The Wherryman’s Way, Norwich to Great Yarmouth – 18th November 2005
The Wherryman's Way is a long distance footpath that runs thirty-five miles along the course of the River Yare, from the city of Norwich to the coastal resort of Great Yarmouth. For more information on the Way click here and for a map of the route click here. The Children in Need appeal is an annual BBC Telethon based charity event that takes place in November.
For some time I’d been contemplating the idea of doing something special for Children in Need. Earlier in 2005 I’d walked around Norfolk as a personal challenge and a part of me felt that perhaps I should have done it for charity. Preparing for the Great Norfolk Walk I used a new path running from Norwich to Great Yarmouth called the Wherryman’s Way. This path follows the River Yare southeast out of Norwich before it turns northeast toward Great Yarmouth, a distance of thirty-five miles. On Saturdays through the spring and summer of this year I could be found covering five or ten mile sections of the path in preparation for my much bigger walk in the autumn. On a couple of these outings I met groups of people who were walking the entire length of the Wherryman’s Way in a day. The first were a group of ex-runners, all lean and athletic in build, their leader setting a fast pace that the others had to adhere to. I met them twice, once leaving the town of Loddon, as I was finishing my day’s walking, and a couple of hours later at the Beauchamp Arms, back along the path where my wife had taken me for lunch. They arrived as I sat by the river sipping a pint enjoying the summer sunshine and they seated themselves nearby and attended to their blistered feet. Striking up a conversation with them they said they intended to finish by five o’clock, as it was then three I was pretty sceptical about their chances. The next week I bumped into another group, this time from a karate club, with more realistic expectations, who made the more important decision to start earlier. At the time I thought such distances were excessive and implied more than touch of masochism, and that I’d leave them to the hard-core walkers.
In September, I succeeded in walking around Norfolk – that’s another story – and, as I thought, hung my walking boots up forever. That was until the publicity for Children in Need began, gradually I formed a plan, I could walk the Wherryman’s Way in single day, it had a certain logic; I knew the way, it was more inspiring than dressing up and it was an actual physical effort people could contribute to, it would be easy. Then disaster struck, a couple of weeks before Children in Need day I tweaked an old back injury, I certainly wouldn’t be able walk with it. Luckily with the aid of my chiropractor I was crunched back into shape. I was ready to go. The next few days were spent raising sponsorship preparing my kit and poring over maps of the Yare Valley. Because it was now November I knew I would be starting in darkness and finishing after nightfall but I was not daunted as long as I stuck to the paths I’d be fine.
The Start - Norwich to Bramerton
About six-thirty on the morning of the 18th November I stepped out of my front door and walked the mile and a half to the Wherryman’s Way. It was dark, of course, cold but dry and there was a hint of dawn in the eastern sky. The roads were slick with ice so stuck to the verges as much as possible. Insulated against the cold I made my way past Whitlingham Broad shrouded in early morning mist. While I paused momentarily I took in the view and was passed by an early morning jogger.
Motivated by her energy I set-off again and soon passed under Norwich’s noisy southern bypass. The Way passes through the city’s sewage works, odourless because of the low temperature, thankfully. Making my best speed out of the works I came to the edge of the first field I had to cross. Contemplating the muddy composure of the ground I donned protective gaiters that were to remain on for the rest of the day.
It was becoming light now and the day was dawning clear and bright, better than I had hoped for, the forecast had been for showers and a northerly wind. With improving visibility I made good progress to the village of Bramerton and found myself standing, beside the river, outside the Wood’s End pub. This normally bustling pub stood dormant in the morning light reflected in the mirror-like river. From this point the path takes a course along the riverbank, a few fishermen sat huddled with their rods. I had some fears of flooded path prior to setting out and now I came to my first setback.
On the eastern edge of Bramerton the path runs around the garden of a cottage, on the very edge of the river. It was closed, ironically, because it was being improved to raise it above the flood level. Two workmen were hammering planks into the new walkway, seeing me they pointed me to the diversion through the middle of the garden, which was flooded as well. Gingerly I walked into the chilly water testing the depth and just made it through by standing on tiptoes. Surprised to have made it through with dry feet I was soon faced with a larger impassable flood and had to divert inland.
The Middle - Surlingham to Reedham
I passed through the village of Surlingham, on the road, making good speed before taking a track past the Ted Ellis, the late naturalist, nature reserve then out across fields, climbing to higher ground above Rockland St. Mary. In full sunlight I was afforded fantastic views of the Yare Valley as it passes out to the flat lands of its final miles to the sea. From Rockland the path follows a series of arcs following the meanders of the River Yare, mainly atop the flood banks. The first describes a semi-circle beside Rockland board then along the river to the Beauchamp Arms pub, sadly closed for the winter. Returning to the road I made good time again to the village of Langley where the path again returns to the river edge. This arc was bigger than the last, open and exposed with only the Cantley sugar beet factory, on the far bank, to use as a reference point. The path became slick with mud and tangled with foliage, making it tough going. Slogging along the path I switched on my personal radio to listen to BBC Radio Norfolk, I’d emailed them the night before. I was surprised to find that I was listening to my wife’s voice telling the DJ about my walk for Children in Need she’d called them quite independently not knowing about my email. The DJ, surprised that someone would set-out on such a venture in mid-November said ‘Rob, if you’re listening could you call in?’ As I was passing the sugar beet factory I decided not to call as at this point due to the noise from the process.
Arriving at Hardley Staithe I was relieved to find the section of the path passing Hardley flood was closed, unsurprisingly due to flooding. The diversion was of equal length but easier to cover, as it was along tracks and roads.
In consequence I soon found myself in the town of Loddon. Taking a break I called Radio Norfolk and joined them just after they’d done their raft race; they came second, so they were keyed up and excited. I joined in with the spirit and was equally buoyant explaining why I was doing the walk and how much money I’d raised. That’s my three minutes of fame I guess. Throughout the afternoon I would hear their motivational messages of good luck as I continued my journey.
Leaving Loddon to the northeast I followed country lanes and tracks to Reedham Ferry, to cross the Yare. I had hoped to have a pint at the Ferry Inn but I was a bit behind schedule so pausing only to change my socks I pressed on through Reedham and out on to the marshes west of Great Yarmouth.
The End - Reedham to Great Yarmouth
It was now after three pm and the light was beginning to fade fast. I’d never walked this section of the Wherryman’s Way but it was only three and half mile I thought it would be easy. In the distance I could see the black tower of Berney Arms Windmill; it’s an easy reference point and gave me the impression of proximity.
But I hadn’t allowed for the meandering of the river, and within a few minutes the whole scene was dissolving into darkness, Berney Arms Mill becoming a silhouette against a darkening sky. I distressed to find that it took nearly an hour and half to cover the tortuous path to Berney Arms – the pub being shut for the winter – but this was relieved by the incredibly clear sky giving startling views of Venus over the western horizon and Mars above the eastern.
Then I eventually arrived at Berney Arms it was completely dark but I wasn’t alarmed, this was familiar territory. The path follows the flood defences for five miles beside the muddy estuary of Breydon Water into Great Yarmouth. This raised bank offers easy even walking and apart from several stiles there are no great obstacles, I made good time here, and soon the moon would rise illuminating the path. What I hadn’t allowed for was the moon rising directly in front of me, with my eyes adapting to the highest ambient light source I was effectively dazzled. This made the going a bit more difficult but soon a cloud obscured the moon and I was able to see again. Tiredly plodding along I made my way toward the deceptively visible lights of Great Yarmouth on the eastern horizon.
For the next couple of hours I continued on my way without any apprehension but with a good deal of fatigue, occasionally I’d have to lift my feet on to the stiles. I found myself beside the railway tracks approaching the town when I was caught in my first rain of the day, a brief heavy downpour. Wrapped in my own thoughts I reflected that at least I hadn’t had any falls. The next thing knew I was picking myself up after falling over a dark hummock in the path. Again the contrast created by the light from the adjacent streetlights had hidden the unevenness of the path. I wasn’t bothered another ten minutes and one startled dog walker later I was walking into Yarmouth’s Vauxhall Station. I was tired, aching and damp but with a sense of achievement.
Well that was the account of my walk for Children in Need. I raised four hundred pounds, not bad for a few days effort. Many of my family, friends and colleagues were kind enough to make contributions for my sponsorship, my thanks go out them.
Wells-next-the-Sea to Norwich - 16th to 17th November 2006
Note: needless to say that a lot of this walk took place in the dark and several of my attempts of photography either did not come out or were of an unusable standard. Therefore, I have, in this piece, substituted pictures from other walks.
It wasn’t an auspicious start to the sponsored walk; I’d missed my train from Norwich to Sheringham so had to walk to Norwich ’s bus station to catch the X1 bus to Sheringham instead. Luckily, I only had a few minutes to wait for the next departure and soon found myself swaying with the other passengers, mainly returning shoppers, along the A140 north to the market towns and villages north of Norwich. I busied myself rearranging the contents of my rucksack; jumper, spare socks, blister kit, two litres of homemade isotonic drink and another two litres of bottled water, various snack and energy bars – my provisions for the walk - and many other bits and pieces to support me on the walk. It was at this point I made an important discovery - my brand new waterproof leggings were still hanging in the hallway of my home! This wasn’t just inconvenient it may make the walk impossible; the weather forecast for the next day was for gales and heavy showers and in November that could be freezing.
The bus was passing through the market town of Aylsham I had to make a decision either take a chance or get off the bus at Cromer to find a pair of leggings. At a quarter to five the bus pulled into Cromer’s bus station and I abandoned it. I hurried down to the town’s high street. On my third attempt I found a sports shop selling waterproof leggings and then headed off to find transport to Sheringham. I faced a dilemma - either waiting for the train to Sheringham which would get me to the town a few minutes before the last departure of the Coast Hopper bus for Wells-next-the-Sea – or to get a taxi instead and have a few minutes to get something to eat. That swung it, a taxi it was. Just around the corner several taxis stood lined up at a taxi rank so I hopped into the first one. I had managed to find, possibly, the smelliest taxi driver in the world and of course he engaged me in conversation over the 4.3 miles to Sheringham. I struggled to hold my breath and talk and just managed to open the passenger window a bit for ventilation.
Breathing freely at last I stood by the bus stop in Sheringham; it was a quarter past five and I had time to find some food and return before the bus arrived. Strolling down the town’s high street most of the shops were in the process of closing for the night but just around the corner a homely chip shop was brightly illuminated in a side road. I spent the rest of the next half an hour happily munching cod and chips beside the bus stop idly watching the local teenagers fooling around outside an off-license. Kicking my heels I changed my view to the station of the North Norfolk Railway with its rolling stock quiet in their sidings. Finishing my meal I stood anxiously waiting for the bus to arrive.
Eventually, the Coast Hopper did turn up and I was surprised that another five people boarded it with me, mainly young people returning home from work. Inside the small bus we bounced along the A149 coast road through the villages of Weybourne, Salthouse and Cley, the usual panoramic views hidden in darkness. For a moment I had a doubt about the task ahead of me but with a swallow I pushed this feeling out of my mind.
In Wells-next-the-Sea I got off the bus at the town green – the Buttlands – to where the pub was that I had intended to have a relaxing meal and pint before setting out. I nipped in and swiftly consumed a quick half before walking through the streets of the town to the start point at the eastern end of the harbour quay.
Hanging my rucksack from the first way marker of the Norfolk Coastal Path I came to I called my wife on my mobile - I agreed to contact her by text every two hours - adjusted my jacket, donned my LED head torch, put on the gaiters, which I had remembered, hoisted my rucksack on to my back and then at 18:50 I set out.
I immediately took the wrong path but realised a couple of strides into my trek and turned around and took the correct one out beside the salt marshes to the east of the town.
The darkness wrapped itself around me as I left the glow of the street lights behind me and the head torch cast a pool of silvery light ahead of me. I felt a sensation of excitement pass through me as I started out on the biggest journey I have ever under taken - ahead of me lay sixty miles and twenty four hours of walking – what a challenge!
I wasn’t surprised at the condition of the path, after all we had had heavy rain for the last few days but I found the going immediately taxing as the worn centre of the path pooled the water making it decidedly squishy under foot. I took to walking on the grassy tussocks beside the centre line and made better progress.
I settled into a rhythm and began to appreciate my new found circumstances; the wind had dropped, the sky was clearing I was insulated in a jacket, woolly hat and gloves. Above me the stars were shining brighter than I had seen them for many years freed as they were from the yellowish glow of modern street lighting
Pressing on despite the conditions underfoot, I made good time between the marshes to my left and the higher ground to the right. The path initially followed the flood defences before turning into an ordinary track. Beyond the reach of my head torch the darkness seemed to press in smothering me.
I continued east toward the village of Stiffkey my passing only signalled by the occasional startled bird, usually a wood pigeon, bursting out from a bush beside the path. Arriving adjacent to the village I found the usual track flooded so I took to a higher path that runs through a strip of woods between the track and fields’ edges to the north of the village. A few yards into the woods I was surprised by the appearance of rabbits running across the path. My surprise turned to alarm as the sound of shotgun fire burst out in the field beside me. There were people hunting rabbits in the field; I could see their lights on its far side; suddenly the gun fire sounded a lot closer. I steeled myself for the burning sting of shotgun pellets; I took out my spare torch and turning it on I also turned on my pushbike tail light attached to the back of my rucksack. And the firing stopped so I redoubled my pace and made best time out of the woods.
Unsurprisingly, I was now sweating and needed to loosen the vents in my jacket, undo the cuffs and remove my scarf. My breath turned into great plumes of vapour as I exhaled, dissipating into the deep blue night sky.
Approaching the villages of Morston and Blakeney I suffered the only serious loss of direction. Here the track is flanked by boats and dinghies hauled out of a nearby creek. In the dark the track looked completely different, it undulated and curved away as if heading out on to the marshes, and without reference points in the distance I became increasingly doubtful of my course. So I backtracked for five minutes to a junction I was certain of and checked my map. It confirmed that it was indeed the right course, another headed off to the left on to the marshes, another headed inland; so I’d lost ten minutes.
I passed quietly through Blakeney where I had originally intended to drop into the White Horse for a celebratory pint but didn’t have time. The Norfolk Coastal path describes a great loop between Blakeney and the smaller village of Cley along an arc of flood defence bank. I put my head down and covered the distance between the villages as quickly as I could.
I regained the coast road where it cuts directly through Cley passing the George Hotel on a tight right-hand bend. As I neared the pub a group of three men and three women left it and walked up the road just ahead of me. They noticed the light on my head and gently ribbed me about it and asked me what I was up to. So of course I told them of my 24 hour walk for Children in Need as I followed them towards the iconic Cley Mill where the group were staying, whereupon one of the women shoved her hand into her husband’s pocket and then handed me a fistful of change as a contribution. With their wishes of good luck ringing in my ears they waved me on as I passed by the mill on to another marsh.
The marshes between Cley and Weybourne have for many years been protected by a great shingle bank standing to the north of the village of Salthouse. Now the bank is being allowed to erode away through the natural action of the sea and but remains a distinct feature on the coast providing a useful course for the walker being firmer then the loose shingle around it. The approach road to the bank was flooded in places so I took to the flood bank to the right of it. Coming upon a bench I re-configured my kit as I’d now become chilled by the night air. I stood by the bench with my light switched off taking in the night sky; the stars were bright like small lamps in the velvet dome above me. I caught a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye; a shooting star streaked down to the western horizon. I put on my entire kit; pullover, baseball cap and woollen hat, scarf, everything I had and replaced my jacket and tightened the cuffs and collar against the night air.
On the shingle bank I found the going much easier following the ridge line. Amongst the shingle the beam of my torch gave the occasional plant a supernatural silver glow. It was, perhaps, this other worldliness that made me stop every now and again to take in the stars and reflect on the words of my colleague Fiona, that my descendants would be the first colonists on Mars but then she was referring to my penchant for taking over desks in the office.
The bank is interspersed with small eyots of higher ground, the largest of which is Gramborough Hill where I rested and took my first meal of the evening. I sat munching reflectively on the bananas, energy bars and the rather successful homemade isotonic drink. Generally I felt very pleased with myself and despite the late start and retracing of the course I was just on schedule, and because of the darkness I couldn’t see how far I still had to go. So I sat on the concrete of an old coastal defence pillbox and watched the shooting stars falling to earth. Gradually a chill wind began to blow past me and a thin layer of cloud began to creep across the sky from the west to cover the stars. A shiver ran through me; it was time to go.
At the eastern end of the shingle bank I came across the first person I actually encountered on the coastal path. A sea angler sat stationary in front of his wind break illuminated by a lamp placed between his rods. Crunching across the shingle I called out to him to let him know I was there and he switched on his head torch as I approached. I told him about the walk and he made a two pound donation to the cause. Wishing each other all the best we parted and I walked across the last of the shingle on Weybourne Beach .
Weybourne marks the point where the accreting, sandy and marshy landscape of North West Norfolk meets the high ground of the Cromer-Holt ridge which produces the cliffs that have been eroding since the last ice age. Crossing the beach the path climbs to the cliff tops leaving the marshlands behind. At the top of the first cliff I turned to look sightlessly back along the coast I had just walked, below I could make out the lights of the sea angler. Turning to carry on along the path, something, I don’t know what, sprang from the grass and flapped just in front of my face. I let out a Homer Simpson like scream and ran a few steps up the path before collecting myself to look back along the path, nothing was there of course. I told myself it was just a bird or bat but whatever it was it had scarred the ‘Bejezzers’ out of me.
The rest of the walk into Sheringham was pretty uneventful and I strolled along the empty promenade with the sea crashing on to the rocks below me. I didn’t bump into anyone in the town, it felt odd to have a town to myself, and I left it unseen to the east.
From Sheringham the Norfolk Coastal path turns inland passing through dripping mist shrouded woods, rather like a scene from the Lord of the Rings, to Roman Camp one of the highest points in the county and during the hours of daylight a good place to look out over the sea. While walking through the woods my mind began to play tricks on me. The leaves of the trees would be illuminated by my head torch leaving the background in total darkness forming them into patterns, then faces and occasionally adverts, bizarre but not frightening.
I arrived in Cromer somewhere between two and three in the morning and made my way through the streets. There was activity here; a shift was just leaving off from the Cromer Crab factory as I passed and other people were driving around the streets. I however had just completed the first leg of the sponsored walk. I’d finished the coastal section and from here on in I would be heading south toward Norwich along the Weaver’s Way, that runs for 57 miles from Cromer to Great Yarmouth. I would take it just as far as the town of Aylsham .
The next hour or two were just a blur of staggering through muddy ploughed fields in a haze of fatigue as I passed through the death hour at four in the morning. Eventually, I came to Felbrigg Hall, a National Trust property, a handsome building of Stuart architecture which at this time of day was completely lost on me.
In the east the sky began to lighten as I threaded my way through the small villages on the Weavers’ Way; Hanworth, Aldborough and Erpingham. In Erpingham I rested, ate and took stock; my isotonic drink was gone, the water almost gone and I was running low on energy bars. Then I checked my feet, I knew my boots were soaked already – no boot will keep water out forever - and on removing them and my socks I found them steaming, pallid and wrinkled – in a cadaverous sort of way, the right foot just showing signs of blistering. So I washed them with the remainder of the water, applied Vaseline and put on dry socks.
Fit again I pressed on to the market town of Aylsham passing by the Jacobean splendour of Blickling Hall. I bought more food and water, and bottle of Lucozade then sat for a while in the market place watching the stall holders struggle with their stalls in the increasing wind – gales had been forecast. I, for my part wasn’t bothered by the wind but I was concerned by the threat of rain. Dark clouds were streaming menacingly in from the west; I needed to be away to complete the last twenty miles.
Leaving the Weavers’ Way I took to the Marriott’s Way, a cycleway and path that follows the course of an old railway line that heads, initially, to the south west out of Aylsham to the smaller town of Reepham. This incidentally is away from Norwich which lays almost due south from Aylsham, if there were paths that led more directly I would have happily have taken them at this stage as another wave of fatigue washed over me.
The Marriott’s Way being a cycle way is even and easy to walk and,at least at this stage, was free of cyclists. Although my pace was good I found it was necessary to take rest stops more frequently. As a result my speed began to drop and then it began to rain. For the first time I put on my newly acquired water proof leggings and what do know they worked. A series of brief showers hit me but I remained dry. Plodding now I staggered into Reepham. In the market place I was once again tempted by the pub as I rested on a bench to remove the leggings. But the sun came out and I rallied myself and regained the Marriott’s Way for the last fifteen miles into Norwich.
By this stage I wasn’t in very good shape at all. I found apart from the fatigue I kept running out of energy – the energy bars helped but weren’t enough - my right foot had blistered causing me to roll it and this, in turn, put strain on my right knee, my left foot was sore as well but OK to continue.
Stopping increased in frequency and for longer periods, but with an eye on the clock I kept myself going bypassing villages on the way until I came to the village of Drayton (more of a suburb of Norwich). Dark was falling again and I was encountering cyclists on the path way; they at least stood out clearly in their reflective jackets but they found it difficult to see me so I switched the head torch on again.
It was at this point I received a call from Radio Norfolk, for an interview, this was the last thing I needed at this stage – four miles to go – and I was abnormally short with the interviewer as it had also started to rain.
I continued to the outskirts of Norwich where the rain absolutely hammered down, no time to put on my waterproof trousers and the water drained down the sleeves of my jacket and filled my gloves from the inside! I stood for a moment trying to comprehend what was happening then I surprised myself by managing a hobbling run to a nearby bridge.
For a few minutes I sheltered with a dog walker then thought ‘Sod it, I’m already wet’, and struck out for the centre of Norwich .
I weaved, literally, through the rain soaked streets of Norwich to the Forum. Here, I managed a last burst of energy to run up the steps and to lift my arms, Rocky style, at its entrance viewed by disinterested teenagers and puzzled occupants of the restaurant. My wife and son ran out to greet me then supported me into the bar where I slumped into a seat. Some friends joined us to buy me a celebratory pint. I held forth for a while but when I became a bit confused we decided it was time for me to go home. Leaving the Forum I began to shiver uncontrollably until we arrived at the car. Possibly the cold, maybe shock, but whatever the cause it was very peculiar. I’d been awake for over thirty-six hours walked twenty-four of those so I wasn’t surprised that I slept more soundly than I had for many years.
I collected eight hundred pounds from all my colleagues, friends and family, and including a large contribution from Steria – my employer at the time, for Children in Need. For which I am very grateful. I fully recovered from the experience and apart from sore buttocks, a damaged toe on my left foot I was none the worse for wear. It certainly was one of the hardest things I have ever done and I’m not sure I will ever attempt it again – although my younger brother suggested doing it on the longest day of the year, more daylight of course. It’s an idea I now find strangely tempting.