christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Norfolk

The Brand New Old Fashioned

I’ve been playing lots of ukulele recently and writing lots of songs – a ridiculous number of songs in fact, all rather silly and consequential, but very good fun. Despite the fact that the instrument only cost eight pounds, I’ve found that I’ve barely picked up my guitar in the last three months. Ukuleles should come with a health warning – they are incredibly addictive.

This song is about a little known resort in North Norfolk called Mundesley, a quiet little spot at the unfashionable end of Poppyland, where in my experience, it nearly always rains . . .

CJ Mundesley

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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.

The Sultans of Spring

We made a discovery of some unusually flamboyant scarecrows in an allotment in Corpusty, North Norfolk. All are dressed in rather nice old suits, with shiny buttons and bottle-top badges. Every so often a new character appears, in this case a guitar-playing gentleman.

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SINGING THE GREENS

The scarecrow
with the chicken-wire guitar
sing the greens.
In an old suit
by allotment gates,
he plays Leadbelly
to the parsnips;
Blind Lemon Jefferson
to the peas.
A briar pipe at his lips
he sounds root notes
and juicy sevenths,
grass bursting
from his shoes.
An iron bolt for a nose;
pearl-button eyes,
the sparrows hang
on his every word.
He does string bends
for string beans;
vibratos for potatoes.
Behind him,
the wild garlic swoons
as he does his thing,
while the cabbages sway
to his songs of spring.

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.’

The Wash

The  Wash is a strange and wonderous place. In parts neither land nor sea, the bay is our largest estuary and the sea’s most daring encroachments on the land.  It is as if a giant wave has swept across the fens, then failed to retreat.

We found ourselves in Snettisham, Norfolk, on Saturday, on the eastern edge of The Wash. It was an unsually warm March day and we looked out at the sunlight glittering on the mudflats. Stranded buoys rested on the mud like bare headed men buried up to their necks. Gulls picked their way across the glistening mud looking for lunch.

It was impossible to determine whether the mud would sustain the weight of a man – until somewhere in the distance, in the heat haze we saw a figure striding confidently across, as if he had walked all the way from Lincolnshire. As he got nearer, we saw he was naked, except for a pair of yellow shorts. He was tanned, fit and barefooted; he followed a greyhound across the mud, which in silhouette looked oddly like a small deer. We all imagined the hot mud beneath our feet, the delicious solitide of the mudflats and the hot sun on our backs. His journey seemed so heroic and miraculous; it was the nearest I have come to seeing someone walking on water.