christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: hiking

Windmills, Whelks and Wherry – Walking the North Norfolk Coastal Path

Eight years ago, my friend Winston and I made a brave attempt at the Peddars Way and North Norfolk Coastal Path. Our failure to complete it had everything to do with poor planning, late starts and having to shelter from torrential rain in phone boxes. That time we were walking west to east, finally throwing in the towel at Blakeney.

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It was therefore with a sense of unfinished business that  Winston and I (veterans of that first adventure) joined this time by my brothers Russ and Joe, set off to tackle the route from east to west.

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We’re doing it properly, with sleeping bags and tents – and we are a distinctive sight with my round pop-up tent strapped to my back. It’s a cross between a chieftain’s shield, a tortoise shell and a radar dish and fellow walkers invariably make these comparisons as we encounter them on the route.

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We begin in Overstrand, a delightful spot in the heart of Poppyland, a little ahead of the official starting line of the coastal path in Cromer. Overstrand used to be known as the ‘village of millionaires‘, and was fashionable for a while as the holiday destination of Winston Churchill. It still has more than its fair share of handsome Victorian architecture for a village of its size and a beautiful sandy beach. Anyone in the know looking for a quiet place for a swim, a snooze and quiet read will make for this instead of the giddy glamour of Cromer. Today unfortunately its just as famous as a village gradually slipping into the sea. A local joke runs that there used to be another village further out, now submerged by the sea, called Understrand . . .

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The path runs just feet away from the cliff’s edge, lined with brambles and wild flowers. The nettles and poppies brush at your ankles, and you need to watch your step to avoid being stung. At times a piece of the path appears to disappear. A glance over the edge and you see the cliff falls on the beach below. But why does it crumble so easily? The sea spray gets into the cliff, weakening the earth; the wind does the rest hauling it down in great chunks onto the beach.

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The wildness of the path contrasts with the prim perfection of the golf course, over whose land the path runs (they remind you that it is a privilege for us to walk across their land and it raises all sorts of moral questions about who actually owns the coast anyway.)

We pass a white lighthouse which continues to blink and flash throughout the day and night; it has a Great Gatsby-like quality, and for much of the day we can see it as we look back. On the far horizon we see Beeston Bump, beyond Cromer, like a mini Glastonbury Tor on the horizon.

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The Blogg memorial to the famous lifeboat man is a must have photo opportunity for anyone with a blog – he is credited with saving an astonishing 873 lives over 53 years of service. We duly line up next to him . . . He had a splendid nose as you can see.

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Cromer is full of the usual pleasures – the impressive high church tower, covered in local stone, the haphazard Victorian architecture, crab sandwiches. Winston dives in for some seafood at the earliest opportunity.

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We are accosted outside the church by a man with an owl – working for local conservation charity and they become temporary members of the Fantastic Four.

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Past the pier, just repaired after the winter storm surge and the path veers inland. We follow a muddy trail that takes us past fields of horses, deserted farms and campsites tucked away in the trees.

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A strange cairn, covered in rocks from the beach turns into an opportunity for some excellent Dalek impressions.

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Rejoining the coast at Beeston Regis, we go up and over the famous bump – a complete oddity in the otherwise flat Norfolk landscape, that gives us an opportunity to look back on the ground covered so far.

Sheringham, home at different times to both Michael Palin and Vaughn Williams, is full of charm. It is undergoing a gradual gentrification although at the moment there is an almost perfect balance of old fashioned seaside treats and green welly boutiques.

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There are plenty of curiosity shops, a truly unique museum and best of all, perhaps the most astounding choice of ice cream this side of Venice. Jaffa Cake or Jam Donut ice cream anyone? I find a few old copies of The Scout from the 1960s – ten for a pound!

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We have lunch on the pebbly beach, after which Joe and Chris perform their famous Russian jugglers routine: The Brothers Potenkin, where Joe shows his prowess at stone age juggling: ie: throwing rocks into the air and catching them again. The golden day has become rather more overcast and we abort the planned sea swim partly due to the cold and partly due to danger of chafing later in the walk. . .

Russ stocks up on coffee ahead of the barren stretch ahead of us. Just before we leave the town, we meet a Romanian man in shades and high vis jacket sweeping the promenade. He asks us where we’re heading and when we mention The George at Cley, he gives us a strange message to pass to the landlord and his staff. ‘They know I’m crazy in there. Tell them I will be back.’

The path up to Weybourne is one of the best stretches. Shortly after leaving Sheringham we are treated to a classic English view: a steam train cutting through the fields, a large allotment with men snoozing next to their sheds and in the distance, twenty two men in whites playing village cricket.

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We follow the grassy path which undulates dramatically, so at times we are towering high about the beach and at other are relatively close to the sea level.

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The edge is ridiculously perilous with enormous rock falls lying in piles on the pebbles and you wonder how many inquisitive dogs have unwittingly flown over the edge chasing seagulls. Down on the beach we see giant sea birds sharing the coast with lonely walkers. At our eye level swifts stitch the sky, soaring and swooping around each other.

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The short terrace of houses at Weybourne, just down from windmill, is a famous sight on the coastal path – and is at once inspiring and melancholy; sure as eggs are eggs, these houses will all be in the sea in thirty years time.

As we pass the Muckleburgh collection – a war museum, we pass speeding jeeps and a group of cadets in combat fatigues chilling out on the beach. I’m not sure how fair it is putting twelve year olds into army uniforms, but they all seem to be enjoying themselves. But at what point does playing at war become training for war?

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Around The Quags, a brilliantly named stretch of the path where the grass and sand dissolves into bog, we are finally driven onto the pebbles. Walking on these is hard work, your feet slipping back with each step and it dawns on us that we are quite behind time. Dinner is booked for eight o’clock at The George in Cley and they stop serving at nine. We slog on, breaking into different combinations, and Joe attempts some bounding to make up for lost time.

The magnificent church at Salthouse is a welcome sight although the sky is now beginning to darken.

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Only by ordering dinner by phone from the path as we cross the marshes, do we save our dinner. The George at Cley-next-the-Sea is about the most welcome sight you can imagine.

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Incongruously, it was here where Rupert Brooke was sitting when war was declared in 1914. The food is magnificent – giant portions and the drinkers and landlord give us the friendliest greeting, having awaited our arrival for the last hour.

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The selection of ales is superb too, and we plump for a Wherry, which is a wonderfully frothy and thirst quenching local bitter. The Nelson’s Revenge, also from Woodforde’s is not be missed either.

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There is a final unexpected adventure after leaving the pub. We have some rough directions to the campsite down Old Woman’s Lane, which we follow for over a mile without success. Totally exhausted, we consider pitching at the edge of a field. However having booked and paid for the campsite, Joe drives us on. We are treated to perfectly clear, star filled skies and Cassiopeia is particularly fine. Then we see what is unmistakably the International Space station swooping at considerable speed across the star-scape. It’s a terrific treat but doesn’t bring us any closer to our beds. Eventually we rummage for the address and find that the campsite is not on Old Woman’s lane at all. We finally pitch around one am and drop off around two.

The village of Cley is very beautiful, blessed with substantial, handsome houses, built by the merchants who made their fortunes from the sea ports, before the channels narrowed and big ships could no longer navigate to the village itself. It is left with a delightful selection of bookshops, galleries and pubs and the delicatessen at Cley – Picnic Fayre – is generally agreed to be one of the greatest shops on Earth. Loaded with pastries, almond slices and fresh coffees, we enjoy a breakfast feast while waiting for the Coast Hopper bus to take us back to Cromer. It’s a strange feeling covering the same ground in half an hour (for three quid) which otherwise took an entire day on foot. Swarms of cyclists in day-glow colours freewheel along the coast road, impeding progress a little, but by the time we reach Cromer, we feel a beautiful sense of achievement.

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With its huge skies, dramatic bird life, lonely houses and windmills, the coastal path is one of the most memorable of our national trails. It’s the perfect blend of countryside and coast and with its churches, seaside towns and villages, it’s steeped in history too. The shoreline and slate grey seas retain an ancient air of the time the Angles first came ashore from northern Europe and claimed the ‘land of the North Folk‘ for themselves. No doubt they were as enamored by its unique atmosphere as we were.

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Following swifts down the Boudica Way

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

Moors the pity: tackling the Lyke Wake Walk

To Osmotherly for the start of the Lyke Wake Walk, a barmy 42 mile, one day, east to west trek across the North York Moors. Two old school friends, Mark and James, have roped me into this, and are the reason I’m standing in the half darkness with a torch attached to my forehead, across from a hill of blank-looking sheep, who, it seems, don’t appear to sleep. We assemble at 4am in a car park at Sheep Dip, so called from the small dipping place by a running stream. The water draws themidges, which, until they started feasting on my neck and ears, I did not know came this far south. We wonder whether Mark has brought them down from Edinburgh in his hat. The starter, a mysterious figure half in shade, sensibly stays inside his car, cradling a flask. At twenty past four on the dot, the door opens a fraction and his wife shouts ‘go!’ then slams the door again. A bearded walker with a GPS and a slightly absurd beekeeper’s midge-net across his head immediately speeds off down the road, his two Nordic Walking poles clicking against the tarmac. A couple of others follow in his wake, while we bring up the rear.

The idea is to be into Ravenscar on the other side of the moors by 5pm at the latest, so time is something of an issue. We amble up a well defined lane, the sun creeping over the hill behind us, past the holly bush James visits/raids with his children each Christmas. Most of the valley is still in a blue grey twilight and a hazy mist rests in the valleys. Reaching a fork in the road, almost exactly like the scene in the Kipling poem, we immediately recognise the possibility of taking the wrong turn. A comedy photograph is taken of James pointing one way, and Mark pointing the other. We take the other. Fifteen minutes later and it becomes clear that we have taken the wrong turn, and find ourselves staring a great hill rising up where the Cleveland Way should be.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and turning back, we decide to navigate our way out of trouble, despite having forgotten to bring the compass. Another half an hour of mist filled paths later and we realise we have gone astonishingly wrong. Resorting to James’s phone it confirms we are way off track. Finding ourselves three miles adrift in the wrong direction, there is little to do but trudge up a waterlogged hill and attempt to rejoin the official route. Finally we reach the first checkpoint, a friendly crowd of outdoor folk, in yet another car park. They sit in folding chairs by a caravan, dressed in cagoules, munching on bacon sandwiches. While we search for evidence of officialdom, they reveal they are not in fact a checkpoint but walkers who set off the night before coming the other way. There are astonished faces when we reach the actual first check point over an hour late and it quickly becomes apparent that a 5pm finish is almost certainly off the cards.

Having found the route at last fills us with renewed confidence however, and James reassures us we are now on ‘home turf.’ Almost immediately departing from the main path, he guides us confidently down a smaller track and we soon find ourselves lost again in thick mist. A megalithic stone circle we saw five minutes ago suddenly reappears. ‘Don’t worry,’ says James, ‘there are loads like that.’ Reunited with the Cleveland Way, we begin to find ourselves being over taken by the serious participants: lean, bare armed fell runners, leaping from rock to rock, their numbers taped to their vests. Ours are folded up, rather shamefully, in our pockets. We bid them a polite good morning and stumble on. Lack of training and wet feet bring on the first ominous signs of blisters.

The walk comes into its own on the old railway track crossing the iron rich moors, falling away on each side. The moors are wild, empty places, but the colours are spectacular, from the almost luminous green mosses, and familiar purple heather to the muted brown and yellow flowered shrubs. The plants are tight knots of wooded bushes and bracken. Without the path, it would be surely be impassable. General knowledge quizzes help pass the time: name eight Bond villains, ten famous Nazis, five number ones from the eighties and nineties with an animal or insect in the name (Eye of the Tiger, Beetlebum and the Chicken Song for information) but all of us are suffering in one way or another from various ailments. Mark’s knee and shin, already mangled from the Caledonian Challenge are giving him trouble, James’ slip off the path results in a swollen ankle while my toes and the soles of my feet heat up as the blisters swell.

The Red Lion Inn appears on the brow of a hill, a welcome sight, and upon reaching it, we need little persuasion to hand over our race numbers in defeat. In return, we are handed polystyrene plates of rice pudding and apricots, but not much in the way of congratulation. ‘Yes,’ said one official. ‘We were speculating about what had happened to numbers one, two and three . . .’ After a bite to eat (courtesy of sterling home support Helen Webb) and a drink from the pub, we tackle the last four miles up to Castleton. In the company of yet more bewildered looking sheep, a bride and groom incongruously pose for photographs by an ancient stone cross. The wedding motorcade waits patiently on the other side of the road. Clearly these moors mean something to them, or perhaps they’re just looking for an unusual angle for the photo album. The bride holds onto her veil as the wind sweeps across the high, exposed road. Doffing our caps as they climb back in the Rolls Royce, we navigate our way across various flattened sheep, rabbits and other road-kill before taking our final detour onto a bridleway parallel to the road.

The soft, manure rich earth is like manna from heaven beneath our feet and Castleton draws ever nearer. Still two miles away and we hear an amplified female voice belting out Snow Patrol hits in the middle of the afternoon. The voice echoes around the empty valley. We wonder if it’s something to do with the wedding party. The last few steps up the hill to the pub are agonising; something terrible happens inside my boot as we pass the Post Office. Once ensconced in the boozer, pint in hand, however and not only is the mystery of the singer solved (the pub has hired her for their Saturday barbecue) but the ice cold beer proves to have wonderful anaesthetic qualities. Helen appears out of nowhere and whisks us away in her car, saving us a slow train journey home. Our Lyke Wake Walk is over then: a heroic failure, but after thirty odd miles including detours, it has been a glorious encounter with the magical, mysterious moors.