In my stinky old UEA running top outside Norwich station, I assemble with brother Joe and friend Winston for a pre-match photo at the start of our attempt at the Boudica Way. It’s a thirty six mile traipse through farmland and villages roughly along the warpath of the first century Iceni queen. The route that once put her on a collision course with the might of Rome and towards the sacking of Colchester, London and St Albans would lead in our case to nothing more dramatic than my car parked up at Diss station.
Still, spirits are high, water plentiful and the weather finer than expected as we set off past the multiplexes and Boots superstore, wondering whether we have enough in the way of blister plasters and freeze dried apple to last us to the finish. True to form, we are lost within five minutes walking along the newly developed riverside. A friendly, bearded cyclist pulls up and asks if he can help. ‘We’re trying to get out of Norwich,’ we tell him. ‘I know the feeling,’ he replies. Across a busy road and a bridge or two, and we see that not all of Norwich has been redeveloped: some old industrial red brick buildings with broken windows and a clock telling the wrong time, lie waiting for a developer to turn them into apartments for lecturers, accountants and solicitors.
But soon we have drifted into the pretty village of Trowse, with its organic bistro and curious line of Victorian terraced houses, each with a single front window bricked up. Why? A building or architectural error? Surely these are too late to have fallen foul of a window tax. We leave the mystery behind us as we cross into our first field.
As if on cue, a steam train thunders past, belching white smoke, a more common sight than you might think in Norfolk, and it succeeds in scaring the herd of young horses grazing there, which buck and whinny at the sight of this technological wonder. Like a scene from a Western, they actually race it across the length of the field. It allows me to take the picture of some horses I promised my five year old son. ’You will probably see some deer too,’ he told me, somewhat enigmatically, before I set off, ’but I don’t need to see those.’ I remember his slightly crestfallen face up at his bedroom window as he watched me make my way up the street to my car with my rucksack and circular pop up tent. Why wasn’t I invited along? He was still there as I drove down the street again on my way out of town.
Now we are on the trail proper, a freshly mown path about eight feet wide, which has been immaculately maintained by an invisible team of Boudica way supporters. This is the team that has laid the trail of arrowheads in neat yellow circles and even left information for our convenience in old telephone boxes. We joke that they run a 24 hour helpline for those on the trail answering questions such as how many Cs in Boudica, and what time does The Globe pub open? As it transpires, they wouldn’t have much to do, as for some reason, and despite the late May Bank Holiday weekend, there is hardly a soul to be seen. Joe tells us that the route has only recently been revamped, and that word of this lost wonder of the world has yet to get out.
Following hedgerows, and down tunnels of light woodland, we are rewarded with views of cascading fields through snickets and brambles. Yellow and blue wildflowers skirt the paths and the charms of the Boudica Way begin to reveal themselves.
Presently, we find a bench overlooking a sloping field and feast on some excellent sausage rolls and flapjack, courtesy of Joe’s other half Roberta, who used to make and sell them from a living (‘the finest sausage rolls I have ever tasted.’ according to Gary Rhodes). On the horizon, we can see the Norwich skyline, still exceptionally modest except for its two cathedrals, clock tower and the monolith of the county hall. An American would barely recognise it as a city. It’s our last sight of it as we pack up and head back on the trail.
The joy of walking is to disappear into woods and away from yourself; you can almost physically feel your emotional, work and other baggage falling off (though hopefully keeping hold of some of your other, more useful baggage.) The shady woods are relieved by the open fields and the walk is punctuated by towers of all descriptions – huge, complex, pylons like rocket ships, churches with round towers (all named St Mary’s for some reason – including the lovely ruin hidden in the bluebells, and windmills old and new.We meet a campaigner along the route who tells us why she is objecting to them – the blades are as big as the wing of a jumbo jet and they make a constant noise; they glint in the sun and can be seen for miles around. Why not put them out to sea with all the others? We nod sympathetically, unsure of our own position. In true Norfolk style (‘Do Different,’ they say) a contrary neighbour has a sign in his garden warning people to ignore the campaigners and to bring on the wind farms. There’s certainly plenty of wind and not many people, but it’s difficult to know who to believe. They produce sustainable energy, but are seen by some as unsightly. You don’t know truly where you stand until you’re told they’re going up in your back garden.
Leaving such tribulations behind, we are met with a warm welcome in Tasburgh where the good folk at The Countryman pub have allowed us to pitch in their back garden (no sign of wind turbines there). The sight of the pop up tent miraculously pinging into shape, a pint of Adnams bitter and a plate of freshly dressed crab is ample reward for a good first day.
Next morning we walk, as if in a dream, through yet more fields, dodging sheep dung and taking one or two short cuts along country lanes to avoid some peculiar detours which take you needlessly off to the east or west (we‘re keen, but not that keen). Towards the end, and with t-shirts wrapped around our heads to ward off the relentless sun, we start to resemble vagabonds as we pass through (or veer close to) places with names like Shimpling, Garlic Street, Dickleburgh and the splendid Colegate End, which sounds like someone’s just run of toothpaste.
If you’re looking for breathtaking views and dramatic scenery, then this is probably not the walk for you. Instead there are gentle inclines and gentle descents. It is a walk of barley fields, dung heaps, brooks and streams; it is a walk beneath swallows and swifts swooping and diving, stitching the sky as they snap horseflies from the air. It is a walk across footbridges made from old railway sleepers and of paths that suddenly lead you into glades of vivid colour. There are some surprises too. There are wonderfully unusual farmhouses painted in blues and reds that you might otherwise expect to find in the middle of Kansas or Iowa.
For two days, you step out of civilization and live in a kind of purgatory of woods and fields. Apart from the people you meet in the scattering of villages and pubs along the way, you pretty much have England all to yourself.
Just before we arrived back in Diss, the path is blocked by a ford. Unusually long and deep from the recent rain, it seems there is no choice but to wade across. Picking what I think is the shallowest route, the water soon creeps over the top of my boots and the freezing water gushes in, a wonderful balm on my aching feet. With my staff in hand, and t-shirt tied about my head, I acknowledge that I am cutting a somewhat biblical figure and living up to my namesake St Christopher. It’s then that I hear Joe‘s slightly apologetic voice: ‘Er, Chris, sorry about this mate, but I’ve just seen a bridge over there.’