood Quasimodo-like at the verge as traffic thundered by hurling up sheets of cold spray. After a strained look both ways, I broke into a lumbering trot to cross between cars of leering motorists. By now I had become very wet indeed. I had real doubts about the ability of my rucsack to keep the contents watertight. Should I find a ‘phone and call Cindy? No, it’s bound to stop soon.

On the other side of the road I noticed two young lads kitted out in waterproofs and carrying backpacks. They stood dripping and shivering by a large Volvo estate. Inside sat a well-dressed man who I took to be their father. As I drew alongside I heard him issuing orders from the snug dry car, Classic FM playing gently in the background. The kids were being sent off on their Duke of Edinburgh Award trek. Dad got out of the car, popped up a Martini golf umbrella and gave the boys a manly pat on their already soggy shoulders. “Hurry up, I’m getting wet! ” he urged as the lads trudged off along the by now, muddy track. Bless them; they looked a picture of abject misery…as probably did I.

Time for my lunch break. But how and where? The rain still teemed down and opening the rucsack would quickly soak the contents; besides it was hardly the weather for a jolly picnic on a mossy bank with lashings of ginger beer. I stumbled into the woods that bordered the track and sought shelter under the trees. I was by now beginning to feel a little chilly too. A rummage in the rucsack unearthed sandwiches that were dry, and a host of essential equipment that was not. Being resourceful, I used a black plastic refuse sack to fashion an attractive cover for my pack. Images of stable doors and missing horses swam before me.

As I squatted shivering and dripping beneath the trees, I watched a cheery couple clomp past deep in conversation. They wore top quality anoraks with deep hoods and their packs were fitted with tailored covers. I watched in pouting envy as they disappeared in the distance. I would however be meeting them again in sunnier circumstances.

Not really refreshed, I once more set sail. Again I marvelled at the scenery, only partially obscured by the rain. The Peddars’ Way itself runs for almost 50 miles and follows an old Roman road which itself may well have been built on a much older trackway. So, I was possibly trudging in the footsteps of woad covered ancient Britons .I probably looked about as attractive with the rain running down my neck and the dye running from my jacket.

At its southern end, the Peddars Way passes through the sandy heathland known as Breckland. A Part of this has long been given over to the military for battle training and the track skirts this mystery area of muffled thumps and rattling gunfire. In the heart of the training area lies an idyllic English village forcibly evacuated long ago to provide realistic conditions for the forces to practice duffing up Johnny Foreigner. The people who left and their descendants are regularly taken back on bus trips to revisit their now somewhat secondhand former home.

I stopped again briefly to catch my breath, but it’s hard to relax in the rain. It’s too wet to put anything down or to sit. Sandwiches get soggy unless wolfed down quickly. So, I marched on, feet beginning to swell and twinge. In hindsight, that was the cause of many of my later problems. Being unable to stop and rest, unwilling to take a peep at what was happening in my boots.
In fact, ignorance was more blisters than bliss.

I tramped on past the wonderfully named Pingo Trail. This was said to be a fascinating area of circular ponds left by the Ice Age. I toyed with the idea of diverting to take a look but the weather being the way it was, I felt that the ponds might soon be diverting to visit me instead. About 8 miles from my starting point, I reached civilization in the form of the Dog and Partridge Inn.
It looked warm and welcoming, whereas I looked like a swamp rat on a bad hair day. I stood and peered through the window, a pool of water forming around my big muddy boots that contained my big throbbing feet. A foolish decision somehow floated to the surface. Don’t stop here, go on to the campsite only a short distance away, set up camp and dry out before returning.

So, what on earth possessed me to plod on past the site and head for the next one some 8 miles further ahead? It could only have been the foolish assumption that it would be better to unpack and make camp after the rain had stopped, as it surely must? Be that as it may, I nevertheless began to hobble on through the flooded track, my feet now hurting horribly and not daring to investigate the state of my camping equipment, my long distance socks or my underwear.

At length I reached the village of Great Cressingham. A phone box beckoned but weary, battered and soaked as I was, I just could not admit defeat. The campsite I had been heading for was actually at the back of a B&B and as no one was home, I repaired to the local pub to wait. I stood on the doormat and began a struggle with my wet clothes in an attempt to find a dry layer somewhere underneath. Wet nylon clung to wet denim and hopping from one leg to the other and again to neither, I fell in a cursing heap on the doormat.

The bar went very quiet. Half a dozen blokes looked on open mouthed.
“Well, what have we got here?” asked the tall one.
“What are you doing out in this.. Are you daft?” enquired his neighbour
I struggled to pull off my muddy boots.
“Don’t worry about that!” said the landlord “ never notice a bit more muck in here.”
Feeling horribly embarrassed, I squelched to the bar and ordered a beer and tried to explain what had brought me out on a day like this. Not easy, as I had long since forgotten myself.

The beer flowed and the conversation turned to my plans for the night. It was obvious that I was wet through and that my camping equipment was likely to be soaked too. I stood and dripped trying to laugh along with the bar-room banter. The silly fixed grin now making my ears ache.
To make matters worse, apparently the campsite owner worked all day and wouldn’t be home for hours yet. As rain lashed against the windows I really thought, “This is it, adventure over. Where’s the ‘phone?” I began to feel really cold now after standing still for a while and the thought of home and a hot bath seemed extremely seductive. However, the adventure was only just beginning.

Big John had been the main protagonist in the barrage of mickey taking, largely along the lines of ” He don’t half look wet don’t he, must have been out in the rain; do you reckon he’s drip dry?” He suddenly said in a loud voice,
“ You can sleep in my caravan if you want”
Everybody laughed uproariously
“ Har har har…hev he still got chickens in it?”
“ Would that be the 50 quid a night caravan or the expensive one?”
I didn’t know what to say.

When Big John went off to the Gents, the landlord leaned over and said
“ Don’t let the mickey taking put you off. He’s got a heart of gold really. He means it” And so it was that I ended up hurtling through the lanes, sloshing through huge puddles, in a four by four pick-up piloted by my new friend.

Shortly, we came to a bungalow with a caravan parked neatly underneath the carport. John took me to the front door, eyed me up and down and said
“ Wait here, I’ll get the wife”
Not surprisingly, she looked somewhat startled by this turn of events. Once she was over the initial shock however, she quickly offered to dry off my clothes in the tumble drier. John led me to the caravan and tugged open the sticking door. An unmistakable odour of dampness seeped from within. We clambered inside. It had clearly not been used, other than for the storage of an old mattress, for a very long time.

“Well, what do you think? “ asked John
“Very nice” I heard myself mumble
“Great! Now, you’d probably have spent 20 quid on B&B wouldn’t you? I’m happy to let you sleep here for 15. Full English breakfast thrown in. What do you say to that?”
There were plenty of things I could have said to that, but what squeaked out was ” Fine, thankyou very much”
“OK then get some of your wet stuff off and come to the back door. Whatever you do, don’t just walk in right?”
“Have you got a toilet I could use?”

“ Ah, good point, “said John “ yes, good point. We’re off out soon and if you want to come in to use the bog, I’d better introduce you to Simba. He’s a bit of a bugger. Might have you if he don’t know you”

Simba turned out to be a Rhodesian ridgeback. I believe they use them to hunt hippos, or possibly lions. He clearly didn’t like me and had to be restrained by John. I could hear him snarling at the loo door as I sat within. I could feel a bout of constipation coming on.

We decided against my using the bathroom while they were away.
“ Just go in the garden” said John “ It’ll be alright, oh, and have you got the fifteen quid? Probably best I take it up front eh?”

Returning to the caravan, I proceeded to strip off my clothes. This was the first chance that I had had to really take stock. I had been wearing a red fleece jacket over a white T-shirt under my leaky anorak. I now had a pink fleece jacket and a red(dish) T-shirt where the colour had bled.

The overtrousers had done a great job of keeping out the rain, although not being breathable- I was just as wet from my own sweat. Possibly too much information. My long distance socks were also soaked and beneath them, or rather glued to them, my feet were in a truly dreadful state. Huge blisters everywhere.

I dried off as best I could and dressed in the driest of the wet clothes from my pack. John’s wife collected the wet stuff to pop into the drier. An amazing woman. You just got the impression that if he had brought home a travelling circus, she’d have taken it in her stride and rustled up some hay for the elephants. I draped my wet sleeping bag from the curtain pelmets and lit my Camping Gaz stove to both cook and to warm the caravan a little.

I had just rummaged through my pack and fished out the Pot Noodles to prepare for supper, when John appeared. He tugged at the swollen door almost overbalancing the stove roaring away on the work surface. Dangerous stuff.
“We’re off out now” he said, adding gruffly ” Here’s something for you”
He thrust a bottle of Lambrusco sparkling wine into my hands. A few minutes later, his wife appeared with my lovely fluffy warm dry clothes! I finished preparing the meal and having a spare gas cartridge, decided to allow the stove to burn itself out.

Admittedly the atmosphere was somewhat steamy, but the combination of wine, Pot noodles, the flickering light from the stove and my book about wartime Chindits surviving in the jungles of Malaysia gave me a warm comfortable feeling, broken only by the need to pee in the herbaceous border from time to time.

My sleeping bag had dried off quickly and after writing up my journal for the day, I snuggled inside. The gas stove spluttered out. I felt that the glow from my feet would probably have illuminated the caravan, but using jungle fighting mind control techniques now familiar to me from the book, I tried to forget the pain and eventually, after listening for a while to the rain still drumming on the roof, I drifted off to sleep.

I slept well and awoke to the rumbling throaty growls of the ridgeback as John took him out for “walkies” or maybe “snarlies” or “threatenies”.
But joy! The sun was shining. The sky was eggshell blue. A bright new day.

I would walk miles. Well, I thought that I would. That was until my poor battered feet hit the floor. Oh dear. Agony would be the word. Well, it would have been the correct word if only they had hurt a little less. They were truly an awful sight. I patched them up as best I could with plasters and limped to the house door.

John cooked breakfast and restrained the Hound of the Baskervilles while I gulped it down. As I sipped hot coffee, he sidled over and said brusquely
“ Here’s a bit of change”
He dropped half a dozen pound coins into my hand and snorted,
“ Alright then? You ready for the off?“
His good lady came through to wish me well.

I re-packed the rucsack, carefully rolling the sleeping bag in a big polythene bag provided by my hosts.
I thanked them both for all that they had done for me and set off into the blue. Absolute stars both of them.

My feet hurt dreadfully. I wondered how on earth I would ever reach far off Swaffham today. It looked to be about 8 or 9 miles on the map. I fathomed that covering a mile at a time and resting in between might be the way to tackle it. The sun beat down although I had to skirt massive puddles across the lanes as I made my way back towards the Peddars’ Way. I wasn’t far off course and soon rejoined the route. Soon I was steaming yet again, this time from the heat. I stopped to rest on a wide grassy verge by a hedge. I draped what damp clothing remained amongst the branches to dry fully and lay back on the grass to rest.

The sound of voices approaching roused me. It was the walking couple from the previous day. They stopped to chat. Apparently Joan and Trevor had walked almost every long distance footpath in Britain and thought they would do a quick lap of Norfolk to add to the tally.
When they learned that yesterday had been my very first day’s walking ever, they were fulsome in their praise. How on earth had I managed to stick it out? And camping out too, why, they’d used a Bed and Breakfast and were glad of it too!
Lying toad that I am, I allowed them to think that I had slept through the storm in my tent and added modestly that I was sure that it could have been a lot worse. They asked did I want to walk a way with them?
Knowing that I could barely hop, I deceitfully declined, saying I wanted to savour the peace of the countryside a little longer, but hoped to see them later.

Eventually I pulled everything together, re-packed, and carried on.
How can I describe how bad my feet were? Every time I stopped, I pulled off my socks, paddled in puddles, patted myself dry and frequently renewed the plasters. All to little avail. Well, actually, to no avail whatsoever. I hobbled and winced my way through lovely countryside, occasionally trying to convince myself that this is how pilgrims of old felt and that it was good for the erm, soul if not the soles.

Late in the afternoon I reached the junction with the A47 trunk road and limped pathetically over to the MacDonald’s situated by the roundabout. I dined on some sort of Real Meal Deal, wondering whether I dare camp in the bushes nearby. I reflected on the fact that I had been out here in the bush for not much more than 24 hours. Already my legs were like jelly and my feet like burgers. The dye had run on my budget fleece and now the straps from my rucsack were beginning to cut grooves into my shoulders. Wonderful.

I decided against camping amongst the bushes and trudged on through Swaffham to a lovely clean, well cared for campsite just the other side of town. As related earlier, I had left little to chance on this trip and had practised some of the tasks I would face well in advance, hence the bag of books and strangulation by shopping bag. Sadly, I had not been able to find a large enough piece of grass on which to erect my new tent. Admittedly it was only about two metres long and one wide, but well, that’s the way it was!

What a sight I must have made. Tent spread on the ground, hobbling painfully from side to side, hopping over it at times, trying various combinations of poles and pegs, until at last a sort of drunken wigwam emerged from the chaos. Using a discarded brick. I thumped in some lightweight alloy tent pegs, ruining about 50 percent and bashing my thumb at regular intervals.

I light-headedly blew up my airbed, almost fainting in the process, and unrolled my synthetic modern sleeping bag. Another bargain. Camping at last. This was what it was all about. I unloaded fully and made myself at home. After preparing and eating a nutritious salad I settled down with my book. Well. I say salad, admittedly it didn’t contain anything green, but it did include nuts and crisps and things like that-chocolate and so on. Then, after yet another attempt at dressing my wounded feet, I settled down for the night.

God it was cold. I had brought along a t-shirt as a nightie but this was soon supplemented by the rest of my clothes, an ordnance survey map tucked inside my shirt and a pair of underpants on my head to cut heat loss.
I shuddered and shivered through a freezing cold night. I felt it most in the small of my back. Nothing I could do would warm me. I considered getting up and going for a jog. Then I remembered that I couldn’t walk. I had thoughtfully sawn the neck off a plastic Coca Cola bottle to serve any natural needs in the night. I didn’t use it. In fact it might well have frozen if I had.

Morning came and time for a rethink. As I struggled to walk across the gravel to the toilet block, I knew I could go no further. I determined to miss the next stretch and catch a bus to Hunstanton up on the coast. Hopefully, I could lie up for a day or two for my feet to recover and then carry on from there. Apart from the beautiful Castle Acre, I reasoned that all I would miss would be several miles of sugar beet. I quickly packed and visited the site office in search of a bus timetable. The owner turned out to be an ex local government officer who had only recently changed career and bought the site. A splendid chap, he offered me a ride into town in his car. It might otherwise have meant a taxi-or an ambulance.

I felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment as I boarded the bus to Kings’ Lynn. Mostly it just felt great to sit down on something soft, although my multi coloured t-shirt and generally bedraggled appearance attracted a great deal of unwanted attention from my fellow passengers.

All too soon it was time to forsake the comfort of the coach and fight my way back into the backpack.

Now a 40-pound pack is not insignificant. You know it’s there. You tend to bash into people before you get to know your new working width. It becomes difficult to enter shops or squeeze through gaps. Turning round is particularly hazardous. On the Peddars’ Way, this is unimportant; in Kings’ Lynn it begins to matter. I managed to trash several charity shops before finding a tasteful, and cheap, replacement for the inadvertently tie-dyed t-shirt.

I waited a while for the bus on to Hunstanton. Lots of people wanted to stop and ask embarrassing questions like, “How far have you walked with that?”
An honest answer seemed wholly inappropriate and would doubtless have disappointed my new found fan club. Thus I lied through my teeth.
“ Ooh, you must be so strong!” cooed an ancient, but still comely lady wearing a long Mac, a knitted beret and clutching a leatherette shopping bag.
(Remember, I had been away from civilization for a long time now)
“ Well, you get used to it, hardly know it’s there after a while “ I dissembled.
My blue face and struggle for breath rather giving the lie to the latter boast.

It seemed strange being the centre of so much attention; after all, backpackers were surely not that uncommon? Although maybe the fact that most of them tend to stick to footpaths and steer clear of bus stations increased my rarity value. Time passed quickly as I chatted with, and grievously misled, my new friends. Soon the bus came into view. It was at that moment that I developed a knee-clenching urge to pee. The loos were a long way off and I just knew that I couldn’t hold out for the next 40 minutes on the bus.

To the astonishment of the rest of the bus queue, I heaved my pack onto my back and set off at an ungainly lope for the toilets. I really had no choice; well, none that would be considered decent and hygienic.

As with charity shops, so with toilet cubicles. The danger of becoming wedged in place can hardly be exaggerated. You can’t leave the pack outside the cubicle; it might get pinched- or worse still, detonated by the bomb disposal squad. You have to struggle in like a leatherneck turtle tackling a kissing gate. Naturally the bus had long gone when I emerged.

I waited a further 40 minutes for the next bus. Amazing, considering that in Norfolk, calendars are mostly more useful than timetables.
“Next bus? That’ll be about Wednesday I reckon!”

Struggling onto a bus wearing a backpack is about as easy as squeezing one into a loo cubicle. You hover at the front, attempting to undo the straps and slip the lop-sided monstrosity into the luggage rack, the little tin mug tied on the back threatening to take out the eye of anyone foolish enough to sit nearby.

As the pack comes free, the driver inevitably chooses that very moment to smack the bus into gear and roar off into the traffic. There is a complex formula about force being something to do with weight multiplied by speed. Thus, hurtling out of control down the aisle of a country bus with an errant backpack is somewhat akin to the horrors of a loose cannon below decks on Nelson’s Victory. This is even more amusing, and potentially dangerous, for onlookers when one forgets to undo the chest or waist strap on the pack causing it to rotate around one’s circumference as the coach hits a bump and the bearer moonwalks above the floor in conditions of zero gravity.

A glimpse of historic Castle Rising in the distance, a sign directing one to Her Majesty’s holiday home at Sandringham, the world famous Caley’s Mill lavender farm at Heacham -all passed by in a blur, probably caused by vibration. But, how much better for me culturally than tramping over endless fields? We chugged up the one in eighty hill at the approach to Hunstanton, or “Sunny Hunny” as it is cheerily, if oft inaccurately known. The only seaside town on the east coast to face west, Hunstanton offers wonderful sunsets over the sea - albeit combined with a distant view of Lincolnshire’s Friskney Marshes.

I disembarked and painfully made my way towards a campsite I had found listed in a walker’s guide to the Peddars Way. It turned out to be a very large commercial site with caravans, kiddies’ roundabouts and a swimming pool. The reception office was located at the end of a long gravel drive. It was probably about 300 yards, but to my tortured soles, seemed never ending. The attractive young woman at the desk greeted me with a rather weak and somewhat forced smile.
I dumped the pack on the floor and heaved a sigh of relief.
“ I’d like to camp for a night or two”
“Sorry, but you can’t”
“Sorry, but we don’t take single-sex parties”
“Single sex…er..?”
“ But I’m not a party…although I suppose I am single sex, but I can’t help that can I?”
“Sorry, that’s the rules”

To the accompaniment of my hissing and singing feet, I argued and pleaded, but after checking with her supervisor, she confirmed that I was not welcome. Apparently single sex parties often had drinking orgies and, even when they arrived alone, usually brought back hordes of boozy louts later on.

I believe that if the Olympics were to include the 1500 metres hobble, I would be favourite to bring home gold for Britain. I made my way disconsolately towards the town centre. The promenade at Hunstanton is very pleasant; lovely safe sands with characteristic red pebbles. An ancient WW2 DUKW amphibious vehicle offered trips out to Seal Island. Apparently the locals amuse themselves by trying to convince the unwary that the land they can see across the Wash is in fact Holland.

I arrived at the tourist office only to be told that there was no other campsite in town. I stood rocking and swaying on my heels, staring blankly at the lady behind the counter. I was about to biblically shake the dust from my boots and leave Hunny with a powerful curse of eternal sunless-ness, when
A bright Scottish voice piped up from the back,
“ Is the laddie looking to camp?”
“ He is, and he looks about done for” her colleague accurately observed.

“Well, I’ll ring my friend Mary,” trilled my Scottish angel “ She has a smallholding along the coast near Holme and might let you camp there if I ask nicely”
She rang through and discovered that indeed Mary would let me camp and in fact, had a couple camping on her land already.
I thanked her profusely and shuffled off to catch a bus. The north Norfolk coast is blessed with a service known as the Coast Hopper, a fleet of small buses driven by chatty, cheeky drivers unseen since the days of Ealing comedies.
I was soon pouring myself out onto the roadside at nearby Holme and introducing myself to Mary.
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.
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 Café, 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 little...re-equip where necessary and then back to tackle the next stage.

The Weavers' Way


And so it came to pass that three trips to the Podiatrist, a warm sleeping bag and several meals which did not include Sosmix later- I found myself back in Cromer ready to tackle the Weavers’ Way, a (XXX) long distance footpath which joins the North Norfolk Coastal path to the Angles way In Great Yarmouth .This time wearing proper breathable waterproofs and equipped to cope with all that the English summer could throw at me.

Perversely, it chose not to throw anything, but merely to drape me in a thick blanket of what the locals called sea mist, but which could have graced a Jack the Ripper movie set…..although had it been a smidgeon thicker, Jack would have had difficulty slashing a barn door from the inside.

After a break, it took a while to get back into the rhythm of walking with a pack. I tried chanting …especially that one about “My Mate Marmite” that I’d heard the Royal Marine Commandos sing in the advert… but settled for a feeble version of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as I sauntered through hedgerows dripping from the fog.

There isn’t much to share with you about the first few miles except that it looked somewhat grey and felt somewhat damp. The main excitement came when a couple of enormous cows loomed out of the swirling mists and after emitting foghorn like bellows…thundered off with that peculiar bovine gait which seems to involve more than four legs moving at once.

The mist began to thin as I arrived at the lovely Felbrigg Hall. A National Trust property set in park land through which the Weavers’ Way wanders. I took in the tea rooms and second hand bookshop, drawing back just in time from purchasing a particularly handsome edition of “Don Quixote” as I contemplated having to lug it with me half way across Norfolk.

The path meanders on alongside rivers , through water meadows full of buttercups and the truly evocative smell of cow pats. You can easily lose all sense of place and whilst hacking a path through a waterside wilderness easily imagine yourself to be miles from civilization then suddenly emerge through a kiddies play area into a village main street.

Eventually woodland paths lead to the next National Trust gem along the route….Blickling Hall.
This is a truly magnificent property. Indeed the view of the house from the road is almost too good to be true. If I were in charge, I’d plant a big Leylandii hedge to block it off so I could make people pay to look at it.

I decided to linger here a while and lunched at the estate pub…the Buckingham Arms. Staff here are obviously well used to walkers as despite my mud encrusted boots, passage blocking rucsack and general sweatiness, I received nothing but courtesy…well apart from a fairly substantial bill that is.

Blickling itself was built……..( XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX)

And is home to the celebrated ghost of Ann Boleyn..who (XXXX)

From here the very well maintained and signposted route leads over the fields to Aylsham. Norfolk has been called England’s “Sugar Bowl” and the path ahead lead through serried ranks of sugar beet as far as the eye could see.
I believe it was the great Aneurin Bevan who spoke of a land built on coal and surrounded by fish never needing to starve. Well, a lot less of both now….but I concluded that if we would settle for pigeon and rabbit pie and lashings of sugar, the same could hold true today. Everywhere I walked rabbits shot from beneath my feet and pigeons exploded with wings clapping overhead.

The day had by now turned hot and I eventually trickled into Aylsham, grabbed a cool drink and sprawled beneath the shade of a mighty Yew tree in the churchyard. As before, removing the pack brought on a strange sensation akin to moon walking…..or a kind of poor person’s Snowman flying through the air.

I wandered around the graveyard for a bit before spotting the resting place of the great landscape architect Humphry Repton whose handiwork I had already admired at Sheringham. It was great to see his grave planted with blooming red roses…doubtless nourished by his very own bonemeal ! It reminded me of the old advice to bury a dead horse when trying to establish a grape vine( or was it a fig tree?)

Aylsham itself is a very pretty little Georgian market town with a wealth of unspoilt buildings in the market square and beyond. (XXXGGGGKKKKK)

I planned to camp in a village not far away. Unable to find a proper tent camping site in the guide book, I had previously contacted a local farmer who allowed a few caravans onto his land in season. He was happy for me to pitch there but warned me that he lacked any kind of facility other than a tap.

I stocked up with expedition rations at the local Spar shop…chocolate, tinned pineapple and a half bottle of red medicine( Cotes de Rhone actually ) before heading out of town.

The Weavers’ Way now followed the track of the former (MGN ???) railway line.( BLBLBL) and before long dived into a cutting overhung with hawthorn trees. I soon reached an intersection with a country lane and clambered up to reach the farm caravan site above.

Mrs Cook greeted me warmly and invited me to set up camp around the back. She apologized again for the lack of facilities and suggested that I “do my business” behind some straw bales she said were in the adjacent field. I had only one caravan for company and a large lady in floral print shorts glared at me as I approached. “There’s no footpath through here you know!” she snarled . I explained, but had the feeling she felt that her VVVXXXXXXXX>???

I camped beside some ornamental shrubs which were to prove a useful modesty barrier in the night. However, feeling an urgent need I looked in vain for the promised straw bales but they had clearly been whisked away without her noticing. I waded off cross legged through a cornfield and several bramble hedges in search of somewhere to drop my drawers. Looking back to check that I was safely out of sight, I was
amazed to see Mrs Big-Pants watching my every move. I blundered on through nettles and thistles, everything clenched, frequently glancing behind me to see the daft woman rising up on tip toes to try to keep me in sight. Eventually I was able to drop down on my haunches in a wild patch at the corner of the field. O the joys of camping. By the time I fought my way back, I felt that I needed to go again.

Later, I sat and cooked up a tasty mixture of Spam and Smash instant potato. The Spam stuck to the frying pan…well, it would wouldn’t it?
As I did battle with a mean spatula, I heard Big-Pants yelling orders and turned to see her jerk and drag a reluctant German shepherd (dog that is) from her caravan. It was obviously going for a walk… or a drag… whether it liked it or not. She grabbed a large plastic jerry can and hauled the hound over to the water tap nearby. As they passed me, the inquisitive dog started to bark. The loving owner stopped this in its tracks by whapping the poor thing over the head with the jerry can. German Shepherds have an entirely undeserved reputation for ferocity…..but I thought…O just this once..go on..have her leg off.

Hygiene not being my strong suit, I ignored the corner of some distant field and settled for the shrubbery after dark, then settled down for the warmest cosiest night ever under canvas. The scrummy new silk sleeping bag liner was worth the wait. I had also reluctantly decided to leave my Woolworth’s pillows at home and had bought instead a compact camping pillow which did an excellent job. It poured down towards dawn and I snuggled down and listened to the rain lashing against the canvas only inches from my head. This is a wonderful experience…until you remember that the tent has to be taken down and folded into the rucsack in a few hours time.

I lay listening to the rain and slipping blissfully in and out of consciousness until I could no longer withstand the urgent promptings of my bladder. Mercifully, the rain stopped and I was able to scramble off to the distant…although by now somewhat damp, hedgerow...which I left even damper. Yet another reminder of the joys of camping. Back at the tent, I was greeted by Mr Cook the site owner. I offered to pay for my stay but this was waved away with the request that I drop something into a charity box on my travels….bless him.

After a tasty breakfast of Kit Kat and dried apricots, I packed away the wet tent. Sadly, Big Pants had obviously not been mauled to death in the night. Apparently en route to the water tap, she paused and stared as I struggled to jam the wet and swollen tent into my rucksack. I smiled and ventured a cheery good morning. She managed a grunt and a shrug before stomping off. No German shepherd this time maybe she’d eaten it.wwwwwwwwwords(14184)

The Weavers’ way appears to have been so named as it weaves its way all over the place. In fact, this section continues to follow the defunct railway line towards North Walsham. Following this lush green tunnel, I was once again aware of how you can be tramping along on a deserted track feeling as though you are miles from anywhere, yet pass really close to human habitation without realising it.

You plod on, playing out some daft fantasy about being lost in the bush…well…idiots like me do…only to happen upon a pile of lawn clippings, hedge trimmings and an abandoned plastic wheelbarrow flung through the hedge from a neighbouring garden. The trick is to just imagine it’s all a mirage and just stick with the fantasy. Eyes watching you from the undergrowth could well be native tribes-people resenting your intrusion. Anytime you could be shot in the neck by a poison dart…although in North Walsham that’s a distinct possibility!

The track curved ahead through cuttings and over bridges, over rivers and streams and eventually through the marvellous Felmingham Cutting. This is a steep sided cutting now designated a butterfly reserve. There are information boards and viewing platforms to view the lovely butterflies all around. I slipped off the pack and settled down to watch. Far better to let the butterflies come to you rather than chase them. The slightest shadow and they are off.

After a fascinating Lepidoptera packed lunch , I toddled off towards nearby North Walsham. Trying to learn from the battered foot syndrome of the first leg of the journey, I had planned shorter stages at the start of the walk to let my feet reacclimatise after the break. Good thing too as the sun now began to blaze down and the fantasy scenario changed to the one where I get to cross the Great Australian Desert with Flanders and Swann….or was it Flinders and Swann?

Sweaty and ponging, I emerged from the backwoods into downtown Walsham. I soon found the kind of café which one instinctively knows should be pronounced “caff”. A decent unpretentious establishment where a sweat-soaked moron who flails around trying to undo his back pack without demolishing too many tables might go almost unnoticed.
A slab of lardy cake and a mug of milky coffee later and I was ready to seek out the campsite I knew to lurk beyond the town boundaries.

The town has a wonderful motorcycle museum and a church tower which looks as though some cosmic backpacker had done to it what I had almost done to Mildred’s Café. I walked out through a housing estate and across poppy filled cornfields eventually joining a narrow country lane with raised banks ablaze with wild flowers. Just as the legs were writing a distress message , I came upon my goal for the day, Two Mills campsite.

What a relief. A brilliant, clean, well run site with really nice welcoming owners. I was shown to a fresh piece of grass on which to erect the tent. I say “fresh” as so often campsites offer a succession of rectangles in various shades of yellow where tents have stood for weeks… the area where the tent entrance had been ..churned to mud.

By now, I had become something of an expert on choice of pitch. I tested the wind direction by dropping a handful of leaves, felt for hollows and calculated the direction in which the sun would rise. Looked for shelter from the prevailing wind and carefully checked the slope of the land. Sadly, as any camper will tell you, these things are always at odds with one another and usually you can have any three from five but never all of them. In fact often you might just as well toss a coin.

With the tent up and all in place, I set off to shower. Facilities were excellent with one notable exception. And in truth, that was a matter of taste. Some people like piped music. Some people like Frank Ifield the yodelling Aussie…….however the only thing he did for me was to make my constipation even worse. Possibly I would have been grateful had I needed anything drowning out but each trip to the loo thereafter became a contest between me and Cliff Richard as to who would go first. I rather fancied that when I DID produce…Cliff would burst into “Congratulations and celebrations..…”


The site was otherwise excellent and I have nothing but praise for the owners who went to enormous lengths to try to find a campsite for me for the next stage. They ‘phoned ahead and asked around….but it appeared that the only one marked on the map had long since closed down. However, I had a trump card hidden somewhere. A friend of my sister lived not too far off the Weavers’ Way …up at Sea Palling , which, as the name rather implies, is on the coast. A quick phone call and I had permission to camp in her garden.

I rather reluctantly packed away the next morning and traipsed of through the romantic White Horse Common…where a big black dog snarled at me…over Meeting Place Hill and back onto the old railway line.
I walked on in glorious sunshine , listening to the birds , kicking stones and humming Frank’s “ I Remember yoo-hoo”

I had just sat down to rest and eat a wee snack of a Wagon Wheel and a Turkish Delight, when a strange figure approached. A man clad entirely in motorcycle leathers and carrying a helmet trudged towards me , hampered by his knee length leather boots. I knew for sure that we were a long way from a road and pondered what on earth he could be doing.
Turned out that he had a strong interest in World War 2 searchlights. Yes, that’s what I thought! He liked to seek out old sites and photograph them. Why not do something sensible like walk around Norfolk with a leaky backpack?

This is a very attractive section of the walk and runs close to the historic North Walsham and Dilham Canal. Amazingly ,this was the only official canal in the whole of Norfolk. Opened in 1826 and long since closed, I learned that it was constructed wider than canals elsewhere in Britain in order that it could accommodate broad Norfolk Wherries . However, the romance fades a little when one discovers that the main cargo was offal and skeletons from abattoirs to feed the bone meal mill at Antingham.

Nearby Honing Hall is yet another site where Humphry Repton worked his parkland magic. This is an area where it definitely pays to wander off of the path and take in some of the surrounding villages.

Speaking of which, I now had to leave the track at Stalham and head off for Sea Palling and the lovely Jill. The next few miles were a real nightmare as the lane offered few chances to escape from the traffic hurtling through. Leaping onto a grassy bank with a 20Kg Pack as juggernauts bore down on me became almost instinct…just as well or I might otherwise have become more extinct. I managed to avoid becoming strawberry jam, although my lurches into the weeds have probably stored up spinal damage for my dotage.

Sea Palling suffered badly in the great floods of 1953 and has always been under attack from the sea . Massive artificial reefs made up of huge granite blocks have been erected just offshore to stop the beach being completely washed away. Instead, there are now strange curved bays between the reefs. I found Jill’s house and set up my tent in the flower garden. After a lovely evening ,it seemed truly odd to say goodnight…go out of the back door and walk down the lawn to camp amongst the dahlias. I thought I had a better offer when my beautiful host said “ Don’t forget if you get too cold…..you can always come inside…..”
Adding, as I smirked…” and push the dog off the sofa...he won’t mind”
Next morning, I thanked my host for her hospitality and stocking up with provisions, set off for Sutton. Once again, the day got out really hot and I found that I had to constantly stop and lie in the shade to recuperate. This seemed no problem as I had all day to get to Potter Heigham ( Potter H’am as they say round that way) .I reached Sutton and managed a brief look at the tallest windmill in Britain. There is an interesting display there of Broads life. definitely somewhere to return to and explore at a later date.

The walk now wandered along country lanes through the village of Hickling where I was treated with great kindness and tolerance by the owners of the village stores. A real rarity……..village stores that is...not kind people.
In fact, Norfolk people are absolutely golden and really made the trip; frequently helping me to overcome the results of my own incompetence.

I sat on a bench sipping a can of the magic elixir…Lemonade Shandy .. before diving off the road into the jungle which cloaks the southern shores of Hickling Broad. This was a wild and wonderful section of the walk. I saw 4 huge exotic Swallowtail butterflies, three eagle-like Marsh Harriers and a Chinese Water Deer. Sadly something nasty bit my thigh as I rested on the grass…something I might have welcomed the night before.

The footpath hugs the waterside and the going underfoot is quite rough and bumpy. A very tiring terrain to trudge over. I spotted a thatched cottage of some kind on the bank of the river…miles from anywhere. As I drew nearer, I saw notices on either bank saying “Strictly NO Quanting “
I didn’t need any- so wasn’t too upset that they had run out of it.
By now nearing exhaustion, I stumbled on, cheered by the knowledge that I had only a mile to go to Potter Heigham .

It was not to be. This was to be my first…but by no means last… encounter with the dreaded “ Footpath Diverted” sign. Due to maintenance or dredging or the wrong kind of grass, I was coerced into walking a further three miles along a raised bank which had been well used by cows who had clearly suffered a digestive upset on a major scale. Plodding along , periodically scraping my boots sideways in the long grass, I eventually collapsed out onto the main road .

I knew there were several campsites in the area but having hallucinated about carving my socks off with a bowie knife and taking a hot shower, I asked a passer by for directions to the nearest site.
She looked me up and down….and obviously fearing that no decent site would countenance a stay by the dripping red faced wild man she saw before her…she said
“ You could try Mrs Gimlet at Hemlock Cottage…she might take you…….”( Names have been changed to protect the…..erm...author.

Twenty long minutes later, I found myself standing in front of an idyllic looking gingerbread cottage. Thatched roof, roses around the door, and an enormous black cat curled up by a besom broom in the porch. An ancient handwritten sign informed me that I had arrived at Gimlet Camping. A welter of similar fading signs added that dogs were not welcome; that anyone turning their caravan in the drive would be prosecuted; and that people dropping litter would be forced to leave.
There should be no ball games and anyone thinking otherwise could clear off home now. ( well…it didn’t exactly say that...but that was the gist of it)
Timorously I rapped the brass pixie door knocker and waited.

After what seemed an age, an eye appeared at a gap in the net curtain, a bolt slid back and before me stood an absolutely copybook fairy tale witch! Wild eyed with unkempt hair( Her that is…not me), wearing the obligatory black dress and warts, she looked me up and down …..

”What do you want?” She demanded.

“I’d like to camp” I croaked.

“That’ll be 9 pounds a night…in advance “

“Well…I’m too tired to look for somewhere cheaper “ I said (foolishly!)

“You won’t find anywhere cheaper!”

She snapped and right then I knew that one more word out of line and I’d be out on my ear.

“Only a joke! It’s really reasonable “ I crawled, proffering folding money.

“Hmm….very well. Pitch your tent down the end by the caravan. I’ll look at it later”

This last remark sounded awfully like “ I’ll look at it later- and God help you if it isn’t pitched tidily”

The caravan turned out to be an ancient model long abandoned and now covered in green algae and bird droppings. The tyres were flat and gradually disappearing into the soft earth and lush grass. I pitched the tent, taking extra care to peg it out so as to leave no ugly folds which might incur the wrath of Esmeralda. I had just about finished loading everything inside when she sort of materialised at my side.

“ Hmm, you could have put it a bit nearer the hedge… but it’ll do”

I felt like saluting and snapping “Yes Ma’am!” but muttered a humble “ Are you sure? I could easily move it ?” although right then I was having difficulty moving my left leg in sync with my right one…let alone moving the wretched tent . But no, apparently it would do.

“Come and see me at the house before you do any washing “ she added as she sped away on her broomstick. Sorry , that last bit didn’t really happen but I was expecting it so much that I may have hallucinated it.
Having just about passed muster, I headed off into town to explore.

Many of the towns on the Broads have a kind of inland seaside feel to them. Although Wroxham rather sets the standard with its amusement arcades and chip shops; interesting souvenirs and rude postcards , Potter Heigham also has this air of holiday fun and abandon. Both places boast a large department store which draws the crowds from afar.

Each has a busy harbour offering moorings for holiday craft, boat hire and organised trips on the water. They both have a posse of homicidal attack-ducks too. These Mallards–with-malice haunt the water’s edge and mug unsuspecting holidaymakers for a handful of chips. Little boys who run around the house naked used to be told” Put it away, the ducks will get you” and, believe me, these ducks are the ones they had in mind.

Feeling that another meal based on Sosmix could be too much of a good thing, I wandered into a local pub which served food. You can tell the real gourmet places as they have a menu outside written on a blackboard in coloured chalk. Obviously inflation makes it difficult to quote prices, but a good rule of thumb is that a decent meal ought not to cost more than a packet of fags. I scanned the menu, trying to decide what to have with my chips.

As this was to be a rare treat, I settled on the vegetarian sausage surprise and sat back to take in the atmosphere of this ancient hostelry. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while, but it suddenly came to me that the pub had just about the fattest clientele I had ever seen. Great big blokes in dungarees and ample bottomed ladies overhanging barstools. This boded well for the food….probably fried in good old traditional lard.

A small boy stood on tip toe looking through the glass at a large fish;

“Do it move Dad?” he asked as he banged on the tank

The legend “ 23lbs pike caught in 1907 by Colonel Boggis” suggested otherwise.

As I lingered over my meal and a few essential glasses of house red; feeling all warm and relaxed , I began to realise just how tiring the long diversion on today’s walk had been.

My legs put up solid resistance when I urged them to carry me back to the site. By the time I reached the tent I felt utterly exhausted. I decided there and then to approach Mrs Gimlet first thing and ask if I could extend my stay by another day.

Staggering back onto the site, I was astonished to see that a massive van had parked in such a way as to totally overshadow my tent. As I drew closer, I spotted the legend- “Women’s Royal Voluntary Service” on the side of the van. Just beyond I spotted a well pitched bell tent.

I imagined this to be full of women who might volunteer royal services in various ways. This was enough in my book for them to be forgiven for the incursion onto my territory. I looked forward to nocturnal girlie giggles in the style of “Carry On Camping “ and, with luck, some early morning callisthenics with Barbara Windsor look-alikes losing their foundation garments.

However, the night brought less pleasant experiences. Using my head-torch ..a curious piece of equipment which pointed everywhere but where the beam was needed…I lay in my sleeping bag and read a guide book to the area. Now I may have imagined this, but I am sure that I read that the area on which the campsite was laid out had once been a Saxon burial ground.

The elastic band which held the torch on my head eventually cut off the blood supply to my brain so I reluctantly put down the guide and snuggled down to sleep. Initially I slept well. With the tent sandwiched between the WRVS van and the decrepit caravan it was sheltered from the wind which had begun to get up.

I woke in the small hours aware of strange noises outside. I could hear
A sort of scratching, scraping noise accompanied by what sounded like sighing. The tent was now billowing and slapping in the wind. A barn owl screeched nearby. I shivered…cold…but also now feeling afraid.

Sounds are magnified at night. I lay there listening to the insistent scraping and scratching . Almost certainly the shades of long dead Saxons trying to claw their way out of the cold earth where they had so long lain. Well, that’s what it sounded like. By far the best way to deal with various ghoulies, bogey men and spooks is the time honoured trick of snuggling down under the covers .This almost always works, although don’t ask about the times when it hasn’t.

I spent a troubled night; due partly to the returning spooky Saxons and partly to the returning onion rings from my pub meal. The strange noises continued and the wind got up again…both within and without, but eventually I fell asleep- waking some hours later as the sun peeped through the privet hedge. Again I heard the scratching but this time accompanied by muffled curses. So much braver by the pink light of dawn, I peered outside expecting Beowulf to be rising from the grave. It was much worse…much more scary.

The scratching had been the sound of chickens penned in the dilapidated old caravan and now I was staring directly at Esmeralda Gimlet’s enormous muscular bottom as she knelt with her head through the pop hole gathering eggs. God help me if she caught me staring at her drawers. I rapidly zipped myself back in and snuggled down in my sleeping bag again.

I awoke some time later to the sound of the WRVS practising for a steel band concert. Or maybe just cooking breakfast in various metal pans. I dressed and crawled out looking for Barbara Windsor. No such luck. What I saw was a jolly family group who may well have pinched the works van for the weekend . Lovely people who chatted away to me little realising that I had spent half the night fighting off the undead on their behalf.


I was beginning to hum a bit. Not in a musical way…more a “My God, what on earth have they been spreading on the fields Mildred?” sort of way. Much modern walking gear prides itself on being light, quick drying, breathable etc…but “smelly” is a word seldom mentioned in the brochures. Phrases like “Wicks away perspiration” rather cloak the fact that the sweat has to go somewhere. Indeed it does wick to the surface of the garment and the wetness evaporates ( or “Flashes” in the techno speak beloved of hikers everywhere) only the pong remains.

I planned to stay at the camp a further day- so after breakfast, gathered together a pile of laundry and set out to find Mrs Gimlet. I found her by the cottage ramming a stick down the drains. She eyed my bundle. “ Is that your washing ?” she asked. Her glare implied it looked, and maybe smelled, more like my garbage. After brief negotiations...and the passage of a few silver coins… she pointed out the laundry room with its slot meter controlled old geyser.
“How many items do you have to wash?” she demanded to know
“Eight “ I replied after the kind of survey usually reserved for the nine items or less checkout at Tesco.
She handed me 9 clothes pegs.
“Mind you bring ‘em back” she said “ Or I’ll have to charge ‘em to you”

Laundry duly done and hung out to dry, I set out for the village. I rather fancied a boat trip on the Broads. I trundled into the tourist office and discovered that a large boat…with a bar let it be said….was sailing that very afternoon via Hickling Broad to the wind pump at Horsey Mere. I decided to book and reached for my wallet. I had already had to dig deep to pay Mrs Gimlet and now the boat trip left me very short of cash. I asked where I might find a cash point.
“Erm…Stalham “ came the reply
“Stalham ?” I gulped “ But that’s miles away!”
Indeed it was…and is. Nothing else for it…no hole in the wall…no cash back no way. If I wanted cash, it had to be Stalham.

And so it was that I came to be riding in Tim’s taxi. Spending ten pounds on the fare to withdraw forty ! He knew of Esmeralda…….
“Funny old gal “ he said” Often chucks people off the site if she don’t like the look of them !”

Back in Potter Heigham, pockets stuffed with gold, I blew part of my fortune on a nourishing bag of chips and settled down by the river to watch boats sailing under the bridge. This proved excellent sport as the opening was only marginally bigger than most boats. This combined with tides and swirling currents…not to mention flocks of attack-ducks…led the authorities to insist that no-one attempt to sail under the bridge without the services of a skilled river pilot. These old sea-dogs( River-dogs?) made it look really easy….lining up the boat and, as the holidaymaking crew went white, gulped and ducked low...shot through the opening with just inches to spare.

Eventually the time came to board the boat for my trip into the unknown. Would I end up having to leap overboard and haul the boat to safety-burning off leeches with a glowing fag-end? Would the Captain collapse over the wheel forcing me to takeover and pilot us through treacherous waters? Would someone(else) on board go mad and try to scuttle the boat? A heady mixture of The African Queen, Hemingway, Swallows and Amazons and Hammond Innes swam around in my brain as we weighed anchor and slipped into the channel-bound for Horsey.

Uneventful would be one way of describing the trip…but that would be a little unfair. Judged by the standards of normal folks rather than an overgrown Just William…it was fine. We saw herons and a marsh harrier, almost sunk a canoe, drank a few glasses of red wine ( a naval tradition) and got to climb the steps of Horsey Mill for a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

To my shame, I have often referred to this part of Norfolk as the “Empty Quarter” The great unexplored wilderness between Mundesley and Great Yarmouth .

I enjoyed the cruise and my legs certainly appreciated the rest from humping half a ton ( 500Kg) of camping equipment along river banks.
I returned to the campsite to find that the WRVS had fled only to be replaced by a couple of the undead in a huge caravan parked about as close to my tiny tent as was possible. I tried to be friendly…tried to chat…but couldn’t decide whether they were mute, Latvian or had temporarily given their carer the slip. Eventually I gave up and got on with my chores. They found me most entertaining…watching me go about the business of cooking a Sosmix Special like a pair of noddy headed dogs. They sat grinning and gently wobbling their heads in wry amusement as I slopped the wet mix into shape, fried it and then skilfully scraped a lot of it off the pan and onto my plate.

After spending a quiet night in, I slept well…my dreams completely devoid of deceased Saxons and similar nocturnal nasties. I woke early and after breakfast, prepared to move on. The nodding dogs watched as I deflated the airbed, rolled up the tent, stuffed the sleeping bag into it’s cover and , with the bare minimum of squashing, kneeing, swearing and wrestling, packed everything away in the rucsack. Mr Noddy strolled over, grinning inanely” So, does it all fit in there then ?” he asked.

With everything safely stowed , I hoisted the pack and strode off on the next leg of the journey. I hoped to follow the path beside the river Thurne, down through Acle and out onto Halvergate marshes. My brief battered guide to the Weavers’ Way suggested stopping at the curiously named Camping Barn and gave a phone number to call.

I walked on under a hot sun with just the birds, butterflies and a packet of liquorice allsorts for company. The path veered away from the river at the picturesque village of Thurne with its much photographed windpump and less well recorded ice cream vending emporium…It then climbed through the churchyard. I followed, chomping on a Cornetto, heaving my weary body up a steep incline
( in Norfolk, this is any piece of ground on which water will refuse to stay still) to be rewarded by stunning views of the river below.

I walked through yet more sugar beet fields before dropping back down to the riverside opposite Upton marshes. I sat by an old ruined mill and ate my lunch, waving my bare feet at passing boats. Strange business this waving malarkey. There is some inexplicable compulsion on the part of day trippers afloat that causes them to wave cheerily and leer gormlessly at anyone and anything that moves. They wave at passengers on passing craft, at folks on the riverbank, at herds of cows and at RAF pilots flying 20,000 feet overhead. Anyway, I waved back equally gormlessly…if not more so.

I loved these picnics. A chance to rest and relax…savour being out in the open air. Listening to the birds and bees. Dining regally on whatever had survived being jammed into the rucsack…and subsequently knelt on. Some foods endure this better than others. Sliced white bread in particular tends to revert to its component parts when compressed. Few things are less appetising than a squashed Spam sandwich.

This took me back to my Army days when on cookhouse fatigue duties, four lads would process alongside a very long table. The first would slap down slices of bread as if dealing from a pack of cards, the second would slop a paste of bully beef and oil onto each slice of bread. Number three would deal a second slice of bread on top…and the fourth and most important member of the team would wallop the sandwich to cement it together. This final component of the sandwich making drill was known as “stunning”.

Haversack rations usually included two rounds of these terrifying examples of the sandwich makers art- plus a packet of crisps an apple and sometimes a chocolate bar( small, hard, tasteless and “wishing I had a proper one” for the use of ) We referred to the sandwiches as “baddies” and the other stuff as “goodies”.

The baddies were frequently flung from the back of the truck. Dartmoor and Salisbury Plain are built on these discarded building blocks. In fact, there may well be an alternative theory concerning the origins of Stonehenge in there somewhere. Reading that, you can probably understand how I look so well on a diet of burnt Sosmix fritters.

My sybaritic lunchtime pleasures would usually endure until shortly after the ants and flies found me. One would wave or flick away the first members of the vanguard before reaching the point where, as the main legions arrived, frantic waving and flicking would attract boat loads of trippers enthusiastically signalling back.

Back on the trail, I walked beyond the mouth of Upton Dyke, past Clippesby Mill and on to Acle Bridge with its welcome stores and even more welcome public conveniences. Note that I have, thus far, largely avoided the earthy but obviously entirely natural and necessary matter of bodily functions( well…ignoring the sawn off Coca Cola bottle that is…Oh and the missing straw bales saga ) When there is a toilet, then one uses it…however , we adventurers have to be adept at doing it in the woods….except that alongside Broadland waterways…there are no woods( oh and the herbaceous border incident) Anyway, the toilets were open, clean, well supplied and greatly assisted me in the business of walking straight without ones knees being clenched.( I said “Knees” to avoid appearing vulgar)

I bought fresh supplies of chocolate and ice cream but left my main grocery shopping until arriving in Acle itself. I realised that my gas canister was running low and tried valiantly to find a stockist. Everyone I asked seemed to suggest somewhere different, and trekking across the place when hot and heavily laden was no fun. The kindly proprietor of Wonderful Wilkersons hardware stores turned practically the whole place upside down believing that the elusive gas lurked somewhere within.

Sadly it didn’t. I resolved to do without hot food that night. In view of the standard of cuisine so far, this was hardly a great sacrifice….more a blessing in disguise. I bought a collection of various nutritious cold foods from the Co-op…peanuts..swiss roll..Hob-Nobs etc. I found a telephone box and called the owner of the camping barn to ask permission to camp . He readily gave it, but warned me that there were already some people staying there.

The idea of having company was rather attractive after all the time I had spent in the bush, so I hoisted my pack and lugged my Co-op carrier bags out of town. After a wet spring, growth was lush along the path which wound its way through a recently planted wood . I made my way through this veritable jungle towards the A47 trunk road. Crossing this was a nightmare. Cars ,Lorries and kamikaze caravans barred my path and as I gathered myself ready to dash across a group of snarling racing motorcyclists in lurid leathers rocketed from the nearby roundabout. It seemed forever before I was able to cross…although it probably wasn’t.

At last I was over and tripped off in the direction of the barn. Feeling good at escaping the horribly busy road I sang to myself. Have you ever noticed that the more you want to stop singing a particular tune….the more often you find it on your lips? Frank Ifield and his yodelling were proving difficult to suppress. I tried a variety of tunes from “The Happy Wanderer” to the Marines yomping chant( My Mate Marmite) but Frank refused to be beaten. In the end I all but glued my jaws together and clomped along in silence……..until I heard the thump of amplified music…

As the camping barn hove into view, it was clear that my fellow campers were young and music loving. A crowd of laughing joking boisterous young folks spilled over from the barn. Clusters of tents were pitched in the meadow outside. I felt like a grizzled old granddad appearing out of the mists. Like a fur trapper descending from the Rockies after spending six months unwashed and generally untended.
Well, I certainly grabbed their attention. I explained the situation and said that I didn’t want to disturb them and would camp away over the other side of the field. They were having none of it and quickly put me at ease. The barn turned out to have a fully functioning kitchen….so much for my lack of gas… and bathrooms with all mod cons.

We chatted for a while and it turned out that the group wanted to go out on the town…or as we used to say in historical times…paint the town red. I suggested they would need a very small pot of paint for Acle and suggested they head for Great Yarmouth which could certainly do with as fresh coat or two of any colour at all really.

I must have an honest face as they left me the keys to the barn. I made camp in a lovely spot a good distance from the other tents. Sheltered by trees and set amongst wild flowers( well…on top of some of them) it felt truly wild . The four gas rings, fridge and power shower were a bonus. The tent that I was using had an entrance on each side and I had long wanted to be able to camp in such a way that with the flaps rolled up, I could watch the sunset one side and waken to the sunrise on the other. I got my sunset alright, but awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the tent and splashing through the doorway onto my sewn in groundsheet. I gave up on sunrise , mopped up as much water as I could without getting out of my sleeping bag , zipped up the tent and went back to sleep.

Eventually the usual calls of nature had me up and wading through the wet grass . I knew the young folks had been really late and didn’t want to go clattering into the barn…so did things al fresco. I breakfasted handsomely on muesli and cold water. The sun was now peeping through and my tent started to dry off quite rapidly. As this was the final day on the Weavers’ Way I wanted to make a fairly early start so loaded up my still somewhat damp equipment and crept away.

The long grass was still wet and despite wearing proper waterproof boots, I soon had soaking wet feet. I think that my super-socks which were designed to wick away moisture from my feet were now wicking rainwater straight down into my boots…rather in the manner in which one can water pot plants while on holiday by using a bowl of water and an old rag. Regardless of how it was happening…it WAS happening and after a few soggy miles I had to stop to change socks ,dry my feet and don my waterproof overtrousers . Thus encumbered - I rustled streamed and dripped off through the meadows.

Ahead of me lay the dark brooding expanse of Halvergate Marshes. On a grey cloudy day with not a soul in sight, I set out to cross a wilderness as forbidding as the famous Grimpen Mire of Hound of the Baskervilles fame. Mercifully, everything began to dry out and I was able to remove the overtrousers which had been progressively sending me loopy with their chafes and rustles and squeaks.

Halvergate Marshes are grazed by fierce looking cattle who need to be tough to live out there. None of your namby pamby Jersey cows here. These are great shaggy lumbering beasts with horns two metres across whose very breath can stunt a shrub at ten paces. As the unsuspecting traveller stumbles across the moors, they clamber to their feet like African buffalo which we all know from reading Tarzan comics are the most dangerous quarry of all .

Frankly the best technique is to just talk to them the way one would an axe-toting mass murderer. Just plough on while saying.. as firmly as one can when the spittle has mysteriously dried up… “ Now we don’t want any trouble do we? I respect your right to be here but I just need to walk past …it is after all a right of way” They just sort of look at you…but deep down you know it was only their highly developed sense of pity which has spared you a ghastly goring.

I remember when I took up beekeeping…they seemed to go mental whenever I opened up the hive, they stung through my protective clothing…they shot down my welly boots to sting my ankles...they got inside my veil.. whereas they were as gentle as lambs when my beekeeping mentor did exactly the same thing. He taught me to sing to them …particularly recommending “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” It worked-but it took me years to twig that the singing was to calm ME down- not the bees…although one led in turn to the other.

My country know-how and raw courage took me past the cattle……they also took me past the correct turn off for the new Weavers’ Way. The path has been slightly modified over the years and now plunges south east to the famous Berney Arms pub which sits in splendid isolation beside the river….accessible only by boat ..on foot…or amazingly...by train. Sadly…I sloshed on across the swamp in a completely different direction . My excuse is that I was following a series of arrows and signs which said “Ramblers-This Way” …which I imagine had been stuck there to guide a party of walkers who had presumably been swallowed up by the mire…..or trampled by the bullocks.
Eventually I reached the raised bank along the side of Breydon water… a huge tidal estuary lined with mud and sand banks- home to thousands of birds…..and numerous rotting hulks of boats. As I walked along the top of the bank, swallows swooped low…whistling past me as if dive bombing me. I can only imagine that they were after the various insects disturbed by my rolling gait and thudding tread. I watched in amazement at their aerial prowess….feeling the rush of air as they swept by. They could of course have been in pursuit of the various flies and other assorted insects buzzing around me attracted by my many and various unhygienic practices.

I stopped for lunch by a stile…always a good spot as the lower step can be utilized as a seat. I was nearing the end of this section of the walk and had resolved to pop home for supplies…more re-equipping and possibly a bath. I made a note to investigate lightweight stools as a possible addition to my burden.

As I sat with my boots off trying to dry my socks and air my feet, a party of walkers approached. They said they had made much the same trip as I had but seen no other walkers at all along the way . In some respects this is great news as one would like to keep the solitude and wildness… on the other hand, it means that a lot of walkers are missing out on a very attractive and challenging walk . Certainly it is now difficult to walk the North Norfolk Coastal Path at any time of year without encountering many other walkers…although I guess there is plenty of saltmarsh to go around.

I walked on towards Great Yarmouth. Breydon Water is a real haven for birds and I watched Little Egrets as I had way back on the north coast. This beautiful bird was hunted to extinction in this country during the 19th century. Its pure white plumes were in great demand by milliners. I marvelled at Grebes diving underwater as I approached and watched for them to bob up much later…almost always nowhere near where I expected them to surface.

At length I too surfaced somewhat unexpectedly in Asda’s car park. After worming my way under the giant road bridge and negotiating a rusty chain link fence…I was able to complete the Weavers’ Way at the rather attractive display board near the railway station. So far…so good. Ahead of me lay the next challenge…The Angles Way from Yarmouth to Thetford….voted the best waterside walk in Britain by waterscape.com in 2003 apparently. This is a 77 mile footpath which meanders along the border between Norfolk and Suffolk…mostly following the River Waveney. But first….that bath was calling. I have to say….I’d never realised before how brown the water was where I live.