The Great Norfolk Walk
Bob Cains

Day 13 - North Walsham to Hickling

The Greyhound in the Rain

Summary - North Walsham to Hickling, Distance 10 miles(ish) (16kms), Ordnance Survey Landranger Maps 133 & 134

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  Day 13 - North Walsham to Hickling
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North Walsham is one of those towns of Norfolk that, that owes its former prosperity to migrants from Flanders who established a weaving industry in the county. It lends its name to a light cloth while the neighbouring village of Worsted gives its name to a heavier cloth.

The wealth created by the wool industry went to build large churches and North Walsham’s St. Nicholas’ is a prime example being one of the largest parish churches in Great Britain . These days its splendour is somewhat diminished by the fact that the spire, the second highest in Norfolk , collapsed in 1724, taking most of its tower with it. Today the ruined tower is a dominant landmark in the town and the broken walls have been carefully rounded against the elements while within it a small wooden shed protects the bell. The town has another footnote in history it was involved in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 at the Battle of North Walsham.

Saint Nicholas Church North WalshamI’d returned late to the market town and found the market square filled with striped stalls tightly secured against the early morning drizzle. Ambling through the streets and roads of the town I failed to follow the right path and ended up heading south east rather than due south then turning east. This is a mistake I’ve made before and I guess if I ever walk the Way again I’ll do exactly the same thing.

The drizzle developed into a steady rain and once again I spent the next few minutes hopping from one foot to the other as I dragged on my waterproof leggings. Underway again I took a country road leading vaguely out to the south east. This road doesn’t really lead anywhere; however, it does pick up the Weavers’ Way as it sweeps back in from the west. I’ve mentioned this before but road walking is really a miserable part of recreational walking. Today was no exception, I had the added misery of the rain pissing down with a staccato rhythm on my jacket’s hood; I pulled it tight around my head in an attempt to reduce the resonance of the sound. In this unsettled frame of mind I made my way along the road cringing from each of the cars that passed me, that said they all succeeded in missing me.

I rejoined the Weavers’ Way at the elegantly named White Horse Common where I took to the lane to Meeting House Hill. There’s an old Baptist Meeting House in the hamlet located here out of sight of Worstead’s church tower, to the south west, in accordance with the laws of land at the time. This chapel was founded in 1717 while the present building The Meeting House dates from 1829 built by the non-conformists of that era. I feel a sense of kindred here as my ancestors were non-conformists. The chapel itself is now the home of the Norfolk's Golden Fleece Heritage Museum, lying as is does in the heartland of the weaving area of Norfolk, which of course, in turn, lends its name to the Weavers’ Way. The museum houses exhibits from the weaving industry, if that’s the proper name for it, and the people it involved.

Just beyond the hamlet I came upon a road that was closed to traffic because of road-works; I was just able to squeeze past the excavator as its mechanical arm clawed at the tarmac. Beyond the road works I walked with relief and an upright posture because I I had no need to worry about being ploughed down by an unobservant driver. I made my way safely through the standing puddles on the road without straining for the sound of an approaching engine.

The way continues south until it remerges briefly on to the A149 road as it meanders its way south-east to the town of Stalham . From the road edge the Weavers’ Way turns left again to parallel the course of the old railway line, now under the road itself.

The rain detracted from the experience somewhat and I sought the cover of trees and hedges wherever I could. Gradually the penetrating rain found its way through the waterproofing into my boots and clothes and its chill quite made me miss the crossing of the North Walsham & Dilham Canal . The canal was built in the 19th century for the transportation of coal into North Walsham and, of course, goods out.

Man under the bridgeNearing the village of Horning the path dives into a dense patch of woodland. The ballast of the old railway line pokes through the overlaying growth of vegetation. The branches intertwined over head to form a green vaulted roof and I found myself walking through an arboreal cathedral its rafters illuminated despite of the overcast.  Partway through the wood I happened on a cast iron bridge carrying a minor country road over the old railway; it seemed to be disassociated from the rest of the industrial world, that produced it, buried as it is deep inside a wood. But coming upon it under the locomotion of the two feet of the everyday walker it struck me that it is a testament to the ingenuity and ability of humans to engineer such an attractive solution to carrying a road over a railway line; one would’ve thought a level crossing could have sufficed. I stood at a distance admiring the cast iron legs of the bridge supporting the metal walls supported by concrete ramps.  Down one of the ramps descended a figure of a man who paused between the middle legs of the bridge and turned down the path away from me. Intrigued, I started after him, in pursuit but I never caught sight of him again; it was just one of those peculiar things that take place on this kind of endeavour.

The Ghost Station The canopy of trees lent me some protection from the constant rain but they also shielded me from the cooling effect of the wind and inside the cocoon of my waterproofs I became sweaty and overheated. So it was a relief when I came upon the platforms of a long disappeared railway station overgrown and partly hidden in the trees that flanked the path. I climbed up the right-hand platform and walking along it I reflected on those who had once passed over it, to and from holiday or on business; I imagined the uniformed staff pushing hand barrows loaded with trunks for tweed bedecked travellers. The station isn’t particularly in the vicinity of any village or town – the closest village being East Ruston - it stands alone isolated except for a car park on what can only assume had once formed the station forecourt.

Nearing the small town of Stalham the path’s course is made up of the ballast that had once formed the bed of the railway line. In most places it was over grown by grass but often large patches of the granite chips made walking tough.  I had once made a vain attempt to run along this stretch to catch a bus, out of Stalham back to Norwich, in full walking gear plus rucksack.  Needless to say, I didn’t make it but  that was two years earlier and in today’s rain I wearily trudged into the town past the site of its old railway station.

Stalham Town Sign Stalham is one of the Norfolk Broads towns that just don’t seem to be part of the rest of the world; isolated as it is at the northern end of the broads. It remains a centre of the holiday industry with pleasure craft based here where once wherries would have once plied their trade.  Stalham also represented a particular milestone for me, there are only twenty seven miles remaining to walk on the Weavers’ Way to Great Yarmouth, I’d completed my two hundredth mile!

Through the driving rain I made my way quickly along the high street passing the two pubs that stood temptingly half way along it and past Stalham Middle School then back out into the countryside.  At the edge of the town a road sign warned of ducks near a pond with irony I took a photograph, through the rain drops, before carrying on. For the next mile I made my way on a surprisingly busy country road, which was flooded in places, heading east and out of Stalham. While most drivers attempted to avoid me a couple ignoring my situation drenched me completely with tidal waves of water thrown up by their wheels, while I futilely fumed and gave them single digit salutes.

Eventually, and to my great relief, the path took me off the road south across a rain sodden and windswept field toward Sutton Windmill. The tall gray tower of the mill – one of the tallest in England – stood distinct against the clouds as I hobbled across the field. The path is diverted under the walkway to the mill through a bizarre concrete defile at the bottom of a flight of steps. At the lowest step the floor was flooded but a few brick protruded just above the level of the water and I skipped across two of them to the far side. Climbing the ascending steps I felt a sudden unaccountable sense of relief as I walked through the grounds of the mill. The weather brightened and the rain eased as I took to a quiet road leading to Hickling Green.

Nice weather for ducksI had a better view across the low landscape in the direction of Hickling Broad. This is one of the best known of the Norfolk Broads, and the biggest. To the east houses rested on the horizon before the broad contrasting darkly against the autumn green of the soaking trees. Heading in that direction I turned into a lane running past a farm part it was flooded with water mixed with slurry; not particularly inviting at the best of times but rain soaked and tired I felt this was the final obstacle. I tip-toed down the centre line of the road as this is usually the highest point of the carriageway (and hence the shallowest point of the water) even so the muck came well up my boots and just too round thing off the rain returned with a vengeance. I rinsed the murk off my boots through the clean standing puddles further down the lane and I despondently made my way into the village of Hickling Green and turned south in the direction of Potter Heigham.

Passing the Greyhound pub under a darkening slate gray sky I wished to my heart that it could be open and I could quit the walk and take my ease with a couple of pints. But in the gloomy grey light there looked to be little activity so carried on down the road. I turned away from the pub just as a Landrover Discovery sped past me and swung on to the pub’s forecourt.

Now the rain had set into be a heavy demoralising downpour and I stood on the edge of the village centre toying with the three miles further to Potter Heigham. A couple of drivers eyed me with suspicion as they passed me standing there with hood and baseball cap pulled down tight on my head. Suddenly I turned on my heels and made my way to a nearby phone box. Sheltering in it I collected my thoughts tried my mobile; it had a flat battery, maybe because of the water now inside my jacket. Instead I rummaged in pockets to find enough small change to call my wife to let her know where I was. After a successful call I left the phone box and headed for the pub.

Map of the Weavers WayApproaching the Greyhound I saw a sign that proclaimed that it was open, much to my relief, indeed open all day.  I stood for a moment in front of a map of the Weavers Way, it had a 'You are here' marker point at Hickling; I would have my work cut out for me the next day.  I opened the front door to find a lugubrious barman and a rather well-oiled fellow at the bar.  Stepping over the threshold and closing the door I advanced toward the bar dripping wet.  Among the various squelching sounds of my passage was an unaccountable squirting sound.  Looking down at my right boot a small jet of dirty water squirted from beside the big toe each time I put my foot to the floor.  At the bar I ordered a pint of Green King IPA while I divested myself of my sodden hat, jacket, rucksack and leggings, and found out why I’d been feeling so damp. Dragging my sweatshirt over my head I draped it on a chair beside the fireplace, unfortunately filled with flowers rather than more welcome flames, the yoke of the shirt had a well defined damp line across the shoulders. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘I’ll have to buy a new jacket’.   I turned back to the bar.

I took a seat on a stool next to the guy who’d obviously been at the bar for most of the afternoon. As is usual, in these situations, he immediately engaged me in conversation, asking me why I was so wet, why I was there and where I was from. I recounted the story of the Great Norfolk Walk and how this was the penultimate day, and how I’d now stopped for the day.

Chatting together occasionally served by the quiet barman we gradually joined by other guys including the landlord, Tony. All of them show an interest in the walk but to a man they started from the position that I must be mad to do it but gradually as I explained my motivations they expressed feelings of respect for someone trying to achieve one of his life ambitions.

Time passed and the beer flowed they listened to my stories and I listened to theirs. I found myself noting how familiar they all seemed, several of them filled the same roles as my friends in the pubs I’ve frequented over the years. They ranged from the lean, tall, quiet, dark haired guy who had just renovated his house to the burly truck driver, Bob, who the others had warned me to vacate his stool just in time to witness his swear word riddled vocabulary and huge frame, he was built like the proverbial brick shit house.

My wife and son arrived and we seated ourselves to one side and talked about our day’s experiences. They’d been to Thrigby Hall wildlife-park and they had good but soggy time. We toyed with the idea of eating at the pub but I felt so tried and wet I just wanted to get back to the caravan.  As we moved to leave Tony, came across; shook me by the hand, slapped me on the back wishing the best of luck for the next days’ walking.  The rest of the bar’s occupants variously wished me luck and offered suggestions of advice as to the best routes to take, some contradictory.  Then we said our goodbyes.  With that we headed back out into the wet evening gloom and returned to our base at Kelling Heath.

Weather: Absolutely awful, rain all the way got through my kit  Finished 16:15

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