The Great Norfolk Walk
Bob Cains

Day 11- Stiffkey to Cromer

Marshes and Cliffs

Summary - Stiffkey to Cromer, Distance 19.3 miles (30.6kms), Ordnance Survey Landranger Maps 132 & 133

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  Day 11 - Stiffkey to Cromer
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I'd left Kelling Heath Country Park on foot as I had plenty of time to get to Weybourne and catch the Coast Hopper.  Taking a short cut I strolled through woods below the park starring out, through the gaps between the trees, over the well ordered fields.   I paused at the field's edge to take in the beauty of neat sloping fields bordered by trees and the sea beyond. Above the treetops I could see the roofs of Weybourne and the tower of the church.  The sight of it made me recall my purpose and with a glance at my watch, I was alarmed to find I was now late for the bus.

I trotted down the road, the water, in its bottle, inside my rucksack slopping to and fro.  I was certain I would miss the bus but I kept up my jogging pace until I entered Weybourne.  I got to the bus stop at 08:30 a full three minutes after the scheduled departure time.  I resigned myself to waiting for the next bus, an hour later, I stared up the road loose change gripped in my hand, and what do you know?  The green and blue bus appeared travelling down the sloping road into the village centre.  Fortune had smiled on me once again.

The Coast Hopper was empty apart from a snowy-haired retired couple in matching orange cagoules.  Together we bounced our way all the coast road to Stiffkey collecting from time to time an additional passenger.  I spent my time in thought about the day’s walk ahead of me.  I needed a high mileage today to stand any chance of completing the entire walk by the end of the week.  I’d completed 149 miles, a good distance, but I was left with about seventy-eight miles to cover over the next four days.

The bus deposited me at the village store in Stiffkey which was a bit of luck as I needed provisions.  I stood behind an elderly gentleman who was being regaled by the lady owner of tales from the store while her husband was working on the books in the back office.  She told him of a 1961 shilling she’s been passed the previous day.  I followed their conversation about the events of that year when I piped up say that was busy being born and it was the year Berlin Wall was built, the year that Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space and I was busy being born.  The old guy said that he had been thirty-one and serving in the forces in ‘61.  He attributed his good condition to red wine and tapped the case of wine on the counter.  The store owner chirped up to say ‘You won’t find any American wines in there’, ‘I’m boycotting them because of the war in Iraq’. 

One of the tracks from StiffkeyThe coast road parallels the River Stiffkey as it traces a modestly steep valley through the higher ground surrounding the village.  I left it walking to the north until I emerged facing the now familiar greenie purplish hue of the sea lavender and the muddy grey/brown of the creeks.  I turned east.

I came on a wildfowl pond, it was full of birds that I couldn’t identify perhaps I should have paid more attention to those birders I’d seen earlier on the walk.  On the far side of the pond the way was blocked by another plethora of life, a group of students stood studying the on the pond.  They didn’t clear the path as I approached and their teacher had to ask them to make way for me.  They parted like the Red Sea and flanked me on either side.

As I walked I stared at the sky wondering if I’d started to hallucinate but I gradually began to make out the silhouettes of two jet fighters twisting and turning in the cloud layer high above the sea.  Banking, tumbling and turning they carried out their mock dogfight before me popping the occasional white hot flare from their fuselages.  For some minutes they continued this mock deadly dance until they ceased, levelled out and disappeared into the west.

The Stiffkey Marshes Morston was heralded by the dink, dink, and dink of wind driven ropes against the aluminium masts of dinghies.  I made my way through the boats onto the bank of the flood defences where they surrounded a small car park and a refreshment stall.  The only customers were an elderly couple asking for a cup of tea and a current bun. I partook of a cuppa too and with a little plastic cup I climbed the bank on the far side of the carpark.  A finger post pointed back to Stiffkey and ahead to Blakeney. Hanging my rucksack on one of the post’s fingers I sipped my tea and I looked north where, on the horizon, lay the sand dunes of Blakeney Point.  The point has been formed by the long-shore drift of sand eroded from the cliffs around Cromer, to the east.  Driven along the coast by the prevailing wind this sand has shaped into a spit that sweeps west from Cley-Next-The-Sea almost all the way to Stiffkey. But I wasn’t interested in the geographical features of that place.  I focused instead on a small blue building on the point.  Near that place my Aunt had collapsed and died eleven years before while taking part in a walk to the point.  I felt myself goaded into action by that thought so I grabbed my rucksack hoisted it on to my back and set off.

The blue building sat off my left shoulder as I walked remaining like an uncomfortable memory while I gauged my progress along the path.

Blakeney Village Sign The village of Blakeney is one of the villages, along with the likes of Wiveton, and Cley that once upon a time have been major ports that lent this coast title the ‘Gateway to England’.  There are historical examples; their importance perhaps the most notable is they were able to send thirty-six ships to the fleet assembled by Elizabeth I to take on the Spanish Armada in 1588. Time and tide have taken their toll; the accretion of sand, the works of man, in terms of land reclamation, have gradually cut off the sea from these villages; Cley-Next-the-Sea is now a full mile inland from the sea.

I encountered a couple of guys leaving the village who, while separated by years were quite similar in appearance. The elder completely filled his dark t-shirt while a torrent of long grey and black hair projected from under his wide brimmed hat while his bright eyes peered through the lenses of thick glasses.  By contrast the younger was thin but also wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with the motif of a rock band - Deep Purple, his curly hair was tied back in a ponytail.  They both carried large rucksacks and looked as if they were equipped for some serious hiking.  The older guy did the talking while the younger stood impassively apart from the occasional nod or 'Yeah' to confirm a point.  They'd only come half a mile from Blakeney and they were making their way along the coast to Hunstanton over a week with maybe an excursion to Snettisham.

I carried on into Blakeney to the village sign on the harbour side.  Tourists strolled along the quayside in groups while cars threaded their way between them.  I made my way to the local grocery shop and bought a few odds and sods, chiefly I wanted Lucozade.  Coming out of the shop I met a couple with a Boxer dog.   The guy engaged me in conversation as his wife went into the shop.  He asked me a few cursory questions about my walking and said that he'd walked the length of the Thames, in stages, to the sea.  No mean feat for anyone of any age.  With a reassuring slap on my shoulder he wished me luck on my quest.

I returned to the quayside and wandered past the walls of the Blakeney Hotel; built to resist the ravages of the waves.  Beyond the hotel, at the corner of the High Street, I came across an example of just how villages like this have changed from the days of my childhood.  The corner shop that had once sold buckets and spades and Walls ice creams, the paraphernalia of the seaside, is now a designer knitwear shop. Further up the High Street the butchers’ shop has become an up market deli; which I must say sells a particularly nice line in cheese and onion tart.

At the eastern end of the quayside I watched men on the dock plying their trade selling seal watching trips out to Blakeney Point.  My route took me past them and out on to the flood defences again.  This bank curves out from Blakeney in a great two and a half mile arc to Cley-Next-the-Sea.  Usually it’s busy with all kinds of walkers so I wasn’t entirely surprised to encounter a well equipped American heading in the opposite direction.  He hailed me as I approached asking where I was going.  I regaled him with my story of the Great Norfolk Walk.  Then he then told me of his adventure.  He’d been dropped the previous day at Sheringham by his wife and intended to make his way to Stonebridge, where he lives, by the end of the week, three days hence. He had the most modern equipment I’ve ever seen on a walker, a complex rucksack with a drinking pipe extending from a little sub-rucksack, a telescopic walking pole, a natty wide-brimmed hat and walking trousers with detachable lower legs but his shirt was a reassuring red plaid.  I’m not sure but I but I got the distinct impression that he may have once been secret service.  His was a walk of farewell to Norfolk as at the end of September he and his wife were returning to the States. With waves of goodbye we went on our ways but there was something enigmatic about him that makes him remain in my memory to this day.

The remaining walk along the loop between Blakeney and Cley was pretty unremarkable, a few fellow walkers and the obligatory birders.  It was a beautiful day for all of us the breeze serving to cool those of us foolish enough to indulge in such vigorous exercise.  The flat aspect across the marshes, back to the higher ground to the south, was laid out in regular shapes easily visible from the vantage point of the grassy flood bank.

Cley MillThe path follows the western bank of the River Glaven so it is impossible to head directly into the village of Cley, short of swimming the river, until the path comes to the A149 coast road where it is carried over the river by the sluice gate that also serves as a bridge for the road.  The road winds around two very tight corners in the village that prevents some larger vehicles from passing through it.

In fact the road was clogged with holiday-makers cars and the problem was exacerbated by parked cars.  For my part I was quite pleased with the stationary traffic as I simply walked between the vehicles, past the tempting George Hotel, no pints at this point, to the entrance of Cley mill.  Safely away from the traffic I took in the splendour of this eighteenth century brick mill its white sails brilliant in the sunshine.  The Cley to Weybourne walk has always been a gruelling stretch but I tightened my rucksacks’ straps and I set out.

Making my way along the flood bank I came across a corroded steel cupola beside the path. This welded hemisphere of iron had two holes in it on its seaward side, a round one near the top and another oblong breach below the first stretching down to its equator.  I speculated on its use; whether it had been an Machine gun cuploa armoured machine gun or maybe an observation post.  I later found out that this was indeed an Alan Williams Turret, intended to be armed with a light machine gun, which would have protruded from the front opening, and could have been rotated through three hundred and sixty degrees.

The Norfolk Coastal Path follows a narrow access road over the marshes to Cley beach where the road terminates in a car park.  This is frequented by birders, fishermen and holidaymakers so it’s not surprising that there’s a small toll booth at its entrance.  Beside the car park is a brick building with the last toilet for the next few miles.  Phew!

Walking away from the building I ascended, I use the term very loosely here, Cley Eye a natural hillock that is vaguely higher than the surrounding terrain.  A series of these ‘eyes’ occur along this stretch of coast and some of them have yielded Roman remains that may indicate they were once been used as signal stations.  They have wonderful names; Cley Eye, Little Eye, Gramborough, Sarbury and Warborough Hills.  I could imagine their flaming beacons warning of Saxon raiders alerting the garrison along the coast at Brancaster.  I stood on the raised ground looking back down the coast to the west; I was leaving the sandy depositing beaches, of the North Norfolk coast, west of Cley. Now the coast would change to the eroding coast resisting the extremes of the sea but of course this is one enemy that there is no ultimate defence against.  I had come such a long way along this familiar coast while I had travelled much further within myself.  Turning east I saw that I stood on a shingle bank extending five miles along the coast from Cley to Weybourne; beyond it is another five miles to Cromer and the end of the Norfolk Coastal path.  Then there is the 57 miles of the Weavers Way.  But before me was this damned shingle bank that had been my nemesis on previous walks.

Salthouse Shingle Bank looking East to WeybourneOn my first attempt I found the loose shingle on the landward side of the bank too difficult to deal with so I climbed the bank to find the summit firmer under foot but I was blasted by the wind.  So I took to the shoreline where there were stretches of firm sand that made the going much easier.

The sky had darkened as I walked and it began to rain heavily so I had to don my waterproofs.  As I hopped around trying to pull on my leggings I had a feeling I was being watched.  A pair of dark eyes peered at me from a grey head amongst the waves near the shore, it was a grey seal.  I must have been a curious sight to this creature as I wrestled with my clothing.  Underway again the clouds continued to darken until they formed a black/blue roof to the dark brown shingle and the slate gray sea.  It was as if I were I making my way down a vast wind tunnel, in which I was being lashed by rain.  I made my miserable way along the sea edge but spirits were buoyed by my aquatic companion who kept pace with me his head appearing, now and then, a few yards ahead of me, then waiting for me to draw level before disappearing into the waves.  I continued like this for over an hour through the rain until I came to Weybourne where the rain changed from merely driving to horizontal.  By this time the water had found its way inside my water proofs.  I decided it was time to stop and I sheltered by a wooden retaining wall until my wife came to pick me up.

Today couldn’t have been more different; bright sunshine and a light breeze made the shingle a light biscuit brown, the sea a distinct blue colour and the sky flecked with the occasional fluffy white cloud.  The sea bank itself was much reduced with the crest a narrow strip where the seaward side of the bank eroded. In the past it has been rebuilt every year by bulldozer.  Now, the idea is that the shingle will find its own level and position with the marshes absorbing the rest of the water.

I started along the sea bank and I found a television had been dumped on the shingle; people dump things in the most bizarre places.  The television’s screen peered down the bank to the sea as if it were an aquatic animal unable to return to the water.

I took to the sea edge again but the tide was in and I struggled to find firm ground so I took to the ridge of the sea bank.  I encountered a few fellow walkers coming down the bank from Weybourne.  Nearer to the waters’ edge sea anglers were resting, in collapsible chairs, by their oversized rods while their taught lines vanished into the waves.

To the south the low-lying land behind the sea bank afforded a panoramic view across to the village of Salthouse sitting at the foot of the higher ground rising to the Cromer-Holt ridge. This was the opposite view of the one I had from the Coast Hopper bus and as if on cue the bus appeared, in the distance, heading east to Sheringham.  As was I.

Pillbox on the shingle bankI came across a pillbox nestling in the shingle on the seaward side of the sea bank. These concrete fortifications are scattered all over the countryside silently waiting for an enemy that never came.  Abandoned and derelict this embodied the fight against the sea; their sightless gun slits peering at the water.  Often they’re being smothered by sand, or shingle in this case, or battered by the sea.  This distinctive pillbox is in good condition while its companion further toward Weybourne has been undermined turned over and broken into pieces by the irresistible action of the waves.

At Gramborough Hill I rested on a buried pillbox. Around me other sections of coastal defences could be seen although they too were being gradually absorbed by the grass and plants. I ate and leafed through a guide to this area and found to my alarm that occasionally mines, left over from World War II, reappear on the beach.

A Norfolk Coastal Path sign I came to Weybourne scrabbling along the last of the shingle beside the local small water works and lagoon.  The loose shingle is energy sapping so I was pleased to have finished it.  Standing beside a Norfolk Coastal path sign I noted that I’d completed the five and half miles from Cley-next-the-sea; only another three and three quarters to Sheringham.

Weybourne marks the end of the low lying Norfolk coastline. On the western side, lies the shingle, on the other, the eastern, rises the soft eroding cliffs that characterise the north-eastern section of the Norfolk coast.

Leaving the beach, the ground climbs steeply to the top of cliffs above Weybourne Hope.  Once, there would have been a respectable chain of hills stretching out into what is now the North Sea. In prehistoric times land would have stretched from here to the mainland of Europe intercut with the channels of rivers feeding into the Rhine, this is known as Doggerland, after the Dogger Bank, and it is our very own Atlantis.  Now only these shattered cliffs are all that remain and the action of the waves means their days are numbered.  At the top of the first cliff I turned and looked back down the coast from the way Looking west along the coast of from WeybourneI had come. In the near distance the shingle bank stretched before me forming a regular brown line facing the sea and in the far distance the line of the sand spit that forms Blakeney Point curves out into the sea where it disappeared into the haze.  ‘Blimey’, I thought, ‘I’ve come a bloody long way’.

Further along this particular cliff a row of houses is hanging on precipitously to the cliff edge.  The path used to pass to the seaward side of them but it now detours to landward of them because the old path has fallen over the cliff edge into the sea.  The nearest of the ‘Hanging on Houses’ had a little wind turbine and a skull and cross bones fluttering from its gable end.  I admired the display of defiance against such an implacable foe.

I could see in the distance another walker approaching me.  I was looking forward to greeting him when suddenly he turned and retraced his steps.  So I redoubled my pace and set out after him.  He climbed up the western slope of Dead Man’s Hill his rapid pace soon took him over the crest of the hill while I was still struggling at the foot of it.  I drove my legs to bend and straighten to reach the summit of the hill.  I found myself, breathless and sweating, in front of a group of pensioners seated on benches.  For a second or two I stood panting with chest heaving until one little old white haired lady said, ‘You, alright, dear?’.  I wanted to collapse on to my knees and expire; quite appropriately for Dead Man’s Hill, I thought.  However, I did manage a gasping, and unconvincing, ‘I’m fine’.

I carried on over the crest of the hill and resumed my pursuit down the eastern slope.  Here the path runs between the Sheringham Golf course and the cliff edge but I focused on his red rucksack carried by my quarry.  On the outskirts of Sheringham I caught him and found that he was much taller than me, so I wasn’t surprised I had struggled to catch him.  I gave him a cheery ‘Morning’ as I passed him and I walked triumphantly into the town.

The Gateway to Sheringham BeachWandering down the esplanade I felt at a loss as to what to do.  I came to the gateway to the beach cut through the top of the cliff surmounted with a concrete balustrade.  Nearby was an ice cream van was parked, its occupant sat inactive and he appeared pleased when I presented myself at the window.

Bearing in mind that the summer’s weather had been poor I fell into a conversation with the ice cream seller.  He said that business had been poor but the last couple of weeks had been OK.  Indeed today’s weather was sunny and bright, and it had drawn out many post season holiday makers.  He still had time to talk to me as he squatted down at the serving hatch.  I explained about the Great Norfolk Walk and that I only had another sixty-two miles to go.  His sceptical expression changed to one of understanding with a hint of admiration.  With his wishes of good luck rang in my ears I walked down the slope under an archway on to the promenade.

I was lost in a tumble of thoughts of mileage calculations, emotions and the taste of ice cream.  It was in this frame of mind that a pair of platform shoes strayed into my field of vision.  They were totally out of context with the surroundings and lifting my gaze I found on top of the precarious shoes a young woman dressed in her underwear and a see-through peach chemise.  Beside her were two men with huge cameras.  I watched as this trio walked to a slipway, off the promenade, where the girl removed her wrap and began to strike poses as directed by the younger of the men, a fit and healthy fellow, guiding her into the poses himself by example.  Meanwhile the older, and more lecherous, of the photographers stood above them clicking away with his camera.  This tableau is one of the most incongruous I’ve ever seen at the seaside because while this group went through its movements a party of pensioners sat beside them amongst the rocks eating sandwiches and drinking cups of tea from flasks.

Beeston Hump To the east of Sheringham is a prominent hill called Beeston Hump that still has a pronounced crown even though its northern flank has been eaten away by the sea.  From its foot I peered up at its summit contemplating the effort I’d need to get to the top of it while to my right a path skirted around its base but that would be too easy.

Sheringham was below me in its Victorian neatness. The coast to the west of it curving away into a sandy blur in the distance, I’d definitely left the accreting coast behind me and I was now conscious I stood on top of a coast of erosion as a few yards away the hill top fell away to the sea.  Here and there around the grassy summit were lumps of concrete embedded in the grass possibly the remains of a coastal battery.  Also scattered around the summit were wooden benches placed to afford the views from each compass point.  Many of them bore a small plaque engraved with words in memory of loved ones.  One particularly caught my eye;

Dedicated to the memory of Pat McDowell 1933 – 1996, ‘Life is mostly froth and bubble. Two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own’

The sentiment contained in these words made my emotions resonate and they seemed apposite for me at this time.  Wiping a tear from my eye and swallowing a lump in my throat I returned to exploring the hill top.

I took position next to an old triangulation pillar and I took in the views; to the north the crest of the hill obscured the view of the sea, to the west Sheringham nestling in its fold in the land, to the south the terrain rises to wooded hills of the Cromer – Holt Ridge and to the east, the foot of the hill, caravans and mobile homes clustered at the cliffs’ edge like white Lego bricks scattered across the landscape.  In the distance I could make out the town of Cromer with its tall church tower.  The end of today’s journey was in sight.  I stumbled down the badly worn steps on the eastern side of the hill and crossed the Cromer – Sheringham railway line just before a train passed noisily along the track.

I followed a track past Beeston Hall School to a wood.  A National Trust sign proclaimed that this is Beeston Heath part of a curve of woods that stretch from the Great Wood south west of Cromer along the Cromer – Holt Ridge to just south east of Sheringham.  Indeed these are just the northern extremity of an arc of woods that curve into the heart of the county.  I fancied that I could almost pass through these woods back to where I’d started the Peddars’ Way back at Knettishall Heath.

A path to Roman CampI struggled up a muddy section of path feeling stifled in this airless wood; while I continued to bend and straighten my legs the blood pounded in my ears.  Eventually it levelled out so I took a break and drank what was left of my water.  I had arrived at Roman Camp.  Across the grass from me stood a tall flagpole with a huge green flag fluttering at its masthead upon which was emblazoned the oak leaf emblem of the National Trust.  Beyond the flagpole a flat viewing area offered a last glimpse of the sea.

From Roman Camp the path led me along a tightly curving track, in a cutting, amongst the woods.  It was busy with cars, some pulling caravans and there were even a couple of young women on horses.  The track led to a busy campsite which appeared tidy and well cared for.

On I plodded, across another minor road and under an imposing red brick bridge carrying the Norwich to Cromer railway line.  Marvelling at its sheer strength I passed through the shadow beneath its red brick arch just as a train rumbled above me.

Another stretch of dusty stony track led me past more camp sites concealed by tall hedgerows. Until, quite suddenly, I returned to the world of metalled roads and footpaths, I had arrived in Cromer. I followed the A148 into town with the tower of Cromer church directly before me acting as a guiding landmark into the town centre. I walked into the tourist information centre, I wanted to declare my triumph instead I meekly took a couple of leaflets and headed to the seafront.

The Peddars Way and Norfolk Coastal Path finishes around the corner from the Tourist Information Centre near the putting green.  After walking ninety-two miles of these paths, not to mention the seventy-seven miles of the Angles Way, I would have at least expect a triumphal end maker but there isn’t a single tribute to the people who have completed any of the paths. I stood at the top of the esplanade looking down on Cromer Pier, the white roof of the theatre shining brightly in the early evening sunlight.  It looked resplendent and inviting amongst the gunmetal waves.  This would serve as my end point.

Cromer Pier Here at least I had a sense of achievement because I was able to stand on a great granite compass that has been embedded in the forecourt in front of the pier.  This installation is part of the Cromer Prospect Project that has renovated the approach to the pier and transformed the steps up to the entrance proper into a curvaceous ascension between the twin cupolas standing at the entrance of the pier.  However my achievements were put into perspective by the grey stone lines radiating from the compass representing bearings of rescues made by the town’s lifeboats at the end of each stands a pillar representing a lifeboat.

Suitably chastened by these thoughts I walked up the steps along the boards of the pier deck to be greeted enthusiastically by wife and son.  Lifting my lad up in one arm I slipped another through one of my wife’s we repaired to the theatre’s bar for a couple of celebratory drinks.  Then we sat at an outside table watching people catching crabs, fishing and preparing for the night’s performance.  Meanwhile the setting sun tinted the coast in deepening hues of red, gold and grey until the scene became enveloped in a shroud of shadow.

 Weather: Dry, sunny but very breezy at times. Not sun burnt today  Finished 17:00,

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